As the German parliament says it is “deeply ashamed” by the discovery of a neo-Nazi group, an NGO accuses authorities of having a blind spot when it comes to right wing extremism.
No-one had heard of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) until a few weeks ago when one of the core members handed herself into police following the suspected suicide of two fellow gang-members.
But the neo-Nazi trio has now been held responsible for at least 10 deaths, 14 bank robberies and two nail-bomb attacks over 14 years, including the 2004 attack in Cologne’s Turkish neighbourhood.
A suspected target list of 88 names has been found and at least 20 people are linked to the neo-Nazi cell in some way. A home-made video was also found [stills pictured above], showing murder victims’ bodies and montages with the cartoon character Pink Panther pointing out killing scenes.
The news has shaken Germany to its core. On 11 November, the Bundestag held an emergency meeting and on Tuesday showed a rare united front, passing a joint resolution acknowledging the “heavy burden” for the victims’ families and expressing their shame at the “monstrous crimes of the National Socialist Underground and their rightwing extremist ideology”.
But as more information is uncovered, the spotlight is falling on authorities’ failure to notice the threat from far right extremists.
Police investigating the murder of the nine immigrants from 2000 to 2006 – nick-named the “doner murders” because many of the victims owned kebab shops – never explored a racist motive, and instead, are said to have questioned families about victims’ possible links with Turkish gangs.
According to the German magazine, Der Spiegel, government figures show that 13 investigations into suspected far-right terrorists have been launched over the last decade, compared to 700 in relation to Islamism and left-wing terrorism.
There is a sense that the intelligence agencies took their eye off the ball because they were concentrating on Islamist terror. Siobhan Dowling
There is also disparity between the number of murders with far-right links recorded by the government and by NGOs. The Antonio Amadeu Foundation has evidence of 185 killings with an extreme-right background since 1990, and suspicions about many more, while the official figure is just 47.
German foreign minister Hans-Peter Friedrich admitted at the weekend that the shocking discovery of the NSU took the government unawares. “On 11 September, 2001, something happened that even experts considered unimaginable,” he told Der Spiegel. “I don’t want to compare the two. But when it comes to right-wing extremism, we’re also now encountering things that we considered unthinkable.”
The German public are angry that police didn’t take the threat seriously, Berlin-based blogger and journalist Siobhan Dowling told Channel 4 News. “There is a sense that the intelligence agencies took their eye off the ball because they were concentrating on Islamist terror,” she said. “A lot of people in the immigrant community are saying that they weren’t being protected.”
However the alleged blind spot towards the far right is reflective of wider attitudes in society, said Anetta Kane, director of NGO, the Antonio Amadeu Foundation.
“We have been trying to raise awareness for years, but for a long time it was ignored – people don’t want to remember the dark time of Germany,” she told Channel 4 News. “The institutions – police, intelligence – were scared about other things, not Nazis.”
One of the reasons the NSU went unheard of for so long, is because each of Germany’s 16 states have different domestic intelligence agencies which apparently failed to share information and the government has since pledged to create a national network.
For a long time it was ignored – people don’t want to remember the dark time of Germany. The institutions – police, intelligence – were scared about other things, not Nazis. Anetta Kane, Antonio Amadeu Foundation
After Germany’s re-unification in 1990, far-right extremism in the country has centred in the east – the former communist GDR – and some analysts have blamed a lack of education about nationalist extremism, as well as economic disadvantages, for a surge in far-right extremism.
“I’m from east Germany and we didn’t have any discussion about nationalism or socialism. We just had ideology. After 40 years of GDR, all the stories were about our grandfathers and the war,” Ms Kane told Channel 4 News. “After reunification, far-right people in the east were part of a new form of neo-Nazism. They are more socialist than they used to be – against capitalism. It’s a new form of right wing extremism that is also coming up throughout Europe.”
Ms Kane is keen to point out the rise of the far right across Europe, and not just in her country. But is frustrated at what she sees as a lack of willingness in Germany to tackle the issue up to now.
“The government talks about empowering the institutions [police and intelligence agencies] that have failed. But we [NGOs] have all the knowledge. We know exactly where they are, what they’re doing, how to coach the communities and work with schools,” she said. “But people need to want to know.”