Terror on Trial 1: (In)visibilities

by Katrin Trüstedt

Neonazis (1)With very little international attention, a major terrorism trial is entering its final stage in Munich, Germany. Beate Zschäpe, the only survivor of a right-wing terrorism trio, is facing charges of complicity in ten homicides, two bomb attacks, and 15 armed robberies, as well as membership in a terrorist organization, attempted murder, and arson. The victims are mostly people with a Muslim migration background. If the situation had been reversed with a “Muslim” group assassinating “Germans” for over a decade, then international interest would most likely have trumped the reporting on the recent Paris or Brussels attacks. This attentional asymmetry is in many ways also what the trial is about.

Over the course of more than a decade, the self-declared “National-Socialist Underground” (NSU) managed to go on a killing spree across the country, and, in some troubling sense, they did so on the government's watch. Germany's domestic intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz) was aware of the right wing terror cell before they went underground in 1998 and began their series of assassinations. And yet, for more than a decade, the police who were investigating the individual murder cases never considered the possibility of a right wing background as a motivation for the killings. Instead, in all of the various instances, the police only investigated the assumed criminal backgrounds of the victims as possible leads, presuming hidden ties to some Turkish mafia or criminal masterminds abroad. When people from the Turkish community suspected xenophobic motives, they were labeled as conspiracy theorists, as police documents show. The media went along with these assumptions and reported accordingly, and we all ate it up. The extent not only of right wing terror in Germany, but also of stupefying institutionalized racism in the Verfassungsschutz and the police, major fuck ups in the investigations, and collective blindness slowly came to light since 2011. All of this happened before the recent rise of the new right in Germany and elsewhere that seemed to have come out of nowhere.

The precise role of various institutional involvements and the question of how this could have been going on for over a decade is one of the biggest issues in this case. The domestic intelligence agency, called Verfassungsschutz, literally “protection of the constitution,” is supposed to do just that: protect the constitution. The first paragraph of the German constitution reads: “The dignity of man is inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all public authority.” The Verfassungsschutz has not only failed to do its job by preventing the “enemies of the constitution” from doing what they did, but they in fact enabled them. As has become known in parliamentary hearings, the Verfassungsschutz retained a number of informants in the Neo-Nazi scene, who actually used the money they received from the Verfassungsschutz to sponsor and support the very scene they were supposed to observe. And one informant was present at one of the NSU crime scenes at the time of the murder, although, allegedly, only accidentally. In the case of the NSU, the Verfassungsschutz in fact perpetuated what it was created to prevent. But whether or not this institutional failure can actually be addressed as part of this trial is controversial and contested within the current trial procedure.

Legal trials focus on individual responsibility. Since the two male members took their own lives before the police got to them, this trial concentrates on the only remaining member of the NSU, Beate Zschäpe. What did she know, support, initiate? What was her relationship with the two guys, both called Uwe? Does she have a drinking problem? How does she interact with her lawyers? (After having selected them for the Nazi sound of their names—Sturm, Heer and Stahl—she then repeatedly tried to have her lawyers fired). The exclusive focus on the individual's accountability, on her as well as of a handful supporters, diverts attention from the more fundamental aspects of this case that nevertheless seem to uncannily re-appear in the proceedings in court.

Sitting on the visitor's bench in this small court room, I see the defendants closest to me. I also see the judges, the state attorneys, and other state personnel. But I can only see the very tip of the relatives of the victims with their lawyers, who comprise the accessory prosecution. They are ascribed only a supplementary role in this trial, supporting the state attorneys in leading the prosecution of the defendants. By far the biggest party in this trial, they are barely visible to the public. Delegated to seats under the elevated box for the press and the public, the survivors are, like us, both part of and not part of the trial. But from the space where I am sitting overlooking them, it feels like they have literally been swept under the rug. Gyi-168142217-jpgFrom that supplementary position, however, they prove to be a driving force. With questions and motions about the role of the respective institutions and their informants in the Neo-Nazi scene, various lawyers from this sideline repeatedly attempt to broaden the limited scope of the prosecution that insists on focusing solely on the individual responsibility of Zschäpe and some of her individual helpers. One of the most pressing controversies of this trial is thus occurring not between the prosecution and the defense, but instead between the prosecution and the survivors' lawyers. Representing the victims' families, these lawyers sometimes find themselves in the position of having to form strategic alliances with the defense lawyers, who are eager to reduce their clients' individual responsibility by shifting some blame to the enabling institutions. So the survivors can find themselves in a situation where they act in a way that might paradoxically serve the people who not only killed or injured their family members, but then also celebrated it in a video featuring the pink panther. One of the defendants has “Die Jew Die” tattooed on his chest.

In her play on the trial, Das schweigende Mädchen (“The Silent Girl”), Elfriede Jelinek has one of the judges open the court session with the words “I now name the representatives of the survivors with their clients. You won't remember them anyways.” The setting of this trial is determined by the constellation that enabled the decade-long killing spree that brought us here in the first place. Looking at Zschäpe and her supporters, we are sitting above the victims' families; we see enough of them to not be able not to know that they are there, but we don't actually see them.