An interview with Eike Sanders, Coordinator of NSU-watch.
In November 2011, Germany woke up to a story that, at first glance, seemed unbelievable. Two neo-nazis, pursued by the police following a bank robbery in Eisenach, Thuringia, had set fire to their getaway car in an apparent joint suicide pact. As the news was broadcast, a third neo-nazi, Beate Zschäpe, set fire to the apartment she was sharing with the men, and later gave herself up to the police. On the same day that the apartment was set on fire, a shocking and horrific DVD was sent to the press and political parties in which the NSU claimed responsibility for several murders and at least two nail bomb attacks in Turkish neighbourhoods in which at least twenty-two people were severely injured. From this DVD, and from the charred remains of the apartment came vital evidence that at least three neo-nazis had been part of a terrorist cell, which they called the National Socialist Underground (NSU). From 2000-2007 the cell had been responsible for the murders of at least eight men of Turkish origin, one man of Greek origin, and a female police officer. Even though the police investigators had connected the nine murders, as all of the NSU’s victims with Turkish and Greek origin were shot in the head at close range with a Ceska gun, they did not consider the murders to be racially motivated, preferring instead to follow leads that pointed to foreigners’ crime syndicates. The scandal involving the police also extended to the intelligence services. Despite operating a paid informer system within the far Right, vital intelligence of the NSU’s whereabouts was not passed on by the security services to the police. One agent for the Hessen security services was even present at the scene of the murder of Halit Yozgat who was just 21-years-old when he was shot dead in an internet cafe in Kassel.
In April 2013, the trial of Beate Zschäpe and four co-defendants started at the Higher Regional Court of Munich. Zschäpe has been charged with complicity in the murders and membership of a terrorist organisation. Her co-defendants have been charged with a number of crimes as accessories and associates of the murderers, ranging from supplying the pistol used in nine of the murders, to providing ID, safe houses and cars. One of the four is Ralf Wohlleben, a one-time vice chair of a regional chapter of the National Democratic Party of Germany, who is charged with supplying the gun used in the murders. It is well known that amongst the many neo-nazis who had, at some point, been close to the NSU, were several paid informers for the German intelligence services.
In December 2013, IRR Director Liz Fekete spent three days in Munich at an event organised by NSU-watch and funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung which brought together international experts for discussions and a public event entitled ‘A Glance from the Outside’. Here she talks to coordinator, Eike Sanders, about its monitoring work and why they think international support for NSU-watch is so necessary.
Liz Fekete: The NSU case, described as the largest far-right trial in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, is expected to last at least another year. Can you tell us a little bit about the monitoring role of NSU-watch, who you are and how you organise?
Eike Sanders: Yes, but can I first point out that I am not only one of the coordinators of NSU-watch but I also work at an anti-fascist documentation centre and archive in Berlin. This is important because NSU-watch is a network of around a dozen anti-fascist archives and monitoring projects, as well as individuals across Germany, who were already monitoring the NSU case in 2012 but felt the need to come together in April 2013 in order to provide a formal structure and pool our existing research. We work in liaison with the family lawyers for the victims, and the core of our work involves observing the trial proceedings each and every day the court sits, providing high-quality and detailed court reports that are professionally translated into Turkish and partially into English. In addition to this, we do our own research and publish our own commentary and analysis. But we also give media briefings, maintain an archive, organise public events, and fundraise. Sometimes the very scope of our work seems overwhelming, but we are determined to continue.
Liz Fekete: As the scandal of the police and intelligence services’ failure intensified, the government set up a cross-party parliamentary inquiry tasked with investigating the failures. What was your assessment of the inquiry’s final report?
Eike Sanders: The federal parliamentary commission sat for over a year under the chairmanship of the Social Democrat Sebastian Edathy and issued its final report in August 2013. What we have strongly criticised is the fact that in this final report the parliamentarians completely failed to note the structural and institutional racism of the state. The picture the report paints is one of a series of regrettable blunders – misunderstandings caused by fragmentation and competition between different agencies, negligence perhaps. All mistakes that could be put down to technicalities and large bureaucracies, mistakes that, the inquiry argued, were compounded by personnel lacking in intercultural competence. The fact that the very word ‘racism’ is totally avoided in the conclusion of the report is not only disappointing, but shocking.
But I should add that, like the media, we do acknowledge the notable achievements made by the parliamentary inquiry in the Bundestag. The final report comes to 1,400 pages. The parliamentarians were diligent in trying to reconstruct in detail each single mistake by the different authorities, mistakes that resulted in the three nazi terrorists remaining at large for so many years, while the murders of nine of the NSU’s victims were not investigated as racially-motivated crimes. But while most of the members of parliament came to the inquiry process with the honest intention of seeking out the truth, it was very clear that the police and intelligence service officers and officials, called to give evidence, had quite different intentions. They had no intention of providing full disclosure, allowing us behind the curtain to really see what had been going on. Time and time again, officers under interrogation put the blame on any administrative body but their own. On countless occasions, they suffered from inexplicable memory loss. The sentence we heard repeated almost every day was, ‘I cannot recall that’. Too often, the contradictions in the evidence of the police and security services were painfully obvious. It was clear that some officers were not only unwilling to give evidence, but that they were covering up for themselves or others. Somebody had to be lying.
