The faces of neo-Nazism

Supporters of the NPD protesting in Berlin in May

Frühlingstrasse 26 used to be a thoroughly respectable address in a genteel suburb of Zwickau, motor-industry capital of eastern Germany. Solid, steep-roofed houses, built by a philanthropic Jewish businessman as homes for trade unionists in the 1920s, have been converted into comfortable family apartments, unlike the grim multi-storey blocks of the communist era that blight the skyline of many another industrial east German town.

Birthplace of the composer Robert Schumann, Zwickau is a rare industrial success story in the former German Democratic Republic. Once a soot-stained centre of coal-mining and coke-making, it has been a motor town since August Horch built the first Audi cars there in 1910.

But number 26 in the Frühlingstrasse – the name means Spring Street in English – is no longer considered a nice address. Indeed, it does not exist any more. In April, its charred remains were razed to the ground. “It was better to get rid of the house before it became a shrine for people who glorify national socialism,” says Pia Findeiss, the former sports teacher who is Social Democrat mayor of the Saxony town.

She has reason to be fearful. Three members of a fanatical neo-Nazi cell calling itself the “National Socialist Underground” lived in the house for almost four years, unsuspected by their neighbours and undetected by the German security services, until two were found dead after a bank raid last November. The sole survivor is alleged to have set fire to their home.

Two men and a woman, on the run from the law and living under false names, used the flat in the Frühlingstrasse as a refuge during a reign of terror. They financed a comfortable lifestyle, including holidays on the Baltic Sea, with bank raids across the territory of the former GDR. Behind their façade of respectability they are said to have been responsible for at least one bombing and the serial murders of nine immigrants and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007.

On November 8, a year after she turned herself in, 37-year-old Beate Zschäpe was charged on a series of counts including murder and terrorism. Four other men were charged with giving support to the terrorist cell, including supplying weapons and false identities. They will come to trial in Munich next year.

The story of the undetected terror cell, and the failure of the German police and intelligence services to track it down for almost 14 years, has caused soul-searching in the German political establishment. Members of the Bundestag held a one-minute silence. They unanimously condemned all acts of extremist violence following an emotional debate. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, spoke at a national memorial service in Berlin, asking forgiveness from the families of the victims for what she called “a shame for our country”.

The first known victim was Enver Simsek, a Turkish flower-seller who was shot dead in Nuremberg in September 2000. The racist killing spree continued across the country until 2006, from Hamburg and Rostock in the north to Dortmund in the west and Munich in the south: seven more stallholders of Turkish origin were murdered, and a locksmith of Greek origin, whom the killers perhaps assumed was Turkish. The cell’s bank raids – at least 15 have been identified – were all in the east, with several in Zwickau and nearby Chemnitz. The last known victim was a German policewoman, shot in Heilbronn, near Stuttgart, in 2007, but the motive for her killing remains a mystery.

The killings became known as the “döner murders” after the Turkish döner kebabs sold by several of the victims. Each was executed with the same weapon, a Czech-manufactured Ceska 83 pistol.

The house where the neo-Nazi cell was based. Blown up as the net closed in, it has now been razed to the ground

Public inquiries have been launched in the federal parliament and the state assembly of Saxony in Dresden. They have already revealed a tale of incompetence and confusion between jealous, competing agencies. Almost every week, there have been new revelations of files on neo-Nazi activities that have been lost or shredded. There is a strong suspicion that a network of informants helped finance rightwing activities with their pay-offs from the taxpayer.

Hans-Peter Friedrich, interior minister, has ordered an overhaul of Germany’s sprawling security services. Heinz Fromm, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the clumsily-named domestic intelligence agency, was forced to quit in July. His deputy was transferred, and the heads of four state agencies have also retired. Jörg Ziercke, director of the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) – the German equivalent of the FBI – is being replaced at the end of the year. In December, meanwhile, Friedrich and the interior ministers from Germany’s 16 federal states will decide whether to ban the far-right National Democratic party (NPD), on suspicion of links to the neo-Nazi underground.

