Countering the Radical Right

The 1980 Oktoberfest bombing – a case with many question marks

The irregularities in the case point to the fact that the reappraisal of the radical right’s history in post WW-II Germany is still at an early stage.

Barbara Manthe
6 July 2019, 5.30pm
September 26, 2018, Munich. A man in traditional Bavarian clothing sits facing the memorial for the victims of the Oktoberfest terror attack where mayor Dieter Reiter is speaking.
Sachelle Babbar/PA. All rights reserved.
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In May 2019, media reported that the investigations into the disastrous 1980 Munich Oktoberfest radical right bombing are going to be closed. According to the federal prosecutor who has opened the investigations for a second time, there has been no breakthrough and therefore no clarification on what could be achieved during the inquiries.

On 26 September 1980, one of the most devastating terror attacks in the history of post-WWII-Germany took place, directed at visitors of that year’s Oktoberfest: 12 festival guests were killed in the explosion as well as the perpetrator, a 21 year old student by the name of Gundolf Köhler. Over 200 people were wounded in the attack, some severely. Shortly afterwards, Köhler was not only identified as the perpetrator but his radical right background was revealed, too. He had participated in several military training exercises organized by the Wehrsportgruppe (WSG) Hoffmann (Paramilitary Sports Group Hoffmann), a radical right paramilitary organisation led by Karl-Heinz Hoffmann. This group mainly operated in Bavaria until it was banned before the attack in January 1980.

The motivation for this bombing remains as yet an unresolved question. An explanation might be that the attack aimed at adding fuel to an already fractious political climate by putting the blame on left-wing terrorists. In the politically tense election year of 1980, debates on “internal security” and terrorism were highly polarized; both among politicians and within the media. It is also possible that the attack was inspired by another far-right terrorist attack; directed shortly beforehand at the Bologna railway station in Italy on August 2, 1980, killing 85.

Likewise, the precise details of the Oktoberfest attack have not been clarified. The Public Prosecutor General of the Federal Court of Justice (Generalbundesanwalt) decided to close the investigation in 1982 because it was assumed that Köhler had acted alone.­­ However, public discussions continued to question this and to raise the possibility of whether the attack was in fact carried out with the help of accomplices.

Reopening the investigation

In 2014, the federal prosecutor's office reopened the investigation. This was due at least in part to massive political pressure and heightened popular interest after the discovery of the radical right terrorist group NSU in 2011. In particular, the victims’ lawyer Werner Dietrich and the journalist Ulrich Chaussy had brought to light new facts and important witnesses through their research into the topic.

Subsequently, investigators have examined the case from the ground up; exhuming a huge amount of official files (420,000 pages) related to the 1980 Oktoberfest attack. They have heard from over 1,000 witnesses, many of them victims who were wounded during the attack, albeit with no resounding success. Hundreds of other possible lines of inquiry were kept open; however, according to the investigating authorities, all proved to be dead-end roads.

Instead, the investigators have now concentrated on two aspects that were already at the centre of inquiry in 1980. First, they have tried to figure out how Köhler purchased the explosives he used, especially the grenade shell that covered the bomb. In that context, the role of Heinz Lembke is puzzling. Lembke was a radical right activist who amassed an enormous amount of explosives, munitions and weapons in the early 1980s. He had established a far-reaching network of like-minded persons and was known as a supplier of explosives and weapons within the far-right terrorist scene. When Lembke’s arms cache was detected in 1981, he was arrested. In custody, he agreed to give testimony, also on the Oktoberfest case. On November 1, 1981, one day before that testimony, he hanged himself in his arrest cell.

The second important line of inquiry was the testimony of witness, Frank Lauterjung, who stated shortly after the attack that he had seen Köhler talking to two young men only 25 minutes before the bomb exploded. However, police were never able to track down these two men. Interestingly, Lauterjung – who died in 1982 at only 38 years of age – was known to the police as an activist of the radical right organisation, “Bund Heimattreuer Jugend” (BHJ, “League of Patriotic Youth”). In the 1960s and 1970s, the BHJ served, among others, as feeder organisations for radical right terrorists. This information, however, was disregarded by the prosecutors in the early 1980s.

Last but not least, obstacles were put in place around access to information gathered by domestic intelligence (Verfassungsschutz) and other intelligence services around the attack. It took a long time until even the prosecutor’s office was allowed to search the intelligence files.

For the general public, lawyers, journalists or even Members of Parliament, it is more or less a physical impossibility to receive access to this information. However, when the factions of the Green Party and the Left Party in the German Bundestag sued for disclosure, the Federal Constitutional Court proved them partly right – with the court stating that in the very few cases in which the parliamentary right of information outweighed governmental interests, Parliament had a right to disclosure. More interestingly, such would be the case if a certain person had died a long time ago.

As a consequence, therefore, the German government saw itself forced to disclose that Heinz Lembke had not been a confidential informant of any German intelligence service – a complexity which haunts the NSU trial to this day.

It seems, then, that with the closure of the investigations into the Oktoberfest attack every last chance of casting light on some key questions in the case has vanished. The irregularities in the case point to the fact that the reappraisal of the radical right’s history in post WW-II Germany is still at an early stage, especially since many important files and information are still classified.

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