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The NSU – A revelation of Germany’s state of mind

// 2000: Enver Simsek killed in Nuremberg // // 2001: Abdurrahim Özüdogru killed in Nuremberg // // 2001: Habil Kilic killed in Munich // // 2001: Süleyman Tasköprü killed in Hamburg // // 2004: Mehmet Turgut killed in Rostock // // 2005: Ismail Yasar killed in Nuremberg // // 2005: Theodoros Boulgarides killed in Munich // // 2006: Halit Yozgat killed in Kassel // // 2006: Mehmet Kubasik killed in Dortmund // // 2007: Michèle Kiesewetter killed in Heilbronn // // ? // 

 

Introduction

As modern, progressive and contemporary people we look back at the painful moments of history feeling both guilt and relief. Guilt - because we are unable to understand how our ancestors could commit atrocities and not stand up to the perpetrators. We are perplexed and puzzled as to how earlier generations have allowed others to be publicly dehumanized, segregated and discriminated against. Yet, with our grievances there is also a sense of relief as those atrocities belong to the past. We believe that when discrimination and racism happen today, we stop it right in its tracks; arguing that there is but one race – the human race. However, where do extremist right-wing actions fall in this spectrum? How do we feel about reading the list of the NSU victims, knowing of a right-wing extremist trio, that assassinated ten people in German communities, most of them migrants? The so called National Socialist Underground (NSU) murdered eight men of Turkish descent, one man of Greek origin and one German policewoman in the past decade. How do we explain the Neo-Nazi attacks and murders of innocent people that had no other common bases besides that the victims were of immigrant descent? Even further, how do we feel knowing that documents have been improperly processed, hidden and thrown away by the authorities? How come some of the victims were thought of as criminals, mafia members, or drug dealers? Why did the police jump to conclusions that the murders took place in the respective ethnic community and were linked to organized crime? Although racism is frequently treated as an injustice of the past, there are compelling findings and demonstrations of institutionalized racism that suggest otherwise. 

The NSU Murders

The chronicle of these murders planned, committed and ridiculed by the NSU trio and its supporters read like a script for a horror film. The first time police got to know of the trio was in January 1998 when they detected a “Bombemwerkstatt,“ a workshop for building bombs, installed by Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe. This was the first situation during which the three suspects could have been arrested but they escaped. In the following months of October and November 1999 Böhnhardt and Mundlos robbed several banks in Chemnitz and the surrounding area. They obtained money for their terrorist acts, bought weapons and started preparing multiple terrorist acts (Crossland, 2013). A series of killing between 2000 and 2007 followed. The trio, their affiliations and their intent remained unknown to authorities. 

On November 4th, 2011 the NSU blew its cover: Böhnhardt and Mundlos committed suicide and Zschäpe surrendered to the police four days later. It became known that the three had killed ten people in an execution-style killing over a period of seven years. In the immediate aftermath police and security forces gathered in a summit of federal authorities (Bund and Länder) on November 8th, 2011 to establish the “Abwehrzentrum Rechts“: they decided to bring together the skills of the Federal Office for the Protection of Constitution and the Federal Criminal Agency (Gensing, 2013). There was a need to investigate the failure of the authorities during the past decade, to formulate measures for reconciliation and to put the remaining perpetrator on trial.

Take a Look at the Past

When we examine the NSU murders and institution’s exposure to it, we ineluctably have to take a closer look at Germany’s past, which is deeply connected to racism and right-wing extremism. This leads us through different periods of time in which racism developed and revealed new forms. The assumption of the inequality of human beings due to their ethnicity is deeply rooted in the late 18th century when colonialism spread throughout Europe. A new worldview based on the invention of a hierarchy with the ‘white’ man at the top and the Black man on the bottom was created and perpetuated (Eggers, Kilomba, Piesche & Arndt et al, 2005). This concept formed and influenced the discourse in the following decades, not only in a national context, but also on a global level. Colonial atrocities, land grabbing and the oppression of African people were legitimized and even glorified. German colonial policy hit the peak when more than half of the Namibian people were killed in the genocide between 1904 and 1908. Until today Germany is not willing to accept its responsibility and does not pay any reparations to the victims (Beis, 2011). This denial of the colonial past does not only reflect a political discourse, but rather it shows the handling of guilt and responsibility. Germany’s colonial past often is not even on the educational school curriculum. One might wonder why this is the case? Did policy makers feel it was not worth evaluating or was this neglect due to geographical distance? There might be other reasons why this part of history is dealt with so poorly. Nevertheless, we think it is alarming that the colonial chapter of history is often skipped as it is linked to a repeated pattern of racism. Instead of connecting colonialism to the era of National Socialism, which used the ideology of racism for their ‘ethnic cleansing’ (this term has to be understood in a historical context to show how inhuman and cruel the discourse was at that time), and see a continuity in history, they are treated as isolated events as if there had been a vacuum (Maier, 1990). Not only the idea of racism was inherited by the Nazis but also scientists who were involved in the racist sciences in the Kaiserreich became important and famous figures in the ‘Third Reich’, such as Eugen Fischer for example (Volker, 1994). 