Politicians from both right and left want to know if the security services were not merely incompetent, but “blind in the right eye” in failing to focus on rightwing extremism. Was it cock-up or conspiracy?

An NPD rally in Berlin. The banner calls for 'freedom of opinion for national socialists'

“It’s a valid question,” says Wolfgang Thierse, deputy speaker of the German parliament, and a long-time anti-Nazi campaigner. “We must find out the answer: any suspicion is dangerous.” He doesn’t know why the security services failed so dismally to pursue and uncover the terrorist cell. “I am as appalled as everyone else. There was obviously a whole series of mistakes – and blindness. But was it bad blindness, or harmless blindness? There is a constant anxiety among Germans because of our terrible Nazi history.”

That is one potentially explosive question. But the affair has also revived an equally fundamental concern: why has far right ideology gained a foothold in the former GDR, attracting young people who emerged from the wreckage of communism? “Of the estimated 40,000 rightwing extremists in Germany, 50 per cent are living in the new [eastern] Länder [states], where only 20 per cent of the population lives,” says Sebastian Edathy, chairman of the Bundestag inquiry into the case. “Look at the number of attacks on migrants: the likelihood of a neo-Nazi attack is much greater in the east, where foreigners are only 2 per cent of the population.”

A survey just published by the Friedrich Ebert foundation about far-right attitudes suggests that the number of sympathisers in western Germany has dropped from 9.1 to 7.6 per cent since 2006, while the number in the east has more than doubled from 6.6 to 15.8 per cent. A hostile attitude to foreigners was shown by 20 per cent in the west, but by almost 39 per cent of those questioned from the east, the poll concluded.

Any hint of a revival in neo-Nazi activity causes alarm in Germany, more than anywhere else in Europe, precisely because of its history. Four hundred police and security personnel have been assigned to a nationwide investigation into how and why alleged terrorists managed to stay hidden so long, and whether they were really part of a much wider network of racist sympathisers. “It’s a once-in-a-century operation. We have no previous experience to go on,” says Ziercke, head of the BKA. “We’ve had unsolved murders with sexual motives before. We’ve had people shot in bank raids. But such a combination as this, with the political connections as well, has never happened before.”

When police arrived at the burnt-out apartment in Zwickau last year after a tip-off, they were stunned to find an arsenal of weapons. They also found chilling home-made films of the executions carried out by the gang, in which the cartoon figure of the Pink Panther identified and gloated over their migrant victims.

Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe were the children of communist rule in the GDR, attracted as teenagers in the early 1990s into the far-right “scene” in the soulless high-rise housing estate of Winzerla in Jena, in neighbouring Thuringia. It is said they started out in a rightwing gang, the Winzer Clan, patrolling the streets and beating up suspected left-wingers. Andrea Röpke, author of a study of neo-Nazi women, claims Zschäpe was particularly vicious.

The group first attracted police attention in 1996. A doll was found hanging under an autobahn bridge in Jena, with two Stars of David and the word “Jew” scrawled on it. Electric cables led to a dummy bomb. In 1997, a red-painted suitcase with a black swastika was planted in the Theaterplatz. It contained a primitive pipe-bomb. Inquiries led police to Böhnhardt. He was known to be friends with Mundlos and Zschäpe. They were all said to be members of the same far-right organisations – the Jena Kameradschaft (comrades’ club) and the Thüringer Heimatschutz (Thuringian homeland protection society).

The victims, clockwise from top left: Enver Simsek, killed September 2000; Abdurrahim Ozudogru, killed June 2001; Suleyman Taskopru, killed June 2001; Habil Kilic, killed August 2001; Mehmet Turgut, killed February 2004; Michèle Kiesewetter, killed April 2007; Halit Yozgat, killed April 2006; Mehmet Kubasik, killed April 2006; Theodoros Boulgarides, killed June 2005; Ismail Yasar, killed June 2005

The police discovered a garage they rented. They found pipe-bombs, explosives and propaganda material. But they made no immediate arrests, although Böhnhardt was a known offender with a conviction for inciting racial hatred. By the time warrants were issued two days later, the three had vanished.

