When extremists are not considered

Berlin and Munich

For ten years Germany’s homeland security failed to convict a group of Neo-Nazis who killed ten people, most of who were Turkish. Will the Turkish community be able to trust the German state again?The terror trio, known as the “Zwickauer Terrorzelle”, was finally detected because two of them committed suicide in November 2011. Since then, their accomplice Beate Zschäpe is held in custody and awaits trial for her involvement in the trio’s racist and violent crimes. Together they had planned and executed a series of murders motivated by racial hatred, which cost the lives of one Greek man, one police woman and nine Turkish men. Even though all victims were from a minority background, the police investigation did not follow up on evidence which suggested a racist motive. Instead investigators followed allegations that connected the atrocities to the Turkish crime scene.

“It was deeply shameful to find out how police investigations affected the victims families” says Martin Neumeyer, who’s commissioner for integration. When he met the wife and daughters of one of the Turkish men who was murdered 2005 in Munich, they told him about the police turning up in their family’s home in Anatolia and interrogating them about connections to the Turkish mafia. The family’s reputation was ruined, they had lost a husband and father, but the murder was not solved until the Zwickauer Terrorzelle was discovered six years later. News of the police and homeland security’s failure to stop the underground Neo-Nazi group, or even connect them to the murders, caused an outcry of indignation in the media and resulted in statements of regret and shame by politicians.Members of the Turkish community were deeply shocked by the events. “It created a massive insecurity towards the German authorities” says Sirin Sak who lives in Berlin and hosts a radio show on the German-Turkish station Metropol FM. She says that her community used to regard the German police and authorities with respect. Many Turkish immigrants come from rural backgrounds where they had to live with a corrupt police and political system. In contrast to that they see the German state and authorities as trustworthy. “We feel safe here, but that feeling was somewhat undermined by what was revealed last year. It’s a real shock for many of us.” Sirin sees the events as part of a development that began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The spread of anti-islamic sentiments have increasingly singled out members of the Turkish community, and that gives them a feeling of being diminished to their ethnic background. A lot of educated and trained young people think that no matter how good they are, they are less likely to get a job when they compete with Germans. “If you go to Turkey with a German education you are received with open arms by employers” she says. For the first time since Turkish migration to Germany began in the 1960’s there are more Turkish people leaving than coming to the country. This trend is mainly due to improving economic prospects in Turkey, but Sirin says that there is an increasing sense of “keeping that backdoor to Turkey open in case things get worse for us in Germany.”Latent racism is noticeable at all levels of German society, where according to a census#,15-30% of the population adhere to extremely conservative values. This is fertile ground to infiltrate the political and social arena, for a radical right wing party like the NPD (German Nationalist Party) and other groups which foster right wing or “brown” ideology. Right wing extremists in Germany are not a homogenous group, some gather in clandestine fraternities who use state of the art media appearances, others use clubs and mainstream institutions to spread their ideas. Despite different appearances the groups share common principles which can be summarised as anti equality and anti democratic values. The official number of people considered to be right wing extremists range between ten- to twenty-thousand, but support for the NPD is considered to be 3 to 4 times higher by EXIT, an organisation that is engaged with extremists who want to quit the radical scene. In the last decade the extreme right wing rhetoric has shifted from a “fight for the streets” led by skinheads who resorted to intimidation tactics and violence, to a “fight for the minds”. The latter approach is less overtly aggressive and aims to recruit people from a broader spectrum of society. According to Daniel Köhler, a researcher at EXIT, there are now more and more people with middle to upper class backgrounds such as lawyers, teachers, policemen, students and mothers, who identify with “brown” ideology. “For too long the problem of right wing extremism was considered a marginal issue of frustrated, young people and there is little awareness of how far right wing extremism has spread into German society.” He thinks that if the police was more sensitive to the problem, they may have made the necessary connections in their investigation of the murder series by the “Zwickauer Terrorzelle”. Right wing extremism is a politically uncomfortable topic, and politicians from all parties tend to avoid it. This has generated a false understanding of right wing ideology and its place in German society. Every day up to three acts of violence motivated by right wing extremism are recorded. Usually the perpetrators are considered to be acting on their own without support from a wider network. “This shows how out of touch the state and police are with developments in the right wing extremist scene” says Köhler. EXIT practices a method of passive intervention, which consists of being present in the scene without fraternising with radicals. Most extremists who quit the scene through EXIT are mid- to high-ranking in the organisational hierarchy of extremist groups. This way the intervention weakens extremist group structures and gains insight into how they operate. It is considered the most successful dropout program in the whole of Europe, but despite its valuable work and research EXIT does not receive funding from the German government.