When speaking about racism, Germans mostly link it to the Holocaust and the Nazis as perpetrators. People rarely consider racism to be a problem of their own as they put the blame on the Nazis (Damani, 2010). One has to keep in mind that the Holocaust was not committed by a single man named Hitler, but that he was supported by many people from the public. These people were not murderers by nature, rather ordinary community members. They supported this genocide mostly by joining the system and being bystanders not showing any resistance. Of course there was also a large number which actively took part in the killings, but that was by no way the majority. What becomes really obvious at that point is that the very basic idea of ethnic inequality was accepted to such large extent that even people who had been part of German society for ages were easily deported. This phenomenon is as shocking and incredible as it reveals both the abuse of institutional power and society’s racist potential. Another important point we would like to stress is the fact that all of this gradually developed – it began with the exclusion and labeling of some minority groups and reached a horrific dimension in the deportation and systematical killing of millions of people. 

After the end of World War II, Germany was nearly “cleansed” of all ethnical minorities. They were either killed or fled to another country. The allies started a program known under the term “Entnazifizierung” (denazification) which aimed at eliminating Nazi ideology and implementing democracy at least in the Western part of Germany. Although many former Nazis were dismissed from their official positions and educational programs were set up to reform people’s mindset, however, some of the extremist’s ideas survived till today. 

During the 1960s Germany started to build up its country and as a result of the great human loss of WWII and a lack of labors, ‘guest workers’ from Turkey were recruited on a temporary basis (Öger, 2011). Most of them were not well educated but simple workers who were hoping to make some money and return to their country of origin. However, many of the immigrants ended up staying. The following quote of Swiss author Max Frisch from 1975 put Germany’s assumption that the so called guest workers would return after a certain period of time into suitable words: “We called for labor, but people came instead." („Man hat Arbeitskräfte gerufen, und es kamen Menschen.“ Frisch, 1975). 

The workers came and their families joined them and they established their lives in Germany. But instead of admitting that former ‘guest workers’ had become residents and permanent inhabitants of Germany, the German government still believed in Germany not being an immigration country and aimed at sending Turkish immigrants back to their home country. Based on this assumption German government refused to meet the needs and interests of immigrants for a long time and did not even concern itself with integration measures. Most Turkish immigrants did not have the opportunity to learn German – a matter, which later on became a big issue. The question of German identity became increasingly significant, specifically because the Turkish immigrants were perceived to hold different cultural values. Further, anything foreign was perceived as a danger rather than an enrichment for German society. Moreover, the concept of belonging to the nation was still based on the idea of a German heritage and ethnical background. One could be German but not become German. 

This discourse caused segregation and exclusion of immigrants and was supported by institutional regulations and political decisions. As a consequence minority groups established a life within their communities isolated from the rest of society. Due to a lack of knowledge and racist patterns, old stereotypes revived – a clear political failure to deal with the immigration and integration. One example is the education system. In a three track school system, children were segregated very early based on their academic achievements and presumed potential. Often time, insufficient language skills were interpreted as learning disability or low academic potential. 

At the beginning of the 1990s different minority groups experienced a wave of violence from right-wing extremists. In 1991 neo-Nazis attacked a residential building of Turkish migrants in Hoyerswerda under applause of many German neighbors. 30 people were injured, the biggest organized hate crime since 1945. The police hardly managed to protect the victims (dradio.de, 2013); the question remains whether they tried hard enough. This incident was followed by riots at an asylum seeker’s home in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in 1992 (Wyssuwa, 2012). A very brutal incident occurred in Solingen in 1993 when five Turkish women were killed during an attack on their house (Prantl, 2013). Again the German police was not able to protect immigrants from racist violence. The most disturbing thing beside the neo-Nazi actions is the society’s inability to acknowledge the role it plays in allowing these horrific events to happen.