No one has yet fathomed precisely what led to the serial killings in an onslaught that began with the attack on Enver Simsek three years later in 2000. At the time police dismissed suggestions of a racist motive. They believed the killings were related to gang warfare or drug trafficking, a conclusion that has caused lasting resentment in the Turkish community. The victims’ families accuse the police of being racist themselves.

Photographs of the gang, issued in 1998 in Jena, show three unremarkable, scruffy youngsters. The boys are shaven-headed, both with stick-out ears and sad eyes. Zschäpe could be the next door neighbour’s daughter, staring slightly brazenly into the camera, her long brown hair tied back loosely in a ponytail.

Most of their life in the Frühlingstrasse, a decade later, was dull and domesticated. They stayed at home a lot, rented DVDs and played computer games. The men worked out on fitness equipment. There was even a room in the five-room apartment just for the two cats kept by Zschäpe, her main point of conversation with the neighbours.

Mundlos and Böhnhardt died on November 4, 2011, in a blazing mobile home in Eisenach, 100 miles from Zwickau. According to the state prosecutor, Mundlos – the brains of the gang – shot Böhnhardt, and then himself, as police closed in. The two had been spotted fleeing on bicycles from their last bank raid. In the gutted caravan, police recovered weapons linking them to the murder spree, including the gun of the dead policewoman, Michèle Kiesewetter. Later the same day, it is alleged that Zschäpe set off explosives in the Zwickau apartment, before asking a neighbour to look after her cats. Three days later, she gave herself up. She has been held in solitary confinement in Cologne ever since, refusing to talk, according to police sources. At least 13 other suspected associates or accomplices have been under investigation.

The domestic intelligence services have traditionally used a network of paid informants to spy on extremist organisations. That is now being called into question. “Obviously in some German states, informants were run very unprofessionally, and things seem to have got out of hand,” says Edathy, the Bundestag inquiry chairman. “It is not the system that is wrong, but the way it was controlled.”

The fragmented federal organisation of both police and internal security services is another target. Both the BKA and BfV are matched by separate organisations in each of Germany’s 16 federal states, leading to constant rivalry and communication failures, according to their critics. The politicians are also looking for evidence of any links between the terror cell and the far right NPD. As a legal political party, it is entitled to taxpayers’ money to fund its election campaigns. Opinion polls suggest that 66 per cent of Germans want it banned, but that will require evidence of links to the violent underground. The party has seats in two eastern state parliaments – Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – and a string of local town councils in the former GDR. But why have far-right sympathies flourished in the east?

Pia Findeiss, 56-year-old mayor of Zwickau, admits that the fallout from unification in 1990 is a big factor. “It wasn’t just unemployment. It was a collapse of the whole system of people’s values. Young people were looking for some form of direction. All the old institutions disappeared, like the Freie Deutsche Jugend [Communist youth organisation] and the sports clubs. I can understand that young people may have been desperate. Right-wing extremism was their ultimate form of protest.”

Moreover, “there was already a lot of rightwing thinking in the GDR. It was very nationalistic and authoritarian. Fear of foreigners was also there,” she says.

The ferment was swiftly exploited by rightwing extremists who came from the west – including the NPD. Extremists outside the party system came too, looking to set up informal cells of “comrades” – Kameradschaften – to avoid the attention of the security services. “There were neo-Nazi cadres that came from the west, representing a radical national socialism,” says Hajo Funke, a specialist in the area at Berlin’s Free University. “They came from what was at the time a rather conventional NPD, and joined up with rightwing extremists from the GDR.

“They attracted young people emerging from the catastrophic collapse of East Germany. They had no example to follow. They were confused and disappointed, often from broken homes. The Nazi cadres … radicalised them.”

From these young recruits emerged a “sub-culture” which attracted the three future suspects in Jena. The two boys came from bourgeois households – Mundlos’s father was a professor of information technology who lost his job after unification. Böhnhardt’s father was an engineer, his mother a schoolteacher. Zschäpe had a tougher background – brought up by an unemployed single mother.

