Society Debates

Germany: The real trial of the NSU is yet to come

7 May 2013
Die Welt Berlin

"I don't see anything unusual here"

"I don't see anything unusual here"

The trial of the neo-Nazi NSU group is being dubbed one of the most important trials of the post-war era in Germany. The media circus around the five accused, however, is hiding the true scandal of this affair: that the NSU was not discovered earlier.

The trial that was opened and adjourned in Munich on Monday May 6 is not a trial of the NSU. No more than the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945-46 and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial of 1963-65 were NS trials, and no more than the Stammheimer trial of 1975-77 was a RAF trial. In all cases, they were and are prosecutions of individual members of national socialist, leftist- and right-wing terrorist defendants.

Beate Zschäpe and others are on trial in Munich – no more than that, and no less. A court can and must determine individual blame and punish the perpetrators – it cannot and must not be judge of an epoch, or of an ideology whose roots are in the population. For many this may be a disappointment. Those brought into the dock in such trials, however, are usually sad, confused, stubborn figures – not great and monstrous, but very small. Peering into their eyes does not reveal evil and its reasons.

That is why the increased attention that the Munich trial began to stir up some time back has something excessive about it; the winds of futility are blowing through it already. The trial will not be able to pass down the judgement that part of the public eagerly awaits. And inevitably it will turn the main defendant into an interesting, mysterious personality, which, in truth – you know it despite her silence – she really is not. Once again, evil is banal, but some refuse to accept it.

Unveiling the true scandal

And so the real scandal, from the point of view of the inquisitive public, threatens to vanish. That scandal lies in the failure to understand and decipher the murders that the NSU carried out over the years – although the context, which in hindsight is easy to recognise, was blindingly obvious.

From 2000 to 2006 at least, there were perpetrators active in Germany who targeted and killed people, apparently solely because they were foreigners or residents of foreign origin. The racism that justified the killings is suddenly in plain sight. After the second or the third murder at the latest it should have been clear, we know now, that what we were looking for was to be found in the milieu of the extreme right.

Instead, the investigating authorities and services obstinately pursued another theory for year after year. They were probably drawing a line linking up the nine murders, but one that in advance and without the slightest evidence discriminated against the victims and associated them with the perpetrators. If they were foreigners or of foreign origin, the presumption went, they probably must have been criminals. That was – again, easy to see in hindsight – an act of downright crazy externalisation: the victims were split off from the healthy national body of Germany, that part that had nothing to do with criminal machinations. The fact that seven of the nine murder victims were entrepreneurs was not interpreted as evidence of the success of migrants with the courage to strike out on their own; it was read instead as an indication that something was not quite right with the businesses, and they had probably fallen victim to intra-Turkish conflicts. The tags that were slapped onto the murders – the “kebab murders", "Soko Bosphorus (Special Unit Bosphorus)" – point out the defamatory, collectivist interpretation.

Lack of understanding

Unfortunately, the misery did not end with this appalling ignorance of reality, with the discovery of flaws in the investigation, the rash shredding of files, and the failure in particular of the Thuringian Agency for State Protection and Counter Terrorism. The presiding judge in Munich has also done his part to bring the German justice system itself in for censure by ignoring the suggestion of the the Federal Constitutional Court that three more chairs be made available in the court for Turkish journalists.

With the lottery farce – the distribution of the available seats by lottery, which will inevitably shut out journalists who are experienced court reporters – [the judge] has shown once again that he has not understood the prominence of this trial.

No other country in the world has so consistently and enduringly dealt with a crime-ridden past like Germany has. That this has happened at all is thanks to tireless officials, like the former Attorney General of Hesse, Fritz Bauer, a returning emigrant, without whom there would have been no Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. And it is to the credit of a public open to debate, a public that – even if it comes somewhat late – has decided to treat the Third Reich as a history that should not and may not be forgotten. That is a good thing, and it makes the country a more attractive place.

All this self-critical awareness of history, though, has not been able to prevent the justice system and the media alike from being struck blind to these murders in plain sight. Lessons from history that can be used today – that’s apparently something we have difficulty learning.