NSU, the neo-Nazi Group That Forced Germany to Confront Its Racist Demons

The fact the National Socialist Underground could operate freely without falling under suspicion as it killed nine Turkish and Greek immigrants in the 2000s shocked the nation. A look at the group whose sole surviving member was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday

A policeman taking pictures of a bombed barber's shop after an attack by the National Socialist Underground in Cologne, western Germany, June 2004.
Martin Meissner/AP

For years the German media referred to them as "Die Dönermorde" (the kebab murders). Most of the victims were immigrants and their deaths initially failed to make headlines. The police were quick to blame the murders – which took place in seven different German cities between 2000 and 2006 – on foreign gangs with links to gambling and drugs.

But revelations that the string of unsolved killings may have been a cold-blooded neo-Nazi campaign against ethnic Turks shook Germany – forcing its citizens to confront painful truths about racism and the broader treatment of immigrants in a society deeply conscious of the legacy of the Holocaust.

The life sentence given to Beate Zschaepe, 43, in a Munich court on Wednesday, when the only surviving member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) was found guilty of murdering nine Turkish and Greek-born immigrants, as well as a German policewoman, concluded an epic trial that began over five years ago. 

Zschaepe had denied taking part in the murders with two men, Uwe Boehnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, who also conducted at least two bombings and 15 bank robberies before killing themselves in an apparent murder-suicide in November 2011. 

The NSU attacks were the most violent of their kind in Germany since the end of the far-left Red Army Faction's two-decade killing spree in 1991, which left at least 34 dead.

Undated wanted photos provided by the German federal criminal office showing members of the far-right NSU cell: Uwe Boehnhardt, left, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschaepe.
/AP

It was only when Mundlos and Boenhardt died following a botched bank robbery in 2011, and weapons were found at the scene tying them to the "kebab 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.

Public debate in Germany focused on how well-funded security services could have been so catastrophically wrong with their long-held theory that the killings were the work of immigrant criminal gangs.

Several high-ranking security officials, including the head of Germany’s domestic spy service, resigned over blunders made while the neo-Nazi group carried out its attacks. These ranged from failing to act on intelligence about the trio’s whereabouts in 1998, shortly after they avoided arrest on lesser crimes; shredding evidence gathered by informants close to the group; and ignoring a racist motive in the crimes, despite the fact that random killings without claims of responsibility fit the pattern recommended for decades by racist supremacists.

Despite the attacks being dubbed the kebab murders, only two of the nine men killed actually worked in doner kebab restaurants. Many Turks complained that the phrase reflected the dismissive attitude mainstream society had toward the victims.

The police failures prompted the Bundestag to establish an independent panel investigating whether there was institutional reluctance to deal with far-right extremists.

Beate Zschaepe, in front of co-defendant Ralf Wohlleben, during their trial at a courtroom in Munich, southern Germany, July 3, 2018.
CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP

Its chairman, Sebastian Edathy, has said that not only did Germany’s 36 security services fail to exchange information in the case, but the potential for far-right violence was massively underestimated even as some officers instinctively blamed the victims.

An internal document drawn up in 2007 by police in the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg asserted that the likely killer 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 for a country that made genocide against Europe’s Jews a matter of state policy in the last century.

Zschaepe, Mundlos and Boehnhardt had met as teenagers in the eastern city of Jena, amid an ideological vacuum following the 1989 collapse of the socialist dictatorship in East Germany.

The region suffered economically during the early 1990s. Anti-immigrant sentiments were voiced openly even by mainstream politicians, providing a fertile recruiting ground for far-right groups.

Thomas Grund, a social worker in Jena who knew the trio when they first showed up at his youth club in the early '90s, told the Associated Press that Zschaepe showed no hint of political extremism until she befriended the two young men who, he said, would later become her lovers.

A wanted poster seeking witnesses and information on the murder of police officer Michele Kiesewetter in Heilbronn, southern Germany, April 2007.
/AP

Grund said social workers warned throughout the '90s that extremist groups were setting up base in small towns and villages in the region, but the authorities did little. Sometimes, he said, it appeared as if officials were protecting the far-right.

Such claims were subsequently made across the political spectrum, by people skeptical that a group such as the NSU could manage to slip through Germany’s sophisticated surveillance net for neo-Nazi activity for more than a decade. 

A parliamentary committee uncovered several instances where security services appeared to hide what they knew about the group. Whether they were simply trying to cover up their own failures, protect their informers or actually protect the group has been a matter of intense debate in Germany over the years.

At a memorial event in 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel apologized to the victims and their families for the wrongful suspicions that swirled around them. The police spent a great deal of time probing the victims’ backgrounds and business dealings, suspecting them or those close to them of being involved in the drug trade and other illegal activity.

Merkel also pledged to take all necessary steps to help those affected by the crimes.

Banners with the names and pictures of victims of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) are attached to a framework in Zwickau, eastern Germany, July 10, 2018.
AFP

Her apology was well received by many Turks at the time. But some noted that she didn’t spell out that most of the victims were targeted because they were different from mainstream society: Turkish and Muslim.

The NSU case became a firm part of German popular culture, serving as the basis for books, Fatih Akin's Oscar-nominated film "In the Fade" and a Netflix series, "NSU: German History X."

Speaking ahead of the verdict, families of the victims said Tuesday that the suspicion directed toward their loved-ones had shaken their faith in the German justice system.

"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 bomb attack in Cologne. He urged federal prosecutors to continue investigating the NSU's wider network of supporters.

Barbara John, the government's ombudswoman for the victims' families, said there are encouraging signs that police and intelligence agencies are beginning to listen to minorities and make an effort to recruit them, ending the long-maintained illusion that Germany isn't a country of immigrants.

"One big question remains: Do we in Germany really want to know why and how the NSU murders occurred?" she said. "If that were the case, the work of politicians and civil society needs to continue."

This article is based on an original story by The Associated Press.