Anti-fascists won’t let Germany return to normal after weak verdict in neo-Nazi trial

    A trial that should have exposed a terror network, instead revealed the limitations of the judicial system and how movements can fight back.
    Protesters hold up signs with pictures of the victims of neo-Nazi terror group National Socialist Underground in Munich on Wednesday. (WNV / Florian Meier)

    Thousands of people took to the streets in Munich and many other cities across Germany on Wednesday to protest the long-awaited verdict in a neo-Nazi terror case. Although the five defendants — affiliated with the terrorist organization National Socialist Underground, or NSU — were convicted for their parts in a 2000-2007 killing spree targeting migrant communities, many believe the verdict to be too narrow, overlooking a much wider terror network.

    The verdict found main defendant Beate Zschäpe guilty of complicity in 10 murder cases, 43 attempted murder cases and 15 especially brutal armed robberies. She was given a life sentence, which translates to 15 years in prison. Another defendant was sentenced to 10 years for assisting in nine of the murders, while three other defendants received between two and three years for supporting the terrorist organization.

    “What is the message of this verdict?” asked Alexander Hoffmann, an accessory lawyer representing one of the victim’s family. “That neo-Nazis are able to go outside, murder people, and that you only get two years in prison for supporting them. That is an invitation!” Underscoring this point were the dozen neo-Nazis in the courtroom, who applauded the verdict.

    Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, people were outraged. In Munich, 5,000 people marched in the streets, carrying signs with portraits of the slain. Activists also changed 200 street names to the names of those killed by the racist series of NSU-murders: Enver Șimșek, Abdurrahim Özüdoğru, Süleyman Taşköprü, Habil Kılıç, Mehmet Turgut, Ismail Yașar, Theodoros Boulgarides, Mehmet Kubaṣık, Halit Yozgat.

    These actions, however, are only part of the latest efforts to shine a light on the injustice in the trial and preceding investigations. Over the last five years, anti-fascist and anti-racist activists have spread awareness of the trial and its implications — attending, documenting and translating all 438 days of court proceedings. They have also fought to bring indictments of institutional racism and state collusion, but have been blocked many times along the way. In one major instance, the Domestic Intelligence Agency, Germany’s version of the FBI, prevented the release of its NSU records — choosing to protect its informants rather than fully investigate the case. As a result, activists organized a tribunal process, or people’s court, to show evidence that was not being considered and to give voice to the victims’ families. Going forward, they are united by a simple message: “Kein Schlussstrich,” or “No Closure,” which means — as they explained in a press conference on Wednesday — that they will continue to investigate the murders and work against the conditions that created the NSU.

    For anti-racist and anti-fascist organizers in the United States, this is a familiar concern. In cases like the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer murders, the 1979 Greensboro Massacre in North Carolina, and last year’s deadly attack in Charlottesville — where the judicial system has obstructed prosecutions from including state collusion — activists have had to assert strategic pressure and ongoing organizing to ensure political gains are made from these tragedies. Now, German activists face similar strategic questions to the ones that U.S. activists have negotiated for much of the past half century.

    This is particularly interesting given that white supremacy has always built power across borders. And U.S. racist history has, at times, lent an inspiring hand to Germany’s formations, from Hitler’s fascination with Jim Crow laws to the Ku Klux Klan chapters currently active in Germany.

    As a result, this case is an opportunity to strengthen and inspire resistance strategies and learn from one another. Given this political moment where increasing numbers of hate groups are emboldened by right-wing governments, the NSU trial is an important example of the limitations of the state in prosecuting systems of white supremacy and what tactical moves are available to movements on the left.

    Murders, investigations and the NSU Complex

    Between 2000 and 2007, the NSU killed 10 people — eight people with Turkish backgrounds, one with a Greek background and one German person. They planted bombs in 1999, 2001, and 2004, in migrant communities that injured more than 20 people, some of them severely. They robbed 15 banks and lived underground for 13 years. It wasn’t until 2011 — when Beate Zschäpe turned herself in following the suicides of two accomplices — that authorities considered the NSU as suspects.

