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Right-Wing Extremism

Opinion: Few answers one year into the NSU trial

On May 6, 2013, the National Socialist Underground murder trial began. The hopes of the victims' families have been disappointed, and that's not just the fault of main defendant Beate Zschäpe, says DW's Marcel Fürstenau.

The two alleged murderers Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos have committed suicide; main defendant Beate Zschäpe has not said a word ever since her trial began on May 6, 2013. That's what makes it difficult - if not impossible - to get to the bottom of the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU). Why did these three young, right-wing extremists turn into mass murderers motivated by race? Can Zschäpe be convicted of murdering 10 people, nine of which were immigrants of Turkish and Greek background?

One year on, there are no satisfying answers to those questions. That's first and foremost a result of Zschäpe's pointed decision to remain silent, but expectations for the trial have been too high right from the start. Of course, things would have been different had the accomplice of the alleged assassins spoken up in court. But the faint hopes of Zschäpe entering a guilty plea have been crushed - particularly for the victims' relatives. A gesture of sympathy for their suffering could hardly be expected from the defendant.

A calculating approach by the defense

It's little comfort to the victims' parents, siblings and widows that Carsten S., who is accused as an accomplice in the NSU killings, apologized to them. They want answers as to why it was their husbands, sons and fathers who had to die - haunting questions that will perhaps never be answered. This uncertainty adds to their suffering, and that's the doing of Zschäpe. The strategy, chosen by her lawyers, might make sense from a legal point of view, but it certainly doesn't ease the families' pain.

Of course, their professional duty is to achieve the best outcome for their client. But considering the overwhelming evidence, the implication that their client was innocent almost feels shocking.

The strategy employed by Zschäpe's defense team could ultimately work, since her direct involvement in the murders cannot yet be demonstrated. That's why another aspect will be all the more important for the verdict, which is not expected before next year: Zschäpe is also charged with attempted murder.

Several eye witnesses and experts have testified that Zschäpe blew up an apartment in Zwickau, where she, Börnhardt and Mundlos lived while in hiding. Only thanks to much good fortune was no one harmed during this effort to cover the group's tracks. A physicist working for the Bavarian Bureau of Investigation (LKA) confirmed the prosecutors' assessment of a life-threatening explosion. That should be enough to send Zschäpe behind bars for a long time.

After 109 days in court, nothing points to Zschäpe pleading guilty after all. No one can force her to incriminate herself. Her lawyers could persuade her, but they have chosen not to. The NSU trial may well end without Böhnhardt and Mundlos being implicated in any crimes by their most important conspirator and others involved.

Questions of everyday racism

Should that scenario play out, the victims' families will experience added humiliation. Some of them had been accused of the crimes by biased authorities before the NSU was exposed. No one will be able to erase these traumatic events, and they are likely going to continue haunting them after the trial has ended. Why is Zschäpe so adamant at remaining silent? Why are so many dubious right-wing witnesses not in the dock? Was the NSU really just comprised of these three key figures?

All of these questions leave much room for speculation - no matter what the outcome of the NSU trial is. But we shouldn't forget about the limitations of such a trial. Legally speaking, it's solely evidence that matters and punishing individual guilt. The senate led by Judge Manfred Götzl is on the right track. Questions concerning the social factors that might have caused the killing spree need to be taken up outside of the court room.

It was a good start that the final report of the German Bundestag's committee came to the conclusion that German state authorities failed - including German police and intelligence officials as well as politicians. But a coherent concept as to what practical conclusions to draw from that report is still lacking. Small tweaks here and there to organizational structures won't do the trick of curbing everyday racism in Germany. That holds especially true for the NSU case.

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