By Isaiah Affron
In this five-part blog series, Human Rights First examines the crimes and trial of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist cell whose crimes were left unsolved for over a decade, which revealed institutional racism embedded in Germany’s law enforcement agencies. After five years, the trial concluded this month. Read part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.
At the conclusion of one of the most expensive and high-profile trials in recent German memory, Munich judge Manfred Gotzl gave National Socialist Underground (NSU) member Beate Zschape a life sentence with “especially heavy guilt“ The sentence means that she will likely never leave prison. The last remaining co-conspirator of the NSU, Zschape was found responsible for the xenophobic killings of nine immigrants between 2000 and 2007. Despite the fact that the two other known members, now both dead in a murder-suicide, committed the murders, Zschape was still found culpable because she “had been aware of, contributed to, and in her own way co-piloted” the racially-motivated killings. Zschape’s sentence was the most severe possible ruling, and, on the surface, seemed to be a sign that Germany was finally dealing with this ugly chapter in its history.
Hours after the sentencing, however, more than one thousand protesters hit Berlin’s streets with a banner reading, in German, “not the last word.” More than six years after Chancellor Angela Merkel promised “to bring all perpetrators to justice,” the life sentence is being lauded by German political leaders as proof that Germany is “standing up to racist violence with the strength of the law.” The protesters and families of the victims disagree. They believe, with justification, that giving a heavy sentence to only one member of the NSU is not fully bringing the most violent German neo-Nazi group since World War II to justice. Nor do they believe that the government being held accountable for investigative failures, at best, or for institutional racism in its law enforcement agencies, at worst. While one major conspirator was sentenced appropriately, the mishandling of the investigation is evidence that Germany continues to need to improve on its problems with institutional racism, xenophobia, and bias.
Though Zschape received most of the attention and prison time, other, lesser sentences were handed down to her accomplices. These include a ten year sentence for Ralf Wohlleben, the former far-right politician who procured a gun for the NSU, and a 30 month sentence for Andre Eminger, who helped the NSU with logistics and wore a far-right insignia at the sentencing hearing. Following Wohlleben and Eminger’s sentencings, Dirk Laabs, author of a book about the NSU, said, “this is an unbelievably soft verdict. It’s hard to imagine people accused of supplying weapons and logistics for terrorist activity would have got off so lightly if this had been a trial about an Islamist cell.” Making the matter worse, only four accomplices of Zschape and NSU were brought to court. The decades-long investigation of NSU has proven to be severely botched, leading to further distrust in the court’s ability to prosecute all involved. In the words of Gamze Kubasik, daughter of one of the NSU victim, “if the court is honest, it must admit that some gaps remain. As long as these gaps remain, my family and I cannot close this chapter.” The protestors in Berlin stated their doubts even more bluntly; “the NSU was not a trio,” they chanted.
That racism within Germany’s law enforcement community led to the mishandling of the investigation was widely publicized via parliamentary inquiries and criticism at the United Nations. It also led to some legislative reforms in 2015 to avoid a repeat of the investigation’s failures. The crimes were not solved for years because of assumptions that they were drug-related, committed by other minorities, or even committed by the victims’ own family members. Missed signals, such as a German intelligence officer who happened to be at the scene of one of the murders but claimed to not have seen it occur, damaged the investigation and its credibility, as did the shredding of NSU-related documents by German intelligence officers after the public became aware of the group’s involvement. Many intelligence experts questioned how the NSU could have gone so long undetected, and the trial was supposed to answer to such systemic problems, it failed to meet this expectation. According to retired intelligence officer Winfried Ridder, who thinks that authorities have failed to investigate the murders fully, “the intelligence agencies should be on trial, too.” German authorities admit that some of NSU’s “terrible acts” could have been avoided with less internal racism, but fail to truly address the deeper institutional issues that enabled prejudice to pervert justice. Apologies for an investigation that “destroyed the honor” of victims, according to one victim’s daughter, are not enough.
Barbara John, the government’s ombudswoman for NSU victims, tried to reassure families of the victims by saying that the trial was an opportunity for the government to atone for its “blindness” in the investigation. Zschape’s sentence is perhaps a step towards that atonement, but overall, the trial was insufficient. On a basic level, the victims’ families and the immigrant community do not feel that NSU has been eradicated, and do not feel protected by the government from neo-Nazi groups. Furthermore, serious doubts about the investigation and trial linger; as the Central Council of Muslims in Germany explained, the trial did not truly clarify who was involved in the murders and how they were involved, and this failure “is a great burden for the families.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Germany has not made necessary institutional changes to ensure that similar failures in law enforcement will never reoccur.
Protestors in Berlin urged “society and state” to further examine their complicity in the case. As racism and anti-immigrant sentiment fuels the rise of the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party and other ethno-populist parties in Europe, Germany should heed the call of the protestors and implement the recommendations of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to create an independent complaint mechanism to investigate acts of racial discrimination by law enforcement and hold officers responsible for discriminatory acts in the NSU investigation. With Zschape’s sentencing now complete, Germany has the opportunity to truly atone for its mistakes concerning the NSU murders, and become a leader in rectifying a system of discriminatory justice.