There have been 250 hearings and 500 witness statements in the courthouse in Munich over the past two and half years, but until now Beate Zschäpe had refused to utter a word in court about accusations she was part of a murderous far-right terror cell.
On Wednesday, she broke her silence.
In a statement read by her lawyer, the 40-year-old denied involvement in 10 murders, most of them Germans of Turkish origin, and a series of bombings and robberies.
Instead she sought to paint herself as a victim of circumstance, whose involvement was through romantic attachments with two of the perpetrators, which landed her in a situation she could then not escape. She apologized to the victims and their families.
“I feel morally guilty, for not having prevented 10 murders,” she said in the statement read by her lawyer. Ms. Zschäpe was arrested four years ago in the case.
German prosecutors accuse her of deeper involvement, charging her with being a member of the so-called National Socialist Underground, a gang of extreme-right murderers who went on a racist killing spree for a decade.
She is charged with complicity in the murders, bombings and robberies, which she is accused of helping plan but carrying out.
The two other members of the NSU cell, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, are dead.
They committed suicide in November 2011 after a botched robbery in the eastern German town of Eisenach. It was only then that authorities learned the neo-Nazis had been behind 10 brutal killings, mostly targeting men with an immigrant background, as well as a female police officer.
Ms. Zschäpe’s defense lawyer, Mathias Grasel, began reading her 53-page statement shortly before 10 a.m. in the packed Munich courtroom.
“I was not involved in the preparations or in the perpetration of the crimes. I didn’t however, have the strength to leave them and to go to the authorities.”
In it she denied involvement in the string of murders and two bomb attacks and apologized to the victims’ families.
“I was not involved in the preparations or in the perpetration of the crimes,” she said, claiming she only learned about the murders after the fact. “I didn’t however, have the strength to leave them and to go to the authorities.”
“The two of them didn’t need me. I needed them.”
The 40-year-old was, like the two dead NSU killers, from Jena and had been part of the city’s neo-Nazi scene since their teens. The three had gone underground in the late 1998 and lived under false names for over a decade.
Between 2000 and 2007 the group killed nine men, eight of Turkish background and one Greek, who were mostly small businessmen, by shooting them in broad daylight.
Her statement began with an account of growing up in a high-rise block in the former East Germany with a poor alcoholic single mother.
She told of how as a teenager she was first in a relationship with Uwe Mundlos and then when she was 19 she met and fell for Uwe Böhnhardt and through him became involved in the far-right scene in Jena. She said Tino Brandt, a neo-Nazi who was acting as an informant for the intelligence agencies, was active in radicalizing her and others.
She said up to 1999 she was only “partly” aware of the two others’ plans to carry out activities such as bombings. She said she never wanted to hurt anyone and hoped the two men saw it the same way.
She said she had split with Mr. Böhnhardt around this time but “my feelings for (him) were still very intense. I tried to join the group again and win Böhnhardt back.”
She admitted to knowing about the first robbery carried out by Mr. Mundlos and Mr. Böhnhard in 1998, but denied any involvement in the murder of the first of the NSU’s victims, Envir Simsek, in 2000. It was only months later that the two men told her about the killing, she said.
She said she wanted to go to the police immediately but the two men threatened to commit suicide if she did so.
She went on to claim not to know anything in advance about the three murders perpetrated in 2001. She felt “disgusted” by the actions but drawn to Mr. Böhnhardt and resigned to her fate. She didn’t see a way out, she claimed.
She also denied involvement in a nail bomb in Cologne in 2004.
After learning about the fifth murder in Rostock in 2004, which she again says she was not involved with, she said she sat down with the two men for hours. She asked them to stop and pleaded with them not to kill themselves. She says they promised to do so.
She said the men murdered 22-year-old policewoman Michèle Kiesewetter in 2007 in order to steal her gun. The motive for the murder had never been established.
Ms. Zschäpe admitted to setting the apartment she shared with the two men on fire after hearing about their deaths on the radio on November 4, 2011. She said she went through the house to make sure no one was there. She denies endangering the life of one of her elderly neighbors who was at home.
She also denied membership of a terrorist organization, saying that if the NSU were deemed a terrorist group then it only had two members.
She expressed regret for the NSU’s crimes. Her statement read: “I apologize unreservedly to the victims and the families of the victims.”
Her lawyer, Mr. Grasel, had said before Wednesday’s hearing that any questions to his client would have to be written down and she would then answer them over the weekend.
Ms. Zchäpe’s decision to make a statement was against the advice of three of her team of five lawyers, with whom she is no longer speaking.
Lawyers for one of the other four suspects accused of being an accomplice, Ralf Wohlleben, announced on Tuesday that he would also soon deliver a statement, but did not give a date, saying only that it would not be this week.
The trial of Ms. Zschäpe and the four other suspects is the biggest trial in Germany for decades.
On Wednesday people began queuing at 5 a.m. to get a seat in the court’s viewers gallery.
As Ms. Zschäpe arrived in the court, she turned in the direction of the cameras and smiled, rather than turning her back on them as she has done for the past two and half years.
The NSU case vindicated those who for years had warned that the far-right fringes could be dangerous.
For years the authorities had looked in the wrong direction, investigating a possible internecine war in the Turkish mafia in Germany, instead of exploring racist motives.
The relatives of the victims have been severely critical of how they were treated during the initial investigation into the killings.
The NSU case also uncovered severe problems in how the various intelligence agencies in Germany failed to adequately share information or to follow leads that might have prevented the murders.
In 2011, after the two other NSU members died, Ms. Zschäpe allegedly set fire to the flat they shared in the eastern city of Zwickau, before handing herself into the police four days later.
The police found the murder weapon used in the 10 killings as well as other evidence in the rubble of the burned-out house.
The families of the victims are co-plaintiffs in the trial and have been hoping to find out more about why and how their loved ones were selected.
Mehmet Daimagüler, a lawyer representing the families, reacted immediately to the testimony on Twitter. “A mass of lies. Today she has personally removed the last doubts about her guilt.”
Barbara John, the ombudswoman for the victims and their families, told Deutsche Welle that Ms. Zschäpe’s image had changed during the trial. She was no longer thought to have been just been a domestic companion to the two men. “She was in charge of logistics, the one who organized everything.”
Siobhán Dowling covers German politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact her: email@example.com.