“The devil in a dress,” “Evil incarnate” and even the “neo-Nazi bride” – these are some of the names German media have given Beate Zschaepe – the last surviving member of the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi gang behind a spate of racially–driven murders that shocked Germany.
Zschaepe was found guilty of the murders on Wednesday, but her conviction has done little to bring closure to the relatives of the victims - who include 10 dead and dozens wounded in bombings and bank robberies spanning almost 14 years.
Zschaepe’s trial began in 2013, but what the 43-year-old really thinks or feels about her crimes remains a mystery. Even when she was sentenced to life in prison by a Munich court this week – for 10 counts of murder, membership in a terror organization and arson – she showed little emotion. That has infuriated many observers and victims, but is consistent with how she has conducted herself since the NSU first showed up on the radar of German law enforcers. Nine Turkish and Greek immigrants, along with one policewoman, were killed by the gang since September 2000.
Zschaepe’s stoic appearances in court are familiar to Germans. When victims testified, detailing the wounds they sustained in the NSU’s bombings and shootings, or in moments when people in the courtroom gasped at the gruesome pictures of the dead, Zschaepe appeared unmoved. Even when the widow of a murdered kiosk owner appealed to the NSU member directly to reveal why the group had chosen her husband as a victim – arguably one of the most dramatic moments of the trial – Zschaepe just chewed her gum.
The only time in five years that Germans actually heard her voice was last week, when she read out her final statement. In a lackluster performance, that seemed scripted, Zschaepe claimed that she no longer subscribed to a far-right ideology, claiming she had undergone a political transformation while she was in prison awaiting her sentence.
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“I took note of the sorrow and desperation of the victims,” she said, “and I apologize for what I have done.” Yet, she refused to give the families’ and victims answers to their most pressing question: Why us? “I am a compassionate person,” Zschaepe said, “but I just want to find closure now and live a life without fear”– a line that was blasted by her victims as a cynical ploy for leniency.
A court psychiatrist has described Zschaepe as a manipulative, cold and in-control personality. However, according to many witness accounts, Zschaepe could be a very pleasant person and was in fact in charge of managing the gang’s day-to-day lives, going to the market to shop with the cash from their bank robberies, caring for her two fellow gang leaders’ cats, and sometimes even buying food for her poorer neighbors and their children.
“She was a listener for my sorrows, my anchor,” one of her neighbors told the court, leaving many victims and journalists flabbergasted. Victims and their families have repeatedly stated that they are disappointed with the lack of closure that the trial managed to bring to them.
Indeed, what Zschaepe really knew about the crimes, if she regrets them, and whether the trio had any helpers, possibly even among the German police and secret service, are still questions that the case has only partially answered. The reason is that neither Zschaepe nor the other defendants who were prosecuted and sentenced together with her have ever said anything or given any details about the terror network they helped maintain.
East meets West
Her partners in crime, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, were both known neo-Nazis from East Germany before they went into hiding to escape prison in 1998. It was during their time underground that they founded the NSU terror group. Zschaepe was also an avid neo-Nazi since her teenage years.
Yet, authorities seemed to have been oblivious to the far-right ideology that motivated the group’s string of murders. An internal document drawn up in 2007 by police in the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg asserted that the likely killers of the Turkish- and Greek-born victims couldn’t have come from Western Europe, because “in our culture the killing of human beings is a grave taboo” – a statement that raised many eyebrows in the country where genocide against Europe’s Jews was state policy during the Nazi regime.
It was only when Zschaepe’s two partners died following a botched bank robbery in 2011, and weapons were found at the scene tying them to the murders that the German authorities acknowledged they had failed to stop what amounted to a far-right terror campaign that lasted more than a decade.
Zschaepe’s biography reads like the blueprint of a failed East-West-German integration process following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Little is known is about her father, and her mother was an alcoholic who lost her job during the turbulent times of German reunification. Zschaepe was raised by her grandmother and later became romantically involved with both Mundlos and Boehnhardt.
“To suppress my feelings, to not share them with the outside [world] – this is how I have always been since my early childhood,” Zschaepe said about herself in her final statement to the court. In a letter that she wrote in prison to another far-right criminal who was hoping for a romantic tie with the neo-Nazi icon, she wrote: “Consider yourself my bitch and that’s it. Big illusions are for silly geese, that is not a group that I belong to.”
A racist legacy
Most of the gang’s victims were immigrants and their deaths initially failed to make headlines. The police were quick to blame the murders – which killed nine Turkish and Greek-born immigrants, as well as a German policewoman, in seven different German cities between 2000 and 2006 – on foreign gangs with links to gambling and drugs.
Speaking ahead of the verdict, families of the victims said Tuesday that the suspicions cast on their loved ones had shaken their faith in the German justice system.
The fact that Zschaepe received the harshest sentence permitted by German law, some victims said, was too little too late: “For us this sentence is meaningless The court has not listened to us properly and did not want to hear us. This sentence is a black mark on our hearts,” one victim told the judge.
“The investigation went in the wrong direction, not due to the failure of individuals but due to institutional racism,” said Alexander Hoffmann, a lawyer representing victims of a 2004 bombing in Cologne. He urged federal prosecutors to continue investigating the NSU’s supporters, a sentiment that was shared by many – including politicians in the Bundestag.
The head of Germany’s Green party in the Bundestag asserted that “there is still a NSU network out there” that must be eradicated. Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said that far-right extremism as displayed by the group should be the top priority for law enforcement authorities and politicians. “The [far-right] AfD party extremists now have access to parliaments and new avenues to undermine our democracy,” he said.
Barbara John, the government’s ombudswoman for the victims’ families, said there are encouraging signs that police and intelligence agencies are beginning to work to improve diversity in their ranks, now making recruitment of minorities a priority.
“One big question remains: Do we in Germany really want to know why and how the NSU murders occurred?” she asked. “If that is the case, the work of politicians and civil society needs to continue.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.