Is Germany protecting its neo-Nazis? Immigrant murders reveal a blind spot

For two weeks in August an open air exhibit of 60 statues of stylized wolves stood outside Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof central train station. Titled “Are the wolves back? Art against hatred and violence,” the exhibit symbolizes a new right-wing terrorist desire for hatred, violence and death in Germany.
For two weeks in August an open air exhibit of 60 statues of stylized wolves stood outside Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof central train station. Titled “Are the wolves back? Art against hatred and violence,” the exhibit symbolizes a new right-wing terrorist desire for hatred, violence and death in Germany. McClatchy

“Richard Goerlitz” walked into Day 290 of the most sensational hate crime trial in Germany since the aftermath of World War II with his gray hoodie pulled down low over his face, and a black and white scarf covering his mouth.

It was the German domestic intelligence officer’s fourth appearance in the Munich courtroom. In previous visits, he’d worn fat suits or a mask to disguise his identity. This time, in addition to hiding under his clothing, he also wore a wig. The name is a fake. His memory is spotty, at best. One German newspaper has even dubbed him “a Teddy bear with memory lapses.”

But he’s also central to understanding the importance of this trial, which already has lasted three years and is expected to go at least a year more. It’s through his testimony that a troubling question has emerged: Did German domestic intelligence agencies – in the name of protecting informants – allow the murders of 10 immigrants over 11 years by staying silent about what they knew of the plotters?

Critics say 17 state and national domestic intelligence agencies, often described as the German equivalent of the FBI, could have ended the string of killings earlier by telling police investigating the crimes that their theory about the murders was wrong.

That, the critics allege, is proof that institutional racism permeates much of German officialdom, including its justice policies – no light charge in a country where Nazism led to the murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals and where the government is officially aghast at anti-immigrant violence against the hundreds of thousands of refugees who’ve arrived in the past year.

The case being dissected in the Munich courtroom involves a group of neo-Nazis who systematically hunted Turkish immigrants and killed them. The two people believed to have actually committed the murders are dead, apparently a murder-suicide as the police were closing in.

A third suspect, Beate Zschäpe, is charged as an accessory to murder for acting as their primary supporter and for producing what amounts to a DVD confession to the crimes. She turned herself in shortly after the first suspects’ deaths.

Four other men, known members of German neo-Nazi organizations, are charged as accomplices for providing money and weapons and for helping hide the core members of what they called the National Socialist Underground, or the NSU.

The controversy surrounding the case comes largely from the fact that German police had dismissed the idea that the murders were related to right-wing hate groups until the confessions surfaced.

Goerlitz,” however, has testified that he’d received a tip in 1998 – two years before the first murders – that the three accused core members were trying to get their hands on weapons and enough money to vanish underground, and that other neo-Nazis around the country were planning ways to supply and support them.

It would be 13 years after that tip before the NSU made a film to brag about their rampage, which included murders, bombings and robberies, in a DVD delivered to media and rights advocates.

Goerlitz was the domestic intelligence agent tasked with running confidential informants inside the neo-Nazi movement. He’s testified he can’t remember whether he passed the tip to the police.

Even just by the numbers, the case seems unforgettable.

Twelve bodies. Nine immigrant shopkeeper victims. One dead cop. Two weapons identified, one of which, a rare Ceská 7.65 mm pistol with a silencer, was used in every killing. Fifteen robberies. More than $600,000 stolen. Three bomb attacks that left 33 wounded and led to a miscarriage. Seven years between the first murder and the last. Twelve years between the first bank robbery and the last.

And, finally, 15 slickly produced DVD confessions mailed to media and various groups, exposing the serial killings to be the work of a neo-Nazi cell.

To many in Germany, that’s when the case became truly disturbing. Not only had Goerlitz perhaps not told police what he knew 18 years ago, but the police work once the murders started was woefully inept.

German police had only a single investigative theory: that the victims, and their killers, were involved in Turkish organized crime.

A 2007 analysis of the case by one of the state domestic security agencies showed how blind investigators were to the crimes: No German, it concluded, could possibly commit such heinous murders. That would be a laughable conclusion – in a country where aberrant behavior such as cannibalism is not unknown – if it weren’t so tragic.

“In light of the fact that the killing of people is held as highly taboo in our cultural sphere, one can deduce that the perpetrator is located far outside the local system of norms and values with regard to his behavioral system,” it said.

Later, the report made the point again: No German could be responsible.

“An explanation for such an irrational element in the structure of the perpetrator’s motive can be at most found in the Code of Honor and/or an internal Code that is of great importance for the perpetrators,” the report suggested. “The rigid Code of Honor that characterizes the group rather points to a group in the East and/or South-East European region (not a West European background).”

