News / Europe

Germany Riveted at Start of Neo-Nazi Murder Trial

Beate Zschaepe, a member of the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground (NSU) stands in the court before the start of her trial in Munich, May 6, 2013.
Beate Zschaepe, a member of the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground (NSU) stands in the court before the start of her trial in Munich, May 6, 2013.
The surviving member of a German neo-Nazi cell went on trial on Monday for a series of racist murders that scandalized Germany and exposed authorities' inability or reluctance to recognize right-wing hate crime.

The chance discovery of the gang, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which had gone undetected for more than a decade, has forced Germany to acknowledge it has a more militant and dangerous neo-Nazi fringe than previously thought.

Beate Zschaepe, 38, is charged with complicity in the murder of eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007, as well as two bombings in immigrant areas of Cologne and 15 bank robberies.

"With its historical, social and political dimensions, the NSU trial is one of the most significant of post-war German history," lawyers for the family of the first victim, flower seller Enver Simsek, said in a statement.

The case has shaken a country that believed it had learned the lessons of the past, and reopened a debate about whether it must do more to tackle the far-right and lingering racism.

Zschaepe, wearing a black jacket and white shirt, chatted with her lawyers before the judges entered, her back turned to the television cameras. One of four other defendants charged with assisting the NSU hid under a dark hood.

Outside the courthouse, German-Turkish community groups and anti-racism demonstrators held up banners including one that read: "Hitler-child Zschaepe, you will pay for your crimes."

About 500 police officers provided tight security. Members of the public and media, who lined up before dawn for a chance to attend, even had their hair searched before being allowed in.

The existence of the gang came to light in November 2011 when the two men believed to have founded the NSU with  Zschaepe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, committed suicide after a botched bank robbery and set their caravan ablaze.

In the charred vehicle, police found the gun used in all 10 murders and a grotesque DVD claiming responsibility for them, in which the bodies of the victims were pictured with a cartoon Pink Panther totting up the number of dead.

"I'm the one"

After the suicides, Zschaepe is believed to have set fire to a flat she shared with the men in Zwickau, in east Germany. Four days later, she turned herself in to police in her hometown of Jena, saying: "I'm the one you're looking for."

For the victims' families, the trial will be the first chance to come face-to-face with Zschaepe, whose blank expression and resolute silence since her arrest have left people struggling to make sense of her motives.

"The Banality of Evil" read the front page of the newspaper Die Welt. The mass-circulation Bild wrote that Zschaepe "looks like a woman at the supermarket till" rather than someone "rabidly mad or explosive."

Few expect Zschaepe to explain herself at the trial. The Norwegian anti-immigrant mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, wrote to Zschaepe last year addressing her as "Dear Sister" and urging her to use the trial to spread far-right ideology.

Hearings are scheduled into early 2014, with Zschaepe's estranged relatives and the parents of Mundlos and Boehnhardt due to testify.

As teenagers in Jena, the trio were known to authorities to be involved in racist hate crimes and bomb making, but they escaped arrest and assumed new identities.

Prosecutors say they hose shopkeepers and small business owners as easy targets to try to hound immigrants out of Germany. Some of the victims' relatives came under suspicion because police simply did not consider a far-right motive.

"During the investigations they were either treated as suspects, or as relatives of criminals," said lawyer Angelika Lex.

Parliament is conducting an inquiry into how police and intelligence agencies failed to link the murders or share information about the far-right threat.

The trial was postponed by a fortnight after an uproar over the court's failure to guarantee Turkish media a seat.

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