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State racism and the National Socialist Underground murders

It's been one year since the NSU hit the headlines. Patrick Gensing, author of 'Terror von rechts', discusses racism and far right militancy today.

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Photos courtesy of the Bundeskriminalamt

German journalist Patrick Gensing on the Zwickau Cell serial murders and why Germany failed to prevent neo-Nazi terrorism.

Zwickau, November 4, 2011: an explosion and resulting fire devastate a flat on the second storey of a house in the small eastern German town. When police enter the flat, they discover evidence linking the three neo-Nazis (two men, one women) living there to the cold-blooded, racially motivated murders of nine men (eight of Turkish descent, one Greek), the fatal shooting of a policewoman and the detonation of a nail bomb in a predominantly Turkish neighbourhood in Cologne. That same day, the two men of the group, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, commit suicide during a standoff with police after they rob a bank in Eisenach.

Four days later, Beate Zschäpe turns herself in to the police in Jena. Zschäpe is currently in investigative custody, with trial expected to begin in spring 2013. The discovery of the group that called themselves the National Social Underground (NSU) – tagged the Zwickau Cell or “Brown Army Faction” by the media – has sent a shock wave across the German establishment, as have subsequent revelations about the incompetence of law enforcement in monitoring the violent neo-Nazi scene.

In his new book Terror von rechts (Terror from the Right), Hamburg journalist Patrick Gensing raises pressing questions about the state agencies’ blindness to the far-right threat and points to structural racism within German society.

A lot of details about the Zwickau Cell (NSU) are still murky. Why did you choose to write this book now?

The book is not meant to be a detailed history of the NSU. Rather, I wanted to show how misled most Germans have been on the issue of right-wing terrorism, which, ultimately, 
is not just a national security
 problem but a societal
 problem. Most of the current
 media coverage focuses
 heavily on the investigative
 committees and all the 
scandals related to the 
Verfassungsschutz (Germany’s 
internal intelligence service), 
which is fine, but I think
 something else lies behind the
 whole issue: everyday racism. 
The fact that the media, police and the public simply wouldn’t recognise racist terrorism as such for so long, probably because we don’t want to and because in Germany we are very quick to see people with an immigrant background as criminals – this is what I want to address with this book.

Can you give us some examples of how this racism can be found in the German media and police?

It runs like a thread through the whole series of murders, through the investigations and through the reporting on it. The police were quick to concentrate their murder investigations on a possible link to organised and drug crime. I would attribute this to the image that many Germans have of the immigrants, seeing them first and foremost as criminals and not as victims. It runs all the way to the media, when they dubbed those racist murders “döner murders” (Döner-Morde) – there was even talk about a “döner gang”, because the police reported that two of the victims (out of nine) had worked in döner shops! This is a big embarrassment for the media and obviously extremely hurtful to the victims and their families. The fact is that very often, police press releases use very loose terminology. For example, when a black person is attacked they often describe it as an “anti-foreigner attack”, when in fact it’s a racist attack.

The press was quick to 
name the NSU the “Brown 
Army Faction” – but can
 you really compare the 
NSU to the RAF (Red
 Army Faction)?

connection to the RAF is 
totally wrong, because the logic
 at work is different. Left-wing
 terrorists didn’t murder because they just wanted to murder. Their ultimate target – as justified with crude texts – was to create a better society, which of course is contradictory if you first have to shoot people. I don’t want to compare them in terms of their cruelty. For the victims and their kin it’s always equally horrible, of course. But when it comes to the ideology it’s very different. For right-wing terrorists the extermination of the enemy is the message. Since the Third Reich, a central element of Nazi thinking has been ‘extermination’, and there is an ideological continuity through today. They are Nazis, not despite Auschwitz, but because of Auschwitz. That’s their core competence: extermination.

Are you saying the neo-Nazi movement is a monster that has always remained under the surface of German society since the Third Reich and sometimes shows its ugly head?

There is a continuity of the neo-Nazi scene since the Second World War. It’s not as if they just disappeared. First you had the old Nazis, and in the 1970s a new generation emerged which established the organisations which are around today, like the Kameradschaften etc. This explains why the far-right scene in Germany hasn’t been doing well politically. In other European countries, they have a modernised version of far-right extremism which is much more successful when it comes to parliamentary elections. Not here. I don’t think the NPD, as the parliamentary wing of this Nazi movement, has a big future. They are not that powerful. But these people are dangerous and they perhaps become more dangerous because they have no political influence. The NSU cell believed that Germany will be totally durchrasst, and so they felt they were waging a racial war. You can read on the website of the Blood and Honour neo-Nazi movement: “You’re in a war, form cells, defend yourselves…” These concepts were all adopted by the NSU.

One of Merkel’s immediate reactions after the revelations about the NSU murders was “ban the NPD”. Was that really an appropriate reaction?

Yes and no. It was a diversion tactic. It was also supposed to demonstrate a capacity to act in some way. Of course the NPD is a symptom of the problem and not the cause but, independently from the murders, I think it should be banned. People in the party belong to the supporter network of the NSU. Ralf Wohlleben was a high-up NPD functionary charged with assisting them. Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt come from Jena; you can see photos with them and NPD people. As I write in the book, NPD and NSU are two crosspoints in the “brown network”. The NSU is the armed wing of the movement. You can’t say that they’re separate.

People against a ban of the NPD say it would push neo-Nazis further into the underground…

That’s speculation. It might be true for a few, but as we saw an underground movement can form even without a ban. The NPD is financing the militant Nazi scene. Hundreds of thousands of euros flow into the scene through the NPD parliamentary groups in Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. I don’t see why a democracy should tolerate such a neo-Nazi party.