Never mind that witnesses had identified the perpetrator of the first murder on Sept. 9, 2000, as a white man who fired into the van from which Enver Simsek was selling flowers. The witnesses said they saw two white men leave the scene by bicycle.

The theory quickly became that the Turkish mob, working through organized crime in the Netherlands, had killed Simsek, who, police deduced, was likely to have been involved in the crime organizations that killed him. Beyond the fact that the victim was Turkish and had been selling flowers which commonly come from the Netherlands, it’s unclear what evidence led to the theory.

On June 13 the following year, just miles away, Turkish-immigrant tailor Abdurrahim Özüdogru, 49, was shot to death in his shop. Two weeks after that, on June 27, Tasköprü Suleiman, 31, was shot to death in his father’s vegetable shop in Hamburg. On Aug. 29 in Munich, Habil Kiliç, 38, was killed in the family grocery shop.

Police determined then that the same weapon had been used in the killings, and relatives of the victims spoke of their fears of neo-Nazis. But police instead surmised that Turkish organized crime was rampant in Germany and that the relatives were uncommunicative and unhelpful.

The official investigation was named “Bosphorus” after the strait that divides Istanbul into Europe and Asia, but the crimes became known popularly as the “döner murders” after Yunus Turgut, 25, on Feb. 25, 2004, and Ismail Yasar, 50, on June 9, 2005, were killed in their shops where they sold döner, a Turkish sandwich that is Germany’s most popular fast food. It was essentially a racial slur, döner being shorthand for outsider, or Turk.

In 2007, German investigators, frustrated by their inability to break the case, asked the FBI for help in building a profile of the killers. The FBI report, which relied entirely on German investigative materials, reached a rather obvious conclusion: the killers “were motivated by hatred against people of Turkish background.” An earlier profile of the case by police in the German state of Bavaria had reached a similar conclusion: racism.

German investigators, however, remained steadfast that the spree smacked of organized crime. The official German police reaction was written in the margins of the FBI report: “Not very helpful.”

Indeed, the very lack of evidence of a link to organized crime was being seen by the official investigation as proof that the victims must be high-ranking members of the Turkish mob.

That didn’t change until Nov. 4, 2011, when German police tracked a pair of bank robbers to an RV in a central German town of Eisenach. Witnesses said they had seen the robbers loading bikes into the RV. When the police approached they heard gunshots inside the RV, which then burst into flames. Inside, the police found two bodies, one belonging to Uwe Mundlos and the other to Uwe Böhnhardt. It appears that Mundlos had shot Böhnhardt, then himself.

Meanwhile, 120 miles miles away in Zwickau, near the Czech Republic border, Zschäpe set fire to the small apartment the three had shared, then left to start mailing copies of a DVD confession the three had produced. The DVD used a voice-over on a Pink Panther cartoon to make light of the crimes and to relate Nazi propaganda. Occasionally, the DVD would cut away from the cartoon to show television footage of the crime scenes.

Zschäpe also left behind the murder weapon, which was found in the debris. Four days later, she walked into a police station in Jena, Germany, saying, “I’m the one you are looking for.”

By May 14, 2013, when a federal prosecutor finally read the indictment aloud in court, the charges against Zschäpe and her co-conspirators covered 35 pages and took just more than an hour to read. They ran from complicity in 10 murders to arson to illegally procuring weapons and aiding and abetting in 15 bank robberies.

As the trial continued though, Germans became deeply concerned about their domestic intelligence agencies – what they knew and when they knew it – and about whether in investigating a web of neo-Nazi hate groups, they actually ended up hiding the hate groups’ crimes, and even supporting them.

Several heads of state intelligence organizations have since been forced to resign. The president of the national office of Germany’s Verfassungsschutz, literally, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is commonly referred to as domestic intelligence, resigned after the trial revealed that his offices had destroyed files showing the ties between his office and neo-Nazi groups.

Mehmet Daimagüler, the attorney for the family of two victims, shakes his head when he discusses the FBI report. Clearly, it represents a missed opportunity in the investigation. But it is far from the most puzzling issue raised by the trial.

He recalls a neo-Nazi witness appearing to testify. As is the right of someone called to court, he arrived with an attorney. But the attorney wasn’t from the man’s hometown, or even a nearby town.

“We asked him why he had this attorney and not a local one, and he said the German domestic intelligence had suggested him,” he recalled. “We pushed and he admitted they were also paying for the attorney.”

He paused: “Is German domestic intelligence involved in supporting neo-Nazis in this case? Yes, at least in the aftermath. They are paying for the attorney of a Nazi called to court to testify. The question is why, but we don’t know and aren’t being told that answer.”

