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August 08, 2017

The German Neo-Nazi Case Concludes: Four Years Later and Still No Justice for Victims

By Chelsea Wilson Miller

After more than four years, the case against the Nationalist Socialist Underground—a German neo-Nazi group—will finally come to an end this year. Closing arguments began last week. As the trial winds down, victims’ families are left with questions unanswered and justice unattained.   

Officials exposed the National Socialist Underground (NSU) as a neo-Nazi terrorist cell in 2011, after investigators linked the group to at least ten murders, multiple robberies, and two bomb attacks since 1998, mostly against people of Turkish origin. Victims’ relatives have sought justice for their murdered family members, including answers about the role that institutional discrimination played. In 2012, at the memorial service for the NSU’s victims, Chancellor Angela Merkel promised that she would do everything she could to “clear up the murders” and uncover the true perpetrators. Years later, even a guilty verdict for the one NSU member, Beate Zschäpe, may not be enough to fulfill Merkel’s promise.

Racism interfered with investigations from the start. Police accused victims and their families of being organized criminals, frequently treated them as suspects, and refused to investigate the potential racial motivation of certain crimes. Police surveilled victims’ relatives and followed false leads for years. This year the parliament presented a report that showed how the intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), blocked investigations of NSU’s murders to protect paid, neo-Nazi informants. Shortly after Zschäpe's arrest, a BfV official and then other state agencies reportedly destroyed about 400 files pertaining to their informants. The BfV used taxpayer money to fund other neo-Nazi informant operations as well; BfV reportedly scouted the German head of another neo-Nazi group, “Blood and Honour," in the 1990s. Family members of victims have filed suits against the federal government and the states of Thuringia and Bavaria for their multiple investigative failures.

The government created eleven parliamentary inquiry committees to investigate the NSU case, which joined federal and state special rapporteurs and investigators. However, instead of confronting institutional discrimination, the committees have regarded a lack of coordination as the problem.

Victims still seek answers from the government. Why did officials demonize the victims and their families? To what extent did the state have knowledge of neo-Nazi activities?

The government’s demonization of the victims’ communities and relatives results in part from a long history of institutionalized racism. Such racism has led to violence against minority and immigrant communities. The government reported a surge in right-wing extremist crimes in 2016, particularly against foreigners. Today, parties like Alternative for Germany (AfD) capitalize on such hate and gain  momentum with anti-immigrant messaging.

While the relatives of victims seek justice inside the courtroom, a guilty verdict will only be one aspect of accountability. Much more remains to be done. A full acknowledgement of wrongdoing and active steps to prevent more misconduct can help to heal wounds. The government should ensure that it is working to combat extremism and hate violence. If it doesn’t, NSU’s victims will never truly obtain justice.