The Neo-Nazi Terror Group “NSU” & the 1980 Oktoberfest Bombing

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The Neo-Nazi Terror Group “NSU” & the 1980 Oktoberfest Bombing

by Michael Liebig


After November 4, 2011, the German public has experienced a kind of shock wave. The cause wasn’t yet another twist of the „euro crisis“, but the realization that there was something in Germany that wasn’t supposed to exist. Something for which neither the public nor the government were prepared: A neo-nazi terrorist cell that had committed 10 murders, carried out at least a dozen bank robberies, and was probably responsible for several bomb and arson attacks.

On that November the 4th, an armed bank robbery occurred in Eisenach (Thuringia). A short time later, the two alleged perpetrators were found dead in a camper van – they had committed suicide. On the same day, a fire broke out in a house in Zwickau (Saxonia). In this house, the two bank robbers, Uwe Böhnhardt (34) and Uwe Mundlos (38), had lived. The fire was set by Beate Zschäpe (36), who lived there as well. She surrendered to the police on Nov. 8.

In the camper and the Zwickau apartment, several weapons were found, including a Ceska pistol, with which eight Turks and one Greek – all of them small shopkeepers – had been murdered. The serial murders had occurred across Germany between 2001 and 2009. Also, a Tokarev pistol was found, with which the german policewoman Michele Kiesewetter had been shot dead in 2007. In the rubble of the Zwickau apartment, police found a video on a computer hard drive. The video was a kind of cynical „cartoon film“ in which a „National-Socialist Underground“ (NSU) group boasted the 10 murders.

The public was not only shocked by existence of a neo-nazi terrorist group. Equally shocking was fact that the security agencies had been in the dark with respect to this terrorist cell. Since November the 4th, not a day has gone by without new disturbing revelations in the media. Some of the media reports are factual, others are conjectures and speculation. Whatever, the question marks on this case are not on the decline, but multiply.

What Went Wrong with the Security Agencies

It quickly became apparent that Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe were not unknown to the security agencies and the police. The trio had been quite active in the neo-nazi scene, which is being monitored by the domestic intelligence services and police. Starting in the mid-1990s, they participated in neo-nazi demonstrations and events. When, in January 1997, neo-nazi hate mail, mock letter bombs and mock explosive devices turned up in Thuringia, the trio was detained in the course of police investigations, but soon thereafter they were released. That’s normal under the rule of law when there is insufficient evidence. In a September 1997 police search in the neo-nazi milieu, real explosives were found and there was evidence pointing to the trio. When an arrest warrant was issued in January 1998, the three had disappeared, leaving behind explosives and neo-nazi propaganda material.

For the next 13 years, the neo-nazi trio remained untraceable for the domestic intelligence services and police – until November 4, 2011. And that’s the really disturbing issue. Obviously, something had gone terribly wrong with the security authorities.

Besides lots of perfectly comprehensible criticism and critical questions on the conduct of the security agencies in the media and the political sphere, conspiracy theories have popped up in the internet: The NSU terrorist cell would have been “deliberately ignored” by the security agencies, the latter might have “aided” or even „controlled“ the neo-nazi group. These allegations against the security agencies are patently absurd. But the disturbing question remains: Why were the security agencies incapable to recognize the formation of a terrorist neo-nazi group? Why were they unable to attribute a series of nine murders to a neo-nazi context?

If you talk to knowledgeable people who are familiar with the modus operandi of the domestic intelligence services and the police in dealing with extremism and terrorism, you get three explanations for what has gone so terribly wrong:

  1. Right-wing/neo-nazi violence against foreigners, minorities and leftists is an undisputed fact. But these rather widespread acts of violence had been „limited“ to (often severe) bodily injury. Such assaults typically occur in a highly affective mode of behavior, often under the influence of alcohol. Cases of carefully planned political murders – committed in cold blood – had been unknown in the neo-nazi scene.
  2. For the security agencies, the generally accepted assumption was that terrorism is really the exclusive domain of islamist and left-wing extremists. Security officials were fixated on Islamist and leftist terrorism. In nine of the murders committed by NSU terror cell, the same weapon was used, but because the murders did not fit the patterns of Islamist or leftist terrorism, the investigations focused on an organized crime background. It seems, the possibility of neo-nazi terrorism was not taken into consideration. That the serial murders could be acts of neo-nazi terrorism seemed „unimaginable“.
  3. In addition, there are the typical bureaucratic frictions and blockages in information exchange and cooperation between the various intelligence services and police authorities. There was no “situation room” bundling and cross-checking the data of various agencies dealing with right-wing extremism.

These three explanations for the systemic failure of the security agencies with respect to neo-nazi terrorism are sound and plausible. However, do they provide a sufficient explanation?

The head of the German domestic intelligence service (BfV), Heinz Fromm, said on Nov. 27: “We have not really understood these [NSU] perpetrators… We could image them committing arson or even bomb attacks, but not committing cold-blooded executions. We should have known better”.

The question that remains unanswered is: What could explain the NSU cell’s „quantum leap“ from „normal“ right-wing extremist violence towards neo-nazi terrorism in an armed underground mode?