They seemed nice kids, polite and well-behaved, said Brigitte Böhnhardt of her son’s friends, in a TV interview. They said “good evening” and polished their lace-up Springer boots, favourite footwear for punks and neo-Nazis. Her son, already a poor pupil, dropped out of school aged 14. From then on, he kept getting picked up by the police – for theft, driving without a licence, extortion, bodily harm. He was repeatedly cautioned, not charged. Böhnhardt thought her son’s neo-Nazi views were something he would grow out of – his clothes were “just dressing up”, his ideas something he “repeated parrot-fashion”, she said. She hoped that Mundlos, who wanted to go back to school to finish his final exams, would be a good example. Now she blames the police for not arresting him sooner.

Bernd Wagner was an East German policeman who began hunting neo-Nazis in the East in 1964, long before unification, when he was based at Berlin’s infamous police headquarters in the Alex­an­d­er­platz. He does not blame the trauma of unification alone for the popularity of the far-right in the east, but the entire culture of the former communist society. “The social and ideological dynamic of the GDR was very narrow,” he says. “Under Erich Honecker, they encouraged the concept of Heimat – one’s native land. Tradition and heritage were revived, including order and discipline.

Bernd Wagner, who helps young people who want to escape from far-right groups

“The [East] German cultural image was biologically based. There was criticism of Poland that was biologically based, too: Poles were seen as ‘naturally lazy’. There was a very strong aggressive tendency in the GDR population against any ‘un-national’ traits, although no one called it xenophobia.”

After unification in 1990, there was an upsurge in asylum seekers in Germany, from the Balkans as well as from the Middle East and Africa. The government in Bonn decided they should be settled in communities in the east as well as the west, to spread the burden of integration. Black faces came as a shock in the east. “Suddenly people thought: ‘Those unfriendly west Germans are sending foreigners here, too,’” says Wagner. “That instantly caused a big shock in the east German population. The collective thinking of east Germans was that ‘the Wessis have betrayed us’. But the Nazis said: ‘The foreigners are criminals. They are taking our jobs. We will fight them.’ They got support.

“It wasn’t just the unemployment, it was the feeling of betrayal of the German character. ‘We are the white niggers of Germany’ was one Nazi slogan.”

A cheerful bear of a man, Bernd Wagner now runs an organisation called Exit from a nondescript office in east Berlin, dedicated to helping young people escape from the far-right “scene”. “We are a contact group for people who want to break with their ideology,” he says. “We’re here to help them give up.” It is not an easy task. “Don’t think these are just young people. Today’s activists are 25 to 55. They have ‘recruiters’ in the music scene, the clubs and culture scene. It’s a spider’s web right across Germany.

“There are no clear milieux, no defined places of recruitment. They may be bourgeois or from the underclass. Most are very impressionable: they are seeking the truth, seeking an explanation for their lives. There is a very strong aversion to foreigners. It doesn’t have much to do with real life or where they live. Take anti-Semitism, for example. Many of them have never met any Jews.” He also questions the media caricature of extreme right-wingers as “skinheads wearing Springer boots”. The far right also attracts the older generation in small rural towns, he says.

Lübtheen is a typical small rural community in western Mecklenburg, population 4,000, close to the former West German border. Unemployment is lower than in most neighbouring villages. It boasts a variety of shops including a butcher and a pharmacy, a döner kebab outlet and a Vietnamese restaurant. It also has a party office for the far right NPD.

“They have invaded my home town,” says Ute Lindenau, a former social worker who has been mayor for the past 10 years. “Why they chose us, I don’t know. I think they came here because they couldn’t achieve anything on the other side.”

Udo Pastörs, NPD party leader in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Most prominent of the NPD arrivals was Udo Pastörs, now party leader in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. “At first, we didn’t notice that he’d moved here,” says Lindenau. “That was in 1999. Then they all moved in. They knew each other from the west.” Since then, the party has steadily built up a local base, until it came second to the Social Democrats in the last district election, pushing the centre-right Christian Democratic Union – the party of Angela Merkel – into third place. “That’s a bad sign, and it must not happen again,” says Lindenau. “They are dangerous. I think they should be banned.”

