The NSU Trial: A Case Study in Structural Racism in Germany (Part 1)

By Dora Illei and Zahava Moerdler

In this four-part blog series, Human Rights First will examine the crimes and trial of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist cell whose crimes were left unsolved for over a decade. It will also preview our upcoming report on rising antisemitism, xenophobia, and intolerance in Germany, a trend underscored by structural racism and the inadequacy of state responses to hate crimes.

Between 1998 and 2011, a neo-Nazi terrorist cell in Germany called the National Socialist Underground (NSU) committed at least ten murders, fifteen bank robberies, and three bomb attacks. The ideologically Neo-Nazi group specifically targeted Turkish individuals and those they viewed as “others” in German society.

The three-person terror cell was discovered in 2011 when the bodies of two of the perpetrators, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, were found along with evidence of their crimes, including the murder weapon and photographs of the victims and crimes scenes. The two men had committed suicide after a failed bank robbery. Their co-conspirator Beate Zschape turned herself into the police shortly thereafter.

Eight of their murder victims were Turkish, one was Greek and the last, a policewoman, was German. In addition to these murders, the group carried out two bombings in Cologne, Germany in 2001 and 2004. Twenty-three people were injured in these attacks. Both the murders and the bombing were intended to kill individuals of non-German origin.

Zschape is now on trial facing life imprisonment for her involvement in the crimes, along with four other men who are charged with aiding the group. The trial is taking place during a time when Germany is seeing a sharp rise in hate crimes; between 2014 and 2015 there was a 77 percent increase in hate crimes. Specifically anti-foreigner crimes rose by an astounding 116 percent.

The shocking and violent exploits of the NSU over the span of a decade beg the question: how is it possible that such an organization was able to operate for so long without law enforcement catching on?

Zschape, the only surviving member of the NSU cell, recently spoke about the murders at the three-year long trial. In her first public remarks in court, Zschaepe denied taking direct part in the killings and claimed she no longer believes in the racist ideology behind the killing spree. Zschaepe added, “Today, I do not judge people based on their ethnic background or their political views but on how they act.”

Zschaepe’s vague statement follows a pattern of unaccountability that has emerged through the trial, which also revealed troubling investigative tactics. A 2013 report published by German lawmakers on the NSU revealed how racist assumptions kept the police from linking the crimes and allowed the NSU to evade prosecution for over a decade.

Instead of examining racial motives for the murders, police investigated the victims and their families. This misguided approach to the case is more than just police error—the investigation of NSU crimes reveals how institutional racism shapes police action in Germany.

Institutional racism is “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behavior which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people,” according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In the NSU case, police collectively failed the victims of the NSU crimes because stereotyping limited their investigation.

In response to the report, German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung wrote, “wherever the committee looked, they came across mistakes and negligence, sometimes even subtle or outright racism…Commissioners became obsessed with the idea that Turks were killing Turks…the neo-Nazis were the only ones no one thought to suspect.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, another newspaper, added: “A lack of cooperation, institutional egotism, obstinacy at the federal level and shoddy investigative work may have contributed to the fact that the racially-motivated murders and robberies remained unresolved, and that right-wing extremist terrorism remained under the radar of law enforcement.”

To further complicate the case, testimony and evidence presented at trial suggest that authorities may have known more about the NSU than they care to admit. One informant for Germany’s domestic intelligence service, “Andreas T,” was present at the café where Halit Yozgat was shot and killed by NSU members in 2006. Another, Tino Brandt, was an informant until 2001 and had extensive contact with one of the defendants in the case. Brandt’s testimony suggests that the money German intelligence paid him may have gone towards supporting NSU activities.

Despite the connections between informants and NSU members, it took the police over a decade to piece together the NSU attacks. Rather than looking into an extremism, racism, or hate crime connection, the state police focused almost exclusively on the victims and an alleged connection to organized crime, hypothesizing that the perpetrators were migrants involved in organized crime, drug dealing, gambling, or the mafia.

Though leads in this direction failed to yield results, the alternate possibility that the acts were committed for right-wing extremist motivations was only minimally pursued and abandoned after a few months. Several relatives of victims raised concerns that the attacks had racists motives, but these suspicions were ignored and victims’ families faced baseless criminal investigations while police and the public accused them of withholding information.

The authorities’ handling of the NSU case has led to several parliamentary inquiries. It also played a significant role in Germany’s 2015 review by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Though the review acknowledges that the government report offers “measures to counter racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” it nevertheless fails to “identify and to report urgent need for action,” and does not “comprehend the broad picture of racial discrimination which [the NSU] case exemplifies.”

In light of the NSU case, in 2013 German authorities re-examined the statistics for the number of people killed by right-wing extremists in Germany since 1990. Previously official numbers said neo-Nazis had killed around 60 people. However, the German Interior Ministry said that of the 3,300 unsolved killings and attempted murders between 1990 and 2011, there could be 746 open cases involving the far-right, and as many as 849 victims.

Clearly the pattern of institutional racism extends far beyond the NSU case, and has hindered German law enforcement from bringing justice to potentially hundreds of victims.

Given the serious nature of these crimes, the extent to which the perpetrators were able to operate seemingly undetected, and the structural racism within German law enforcement, there needs to be political will to enforce more accountability and training to uncover racism within law enforcement. We will explore the measures that the German and American governments can take to increase accountability, as well as needed improvements in identifying hate crimes, in the third part of this series.

Next up in our four-part series on the NSU case we will examine how a victim-centered approach to hate crime investigations could prevent many of the kinds of problems exemplified in this case. The third part will offer recommendations to address structural racism. The final post will compare the NSU trial with the Golden Dawn trial in Greece and investigate themes in protecting minority groups in Europe.


Published on November 1, 2016


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