Is Germany protecting its neo-Nazis?
Matthew Schofield reports in McClatchy:
For more than a decade, German police refused to consider the possibility that neo-Nazis were killing Turkish immigrants, even after the FBI suggested that was the obvious answer to a string of murders. Then the plotters, tired of being ignored, outed themselves, revealing something beyond incompetence – the killers appear to have been subsidized by the German police themselves.
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BERLIN “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. . .