Neo-Nazi terror and Germany’s racism problem

A failed bank robbery on November 4 this year, exposed a cell in eastern Germany calling itself the “National Socialist Underground”, apparently responsible for the murder of at least ten people, most of them immigrants, among other acts of violence over the last decade. Together with the murder of dozens last summer by a Norwegian right-wing extremist this case has focused a spotlight on the presence of a new right-wing terrorism. Until the media and the population at large start recognizing immigrants and others marked by ethnic or religious difference as belonging to Germany, a deep-seated, everyday racism will provide fertile soil from which such acts of extremism will continue to grow.
Michael Rothberg
16 December 2011

In recent weeks, Germany has been gripped by an unprecedented scandal. What looked at first like an isolated criminal case has quickly come to raise fundamental questions about politics and society in the Federal Republic. In the wake of a failed bank robbery on November 4 in the central German town of Eisenach, two men - Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos - apparently committed suicide as police were closing in; their bodies were found inside a burning recreational vehicle. Shortly afterwards, the apartment in the east German town of Zwickau where the men had been living was set on fire by their roommate and accomplice, Beate Zschäpe, who a few days later turned herself in to the police. 

Soon it became clear that these were not ordinary bank robbers. Besides having been involved in over a dozen bank heists, Böhnhardt, Mundlos, and Zschäpe turned out to be members of a neo-Nazi group called the “National Socialist Underground.” Although this revelation came as a shock, the three extremists had in fact been in the sights of the police in the late 1990s, when a bomb had been planted in front of a Jena theatre and bomb-making materials had been found in Zschäpe’s garage. But somehow the three friends had then disappeared without a trace for over a decade. 

In the days after the events in Eisenach and Zwickau, weapons were discovered that linked the neo-Nazis first to the 2007 murder of a police officer and then, even more dramatically, to the cold-blooded execution of nine immigrants - eight of them of Turkish background, one a Greek - over the course of several years. Along with the murder weapon, police found a film produced by the terror cell in the burned out apartment that mocked the victims of the murder spree and also claimed responsibility for a 2004 bombing in Cologne that injured twenty-two people in an immigrant neighborhood. The group was probably involved in other acts of violence as well, including another bombing that severely injured an Iranian-German woman. Several accomplices from the extreme-right wing scene who helped the group with logistics have now been arrested and a dozen others are under investigation. 

The nine killings of the immigrants, which had taken place in cities across the country, had remained unsolved for years and had been known in the media as the “döner murders” because two of the men were killed while working in food stands that sold döner kebabs. The murder weapon - a Czech pistol - was the only apparent link between the unrelated victims. Police speculated that the murders arose out of an immigrant, criminal milieu and involved disputes over protection money, even though they had no evidence pointing in that direction. Their missteps did not simply hinder the investigation, but resulted in years of heightened suffering for the families of the victims. Not only were those families left without justice; they were also treated as if they or their loved ones were themselves criminals. 

Now that the neo-Nazi cell has been uncovered and the series of mysterious murders explained as deliberate racist acts, a whole new set of questions is being posed by journalists and politicians: How was it possible that neo-Nazis, already known to be dangerous, had managed to live for more than a decade in the centre of Germany without detection? What was the role of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, in this case? Was it possible that any of the members of the National Socialist Underground were informers or otherwise known to the Federal Office? How many supporters did the group have and what were their connections to the various neo-Nazi networks that seem to be flourishing, especially in parts of the former East Germany but also in the west? 

With investigations turning up clues and further mysteries every day, these questions will, without doubt, continue to be addressed for many weeks and months. While the events as they have unfolded are already a shocking blow to a country that has prided itself on confronting its Nazi past, the scandal could still expand considerably if the failures of the intelligence agency turn out to involve conspiratorial connections to the right-wing fringe instead of mere incompetence. What is already known is that in recent years the Verfassungsschutz in Thüringen - the state where the trio lived - had been paying a local neo-Nazi leader as an informant; and that this money apparently did more to support local extremist networks than to break them up. More generally, the intelligence agency’s practice of employing hundreds of informants in right-wing groups has come under increasing scrutiny because of its dubious impact. 

Regardless of how things develop from here, however, the case of the National Socialist Underground has already made this much clear: more than a half century after the defeat of National Socialism and more than twenty years after reunification, an enormous gap separates the realities of racism and violence in the Federal Republic from mainstream discussions of ethnicity, immigration, and political extremism. Just last month, on October 30, Germany celebrated the fiftieth-anniversary of the “guest worker” programme that brought Turkish workers to the country. People of Turkish origin now constitute Germany’s largest ethnic minority. The tone of the anniversary commemorations was largely upbeat, with the media recounting stories of immigrant success and many cities organizing exhibits and panels to mark the date. More than a few articles were dedicated to the invention of the döner kebab in early 1970s Berlin.

These positive, if largely superficial, images of a multicultural Germany differed considerably from the usual depiction of immigrants as “un-integrated” and “un-integratable” religious extremists and criminals. The mood in October 2011 contrasted especially starkly with the autumn months of 2010, when a best-selling book by Thilo Sarrazin, a prominent Social Democratic political figure, created an ugly atmosphere with its racist accusations that Muslim immigrants were ruining Germany with their allegedly inferior intelligence and supposedly high birthrates. (Germany is in fact in need of more immigrants because of its aging population.) 

Less than two weeks after the fiftieth-anniversary commemorations, both the feel-good multiculturalism and the disturbing - and ongoing - integration debates were supplanted by this dramatic and still-unfolding murder case. Behind the celebration of döner kebab as multicultural cuisine we now find lurking the “döner murders.” If “multiculti has totally failed,” as Prime Minister Angela Merkel claimed in the wake of the Sarrazin affair last year, the causes now look quite different from those Merkel meant to indict. The refusal of immigrants to integrate themselves into German society is not the problem: but rather the persistence of both extreme and everyday forms of racism against immigrants and other minorities. 

The Zwickau cell 

If, in its particulars, the case of the Zwickau cell appears unique, nevertheless its deeper implications help cast a light on three, much broader levels at which racism plays out in contemporary Germany.

First, there is the fact of the murders themselves. Although carried out a in secretive fashion and never publicly claimed by the perpetrators, this serial killing spree cannot help but recall the attacks of the early 1990s that took place in both western and eastern Germany. In towns such as Rostock, Mölln, Solingen, and Hoyerswerda, the houses of immigrants and refugees were firebombed by neo-Nazis and a number of people were killed - primarily women and children. These were the most dramatic cases, but violence has persisted ever since. All together 182 people are known to have lost their lives to right-wing extremism since the fall of the Berlin Wall, according to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a Berlin-based organization that fights racism and antisemitism. 

Even this is just the tip of the iceberg, however, since hundreds of non-deadly, but still criminal, acts of right-wing terror take place every year: the security agencies counted more than 15,000 in 2010, of which five percent were violent attacks. Along with this shocking number of attacks, it is also important to keep the targets of these acts in mind in order to understand the situation in contemporary Germany and, more broadly, Europe. 

While antisemitic rhetoric and violence persist and remain a serious concern in Germany, the favorite targets of today’s neo-Nazis are not Jews or Jewish institutions, but people of colour, especially those who might be associated with Islam. The recent rampage in Norway of Anders Behring Breivik - although targeted at Social Democratic youth - was inspired by the same hatred of Muslim immigrants and multiculturalism that lies behind the National Socialist Underground’s murders. More recently, an Italian neo-fascist murdered two Senegalese immigrants in Florence, a clear sign that the threat of right-wing terrorism is a continent-wide problem. 

