They murdered in cold blood, shooting eight Turkish shopkeepers, a Greek businessman and a policewoman in the head at brutally close range. They got away with racist hate crimes for more than a decade.
Three middle-class kids from Jena, a pleasant university city in eastern Germany, terrorized immigrant communities from Hamburg to Munich between 2000 and 2007. Security forces displayed an unspeakable mix of incompetence and blindness to the threat of neo-Nazi terror, failing to communicate, dropping important leads, and -- most unforgivably -- criminalizing the victims by suggesting they had links to drug mafias.
“Die Zelle” (The Cell) by journalists Christian Fuchs and John Goetz is the first book to tell the story of the trio’s crimes. It is detailed and offers valuable context, yet comes too soon to be definitive.
Just seven months have passed since the spectacular camper- van suicides of two of the neo-Nazis, Uwe Boehnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, an act of desperation as the police net finally tightened around them after a bank holdup. The surviving member of the group, Beate Zschaepe, has not even been charged yet.
The case, called “a disgrace for this country” by Chancellor Angela Merkel, still makes daily news. On July 2, Heinz Fromm, the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, resigned following revelations that his office had destroyed files relating to the terrorist incidents.
A parliamentary inquiry seeks to expose the weaknesses in the investigation and explore how the three terrorists, who called their cell the National Socialist Underground, managed to murder, raid banks and live under false identities for more than 10 years without being caught. As stones are turned over one by one, we can expect more nasties to crawl out.
A strength of “Die Zelle” is in showing how the environment in which the trio grew up and the turbulence of the era fostered their loathsome ideology. During the communist era, “the antifascist rituals didn’t turn every teenager in East Germany into an antifascist,” the authors note drily.
It was only in the years after communism collapsed that these convictions could be expressed. A wave of racist violence rolled over Germany -- mostly engulfing the east, though not exclusively. In one particularly horrific incident in 1992, a home for asylum-seekers in Rostock was besieged and attacked by right-wing extremists wielding Molotov cocktails and baseball bats over a period of four days.
Mundlos, Boehnhardt and Zschaepe were drawn into Jena’s burgeoning right-wing scene. Mundlos, whose father has a doctorate in mathematics, idolized Rudolf Hess and carried business cards bearing an image of Hitler in his wallet.
Weapons-nut Boehnhardt, the son of an engineer and a teacher, had already committed a number of offenses as a teenager before he teamed up with Mundlos in 1992.
Zschaepe -- who Fuchs and Goetz reveal was half-Romanian -- helped plan the murders and bank robberies, though the men carried them out. Devoted to her two cats, she managed the group’s finances and cooked and kept house. It was she who set their shared apartment on fire the day her accomplices died.
She also posted DVDs of a chilling, sick film, featuring footage of the crime scenes, Nazi slogans and the Pink Panther, to selected organizations. In the DVD, the group claimed responsibility for the murders and a bombing in Cologne.
The contrast the book draws between their apparently bourgeois lifestyle and terrible crimes is bizarre. During a vacation -- weeks after shooting a policewoman -- the trio played cards with their campsite neighbors and took their son boating, the authors say.
Contradictions abound: Zschaepe was on great terms with her Greek neighbors in Zwickau, who remembered her little gifts and called her “a very friendly woman,” the authors report.
Careful selection of locations for their crimes helped the terrorists evade capture. They murdered in different western German cities, while the bank holdups -- at least 14 of them, the authors say -- took place in the east. That confounded the fragmented German security authorities, because regional police and secret services failed to communicate.
Fuchs and Goetz catalog the authorities’ refusal to recognize the possible existence of right-wing terror. Weeks before the murderers shot themselves and their racist motives were discovered, Der Spiegel magazine cited investigators saying the shootings were “payback for debts from criminal deals or revenge for betrayals.”
As the recently resigned Fromm put it in November last year: “We should have known better: After all, the historic role models for these people are known to us.”
Plenty of questions remain. Why did the group change tack to shoot a German policewoman when the other victims were all from immigrant backgrounds and male? And why did they stop the killing there? Four years elapsed between that last murder and the last bank raid.
These are all subjects for a future book.
“Die Zelle” is published by Rowohlt Verlag (272 pages, 14.95 euros). There are no plans as yet to translate the book into English.
Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend, Craig Seligman on the arts.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley, in Berlin, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.