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Discovery Of Neo-Nazi Crime Spree Roils Germany

Germany has been rocked by allegations that a small, underground neo-Nazi group calling itself the Nationalist Socialist Underground carried out a 13-year-long crime spree that included murder, robbery and bombing. Here, a screen shot from a promotional DVD reportedly made by neo-Nazis Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boenhardt. The two men committed suicide earlier this month. (Getty Images)

Germany is reeling from revelations this week that a small neo-Nazi group carried out a deadly, decade-long crime wave. Authorities blame the underground cell for the murders of nine immigrants and a policewoman, a string of bank robberies and a bombing. Two suspects are dead and two others are in custody.

The identity of the suspects came as a shock to many in a country that has worked hard to overcome the stain of Nazism. Now, the focus is on the apparent shortcomings of Germany's domestic security services.

So far, German authorities know of only a handful of people who are members of the group suspected in the deadly crime spree. But the security services are searching for what they think is a network of supporters that helped the group, which calls itself the National Socialist Underground.

They are also searching for explanations of apparent lapses by state and federal law enforcement. Lawmaker Daniela Kolbe, a member of the Bundestag's Interior Affairs Committee, says there are huge unanswered questions about how this deadly group successfully stayed underground for 13 years.

"Who were the people who supported them? Was there any contact [with] people that were paid by the state, state money? How could they get so much support from other Nazi members? This for me is a really serious question," Kolbe says.

Role Of Security Services, Informants

Kolbe and other lawmakers are zeroing in on an undercover officer with the intelligence agency in the western state of Hesse. This agent is said to have "far-right political views" and has been present at one and possibly more of the murder scenes. In the case of the 2006 murder of a 21-year-old Turkish-born Internet cafe owner in the city of Kassel, the officer was the only witness who failed to report to police what he'd seen. German media report that when police searched the agent's apartment they found excerpts from Hitler's Mein Kampf, which is banned in Germany. He was reportedly known by his neighbors as "Little Adolf." Yet the intelligence service simply moved the agent to a less sensitive post.

There are also serious questions about the use of informants. In the eastern state of Thuringia, where the underground group was based, a neo-Nazi who was highly placed within extremist right-wing circles was also a paid informer for the state intelligence agency.

Werner J. Patzelt, a professor of political scientist at the Dresden University of Technology and an expert on right-wing extremism, wonders if some state law enforcement agencies were simply being played by neo-Nazi informants.

"We are no longer sure whether our informants are really effective and competent on the one hand, and on the other hand, we are no longer sure that the informants are really loyal to the agencies and do not protect those they are expected to observe. This case really raises serious doubts about how our security agencies are working," Patzelt says

Calls To Ban Far-Right Political Party

There were calls in Parliament this week across party lines to consider banning a far-right political party given the revelations of the neo- Nazi crime spree. The party in question, the National Democratic Party, known as the NPD, is relatively small but active in promoting a racist agenda inspired by the Nazis. Lawmaker Thomas Oppermann, who heads the parliamentary commission overseeing the secret services, said he hopes talk of banning the party is more than political posturing.

"The NPD is an anti-democratic party and parts of it are prepared to resort to violence," he said during a press conference. "It is an anti-Semitic and xenophobic party that does not deserve to be allowed to operate legally in Germany."

A 2003 attempt to ban the NPD was thrown out by Germany's constitutional court, which ruled the party had been so heavily infiltrated by paid informants from the security services it was hard to tell who was pulling the strings.

In the meantime, German authorities have pledged to reopen old, unsolved crimes for possible links to right-wing extremists.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Germans are expressing anger today after revelations that a small neo-Nazi group went unchecked for more than a decade. Authorities blamed the underground cell for the murders of nine immigrants and a policewoman, a string of bank robberies, and a bombing. Two suspects are dead and two others are in custody. The case, announced this week, came as a shock to many in a country that has worked hard to overcome the stain of its Nazi past.

As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the focus is now on the apparent shortcomings of Germany's domestic security services.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: So far, German authorities know of only a handful of people who are members of the group suspected in the deadly crime spree. But the security services are searching now for what they think is a network of supporters that helped the group which calls itself the National Socialist Underground. They're also searching for explanations of apparent lapses by state and federal law enforcement.

Lawmaker Daniela Kolbe, a member of the Bundestag's Interior Affairs Committee, says there are huge unanswered questions about how this deadly group successfully stayed underground for 13 years.

DANIELA KOLBE: Who were the people that supported them? Was there any contact to people that were paid by state money? How could they get so much support from other Nazi members? This is, for me, a really serious question.

WESTERVELT: Kolbe and other lawmakers are zeroing in on an undercover officer with the intelligence agency in the state of Hesse. This agent is said to have far-right political views, and he's been placed at one and possibly more of the murder scenes. The undercover officer was the only witness who failed to report to police what he'd seen after the murder of a 21-year-old Turkish-born Internet cafe owner in the city of Kassel in 2006.

German media report that when police searched the agent's apartment, they found excerpts of Hitler's "Mein Kampf," which is banned in Germany. He was reportedly known by his neighbors as Little Adolf. Yet the intelligence service simply moved the agent to a less sensitive post. There are also serious questions about the use of neo-Nazi informants in this case. Dresden political scientist Werner Patzelt wonders if some state law enforcement agencies were simply being played by them.

WERNER PATZELT: We are no longer sure whether our informants are really effective and competent on the one hand, and on the other hand, we are no longer sure that the informants are really loyal to the agencies and do not protect those they are expected to observe. This case really raises serious doubts about how our security agencies are working.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, there were calls by members of Parliament across party lines this week to consider banning a far-right political party, given the revelations of the neo-Nazi crime spree. The party in question, known as the NPD, is relatively small but active in promoting a racist agenda inspired by the Nazis. Lawmaker Thomas Oppermann, who heads the parliamentary commission overseeing Germany's secret services, said he hopes talk of banning the party is more than political posturing.

THOMAS OPPERMANN: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The NPD is an anti-democratic party and parts of it are prepared to resort to violence, he said, adding, it's an anti-Semitic and xenophobic party that does not deserve to be allowed to operate legally in Germany. A 2003 attempt to ban the NPD was thrown out by Germany's constitutional court, which ruled the party had been so heavily infiltrated by paid informants from the security services, it was hard to tell who was pulling the strings.

Meantime, German authorities have pledged to re-open old, unsolved crimes for possible links to right-wing extremists. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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