There are other sign of domestic intelligence’s involvement in the murders. When Halit Yozgat was shot three times in his family’s internet cafe in Kassel, Germany, on April 6, 2006, there were six other people in the establishment. One of those was Andreas Temme, a state domestic intelligence officer who was assigned to work with neo-Nazi informants.

But Temme has been of little help. When he left the cafe, he told investigators, he couldn’t find Yozgat and left his money on the counter.

But two other attorneys who are involved in the case, Alexander Hoffmann and Björn Elberling, said they are suspicious because Temme, only days after the murder had taken place, told a colleague that the murder weapon had been used in several other murders. “There are only two possible explanations for his behavior,” they wrote on their blog devoted to the case. “Either he witnessed the murder and saw more than he is willing to admit – or he has inside knowledge because he was involved in the crime.”

“He’s testified three times, and he’s lied to us three times,” said Daimagüler, who noted that phone records show that “on his way to the internet cafe, he spoke for 11 minutes with one of the leading neo-Nazis in Germany. What did they talk about? He can’t remember. We don’t know.”

It has also become clear that the ties between German domestic intelligence and the neo-Nazis are deeper than anyone realized. In the German state of Thuringia, for instance, the neo-Nazi organization Thuringia Home Defense has 162 members; the trial has revealed that 43 of them were officially paid as informers. The money was used to support neo-Nazi activities, from meetings to concerts to . . . well, no one really knows what else.

The money was substantial. Daimagüler says they know that one high-ranking neo-Nazi who is known to have been in contact with the killers as long ago as 2000 received as much as $450,000 from government agents. All told, he and others believe the amount of taxpayer money funneled to neo-Nazis goes well past $1 million.

In the German government, the leftist political party Die Linke (The Left) has been most critical of the role of officialdom in the case. Petra Pau, a member of Parliament from Berlin, leads the party’s efforts to investigate the matter, and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“German domestic intelligence is central to the NSU disaster,” she said, referring to the crime spree and failed investigation. She spoke from an office just blocks away from a recent neo-Nazi attack on a refugee center. She said agency money paid to neo-Nazi informants helped the group stay hidden for more than a decade. Domestic intelligence was clearly in a position to set investigators on the right track, had it had the desire. “The core of the NSU – the three people at the center – was surrounded by paid informants of domestic intelligence,” she said.

Leading neo-Nazis were known to brag that they were untouchable, that they would be warned by domestic intelligence before there were any raids or arrests.

“Right wing extremism, right wing terror, is unthinkable in Germany without government support,” she said. She added that what is known is damning, but they also know further investigation is needed. Domestic intelligence agents too frequently can’t remember, or admit having shredded the relevant documents.

When Hans-Georg Maassen, head of German domestic intelligence, appeared before a closed-door session of the parliamentary committee looking into the NSU case, there were press reports that he admitted some “sloppiness” in his office.

The trial is expected to finish with at least some convictions for alleged co-conspirators Beate Zschäpe, Ralf Wohlleben, Carsten Schultze, Holger Gerlach and André Eminger.

But Heike Kleffner, a co-author of a parliamentary investigation into the case for Die Linke, says that if government introspection ends with a few convictions, the state will have failed.

She said a new generation of neo-Nazis is being empowered by the failure of the state to crack down harder on the crimes of the past.

“The people are learning you can commit severe crimes and go unpunished,” she said. “We’re giving birth to a new generation of terror.”

The report she co-authored concludes: “At least two or three right-wing or racist acts of violence occur in Germany every day. It is up to all of us to ensure that calls for civil courage are translated into genuine commitment – and that victims of right-wing and racist violence are not left alone.”

To fully understand the importance of that for the future, she said it’s important to recall the recent past.

For two weeks in August, outside Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof central train station, an open air exhibit of 60 statues of stylized wolves is titled “Are the wolves back? Art against hatred and violence.” The bronze or iron statues – each at least two yards long – show wolves in Nazi salutes, bunching to lunge, stretched out in a full attack. One group of statues, however, is standing upright, aiming pistols, and is titled “NSU man.”

A pamphlet available at the entrance of the exhibit explains that the NSU symbolizes a return to right-wing terrorist desire for hatred, violence and death in Germany that many hoped had died with Adolf Hitler.

Semiya Simsek, daughter of the first victim in Nuremberg, was testifying in a government hearing on the NSU when she told that her family’s horrors didn’t end with the murder of her father.

“For 11 years we weren’t allowed to mourn, to consider ourselves victims,” she said. “We had to live with the burden of the fear of someone from our family being responsible for the death of my father. Was my father a criminal, a drug dealer? Can you imagine what it was like for my mother to be targeted, to grow up knowing that my dad was a suspect, that my mom was a suspect?”

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews