In 2004, following a bombing in the Mülheim district of Cologne, an area home to many ethnic Turks, Germany’s then-interior minister, Otto Schily, told Germans the attack was carried out by “not terrorists but the criminal underworld.”
There have been a lot of those sorts of assumptions going around Germany this past decade or two. People from ethnic minorities would turn up dead, shot in the head at close range, and it was assumed to be the work of organized criminals, probably foreigners. The press even had a snappy name for a murder spree of eight Turks and a Greek between 2000 and 2006: “the doner killings,” named after a Turkish meat kebab.
Police had few leads. In 2009, they said the victims may have been linked to international match fixing in soccer. A murder in Turkey was related, they said. Police sketches of suspected witnesses showed swarthy-looking men.
These presumptions fell apart in November, when two perpetrators of a bank robbery in the city of Eisenach killed themselves and set their mobile home on fire as police closed in. Several hours later, another fire broke out at an apartment about 180 km away in Zwickau. The woman who set that blaze turned herself in to police. Charred evidence at both locations linked the three to the nine murders, plus the killing of a policewoman. There was the murder weapon, a pistol, and a self-made propaganda video that mocked the victims and claimed responsibility for the 2004 bombing in Cologne. There was a hit list containing 88 names, including those of prominent politicians. The three, who also robbed numerous banks, were Nazis. They called themselves the Nationalist Socialist Underground.
A fourth man has been arrested under suspicion of providing the trio with his driver’s licence and passport. Police think the group had a larger support network and expect to make more arrests.
The question of how large that network might have been, and how many Germans might share the same sort of radical racist ideology as the accused murderers, is shaking Germany—though Germans really shouldn’t be that surprised. The country’s domestic intelligence agency estimates some 25,000 people belong to extreme right-wing groups, of whom 9,500 could be violent. At least 137 people were murdered by right-wing extremists in Germany between 1990 and 2008, according to research carried out by journalists at Die Zeit and Die Tagesspiegel. Most died because of their ethnicity, skin colour or accent. When the most recently revealed victims are added to the list, the number of right-wing murders since reunification climbs close to 150.
This is far more than have died in Germany at the hands of radical Muslims, and yet security services in Germany focus much of their resources on the threat posed by Islamists and radical leftists. “It’s a crisis for German security forces, who have to justify many things here,” says Timm Beichelt, a professor of European studies at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder).
Overlapping jurisdictions and jumbled lines of communication among Germany’s many security agencies have been roundly criticized. German intelligence agencies frequently hire informers within right-wing organizations. Large amounts of money change hands. It’s an ethically fraught practice that is now under intense scrutiny. Most damningly, there are reports that an undercover intelligence agent was at the scene of one of the murders in 2006. Thomas Oppermann, an MP for the opposition Social Democrats and chair of the Bundestag’s parliamentary oversight committee, says the agent, who allegedly has right-wing sympathies, has been suspended. The Berliner Zeitung newspaper described the case in an editorial as “probably the biggest secret-service cock-up since German reunification.”
On November 22, politicians across Germany’s political spectrum stood in the Bundestag to observe a moment’s silent mourning and to show contrition at the failure of the country’s police and security services to catch those responsible for the murders until now.
“We’re ashamed that the federal and state security agencies were not able to either stop or detect the crimes that were planned and carried out over a period of several years,” said the Speaker, Norbert Lammert, as MPs stood with downcast eyes. “We’ve got to make sure that everyone who lives here in Germany—regardless of their origins, religious beliefs or orientation—can have the same constitutionally guaranteed protections.”
MPs from opposing political parties also issued a rare joint declaration: “We are deeply ashamed that, following the monstrous crimes of the Nazi regime, right-wing extremist ideology has spawned a bloody trail of unimaginable acts of murder in our country.” The statement called for a review of the structure of Germany’s law enforcement agencies.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the case a national disgrace. And yet until now few Germans would have considered neo-Nazis much of a threat. “The media doesn’t talk about it. The politicians don’t talk about it,” says Daniel Köehler, a project manager at Exit Germany, an NGO that helps neo-Nazis leave the movement.
A few hundred skinheads may hold a rally, he says, but they will always be opposed by thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators. So Germans watching on television will conclude the neo-Nazi movement is nothing more than a few crazies. The past hangs especially heavy over Germany, and many Germans would prefer to believe National Socialism is a bygone relic. “They don’t want to hear about it,” says Köehler.
Twenty-five thousand people represent a tiny fraction of Germany’s population of 80 million. And there is no German equivalent of France’s National Front, a far-right political party that has enjoyed moderate electoral success. Similar parties in Germany—most notably the National Democratic Party of Germany—exist on the fringes of German politics. But some commentators have argued that racism is widespread in Germany, saying the way the country responded to the serial murders of ethnic Turks and a Greek is telling.
“By calling the murder spree ‘doner killings,’ the victims are condescendingly dehumanized, as if they had no names or occupations,” wrote Stefan Kuzmany in a blistering column in Der Spiegel. “Imagine if it had been a series of murders involving primarily Italian victims. Would we have called them ‘spaghetti murders’? And imagine the uproar you would hear among German politicians and journalists were there a series of murders of German citizens in Turkey and people there called them the ‘potato murders’ or the ‘sauerkraut killings’? It’s virtually unfathomable.”
Neo-Nazis are most prevalent in what was once East Germany. Few foreigners lived in the East during Soviet times, notes Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. And those who did—usually people from other Communist nations—were isolated from the rest of the population. “There are still tensions with people getting used to the fact that there is a great deal of diversity in German society,” he says.
Some observers have suggested that for younger people who grew up in a Communist society, embracing fascism is the ultimate act of rebellion. Others point to the comparatively depressed economic situation in the eastern part of the country. But the problem is not limited to the East, and no one explanation really satisfies.
“In the end, it’s mostly racism,” says Beichelt. “The German race should remain pure and people living here should be ethnically German. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if these people are Greek or Turkish or whatever. Probably [the murderers] didn’t even know. It’s the foreign among German ethnic elements that is disturbing these groups. It’s a racism that’s very close to Nazi times.”