For a trial that’s dragged on for years, the verdict was pronounced astonishingly quickly. Shortly before 10 am Wednesday, Judge Manfred Götzl entered the courthouse of Munich’s Higher Regional Court. “In the name of the people,” he raised his voice. In less than five minutes, he found Beate Zschäpe guilty of ten counts of murder and sentenced her to life imprisonment.
Ms. Zschäpe, 43, was the last surviving member of the National Socialist Underground, or, NSU, a neo-Nazi terror group that went on a 13-year rampage across Germany. Between 1998 and 2011, the group murdered 10 people including nine immigrant shopkeepers and a police officer, carried out two bomb attacks and committed 15 bank robberies. The court found Ms. Zschäpe also guilty of complicity in the bank robberies.
Both the murders and the bombings, which left dozens injured, were intended to kill individuals of non-German origin.
The court also found four co-defendants guilty of supporting a terrorist group. One of them, Ralf Wohlleben was convicted of aiding and abetting murder in nine cases and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The other three were given jail sentences of up to three years.
The long-awaited verdict brings an end to the longest trial in Germany’s recent history: 438 hearings stretched over five years. More than 600 witnesses were heard, while 95 co-plaintiffs were represented by some 60 lawyers. Its duration dwarfs that of other historic trials on German soil, including the post-WWII Nuremberg trials or the trials of the RAF terror group in the 1970s.
The length of the trial itself caused some controversy. As weeks turned into months and years, the hearings slipped out of media focus while public interest waned. Earlier this year, the Turkish embassy in Berlin protested the duration of the proceedings. Eight of the NSU’s ten victims were Turkish citizens. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” the embassy wrote on its Twitter account.
And the saga is likely to continue since Ms. Zschäpes’s lawyer, Mathis Grasel, vowed to appeal against the verdict.
The entire NSU affair reads like a litany of innumerable failings of the German state. It exposed deep-seated institutional racism as police investigating the murders initially blamed migrant crime gangs. Leads in this direction failed to yield results though. Yet, the alternate possibility that right-wing extremists could have targeted the victims — as some families hinted — was consistently overlooked and downplayed. Instead, detectives accused grieving relatives of the victims of withholding information and persisted in treating them as suspects. Many were left traumatized in the process.
And the broader public was hardly more sympathetic. For years, as it became apparent that there was a connection between the attacks, German media peppered their reports with stereotypes against Turkish immigrants. News outlets disparagingly dubbed the murder spree “the döner killings,” after what Germans call kebab sandwiches.
A lot of soul-searching
Yet only one of the victims sold kebabs. His name was Ismail Yaşar, 50, and he was murdered in his Nuremberg shop on June 9, 2005, making him the NSU’s sixth victim. After his death, police told reporters that the victims could have ties to “Turkish drug traffickers based in the Netherlands.” Investigators ignored the fact that several witnesses said they saw two men on bicycles at the scene — the killers.
The three-person terror cell was finally discovered in 2011 in Zwickau, Saxony. The bodies of two of the perpetrators, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, were found alongside evidence of their crimes, including the murder weapon and photographs of the victims and crimes scenes. The two men had committed suicide after a failed bank robbery. Their conspirator Ms. Zschäpe turned herself in to the police a few days later.
The discovery of the NSU and its crimes shocked German society, not least because it made its dark underbelly of prejudice and racism so painfully obvious. Authorities scrambled to make up for their mistakes of the previous years. Speaking at a February 2012 ceremony to honor the 10 victims, Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed, “We will do everything to solve the murders and to bring the perpetrators and their supporters to justice.”
And yet, even the dramatic trial that ensued failed to meet the expectations of the victims’ relatives. On the day of the verdict, many questions remained. Families demanded to know why their fathers, husbands or sons were singled out and murdered, but Ms. Zschäpe answered only with her stony silence throughout the entire trial, except on two occasions where she read pre-written statements and flatly denied involvement in the attacks.
Spies protecting neo-Nazis
The proceedings also left the reputation of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency in tatters. The intelligence service, also known as Verfassungsschutz (“protection of the constitution”), has attracted scrutiny for allowing the terror group to go on a murderous rampage for years although it had dozens of informants in the neo-Nazi scene who had contacts with NSU members since the late 90s. Most astoundingly, it emerged that one such informant was inside an internet café in Kassel at the precise moment when its 21-year shop owner, Halit Yozgat was gunned down at close range in 2006. The informant fled and failed to report on the crime.
More damning still, it became apparent that the Verfassungsschutz has gone out of its way to obstruct the police investigation of the killings. It destroyed dozens of secret files soon after the death of two leading members of the NSU in 2011. Senior intelligence officials ordered that portions of a 2014 report into Mr. Yozgat’s murder be kept from public view for 120 years. The spies did not even inform authorities of the report’s existence. Local legislators stumbled by chance across a heavily redacted version of the document during oversight hearings.
In June last year, a parliamentary committee presented its 1,800-page report on the botched investigations into NSU rampage. The Bundestag report confirmed that intelligence officials blocked the probe into the murders to protect their paid informants, all of whom were neo-Nazis. With the taxpayers’ money they got, they then financed neo-Nazi activities. One such former informant, Tino Brandt, had extensive contact with one of the defendants in the case. His testimony in the trial vindicated the lawmakers’ conclusions.
Yet the embattled intelligence agency got away with a slap on the wrist from Ms. Merkel’s conservative-led coalition.
‘A just punishment’
Understandably, many plaintiffs found all this disturbing. Antonia von der Behrens, a lawyer for the son of one of the victims, said there was “no political willingness” to shed light on the role of the Verfassungsschutz. This made a mockery of Angela Merkel’s 2012 pledge to do everything for justice to be served. A few days before the verdict, she said the NSU trial would be “a failure,” whatever its outcome.
However, many observers across Germany were relieved and satisfied with the verdict. Throughout the trial, lawyers representing the victims’ relatives, and many others, had emphasized that anything less than a life sentence for Ms. Zschäpe would be a denial of justice.
Joachim Herrmann, Bavaria’s state interior minister, welcomed the court’s decision. He called the sentence “a just punishment” for “the cold-blooded and unprecedented series of crimes committed by the NSU.”
“No court ruling in the world can return loved ones to relatives of the victims,” said Charlotte Knobloch, the chairwoman of a senior German-Jewish organization. “The fight against right-wing extremism, intolerance and hatred must therefore continue as a joint effort of politicians, the judiciary and civil society so that other people are spared this suffering.”
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.