The second important arena for understanding the recent events in Germany is the state. Given the persistence of right-wing violence over the past two decades, it might seem strange that the state failed to identify the source of the serial murders - if not the murderers themselves, then at least the milieu from which they stemmed. One accusation that has attracted attention since the unveiling of the existence of a National Socialist Underground - but is commonplace among those who monitor right-wing extremism - is that in recent years the state has paid disproportionate attention to the threat of Islamism and the extreme left and has downplayed neo-Nazism. While Germany has a recent history of leftist extremism - most notably the Red Army Faction, who were active especially in the 1970s and 1980s - and, certainly, small numbers of Islamists are active within the country, there is no comparison between those phenomena and the influence of extremists on the right, who have made large portions of eastern Germany off limits to people of colour. 

Perhaps even more significant than the authorities’ preconceptions about the hypothetical perpetrators are the assumptions underlying the approach to the victims, which may have played the largest role in distracting investigators from their true target. Because the victims were all immigrants of Turkish and, in one case, Greek background, the authorities’ first suspicions turned to organized crime. The actual motivation that ultimately emerged  - racism - was apparently not taken seriously as a possibility.

Especially telling in this regard is the name that the Verfassungsschutz gave their special investigation: Operation Bosporus. Contrast this to the code for the investigation into the neo-Nazi trio’s other victim, the murdered police officer. That investigation was named after the site where she was shot while eating lunch: Operation Parking Lot. While the latter case was given a banal, everyday name, investigators used the ethnic origins of the murdered immigrants to give an “exotic” cast to the case and, most suggestively, to locate the crimes (at least symbolically) in a foreign geography outside Germany. Yet, the victims were not residents of Turkey, they were residents of Germany, and the causes of their deaths need to be located there. 

The failure to perceive immigrants and non-white residents as belonging to German society is reflected even more obviously when we turn to the third level, the media. The media trivialized the case over the years with their own moniker: the “döner murders.” But as commentators and politicians are now pointing out, the victims were not döner kebabs, they were people. The first victim sold flowers and others worked as locksmiths, and in tailor shops and kiosks - they were what we in America call “small business owners.” With the revelation of the neo-Nazi milieu responsible for the murders the moment of trivialization is over, at least in the mainstream media. Yet, troubling signs remain in many of the reports. Again and again, especially in the early accounts, the victims were referred to as Ausländer - foreigners. While it is true that most of the victims were not German citizens, they were immigrants and residents of Germany. Just as with the code name given to the murders by the Verfassungsschutz, the persistent talk of “foreigners” seemed to locate the problem outside of German territory and beyond German concern. 

It is no doubt true that for the murderers their victims were alien presences who disturbed their fantasy of Germany’s “racial purity.” Yet the reluctance in mainstream media and public discourse to speak openly about racism in Germany contributes to the sense of exclusion that immigrants experience. Calling the victims “foreigners” and describing racism as Fremdenhass (hatred of foreigners) creates the impression that white Germans have a problem with people who are far away. But the many hundreds of victims of neo-Nazi violence are not distant others: they are neighbors and fellow residents of a unified Germany. 

Despite a 2000 change in citizenship laws that granted partial jus soli rights to the children of immigrants born on German soil, the rhetoric around the neo-Nazi murders confirms that most Germans continue to think about identity in ethnic terms. 

Will things change as more becomes known about the extent of far-right, racist activity? There are some encouraging signs of a growing reflection on the extent to which racist ideas are at home in the middle of German society. The language of the media has changed over the course of the weeks since the discovery of the murders and there seems to be more open discussion of racism. At the level of the state, there is much talk of banning the far-right German Nationalist Party (NPD), affiliates of which have associated with members of the Nationalist Socialist Underground over the years. 

In symbolic terms, President Christian Wulff has met with families of the murdered and has called for a public ceremony mourning the victims that will take place in February -something that never happened during the racist attacks of the early 1990s, when Helmut Kohl declined to meet with survivors of the violence. These are important steps, but fundamental changes are necessary. Until the population at large starts recognizing immigrants and others marked by ethnic or religious difference as belonging to and in Germany, a deep-seated everyday racism will provide fertile soil from which acts of extremism, exclusion, and violence will continue to grow.

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