The NSU Murder Case in the Media

The NSU murder case has unveiled the most blunt and brutal form of racism present in Germany for the past decade: right-wing terrorism. An examination of the media coverage of the victims, the crimes themselves and the attempts of rehabilitation by German authorities has revealed more than facts – the ugly face of overt and latent racism within German society and authorities. Since the NSU murders became known, German authorities have been facing a great deal of accusations of institutionalized racism in the police and security sector, especially for continuously turning a blind eye on racism and right-wing extremism. In order to illustrate these accusation a few of the most fatal and sadly symptomatic ‘scandals‘ that occurred within this time will be discussed. 

When the NSU terrorists were uncovered and the killings of nine people of Turkish and Greek descent were known to be their deeds, the term ‘Döner Morde’ (Kebab killings) quickly spread through German media landscape. How cynical to compare the death of a person to a dish, as if it was not a human being who lost his or her life but a piece of kebab… The term ‘kebab killings’ was used for the first time by Nürnberger Zeitung in August 2005 when referring to the murder of the owner of a Kebab Shop in Nuremberg. By citing the article, a police officer first inserted this term into police documents. One year later, in April 2006 popular German newspapers like BILD, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung and taz had started using the term, citing from the German Press Agency dpa. Somehow the term had been appropriated, transported and eventually spread like a wildfire. 

Once a year, a German language committee selects the “worst word of the year” (Unwort des Jahres). In 2011, it designated ‘Döner Morde’ to be the worst expression for its disrespectful and dehumanizing connotation. Most of German media immediately stopped using the term (Fuchs, 2012). By November 2011 the term had been around for five years. Had nobody ever questioned its meaning prior to the committee’s decision? Why was this term met with such broad acceptance, we wonder? A lack of sensitivity is the least we can state. A close analysis will find further evidence for latent racism. 

The NSU Trial

While the official NSU trial started on May 6th, 2013 in Munich, investigations in the preparation of this judicial process have lead to unsettling revelations about the work of German police and security authorities. These findings explain why accusations of institutionalized racism have found their way into the discussion. The lack of investigation into the right-wing scene by the police and the neglect of seeing any racist motive in all of the murder cases run through the whole case like a red thread. Bernd Wagner, an expert on right-wing movements, has observed, that “right-wing extremism is broadly assumed as an obsolescent model from the 1990s” within the police and the public service sector, and therefore was never given any importance during the investigations. This neglect also prevented the protection of future victims (Twiehaus, 2013). Moreover, the victims were often even accused of being perpetrators themselves as they were thought to have been involved in organized crime and mafia circles. With this dynamic of turning a victim into a suspect the police did not uphold a neutral position and more importantly kept the victims down or even blamed them for being the problem. 

In preparation for the trial, the German Parliament implemented an NSU investigation committee on November 22nd, 2011. The committee is trying to investigate most actors involved in the case. Their summary report will be published in September 2013. So far Sebastian Edathy, MEP and Chair of the committee has already concluded “unprecedented failure in the national necurity nuthorities“  („bespielloses Versagen der Sicherheitsbehörden“, Hamberger, 2013). The committee found that the authorities and representatives in charge had been ignorant and little concerned with right-wing extremism before the NSU trio had been uncovered. However, they concluded, this attitude was still present just as much or even more so in the aftermath. 

The work of the NSU committee faced a vast number of inapprehensible challenges, such as high ranking authorities refusing to cooperate or withholding crucial documents. This denial of information reached its peak when the committee members learned that an officer from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution had shredded crucial files, containing delicate information about the NSU case, precisely one week after the NSU terrorist cell was detected in 2011. The shredding of these files was named "Aktion Konfetti” (“Action Confetti”). The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution was also found to have been paying members of the right-wings scene in exchange for information. We consider this a highly questionable procedure since they gathered information that could not be used in front of any court. 

The most recent controversy relating to the NSU trial is the process of press accreditation. Here it became apparent how the authorities lack sensitivity and an understanding of the trial’s importance. The press accreditation process had left out Turkish and other foreign media, a decision that could only be revoked by bringing this case before the Federal Constitutional Court. Then the court in Munich adjusted the process and thereby delayed court proceedings for over two weeks – an emotionally difficult situation for the families and friends of the victims (Gensing, 2013). We must ask ourselves where there are sympathy and compassion?

