Until last weekend, many Germans were almost complacent about right-wing extremism in their country. Painful history had helped them learn to marginalize groups espousing such ideologies. And besides, they trusted that the authorities were keeping a careful eye on those kinds of radicals. But the country has been shocked recently by the almost daily revelations about a supposed neo-Nazi cell, which set off bombs, robbed 14 banks, brutally murdered at least 10 people and most stunning of all operated without being detected by authorities for 13 years. "These were systematic, cold-blooded serial murders," says Hajo Funke, an authority on right-wing extremism at Berlin's Free University. "We've never seen this before."
Germany's Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, is calling for reform in fighting racist crimes and says the killings represent a new form of extremism. The nine victims murdered between 2000 and 2006 had immigrant backgrounds, and were shot in the head, execution-style, at their places of work.
The alleged neo-Nazi ring came to light almost by happenstance given away by the supposed perpetrators themselves. On Nov. 4, police found two bodies in a burned-out camping van in the eastern city of Eisenach. The men, Uwe Boehnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, had just robbed a bank, and apparently set their vehicle ablaze before committing suicide. Hours later, a house in Zwickau, where the two men lived, went up in flames. According to the authorities, the woman who set the fire, Beate Zschaepe, was an alleged accomplice of the two bank robbers. Zschaepe has turned herself in to the police and is reported to be ready to speak to investigators, after initially remaining silent. The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe issued an arrest warrant for her on Nov. 13, under which she is being held for suspicion of "founding and being a member of a terrorist organisation."
Investigators said they then found evidence in the ruins in Zwickau linking the two men and woman to a series of unsolved murders of immigrants. It included handguns like the one used in the killings, plus a DVD from a previously unknown group calling itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU). In the never circulated video, the group claimed responsibility for the nine killings, plus two bombings in which more than 20 people where injured. In the burned-out van, investigators found the handgun that belonged to a female police officer who was killed in 2007, the 10th victim. The video also shows images of some of the victims that, according to the police, only the perpetrators of the crimes could have taken. The narration even pokes fun at the murdered. A voice at the start of the grisly 15-minute video identifies the NSU as a "network of comrades with the fundamental principle of 'deeds instead of words.' " It then uses the Pink Panther character to take viewers on a "tour of Germany," stopping at each city where murders occurred, showing a mix of photos of the victims from the press, crime-scene clips from TV and, apparently, photographs by the gang of the bloodied victims.
The discovery of the NSU has turned into a major embarrassment for the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency. The agency had been investigating Boehnhardt, Mundlos and Zschaepe in the eastern city of Jena in the late 1990s but lost track of them in 1998, when the trio went underground and began a murderous but slow-motion rampage up and down the country. All the while, police were puzzling over the unsolved immigrant murders, not seriously pursuing racism as a motive.
Questions emerging from an emergency Parliamentary Oversight Committee meeting on Tuesday in Berlin centered on whether the trio had acted alone. "There is evidence of more helpers," said chairman Thomas Oppermann to reporters after the meeting. Over the weekend, a fourth man was arrested in Hanover for allegedly aiding the trio.
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution is also facing criticism from politicians that it is mismanaging its system of paid neo-Nazi informants at the least, and at worse, it is unwilling or unable to act on knowledge of the NSU. "There is a widespread belief that the intelligence agencies know what is going on in the right, extremist scene, but that is not always true," says Jan Schedler, a social scientist at Ruhr University in Bochum. "We have been warning against this for years," says Bianca Klose, director of Mobile Counseling Against Right-wing Extremism in Berlin. "In the middle of society there is an area where right-wing, extremist views are very well represented," says Klose. "We really have to stop thinking of this as extreme."
Klose says her organization, one of many that get state support to combat racism but are chronically underfunded, counts 137 deaths in Germany related to racism or right-wing violence since unification in 1990. That jibes with other counts by newspapers prior to this month's discovery of the NSU cell in Zwickau but is dramatically higher than the government's official figure of 48 deaths.
Critics like Klose point to the wide gap as proof that authorities are blind to violence on the right and say right-wing extremism is more deadly than Islamist or left-wing extremism in Germany. Says Klose: "Right-wing extremists have been murdering people for years. Getting rid of people who do not fit into their worldview is part of their ideology." The Free University's Funke says right-wing extremism is most widespread in sparsely populated eastern regions, making it largely invisible to the country as a whole. "This is our Alabama," says Funke. "It's down there."