Liz Fekete: In fact, the parliamentary inquiry had the power to scrutinise all documents and files of the security services and yet key documents had gone missing or been shredded – forcing the resignations of the head of the Federal Office for the Defence of the Constitution and his regional counterparts in Thuringia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Berlin. Surely, the parliamentarians were angry about that?
Eike Sanders: There is a great deal of speculation on the question of the missing documents, and explanations vary from incompetence or negligence (according to one version, they accidently mistook two different piles of documents, one for the archive, one for the shredder) to a broad conspiracy theory that officials destroyed the documents in order to cover up the state’s involvement with the NSU. But what was so, so disappointing was that whereas the MPs were strong in their criticisms of the authorities during the inquiry proceedings, when it came to publishing the report, the destruction of the evidence was completely played down. Nor were the motives of the authorities for this destruction ever explained in the report. And that is how the final report is now used by politicians to whitewash the scandal.
Liz Fekete: I came to Munich to be part of a working group and event entitled ‘Glance from the Outside’ where international experts, including the IRR, were invited to give their perspectives. How can people in other European countries support the work of NSU-watch?
Eike Sanders: Before answering that, I need to give you some background. We anti-fascists in Germany have always worked closely with anti-fascists in an international network, because we have known all along the murderous potential of nazi terror outfits such as Combat 18 or the individual so-called ‘lone wolves’ like John Ausonius (the so-called Laser Man) in Sweden. But ever since the 1990s, when neo-nazis were firebombing migrant hostels, the German authorities have downplayed the danger.
The other thing we know from other European countries is that where there is analysis of institutionalised and state racism it can lead to public pressure and reform, in the investigation of ‘hate crimes’ for instance. In this respect, for example, I think we have a lot to learn from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. But in German society, after the initial shock, it is as though the authorities want to sweep everything back under the carpet. The politicians and public opinion in mainstream racist society want to get back to the status quo ante as soon as possible, as though nothing of significance has happened.
Liz Fekete: But how can that happen, after all that has become known about the way the police treated the families of victims? Sons and fathers treated as suspects, wives questioned about the state of their marriage, telephones bugged, friendships destroyed by suspicion. Has society no sense of shame?
Eike Sanders: But, you see, the whole scandal of the NSU has been recast as a singular event in a post-National Socialist Germany that has nothing to do with institutionalised racism, nothing to do with everyday racism, stereotypes and prejudices. The fact is that society as a whole lacks any sense of solidarity with the victims of racism. And this has not changed despite all we know about the NSU. They, or better, let’s say we, we all need to take responsibility, to reflect on what’s wrong – to ask ourselves what part did we play in the total failure of society to stand alongside the victims. And that brings me back to your original question, about why we need international solidarity. We hope that via pressure from the outside, we can keep the pressure up within Germany so that racism is not reduced to the murderous ideology of some hardcore neo-nazis, but is understood and acted upon at all levels.
Liz Fekete: To turn to something more positive, NSU-watch recently won a prize for its work. Can you tell us about that?
Eike Sanders: Last November, we won first prize (in the ‘media project’ category) awarded by the Otto-Brenner-Foundation, a trade union-based foundation that honours critical journalism. Apart from the prestige and public recognition of our work, the award was much appreciated as it included €2000 – money we desperately needed for our work to be independent of the state. (That’s another reason why we need international support, to raise money to keep going!). The jury awarding the prize said that NSU-watch provided an ‘informative website of radical transparency’ and found it positive that NSU-watch was also published in Turkish, describing that as an ‘additional commendable intercultural interpreters’ achievement’.
Liz Fekete: The German state now maintains that the current court case should put an end to the scandal of the NSU, as all remaining members and associates of the terror cell are now on trial. Does NSU-watch have concerns that other members of NSU are still at large?
Eike Sanders: Yes, absolutely, of course this is one of the primary motivating factors of our work. The NSU definitely cannot be reduced to Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos as though they were a single terrorist cell aided by some unimportant helpers. This narrative is reflected in the charges brought against Zschäpe and her four co-defendants and it is repeated every day in the way the public prosecutor’s office conducts the trial. We know – as do the authorities – that many more neo-nazis had at some point since 1998 supported the ‘Trio’, but they are unlikely to ever be apprehended and charged. Through our researches, we estimate that around 200 neo-nazis were connected in some way to the NSU, perhaps not directly or consciously supporting the series of murders, but certainly the NSU operated with the aid of a wider network part of which, and this is well-known, comprised Blood & Honour. In addition, far, far more people supported and still support the idea of an armed struggle for white supremacy, an ideal the NSU tried to make real by murdering people from a migrant background in Germany. That ideology continues, the infrastructure of a murderous neo-nazi scene continues, yet this is not being publicly discussed in Germany. That is what keeps us going – drawing attention to this, over and over again.
Read an IRR Briefing Paper: Pedlars of Hate: the violent impact of the European far Right
Read an IRR Briefing Paper: State intelligence agencies and the far Right