The NSU Trial: A Victim-Sensitive Approach to Hate Crime Investigations (Part 2)

By Erika Asgeirsson and Zahava Moerdler

In this four-part blog series, Human Rights First is examining 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. Read part one here

Between 1998 and 2011, a neo-Nazi terror cell in Germany called the National Socialist Underground (NSU) committed at least ten murders, fifteen bank robberies, and three bomb attacks. In addition to the failure to identify the racial motive of the crimes, law enforcement’s treatment of the victims and their families betrayed its institutional racism.

While investigating, the police were blinded by racial stereotypes, focusing almost exclusively on the theory that they were involved with organized crime. Despite no leads in this direction—and evidence to the contrary—investigators continued to press this case analysis. While investigating this theory, they questioned hundreds of people of Turkish descent. Friends and family members of the victims were interrogated under hostile circumstances and pressed about the victims’ supposed involvement in criminal activities.

Yvonne Boulgarides, the wife of one victim said: “In all these years, they have never treated us as victims. We were always treated as suspects by police or politicians, as those who were hiding something. Nobody asked us about our opinion or listened to us.” In its media strategy, the police consistently accused the victims of withholding information and declared they encountered a “wall of silence.”

Despite repeated suggestions from the families that the crimes may have had a racial motive, the police did not seriously investigate this theory and did not keep the families on the status of the investigation. The German police failed the families of the NSU victims, both in their refusal to investigate a racial motive and in their hostile treatment of the families. This case study demonstrates the need for victim-sensitive approaches to hate crime.

Hate crimes are different than other crimes. While being a victim of a crime is often traumatic regardless of the offense, a hate crime violates the human right to equality and non-discrimination and undermines the exercise of other rights, like the right to free expression and religion and the ability to fully participate in political and social life. Hate crimes impinge on human dignity in a way that is different because the perpetrator intends to send a message about the victim’s right to belong in society. By targeting someone’s identity, a victim of a hate crime may experience increased psychological harm.

Victims of hate crimes also have ongoing protection needs and may be subject to repeat victimization. Secondary victimization occurs when professionals interact with victims in harmful ways, such as when police stereotype them and make unfounded accusations against them, as demonstrated in the NSU case. In addition, a hate crime may make an entire community feel targeted and vulnerable, a feeling that is magnified when police fail to respond appropriately.

Victims of hate crime are often reluctant to report these crimes to the police. A variety of factors contribute to underreporting. In an E.U. Fundamental Rights Agency survey on the experiences and perceptions of Jews in Europe, reasons cited for not reporting antisemitic harassment included: feeling that nothing would happen or change, or that it wasn’t worth reporting because it happens all the time; lack of trust in police; concern over not being believed or taken seriously; being too emotionally upset; and fear of intimidation from perpetrators.

Based on their experience with victims of hate crimes, professionals (including police officers, public prosecutors and judges, and experts working for victim support services or civil society organizations) often pointed to similar factors, including: fear, guilt, or shame of victims; lack of awareness of rights, in part due to lack of victim support services; victim doubt that they would benefit or view that proceedings would be costly and time consuming; and lack of trust that police would treat them appropriately.

Both victims of hate incidents and professionals cite lack of trust as a major reason for underreporting. This lack of trust is reinforced when law enforcement fails to adequately respond to hate crimes or does not address these crimes with the care they deserve.

Law enforcement can begin to rebuild this trust by strengthening their approach to hate crimes. Law enforcement must be sensitive to the needs of hate crime victims and others in their communities. To develop a victim-sensitive approach to investigations, victims should be recognized, respected, and given proper support services. They should have effective access to justice, meaning they should have the ability to seek a remedy before the courts, and be informed throughout the process of investigation and prosecution. Professionals interacting with victims of hate crimes should be specially trained to ensure compassionate and appropriate treatment.

Although Germany took several steps to address hate crimes and institutional discrimination in the aftermath of the NSU revelations, much more remains to be done. In 2015, Germany saw a rise in politically-motivated crime. Attacks against refugee shelters quintupled from 198 in 2014 to 1,031 in 2015.

When police fail to respond to hate crimes and protect vulnerable groups, society is increasingly divided and insecure. This is an issue that the United States and Germany share. The United States has seen a rise in hateful rhetoric targeting Muslims, Jews, African Americans, and other marginalized groups, and this rhetoric has escalated into violence.

Institutional racism within the law enforcement has contributed to high rates of fatal police shootings, disparities in sentencing, and discriminatory policing against people of color. Both the United States and Germany must show leadership on this issue because how they do so will set the tone for other countries. The next blog in this series will further develop these recommendations.


Published on November 8, 2016


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