Can Europe Make It?

In the aftermath of racial violence: seeking change after the NSU trial in Germany

Links between these racist extremist groups and parts of government should more readily be assumed to exist and should be investigated when murders take place.

Tom Johnson
5 September 2014
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German lawmakers grill domestic spy agency over neo-Nazi case. The head of German intelligence agency Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Heinz Fromm, at the Bundestag committee of inquiry. Theo Schneider/Demotix. All rights reserved.

It’s a little over a year since the report into the investigation of the right-wing National Socialist Underground (NSU) murders was published by the German government. From the outset, the report was presented as an opportunity to learn from mistakes made, with an introduction by the speaker of the German Parliament:

“Tolerance is easier to call for than to practice day by day. The substance of a living democratic community is the inviolability of the conviction that minorities have their own legal claims that the majority cannot overrule.”

In light of what the report contained, and also omitted, such well-meaning homilies might seem a little hollow. It was not solely the ‘legal claims’ of minorities that had been disregarded during the investigation, but perhaps more importantly, their right as citizens to have crimes against them investigated as thoroughly as other members of society.

The driver for such an extensive report was the revelation of investigators’ failure to explore leads into the activities of the NSU over a 7 year period, revealing widespread preconceptions and prejudices against ethnic minorities in Germany. The report itself examines the technical failures in the investigation and makes proposals on how these mistakes might be avoided in the future. Perhaps most strikingly the 10 murders committed between 2000 and 2007 were extensively investigated by 160 officers into 11,000 individuals, but only in relation to assumed criminal links within Germany’s Turkish communities and later even into potential PKK links in Turkey. What were repeatedly ignored were potential right-wing motives, expressed by the victims’ families themselves, journalists, police in the UK and even the FBI.

As has been the case with other racially motivated crimes, the media colluded with the police perspective, with many mainstream newspapers reinforcing this fixation on migrant criminality, creating and then widely adopting the term ‘Döner murders’. This phrase was not solely an innocent reflection of the fact that some of the victims ran small shops or takeaway stalls, but instead seemed to echo and reinforce wider sentiments in parts of German society, ready to turn immigrant communities into two-dimensional caricatures.

The link to the NSU only came about after the one remaining member, Beate Zschäpe, handed herself in to police in 2011, following the suicide of the two other members after a botched bank robbery. The trial against Zschäpe commenced just over a year ago and is expected to go on until 2015, with the potential to bring some closure to some of the victims’ families. However, for the victims and those representing them, the report’s authors are too closely tied in to the establishment. For them, the levels of implied corruption seen during the investigation require an independent inquiry, similar to those established following the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993: the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (Macpherson Inquiry) (1999) and the subsequent Stephen Lawrence Independent Review (2014).

There are certainly valuable points to be taken from the Macpherson Inquiry that have applicability here. Although with the Macpherson Inquiry it transpired years later that crucial evidence had been withheld by corrupt members of the police force, this was nonetheless an independent inquiry. Being independent meant that it was better placed and had more of an overview to remark as part of its conclusions that: “institutional racism, within the terms of its description… exists both in the Metropolitan Police Service and in other Police Services and other institutions countrywide”. The inquiry saw institutional racism revealing itself, not only in the case itself, but additionally on a national level: in the disparity in ‘stop and search’ figures; the under-reporting of “racial incidents”; and in the identified failure of police training. In contrast, the investigation into the NSU case by the German government itself was significantly less likely to pronounce that ‘institutional racism’ existed in key institutions of the state. That it took a second independent inquiry, published over 20 years after Stephen Lawrence’s murder, to begin to reveal a more accurate version of events, is a reflection on just how ingrained racism can be within societies and their institutions.

Investigations into the NSU murders are certainly not lacking in number. There have been three parliamentary investigations at state level, an investigation at federal level, the trial of Beate Zschäpe is ongoing in Munich and there has been cross-party praise for the federal level committee. Yet despite all of these, those fighting for justice remain cynical about what actual progress is being made.

The linkages that have been partly revealed between elements within Germany’s interior security service, the BfV, and the activities of the NSU have caused concern both across government and German society. One particularly disconcerting example was the presence of a BfV agent in the café where one of the NSU murders was carried out. Another area of concern is the source of funding to the NSU: although the main source of funding was via bank robberies, another was from informants working for the BfV who were given up to 200,000 Deutsche Marks for information, some of whom allegedly passed money on to the NSU.

Rather like corruption in the Stephen Lawrence case and subsequent attempts to cover up wrong-doing, there is a sense that the trail of corruption and connections between police, the BfV and right-wing groups in Germany run deep and are extremely complex. Listening to the lawyers for the victims of the killings, you realise just how complex and exactly why they sometimes sound a little apprehensive about discovering the reality of the situation. They do not anticipate an independent inquiry being set up, which they feel would be essential in uncovering not only the reality of what happened in this case but also more generally engrained problems in German society and institutions.

There might be a temptation when looking at the case of Stephen Lawrence and the NSU, to view them as historical cases confined to a historical racist vein, no longer a threat. Yet we know from ongoing research that right-wing racism and associated attacks are on the rise in Europe. There are additionally, comparable levels of institutional and media prejudice across Europe. The killing of 6 Roma in Hungary and the injury of many more by a right-wing group between 2008 and 2009, only resulted in a conviction last year. Like the above cases, the attacker not only had links to a right-wing party (Hungarian Guard), but also links with the intelligence services and it took years to unravel, and is still not fully understood. Media coverage was considered sparse compared to what it would have been if the victims hadn’t been Roma. This is in the context of a milieu of public opinion where a poll recorded in 2011 that 60 % of a representative sample shared the view that, “the inclination to criminality is in the blood of Gypsies”.

It is unfortunate and probable that with the current rise in right-wing sentiments and groups in Europe, there will be more attacks on minority groups by racist extremists. Links between these types of group and parts of government should more readily be assumed to exist and investigated when murders take place. If there is the potential for one significant positive outcome as a result of cases like these, it would be that governments, the judicial system and police authorities do not wait for their own 'Döner', Roma or Stephen Lawrence murders before considering whether their organisations are saturated with racist attitudes and discriminatory practices and acting upon their findings. Experience thus far tells a very different story.

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