The Victims Families 

Some of the families suspected right from the beginning that their family members were victims of hate crimes. Their concerns were neglected (Anastassopoulou, 2013). The murder of Theodoros Boulgarides can be taken as a case study. He was the seventh victim and was found in his shop with three bullets in his head. As if the vicious murder of a loved one is not painful enough, family and friends were not allowed to properly mourn their loss. Boulgarides’ daughters, his widow, in-laws, friends and his extended families were interrogated and treated as suspects for months (Anastassopoulou, 2013). They were not interrogated in ways that would lead to peace of mind and hope that their lost one will find justice. On the contrary they were confronted with questions that seemed to aim at criminalizing the victim: 

“Questions were asked about the victim, his friends, possible contacts with drug dealers, the Turkish mafia, prostitution rings, Internet crime and arms dealers. The daughters were asked about sexual abuse, the widow was suspected of having killed her husband or contracted a killer.” (Anastassopoulou, 2013) 

When a person of migrant background is murdered, a victim seems no longer a victim but instead someone who is involved in illegal, degrading, threatening and criminal activities. What makes it even worse is that media coverage added to those accusations by using terminology such as “Turkish mafia” (Anastassopoulou, 2013). 

Moreover, due to these accusations the victim’s family suffered severe consequences: isolation, humiliation and destruction of social structures. According to Lex, the lawyer representing Theordoros Boulgarides’ widow, the ways in which the police and media “stigmatized the murder victims, by suggesting that they were somehow connected to organized crime,” caused friends, family members, neighbors and interested supporters of the victims to “withdraw their support, ‘because nobody wants to be friends with someone who is connected to criminal elements’." (Lejeune, 2013). 

One of the youngest victims was Halit Yozgat, a 21-year-old man who “bled to death on April 6th, 2006 in his father Ismail's arms” (Grunau, 2013). After it was revealed that the murders were acts of racial hatred committed by Neo-Nazis, the blame and suspicion were finally removed from his family. However, even after people had clarity, the victims, family members and the targeted racial minorities still faced discrimination. As a sign of respect and to help his friends and family grief, a street has been named after Halit Yozgat in Kassel, a metro station and “a plaque remembers the young man's murder by the NSU” (Grunau, 2013). Yet, the disheartening truth is that after the family was finally decriminalized, the family of the victim was confronted with hateful, racist and mentally disturbing online abuse and protests. German locals expressed complaints, protests and displayed horrific statements such as “now the Turks are deciding how we should name our streets” (Grunau, 2013). How is it possible that neighbors feel superior to Turkish people and people of immigrant descent, that they feel comfortable, prideful and entitled to publicly discriminate against the victims (Grunau, 2013)? Racism is evident in German communities and not solely a right-wing extremist ideology, it can be found in the center of society. 

Insinuations of all sorts were made bout the victims and their social environment, however, the actions were not seen as racially motivated. Experts in the fields of psychology and discrimination have drawn the conclusion that “racism denial is used to maintain and to legitimate violent structures of racial exclusion” (Kilomba, 2008). Furthermore, the refusal to name the problem and acknowledge its existence is not only historically rooted, but also systematically done because the denial of hatred and discrimination allow these behaviors to continue. Theordors Boulgarides’ case is only an example of how almost all the other victims families were treated. Discrimination has remained part of their everyday lives: 

“Student Mustafa Can travelled from Berlin to be [at the trial]. "My grandfather came from Turkey to Germany in 1961. He did the work that no one here wanted to do. We, his grandchildren, are now a part of Germany. We speak German, and pay taxes. But I don't feel at home here. I am German and have German citizenship. But I no longer feel safe here," Can told DW in an interview. Racism is on the rise, and he hopes the trial can contribute to solving the issue.” (Sokollu, 2013) 

Germans of multicultural descent, who speak German, have German citizenship and have spent their whole lives in Germany, are asserting that racism is real and on the rise. How can Germany be a functional and successful nation, when some of its people live in fear? Scharmer Kubasik, the daughter of one the victims, demands that President Joachim Gauck “come[s] up with more than just heartfelt words, adding that it’s important that Gauck points out mistakes and problems and demands consequences” (Anastassopoulou, 2013). Such demands are very appropriate because as she stated, “otherwise, this can happen again and again” (Anastassopoulou, 2013). 

Efforts have to be made by the German government to meet the United Nations anti-racism regulations. When asked about steps needed to be taken by Germany in order to move forward and progress against racial discrimination, expert Emilia Roig commented that “the apology was insufficient: people deserve a fair and informed trial.” She also suggested that “racism needs to be acknowledged: people have to recognize that the end of WWII did not mark the end of racism.” The problem needs to be addressed from multiple angles, so that people push for equality in education, the labor market and minority groups are finally included in political decision-making. 