    Before the trial started, there was hope that it could bring change. The German public seemed genuinely shocked that a neo-Nazi terrorist organization was able to live underground and kill migrants for 12 years. In February 2012, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised a “full investigation” into the case.

    However, by the time the trial started in May 2013, hope had dwindled. Only five suspects were accused, and the Federal Prosecutors Office pushed the premise that the NSU consisted of only three people and a handful of supporters. Angelika Lex, one of 60 private accessory lawyers that submitted evidence to the federal prosecution on behalf of the families, stated that 50 or 500 people should be brought to trial — not five — because that is how many supported the NSU.

    The first year of the trial was a mess. For the families of the victims and anti-racist activists, it became clear that one of the biggest obstructions to justice was going to be the federal prosecutor. Out of 248 pieces of evidence, 152 were submitted by the accessory lawyers of the victims’ families — many of which were denied by the federal prosecutor. Notably, much of the evidence submitted by the families’ lawyers was brought up to investigate links between state officials, the NSU network and the sites of murders.

    Embed from Getty Images

    One of the most telling examples is the murder of 21-year-old Halit Yozgat. Domestic Intelligence Agency officer Andreas Temme told the court that he did not see or notice the shooting of Halit — despite the fact that he was inside the internet cafe at the time of the murder. Outrage from the families and outside organizers ensued when the court refused to pressure and pursue this further. It also denied a request of İsmail Yozgat, Halit’s father, for the judges to visit the crime scene and see how it was possible that Temme missed the murder. Instead, the court said that the officer was innocent — a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After this, any remnants of faith in the process were squashed. “We are not going to acknowledge the verdict,” İsmail Yozgat said.

    While the court focused on the neo-Nazi defendants, groups on the outside began to see the structural blocks and controversies, including the inherent flaws in the investigations before the trial as well as the trial process itself. They now refer to these issues as the NSU-Complex.

    For instance, despite the fact that all nine of the victims from non-German origin were shot execution style with the same rare gun, a fact that classified the murders as a series, the police failed to consider right-wing terrorism as a motive. The investigations had been underway for years, presumably giving the authorities time to consider multiple leads. Yet, racism hindered the scope of the investigations — so much so, that in 2007, the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation even failed to take the FBI’s advice to look for a highly-mobile and well-supported right-wing network.

    Narrow investigations are part and parcel to the NSU-Complex. Two days before Yozgat was killed in Kassal, Mehmet Kubaṣik — a 39-year-old father and German citizen originally from Turkey — was shot in Dortmund with the same gun. The police focused strictly on organized crime, which limited the scope of the motive to drug dealing or problems within Kubaṣik’s marriage. While his family and friends rejected these accusations, the police retorted by saying they were part of a Turkish “parallel society,” unwilling to cooperate with German state institutions. Similar stories are told by the friends and families of other victims.

    Mainstream journalists reproduced this narrative by reporting only what the police said. Until November of 2011, these murders were known in the media as the “Döner Kebab Murders,” a Turkish style of food, clearly signaling the racism behind the story.

    Outside the courtroom, there were key moments of shock and outrage that sparked public pressure on the case. Yet, in recent years, many Germans forgot the trial was still going, reminded only when an occasional report on the lead defendant was released. Some mainstream reactions are eager to finally close this trial, stating that German institutions have learned from the past, and that the families of the victims and the survivors were heard.

    Pushing back and beyond the trial

    After the NSU surfaced, many within the progressive left in Germany began to organize around the murders and the limited investigations of the police and state. The trial, for better or worse, was a shared point of interest that evolved quickly into unprecedented coordination and collaboration. The different roles and strategies became more than complimentary, but also largely aligned.

    For instance, there were multiple strategies taking place within the trial itself. Some of the lawyers of the victims’ families consistently fought for the demands of the relatives to be a part of the trial. This has involved years of hard work. And, even though the court largely ignored those demands, the work of the lawyers articulated the need to take action on those demands outside the court.