The government uses a different approach. It keeps an eye on right wing extremism through the “Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution”. Germany’s secret service pays informants from inside the right wing extremist scene for information. This practice of using tax payer’s money to effectively fund extremists in exchange for information, which may or may not be reliable, is often regarded as controversial, but no government has yet proposed an alternative. Similarly, when the possible banning of the NPD (German Nationalist Party) has been discussed in the Bundestag, it’s always been rejected as unconstitutional. Commissioner for integration Martin Neumeyer points out that the idea to ban the NPD is merely a smoke screen anyway, which comes up every time right wing extremism makes headlines – but forgotten afterwards. “To ban a party is not a democratic solution” he says. “It takes civil society and the media to speak out against the ideas of a party like the NPD.”

Others say that a ban of the NPD is an important first step. Dr. Vural Ünlü is director of the Turkish Community Bavaria, a civil society organisation that supports equal opportunities for Turkish people working in Germany. He says that “it’s important for there to be no political party which acts as a safe haven for right wing extremist ideology.” If the NPD was banned, right wing extremist groups would lose a major source of funding and structural coherence, but that would not solve the problem of right wing extremist ideas spreading. “It comes down to more awareness about that problem, and a more sensitive media coverage would help” he says. When it was revealed that the Neo-Nazi group Zwickauer Terrorzelle was responsible for ten  murders of mostly Turkish men, the press called it the “doner-murder” (Döner Mord), and the special task force investigating the murders was called Operation Bosporos. “To use that kind of racist language just destroys all progress we make as an ethnically mixed society” says Cidgem Ipek, a young German-Turkish woman. Her father used to own a doner shop in Berlin where she grew up, studied and now works for the civil service. She thinks that the reactions from the state and the media towards the racist murders reflect a careless attitude towards right wing extremism and racism. The public’s response to the atrocities was short lived and Cigdem says that “the majority of people didn’t care enough about it, as if it’s a problem that only concerns those with dark hair and a Turkish accent.”

Germany’s most prominent tabloid newspaper Bild apologized for its use of derogatory and sensationalised language after it was heavily criticised for it, but with only 4% of journalists from migration backgrounds in German newsrooms it’s not surprising that insensitive language towards minorities gets published. A lot of people in the Turkish community also stick to media outlets from Turkey because they don’t see their interests covered in the German media. “In many ways integration has failed in Germany” says Dr. Ünlü. There’s a dominant social majority in Germany which is shaped by the German culture, and right wing extremism is Germany’s inconvenient truth for historical reasons. People try hard to distance themselves from the stigma of the country’s past, and Cigdem thinks that the German media didn’t report more on the racist murders when they happened in 2006 because “that would not have gone down well during the football world cup when the whole world was watching.”

Germany’s nature of neglect towards minority interests, and especially the minorities’ protection from right wing extremism, has been shaped by an agenda set by the state and homeland security institutions. Since the 70’s they focused on left wing terrorism which sprung from the 1968 student movement, and post 9/11 the focus shifted to islamic terrorism. It’s as if radical right wing ideology maneuvered its way into the middle of society without being noticed, because the government and civil society were too busy watching out for other perceived threats. The majority of society is ignorant of racism and right wing extremism and that’s how a small group like the Zwickauer Terrorzelle got away with murder for so long. The institutionalised blindness of German authorities towards racism is further demonstrated by a report from a group of FBI agents who were supporting the German investigators in 2007. Their report concludes that the killer was committing crimes motivated by racist hatred. Still, the German investigators didn’t follow that advice. Instead they set up a fake doner shop to gain undercover access to the Turkish crime and trafficking scene, because they chose to follow suspicions that the murdered Turkish men had been involved in criminal activity. All of the victims were small-scale business owners and entrepreneurs, with families and no prior convictions.

A special inquiry is in the process of exposing the course of events, which allowed the group of Neo-Nazis to get away with murder for more than ten years. On May 24 the inquiry finally began to question witnesses from the special task force Bosporos. Whether the findings will change the government’s approach to right wing extremism is uncertain, as none of the political parties are likely to confront the problem, because they all would have to accept some blame for forgone decisions. Ultimately it’s just as important for Germany’s social majority to realise, that attacks by right wing extremists on people from Turkish or other minority backgrounds are attacks on their own democratic values and institutions.