Two Characteristics of Neo-Nazi Terror Group

As the case of the NSU terror cell shows, there are two distinctive features in the phenomenology of neo-nazi terrorism. They might give a clue for answering this question:

  1. The conspiratorial, apparently “professional” conduct of the NSU-terror cell. To remain undetected for 13 years in an “underground” mode of operation, is no small feat – even if we consider the systemic failures of the security agencies. When you go „underground“, you still need apartments, bank accounts, ID cards, vehicle registrations, credit cards (or their counterfeits). A series of arrests since Nov. 4, confirms that the NSU terror cell operated within an covert network of supporters. This clandestine network provided false identities, logistical support and possibly warnings against actions by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. These supporters of the NSU terror cell came from the neo-nazi milieu. In spite of the fact that this milieu is being monitored by the security agencies, including undercover agents, the neo-nazi support network for the NSU terror group remained intact for 13 years.
  2. A new kind of „political communication“ of the neo-nazi terrorists. The NSU terror cell did not publish any „claim of responsibility“ in the way that islamist or leftist terrorists ideologically “justify” their actions. Instead of lengthy and convoluted ideological “communiques”, the neo-nazi terrorists used a cynical „cartoon“ technique. In their video, the NSU terror cell represents itself as the cartoon character „Pink Panther“, who is featured together with photographs of the murdered victims and the crime scenes. This stunningly cynical „political communication“ necessitates appropriate sociological and psychological analysis. However, the underlying principle of this type of “political communication” is explicitly featured in the video: “Pink Panther” holds up a poster on which is written: „Not words but deeds.“

The Oktoberfest Bombing

Both the conspiratorial mode of behavior of the neo-nazi terror group and its “propaganda by deeds” approach point to earlier manifestations of right-wing terrorism, particularly by neo-fascist groups in Italy. But there is also a German precedent of right-wing terrorism: The bombing of the Munich Oktoberfest in 1980, in which 13 people were killed and 211 wounded.

Among the dead was Gundolf Köhler, who was officially declared the “lone assassin”. However, Köhler had connections to various neo-nazi groups. He had participated in paramilitary trainings of the neo-nazi „WSG Hoffmann“ group. Another link was to the right-wing extremist Heinz Lembke. When Lembke was arrested – a year after the Munich bombing – he led the police to a total of 33 secret weapons caches in northern Germany, where automatic weapons, large quantities of ammunition, 250 hand grenades, 150 kg of TNT and bazookas were hidden. Shortly thereafter, Lembke committed suicide in prison. The two chief suspects being dead, the case was closed in 1982.

Now, 31 years after Munich Oktoberfest bombing and 29 years after Köhler was officially declared “lone assassin”, the Bavarian State Parliament and the Munich City Council have – both by unanimous vote – demanded that the judicial investigation into Oktoberfest bombing shall be reopened. And, that the evidence of its neo-nazi background, accumulated over the years by journalistic investigators, historians and lawyers of victims of the bombing, be reviewed.

Cold War Neo-Nazis & the „New Generation“ Neo-Nazis

The Swiss historian Daniele Ganser – a serious scientist, not a promoter of conspiracy theories – has suggested a possible connection of the Munich bombing and the „Gladio” network. What was Gladio? Under the direction of American and British intelligence services, a clandestine network of “sleeper” operatives and arms stashes was set up in all West European NATO countries. The purpose of Gladio was the conduct of guerrilla warfare if the Soviets had conquered and occupied Western Europe. In 1991, Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti had revealed the existence of Gladio.

However, the Gladio structure as such, is the wrong focus. As Ganser points out, the Gladio organization included a significant number of militant right-wing extremists. In the Cold War context, that’s not surprising: right-wing extremists were the most committed anti-communists.

The penetration of Gladio by militant right-wing extremists has been clearly established through prosecutorial investigations and parliamentary commissions of inquiry in Italy. These official investigations also show that right-extremist groups were responsible for several bloody terrorist attacks between 1969 and 1980. The most severe neo-fascist terror attack was the bombing of the Bologna train station – with 85 persons killed – on August 2, 1980. The bombing of the Munich Oktoberfest occurred on September 26, 1980.

In 1991, the German government declared that the Gladio network in Germany had been entirely dissolved. This statement is credible. However, what has happened with the rank and file operatives after Gladio’s dissolution? To put the question more precisely: what did the right-extremist Gladio elements do after they were “decommissioned”? Did these right-wing extremists let their operational skills in underground warfare and their neo-nazi ideological convictions simply fade away?

Or, might there have been a kind of “transfer” between between old right-extremists of the Cold War era and the new generation of neo-nazis which began to flourish in the 1990s – particularly in Eastern Germany? The NSU terror cell is an outgrowth of this right-wing extremist milieu. Whether there existed a link between old right-extremists of the Cold War era and the NSU terrorists, is a hypothesis. But such an hypothesis seems plausible enough to deserve an unbiased review by the 400 plus police investigators and intelligence experts who are currently working on the case of the neo-nazi NSU terror cell.

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