Sitting in his office in the state parliament in Schwerin, Pastörs cuts a dapper figure, dressed in an immaculate Austrian-style collarless jacket. He is soft-spoken and polite, and serves coffee with heart-shaped sugar lumps. A watchmaker by profession, he opened a jeweller’s shop when he moved to Lübtheen. He admits to being independently wealthy – something that enables him to pursue his rightwing politics. “In Germany, you can only be active [in the NPD] if you have a lot of money, or no money at all. If you have a regular job you cannot speak out. It’s a fact of life.”

As for his politics, “I’m not a national socialist,” he says. “I’m not stupid enough to say that. I’m a social nationalist, based on biology. I believe nature is sovereign. That is our God. Whatever contradicts nature will fail in the long term.” He feels at home in east Germany. “Here, a national patriotic idea has survived,” he says. “We had great problems being understood in west Germany. Here we are understood.”

All the main leaders of the NPD are from the west, including Holger Apfel, 41-year-old national chairman and head of the party in Saxony. Pastörs agrees that the GDR created “a more German Germany”. Is he saying there are too many foreigners in the country today? “There are too few young Germans,” he retorts. “So the domination by foreigners is getting ever greater.”

Outside his office in Schwerin castle, now the state parliament, posters of blonde children playing on a Baltic beach decry the impending “Volkstod” of the German people – the “death of the nation”. Another denounces the euro.

The conversation keeps coming back to a “biological sense” of national identity. “One of the lies of democracy is that all humans are alike,” he says. “It would be a catastrophe for the English to be like the Chinese. But it is more difficult to be a German in Germany than it is in Australia.”

Sylvia Bretschneider, speaker of the state assembly in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

At the other end of Schwerin castle, Sylvia Bretschneider, speaker of the state assembly, says the NPD has an “absolutely racist definition” of what is German. “One cannot exaggerate the danger. They are in a minority everywhere, but the majority is silent, so they get more influence and attention.” The NPD does not recognise the German constitution, Bretschneider says, “but they want to be elected to parliament. People I talk to don’t understand that a party can be hostile to the constitution and yet not be banned.” She maintains the party has links to the Kameradschaften, such as those to which the NSU trio belonged.

Pastörs denies involvement with violent fringe groups. “I was invited to join,” he says. “But I was never at home there.” As for banning his party, he likens it to the persecution of witches. He denies any links to the NSU, or any similar violent neo-Nazi cells. “As deputy leader of the NPD, I know that the NSU was financed to a large extent with money from the BfV [intelligence agency]. The state prosecutor knows this. So they are rowing back.”

The German government has tried before to ban the NPD, and failed. Since the scandal of the Zwickau terror cell erupted, a new attempt is under way. Der Spiegel magazine says that 1,200 pages of evidence have been collected to demonstrate the party’s – “fundamentally racist” ideology. The network of informants has been run down to clear the way for a ban.

Wagner, scourge of the far right, admits that the NPD and the radical neo-Nazi underground groups are not identical. But he doesn’t doubt that the NPD should be banned. “Of course they must say they have nothing to do with violence,” he says. “But their strategic goal is the same: to create a ‘national purity’. They all think ‘ethnic cleansing’ is essential. They believe democracy means the death of the nation.”

With nationalism rising in Europe because of the financial crisis, he sees banning the NPD in Germany as a wise precaution. Others fear a ban will simply drive neo-Nazis underground. Wolfgang Thierse, a centre-left Social Democrat from the former GDR, admits that a ban won’t make the intelligence agencies more competent. But he hopes that “the shock over the serial killings will really change things”.

“There is no simple answer, and there are no quick answers,” he says. “If the democratic state does not offer enough protection to its citizens, then the extreme right creeps in.”

He is certainly not complacent. Yet he is convinced that precisely because of its Nazi past, Germans haven’t overreacted to perceived threats such as immigration or Islamism. “Germany’s reaction has been pretty mild compared with some other countries,” he says. “It is thanks to our history. We have a collective memory of the past that protects us.”

Quentin Peel is the FT’s chief correspondent in Germany.

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