A well known adage reminds us to “watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit.” After taking a closer look at the NSU case and dealing with questions concerning authorities as well as media’s and society’s exposure to it, a few conclusions can be drawn:

  • Firstly, we have to name the problem by acknowledging that racism still exists in Germany. This does not mean that everybody is discriminating against minority groups, but old patterns of racism are still embedded in our minds and are dominating our thinking. 
  • Secondly, Germans should work on becoming more accepting of others and push for inclusion of minorities at the educational, economical, political, cultural and social levels, in order to grant them the same chances as ‘white’ Germans. 
  • Moreover, the concept of diversity has to be embraced so that migrants will be seen as valuable members of German society beyond the economic benefit they provide to Germany. 
  • As the media influences public discourse to a very large extent, journalists have a great responsibility in how they cover stories. Journalists should stop reproducing racist stereotypes and research on their own instead of following the police and authorities closely without verifying the information (Kampf, 2013). 
  • Furthermore, authorities should be trained in terms of cultural sensitivity and antiracism to reduce prejudices and increase appropriate consciousness. 
  • Right-wing extremism should be taken more seriously and fought against with more effective measures. Still Germany has not introduced the official category of ‘hate crimes’ to classify a special type of crime, which is committed on the basis of intolerance towards a certain group within society (OSCE, 2013). This has to change: If we name the problem, it can finally be addressed. 

 

Of course, civil society plays an important role in order to transform the current state. Migrants should not be considered a problem anymore, but rather seen as an asset for Germany and its society to develop and become a more enriched country. In a modern and global world where the nationalities and ethnicities are merging, Germany should admit that German identity has many different faces and that everybody who considers him or herself German could be German, regardless of their migrant past. Besides projects and efforts of both non-governmental and governmental organizations, every German citizen should make the issue of racism and discrimination his or her own responsibility and try to raise awareness in his or her social environment. We all should show courage to stand up for our belief in justice and equality. It is our duty to support the victims and show solidarity. Although in the case of the NSU murders it might seem too late, taking a stance against racism, and for solidarity and social change is still possible. 

 

References

Anastassopoulou, Irene. NSU Victim’s Family Ordeal, in: DW.DE, May 03 2013, 1-4. 

Beis, Elena. Der verleugnete Völkermord, in: taz.de, September 29 2011. 

Bielefeldt, Heiner. Rassismus im 21. Jahrhundert, in: youtube.com, March 16 2011. 

Crossland, David , 2013, Missed Opportunity? Hopes Pinned on NSU Trial May Be 

Dashed, in Spiegelonline, May 03 2013. 

Damani, J. Partridge. Holocaust Mahnmal (Memorial): Monumental Memory amidst Contemporary Race, in: Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2011. 

Fuchs, Christian, Diskriminierende Bezeichnung: Wie der Begriff "Döner-Morde" entstand in Spiegelonline, July 04 2012. 

Frisch, Max. Überfremdung. in: Öffentlichkeit als Partner. edition suhrkamp 209, 1975, 

p.189. 

Gensing, Patrick, Rassistische Mordserie, staatliches Versagen, tagesschau.de April 24 2013. 

Graebert, Jochen, ARD Hauptstadtstudio Korrespondent (Editorial Journalist), June 24 2013. 

Grunau, Andrea. NSU victims’ families want more than sympathy, in: DW.DE, February 18, 2013, 1-4. 

Hamberger, Katharina, NSU-Untersuchungsausschuss im Bundestag beendet Zeugenvernehmung, in Deutschlandfunk, in dradio.de, May 13 2013. Kampf, Lena, Editorial Journalist in the NSU-trial in Munich, June 22 2013. 

Kilomba, Grada, Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism, (Münster, 2008), 12-145. 

Kueble, Martin , NSU victim’ families want more than Sympathy, in DW.DE, Februrary 18 2013, 1-6. 

Lejeune, Martin, Plantiff questions states role in NSU murders, in DW.DE, May 06 2013, 1-4. 

Maier, Charles S. The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German National identity, in Harvard University Press, 1990, p.16. 

Öger, Vural. 50 Jahre Migration aus der Türkei, in kulturrat.de, 2011. 

Prantl, Heribert. Erst stirbt das Recht, dann stirbt der Mensch, in: süddeutsche.de, May 29 2013. 

Roig, Emilia, Phd student at Franco-German Research Centre for the Social Sciences Marc Bloch June 21, 2013. 

Sokollu, Senada. Emotions run high in Nao-Nazi trial, in: DW.DE, May 07 2013, 1-3. 

Solinger Brandanschlag: Gedenken gegen das Vergessen, in: dradio.de, May 29 2013. 

Twiehaus, Jens. Pressegespräche zum NSU-Prozess: Wie Ämter bis heute die Augen verschließen, in: boell.de, May 17 2013. 

Volker, Ulrich. deutsches Blut zu rächen, in: zeit.de, January 14 1994. 

Wyssuwa, Matthias. Was von den Feuernächten blieb, in: faz.net, August 23 2012. 

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