Do you think people like Thilo Sarrazin, whose questionable ideas about immigration and race made it into the German mainstream in 2012, are dangerous?

Definitely! These Nazi murders should be put in the context of the society at the time when they took place. If you look back at the 1990s, you see these racist pogroms in Rostock and Hoyerswerda where ordinary citizens and neo-Nazis came together as huge sausage-eating mobs… That’s where these three people were socialised! That’s where this generation learned that something could be achieved through violence. This is exactly the time when the big media were stirring up resentment against asylum seekers, and when the CDU started running a campaign against dual citizenship. You can’t say that these things caused the murders, but one could say that the murderers felt strengthened by it.

Would you say a certain class of German conservatives started to radicalise itself?

When you look at the current absurd debate on circumcision in Germany, which is hugely anti-Jewish, or at the so-called ‘integration debate’, which stirs up animosity towards Muslims, or, yes, Sarrazin’s book… yes, that’s the scary thing: you have a middle class that is beginning to become more radicalised, people made insecure by economic problems that are lashing out at foreigners. If you incite violence against targeted groups for years and years, certain individuals might end up taking action and reach for their weapons. Anders Breivik is a good example. Politically, you can position him exactly in this “Islam critical” (as they call themselves) movement on the internet…

The writing was on the wall since the first neo-Nazi bombing at the 1980 Oktoberfest. Why didn’t the police and Verfassungsschutz do a better job preventing it?

The Verfassungsschutz turned a blind eye to it. If you look at the files from the investigations that are now in the Bundestag, it’s clear that they knew a lot. But nothing was done with the information! One of the problems is that the Verfassungsschutz was founded as protection against communism. Now the Eastern Bloc is gone, but the structures and people have remained and their understanding and competency with regards to the far right is limited. All the Thüringen Verfassungsschutz people come from Hessen in the west, which was a very conservative state for a long time. For example, in Thüringen they wrote a one-and-a-half-page report on a single Antifa action during a neo-Nazi event whereas the three NSU people, who had gone underground at that point, were mentioned in barely a couple of lines. Such complete overestimation of the left-wing scene compared to the far-right threat is still there. That’s dangerous.

There has been a lot of criticism of the Verfassungsschutz’s use of informants (“V-Männer”) in the Nazi scene. It’s a complicated issue which is shrouded in secrecy. Could you give an overview of what really happened?

The “V-Mann” system is very controversial because the Verfassungsschutz gets a lot of their information about the neo-Nazi scene by buying it from informants from that very scene. It’s questionable whether or not a democratic state should work together with militant Nazis, and give them money for information which one can’t really verify. The information is analysed internally, but the public has no access to it because it could supposedly endanger the informants. The system took on absurd proportions, especially in Thüringen. In the Heimatschutz, a neo-Nazi organisation in which the three NSU terrorists were involved, there were at least 40 informants out of 120-140 members. One-third of these neo-Nazis were working with the Verfassungschutz and lots of money was involved!

How much money did they receive?

It’s hard to generalise, but Tino Brandt, the leader of the Thüringen Heimatschutz, is said to have received DM 1500 per month, up to a total of DM 200,000. In the 1990s, that’s a lot of money. These people aren’t undercover agents, they are neo-Nazis who are approached by the Verfassungsschutz or offer themselves in exchange for money. And some of them might have agreed amongst themselves to provide false information to the state.

So what happens to this information if the Verfassungsschutz doesn’t share it with anyone?

That’s the question. If you have a source like Tino Brandt, a leading neo-Nazi, you want to protect it. The police have complained that neo-Nazis were warned of police raids by the Verfassungsschutz… because they would prefer to have their informants in the scene than in prison! This conflict of interest has come up again and again. It’s a structural problem.

Shouldn’t leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel or President Joachim Gauck encourage a new nationwide debate on racism?

They won’t! It’s painful to talk about these things! The work of the parliamentary committee on the NSU has been good and it’s kept the issue in the public eye, but that’s not everything. When I talk to people with Turkish roots, they often are quite angry and they have very little trust in the German security apparatus. Many people believe the police are chummy with the neo-Nazis. This is a crisis for the state, when hundreds of thousands of citizens feel they are not protected. We need to talk about this, but politicians and Bild would rather complain about 1000 new aslyum seekers from Serbia in September. They talk about it as if it were a new flood of refugees!

What steps need to be taken against the neo-Nazi movement?

First, more state repression of the scene – which is already happening. Structures that should have been broken up a long time ago are finally being dealt with: Kameradschaften, websites. This helps weaken the scene. The real problem is everyday racism. I can’t imagine that other Western states have such a hard time seeing themselves as multicultural societies. We need to democratise our institutions. The Verfassungsschutz, the media and police should open up to people from immigration backgrounds. If someone objected to phrases like “Döner murders” at editorial meetings, that would help a lot. In Germany there is still a strong notion of Blutsrecht (right of blood), the idea that you don’t become a German, but that you are a German. You have to get away from that in order to develop a modern understanding of the state.

Patrick Gensig’s Terror von rechts, die Nazi-Morde und das Versagen der Politik was published by Rotbuch Verlag in October.

ONE WORLD BERLIN film festival will be showing Der verlorene Sohn (narrated by Katharina Thalbach), about Uwe Böhnhardt, with an exclusive interview with his family on November 23, 7pm. Afterwards, a panel – including Green MdB Wolfgang Wieland, political scientist Bilgin Ayata, Humanist Union chairwoman Rosemarie Will and the film’s producer – will discuss the work of the parliamentary committee investigating police and intelligence agency failures.

For a chance to win a pair of tickets email NSU and your full name to [email protected] by Fri, Nov 23 at 12:00.*

*By participating in a giveaway competition you agree to the terms & conditions stipulated here.