Terror on Trial 3: 357%

by Katrin Trüstedt

The major “National-Socialist Underground” trial ended this summer in Munich, under the applause of neo-Nazis and with little international attention. A recent US research study found that while white and rightwing terrorists carried out nearly twice as many terrorist attacks as Muslim extremists between 2008 and 2016, terrorist attacks committed by Muslim extremists receive 357% more press coverage than those committed by non-Muslims.

That’s right: 357%.

In many ways, this massive asymmetry is what the NSU case is about. For more than a decade, the self-declared “National-Socialist Underground” went on a killing spree across the country, assassinating nine “foreigners” (mostly Muslim men with migration background) and a police officer, carried out two bomb attacks and committed 15 armed robberies. Only after they released a video claiming responsibility did the police, the investigators, and the press realize what happened. Instead of considering right-wing terrorist attacks, the police was blaming the victims themselves, suggesting they must have been involved in criminal activities. The press referred to the crimes as the “Döner murders.”

What the trial has brought to light is, among other things, the fantasmatic scenarios of this right wing extremism, attacking the present German state as weak and aiming for a nation state of masculine strength and potency. At the announcement of the verdict, many neo-Nazis were in the audience. Their behaviour was explicitly signaling an attempt to dominate the courtroom. “We are many”, one of them said to a woman entering who expressed surprise at seeing the neo-Nazis in the audience next to Turkish speaking people. To these “foreigners”, to the court, and to the world at large, they aimed to show who’s really “the Man.”

And quite literally “the Man”. All the victims assasinated by the NSU – with the significant exception of a female police officer – were male “foreigners”, mostly with Turkish backgrounds. The reasons for choosing the particular victims are unclear, but aside from being “non-white”, they were all supposed to be “male, and in the age group of having procreative capacity”, according to documents by the NSU introduced in the trial. Such a focus anticipates the current phantasm of threats from young male Muslims “overrunning” a decadent Europe too weak to defend itself. The neo-Nazis in the courtroom seemed to echo the signals that these terror acts were meant to demonstrate: That they are in fact doing what the state fails to do – deciding upon who should be allowed to enter and become a member of the state and who is not, and ultimately extinguishing those who supposedly do not belong. For such a fascist job, the current state is, in their eyes, just too weak. What became palpable in the courtroom and throughout the whole trial was the ambiguous and strangely asymmetric relation between the right wing extremists and the institutions of the state.

On the one hand, the state appears to have been complicit in several ways with the right wing terrorism it has now put on trial. The scandal of this case was the involvement of state institutions enabling both passively and actively right wing extremism. The police failed to investigate the possibility of racist motives for the assassinations for years, instead assuming they had to be related to gang and drug criminality in the German-Turkish population, given the migration background of the victims. Over the course of the trial it also emerged that Germany’s domestic intelligence agency (the  so called “Office for the Protection of the Constitution”, BfV), must have been aware of the NSU and the possibility of terrorist activities. The large network of the intelligence service’s paid informants not only had contact to the supporters of the NSU, but in fact used their payments by the BfV to finance the neo-Nazi scene. During one of the assassinations – that of Halit Yozgat –, an intelligence agent had been present at the time and place of the murder, but failed to officially report the incident. During the trial, an employee at the BfV’s headquarters admitted to destroying files on seven informants a few days after the existence of the NSU came to light. Parliamentary fact-finding commissions covering the failings of the intelligence agencies were initiated in five German states. There are many indications that the domestic intelligence agencies were protecting its informants and actively sabotaging the prosecution’s investigation. Germany’s domestic security chief Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the BfV, has just been accused to have met several times with the leaders of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), to advise them about internal party issues and how to avoid investigation by his own office. Given the state institution’s activities (or lack thereof) it is hard not to get the impression that the institutions of the state regard right wing terrorism – targeting “only foreigners”, not “us” – as much less of a threat than Islamic terrorism. It is in this sense that the state appears in certain ways – however implicitly or even unconsciously – complicit.

There are many critics of the judgments the court arrived at now, pointing to the surprisingly lenient sentencing of André Eminger, an important enabler of the NSU, that was met with frenetic applause by neo-Nazis. One of the most persistent issues, however, was the unwillingness of the prosecution to consider the involvement of state institutions. The judge, in closing the case, did neither address this intractable relation nor reflect the historical dimension of this trial that far exceeds the sentences concerning the individuals on trial. While some argued that such challenges would exceed the framework of such a criminal proceeding, the selections and limits of the scope of this trial seems to portrait right wing terrorism as limitable and manageable.

While the state seems in these various ways complicit with right wing extremists, the neo-Nazis, on the other hand, were not only fighting the threatening “foreigners”, but attacking the state itself, while happily taking the money it channeled through the BfV informants. Their target is what they consider the “weak” state – the state that lets the “foreigners” in and protects them, thereby betraying the German Volk. The only exception to the victim principle of targeting “male foreigners at an age of procreative capacity” was one female “German” police officer. While the motive here remains even less clear, it is obvious that she was a representative of the hated “weak”, i.e. feminized state, like chancellor Merkel, hate object par excellence in right wing circles, who is being perceived as not only soft on immigration but as even inviting it. In this sense she seems to embody the very opposite of the current demand of walls projecting a stark image of power. Trump’s call for his “great” wall is not just his attempt to shift the overton window, as it has been claimed, in order to make it possible to enact stricter immigration laws. It seems most of all an attempt to reinvigorate a phantasmatic image of sovereignty, potency, clear-cut solutions, and containment. The attitude of the neo-Nazis at the Munich trial – “We are many” – does not only refer to their dominance in the courtroom. “We are many” also seems to resonate with the current uptrend of chauvinist right wing populism, empowering them to keep taking the job of the weak state into their own hands.

This is, perversely, exactly the charge levelled against people rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean: interfering in the business of the responsible state. While the terrorists are executing people in the name of a fascist state, these NGO’s and activists are indeed covering duties of the state, but by doing the reverse: saving people from imminent death, where the state officials are increasingly failing or refusing to do so. They are intervening in that border area that seems to be the realistic correlate of the phantasma of a sovereign wall – the Mediterranean Sea. Everything is liquid here, including the zones of sovereignty, nothing is contained or clear cut, but incredibly chaotic. This border zone is no less deadly, but not due to the active strength the neo-Nazis fantasize about and try to execute in their terrorism, but rather due to passive and active neglect. The EU is deferring and externalizing the problem, mainly to Lybia, in spite of the knowledge the EU has of all the massive human rights violations. This border is not one of concrete, but one constantly drawn and re-drawn by techniques of regulation; the violence not physical, but one of transferral and denial. It seems much more likely that this will be the future of our “borders”.

As Seyla Benhabib recently pointed out, the European discourse surrounding refugees is a symbolic one. Europe’s population includes 508 Million people; there are 3 million refugees here. That is not even one percent, receiving what feels like overall 357% of negative attention. The discourse projecting a threat by young male refugees taking over Europe as well as the imagined solution of strong borders and ultimate actions against them seems not just symbolic, but rather phantasmatic. Instead of refueling the idea of a threat “from outside” by participating in these delusional discourses, we should maybe talk about what type of community and what kind of state we actually want to live in.