Trial of 'Nazi fiancée' Beate Zschäpe opens in Germany
Issued on: Modified:
The trial of Beate Zschäpe, the neo-Nazi accused of nine xenophobic murders between 2000 and 2007, opened in Munich on Monday. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at the woman behind a case that has sent shock waves throughout Germany.
The German press has nicknamed her the “Nazi fiancée”.
Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of a neo-Nazi cell blamed for a series of xenophobic murders that has sent shock waves throughout Germany, appeared in court in Munich on Monday to face charges of ten murders committed between 2000 and 2007, nine of which were allegedly motivated by race hatred.
Specifically, Zschäpe is accused of killing eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007, as well as carrying out two bombings in immigrant areas of Cologne and 15 bank robberies.
Four other defendants are also on trial alongside Zschäpe.
The news that the National Socialist Underground (NSU), undetected for more than a decade, was recently operational has forced Germany to recognise a more militant neo-Nazi fringe than previously thought to exist.
‘I’m the one you’re looking for’
Since her arrest, the blue-eyed, 38-year-old Zschäpe has been silent.
But it was Zschäpe herself who, on November 8, 2011, put an end to 14 years underground by turning herself in to the police. “I’m the one you’re looking for,” she reportedly announced upon entering the police station of eastern German city of Zwickau.
Before turning herself in, Zschäpe blew up the apartment she had been living in with two of her accomplices. Investigators found the weapon used to kill her victims, as well as a video claiming responsibility for the crimes, amid the rubble of the apartment.
Four days earlier, Zschäpe’s two accomplices, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundler, committed suicide following a failed robbery. Zschäpe reportedly knew the two men and had been involved romantically with both in the past.
The three met in a youth club in the central German city of Jena in the early 90s, and became involved in far right movements in an economically depressed former East Germany around 1995.
“My family is dead,” Zschäpe told investigators after her two accomplices committed suicide.
But the mother of the accused is still alive, though the two women have reportedly not seen each other in several years. “The political opinions of my daughter are not the only reason for our estrangement,” Zschäpe’s mother told German magazine Der Spiegel. “But they were one of the main reasons.”
Eluding the radar of German domestic intelligence
Born in 1975, Zschäpe was raised mainly by her grandparents just outside Jena. Her father, who was Romanian, never took responsibility for her, and Zschäpe’s mother drifted in and out of her life between two failed marriages. By the time the two lived together, Zschäpe – at that time a teenager studying horticulture – was already starting to join far right movements.
When the police showed up to ask questions in 1996, Zschäpe’s mother was shocked. Never had her daughter expressed any racist or xenophobic sentiments, or any interest in far-right ideologies, in her presence.
An investigation into the handling of the murders revealed a number of oversights and missteps by police and domestic intelligence services which appear to show that the threat of right-wing extremists had been grossly underestimated.
The head of domestic intelligence resigned in July after staff admitted shredding files relevant to the case, and a parliamentary committee has been set up to look into what went wrong.
The scandal also exposed a web of contacts between the secret services and the far-right in which the state systematically exchanged cash for information, raising questions about possible collusion.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
What Zschäpe’s mother did not know was that her daughter had already helped found a neo-nazi group in Jena with the men that would end up being her accomplices. Beate Zschäpe was also a regular attendee at meetings of a local branch of National Socialist Underground, a German neo-Nazi group that at the time had several hundred followers, according to German intelligence agents.
Two years later, in 1998, German intelligence officials discovered a garage being used as a headquarters for bomb-making, rented under the name of Zschäpe. The three young extremists subsequently were forced to go underground, and German authorities lost all traces of them – though many journalists and politicians in Germany suspect that the government was at times in contact with the National Socialist Underground in order to better infiltrate and monitor far-right movements in the country.
“It is clear that the VS [the German domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution] had many informants on their payroll who were quite close to the National Socialist Underground,” confirmed Gideon Botsch, a German political scientist specialised in far-right movements, noting that the system of paid far-right informants was much criticised.
But Botsch added that “after 9/11, a regrouping took place in the VS, and a new focus in prevention of ‘Islamist’ terrorism [resulted in] the special branches for the extreme right suffering shortages in money, equipment and staff”.
Within the span of 13 years, Beate Zschäpe was therefore able to adopt roughly ten fake identities – three of them under names of Susann Dienelt, Silvia Rossberg, Lisa Pohl – and made a good impression on everyone whose path she crossed. “When she walked into a room, you forgot all your problems,” a former neighbour told Der Spiegel. “I would never have imagined her capable of killing and harbouring hatred like this.”
An emblem of German biases?
The trial is expected to last more than two years, with 600 witnesses expected to testify and fifty lawyers working on the case. Prosecutors are hoping that the trial will shed light on xenophobic murders targeting small business owners of foreign origins, as racism was not one of the motives seriously considered during initial investigations into the murders.
“The police, at an early stage, excluded racist motives and focused on perpetrators from the immigrant milieu,” Botsch explained. “This shows that the police force is not free of a biased attitude towards immigrants, and that there are no checks and balances to prevent them from following their biases.”
Moreover, those biases may be more widespread in contemporary German society than many previously thought. According to Botsch, recent opinion polls show that 10 percent of Germans have a “core right-wing ideology”, while another 25 percent have “far-right, xenophobic attitudes to a certain degree”.
As for the families of the victims in the Beate Zschäpe trial, considered one of the biggest neo-Nazi cases since World War II, there may be little in the way of closure or comfort on the horizon: the accused has said, via her three lawyers, that she will not testify.