When it is not busy dictating political and economic policy to the rest of the countries in the European Union, it appears that the German government is facing its own slew of difficulties that call into question the legitimacy of the democratic process in Europe’s economic powerhouse. This week, the world will be watching as Beate Zschäpe and four men are tried for helping a right-wing extremist group, the National Socialist Underground, commit 10 race-related murders. The pending trial, which is slated to last around 84 days, will shed a light on how racism, violence, and xenophobia have returned to Germany in the 21st century.
The National Socialist Underground is a far-right terrorist group discovered in Germany in late 2011. Before being detected, however, the group was able to carry out what are now known as the Doner murders, which left ten people dead between the years 2000 and 2006. They also managed to kill a German policewoman, rob 14 banks, and detonate a pipe bomb in an immigrant-populated neighbourhood in Cologne in 2004. Considering the seriousness of these offenses, it is a shock that the perpetrators were not apprehended sooner.
Many believe that racism is the real reason that it took the German police so long to uncover the crimes of the NSU. The execution-style killings, carried out in a variety of cities throughout Germany during the 2000s, all targeted foreign workers, the majority of whom were of Turkish decent. Instead of identifying the racial motives behind the killings, however, the police assumed that the foreigners must have been involved in family disputes or linked to criminal gangs. They thus ignored the pleas of the victims’ families, who claimed that their relatives had been murdered in cold blood. The identities of the murderers were discovered only after two of the group’s members committed suicide following a botched bank robbery, after which the murder weapon (the same one used for each of the murders!) was discovered on the scene.
Pouring salt into sore wounds, the organization of the trial against Zschäpe et al. has been filled with blunders and national embarrassments. The trial was delayed by almost a month because of a scandal in which Turkish news organizations were denied press passes. The fiasco has been so horrifying that Chancellor Merkel herself issued a public apology to the victims’ families, and last week Germany apologized for its mistakes at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Despite these public displays of remorse, many believe that the trial will do little to tackle the problem of racism in Germany. Not only are neo-Nazis targeting foreigners at an alarming rate, but the first reaction of the police is to scapegoat the victims. Only 20 years after the reunification of Germany, racism and neo-Nazism are an all time high. It remains to be seen whether the strongest nation in the EU will succeed in using this highly visible trial to tackle this disgusting wave of hatred and xenophobia.