    While the lawyers of the victims’ families might not necessarily identify as anti-fascist, their investigations and evidence have been critical to uncovering layers of the network that supported the NSU in their acts of terror. This level of work has consistently pushed the judge to accept or decline evidence that raises indictments well beyond the five defendants.

    Another inside strategy is the work of NSU-Watch. Made up of a dozen anti-fascist and anti-racist groups and individuals, NSU-Watch has closely monitored the trial. Their research on neo-Nazi networks comes from a long tradition of fighting fascism in Germany, often pushing the state to recognize the existence of large neo-Nazi networks. The members of NSU-Watch attended trial on a daily basis, writing reports, summaries and fact sheets into accessible forms (both translating into multiple languages and out of judicial speak) for the social movements and broader public. Having widely accessible information has been a key strategy to bringing more people into the organizing. This is crucial since there is no video documentation of the trial, making it impossible to view publicly.

    A demonstration led by the No Closure network in Munich on Wednesday drew 5000 participants (WNV / Florian Meier)

    Around 2015, the failures of the trial began to spur new connections between community initiatives working on a local level against racist murder cases. As a result, a network formed called “Unraveling the NSU-Complex.” Although galvanized by the NSU murders, many of the community initiatives were not directly connected to NSU terror, but found commonalities in their stories of racist attacks as well as their demands to challenge right wing formations and institutional racism in Germany. Artists, academics and post-migrant organizations have joined this network, combing their different sectors to organize around the demands of the victims’ families.

    In 2017, this network organized an extrajudicial people’s court, called “Resolving the NSU -Complex” Tribunal, where they conducted their own investigations. With the evidence acquired by the families lawyers and NSU Watch, the tribunal worked with a research agency based in London called Forensic Architecture to create a simulation of one of the murder scenes. They released this information publicly along with their own indictment. After the success of this first tribunal, a second will be held in Mannheim, Germany in November.

    For many, the tribunal marks a new moment in anti-racist and anti-fascist collaboration. At times, these struggles are divided on tactics and strategies, but the tribunal was a resounding moment of alignment. The principle of prioritizing “migrant knowledge,” or the critical experience and perspectives of migrants, was at the core of the organizing, which was then amplified by skillful research and sharp criticism of state collusion.

    Building international solidarity

    In the United States, organizing inside and outside trials against white supremacists has continued. For instance, new groups formed around victims’ families, like the Greensboro Justice Fund, which finally brought charges against the shooters in the massacre through a civil rights suit in 1985. After 26 years — and following two acquittals by all white juries in both a murder trial and federal civil rights trial — community groups adopted methods put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa to conduct their own report of what happened, in the hopes of bringing some closure of the tragedy.

    Meanwhile, today, activists and organizers in Solidarity Cville are pushing the Charlottesville case and beginning to raise similar questions to those raised during NSU-Complex debates — such as how white supremacists are funding their operations, what the state knew about the “Unite the Right” rally and its plan for violence, and what measures — if any — the authorities took to prevent it, assuming they had some advance knowledge. Activists and organizers are facing down the very real prospect of the court turning against the victims of the Charlottesville rally. They are also discovering the extent to which state institutions participate in withholding information and participation. For instance, despite pressure from activists, the University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville are refusing to the press charges against the white supremacists.

    While judicial and social contexts in Germany and the United States can differ greatly, it is worth looking to the lessons available at different phases and sharing information to strengthen international solidarity. The activists and organizers in Charlottesville are in the relative early stages of gathering testimony and possible strategies, while those in Germany are entering a post verdict phase aimed at sustaining ongoing organizing against the conditions that created the NSU-Complex and demanding further investigations into the murders.

    Despite the verdict, the next steps are to “keep the flame burning” said Friedrich Burschel, a member of NSU Watch. His group and the tribunal network will continue to organize, now with the additional aim of preventing the illusion that German society can return back to normal.

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