Blockbuster Trial

Beate Zschäpe, Alleged Neo-Nazi Leader, on Trial in Germany

The trial of Beate Zschäpe, seen the most important in post-reunification Germany, gets under way today. Elisabeth Braw reports on the charges of mass murder—and the nation’s soul-searching.

05.06.13 8:45 AM ET

The 38-year-old woman looks like a librarian or pharmacist. But when Beate Zschäpe faces the court in Munich on Monday, hers will be most-watched trial Germany has seen in decades.

For almost 14 years, the neo-Nazi group Nazionalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU), allegedly led by Zschäpe, killed and maimed across Germany. Her trial may last for years, too. She’s accused of complicity in the murders of 9 foreigners and 1 police officer, several attempted murders, 2 bombings, and 15 robberies and is going on trial with 4 of her top lieutenants. Two other NSU leaders, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, committed suicide when police finally caught up with their group after a bank robbery 18 months ago.

The descent of Zschäpe, Böhnhardt, and Mundlos into neo-Nazism began amid the dizzying transformation of the former East Germany in the early 1990s. The process brought higher living standards, but unemployment was rampant, and to many citizens, life was confusing and painful. “Nobody is born a neo-Nazi,” says Lothar König, a left-leaning youth pastor in the trio’s hometown, Jena. “In the early 1990s there was a total vacuum here. Nobody knew what would happen. People felt lost. Far-right groups offered a community, a place to meet. And they offered a structure. Many young people were drawn to that.”

So it was that Zschäpe, an apprentice gardener raised by a single mother, met fellow teenagers Böhnhardt, the son of a teacher and an engineer, and Mundlos, the son of a math professor and a retail saleswoman, in an extreme-right youth group. “Uwe had always been the class clown, but after he moved to another part of town, he shaved off his hair and started showing up in school wearing bomber jackets and springer boots,” recalls A.B., a classmate of Mundlos’s for 10 years who requested anonymity, fearing repercussions from neo-Nazis. “He’d always been a bit contrarian. During communist times, he was one of the few who criticized the regime. But he was spoiled. His older brother was disabled, and his parents were very happy to have a healthy child, so they let him get away with a lot.”

The trio, soon active members of groups like the Thüringer Heimatschutz, or Thuringia Homeland Protection, was far from alone. Jena in the 1990s was known around Germany as a city where right-wing extremists felt at home. Simply by marching down the streets in groups, they intimidated residents. “Once I was riding my bike wearing a red headband,” says Mundlos’s classmate. “A neo-Nazi stopped me and asked if I was a communist.” People of color and known left-wingers took care not to walk anywhere alone after dark. König was a particular target.

In this handout photo dated 2004, neo-Nazis Uwe Boehnhardt and Beate Zschaepe are shown on vacation at an undisclosed location.

German Federal Criminal Police Office,via Getty

In this handout photo dated 2004, neo-Nazis Uwe Böhnhardt and Beate Zschäpe are shown on vacation at an undisclosed location.

Fast-forward to 2013. The Brown House, a former gathering spot for neo-Nazis, has been sealed by the city. NGOs and local authorities assist victims of extremism. The mayor runs an anti-Nazi city network. When extreme-right groups organize events, anti-racism groups quickly organize counterdemonstrations. “When extreme-right attacks occur these days, they’re immediately made public,” observes König. “And there’s not much the NPD [the far-right National Democratic Party] can do anymore. Many of its leaders are in jail, and others have left politics.” The NPD could not be reached for comment.

But while Jena has had some success battling extremism, the news is not so positive around the country. According to a recent survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 39 percent of residents in Germany’s East support xenophobic positions, compared with 22 percent of residents in the West. “Sure there’s still right-wing extremism here,” says König. “It’s just that it the extremists have moved their activities to other cities. And they’ve become much more subtle. They’re much more bourgeois now. They look like ordinary citizens. At the moment they don’t have a chance here, but what if the economy starts going badly?”

Lothar Koenig

Elisabeth Braw

Lothar Koenig

This week, and for months and years to come, all eyes will again be on Jena, now a booming university city two and a half hours south of Berlin. The trial of Zschäpe and four more alleged NSU members is viewed as the most important in post-reunification Germany, and it has prompted national soul-searching: Do parts of the country remain sympathetic to extreme-right ideology? Why did the intelligence services not act to have the alleged NSU members arrested, even though they were aware of the group’s criminal activities? Observes Mundlos’s former classmate: “The reason the trial is such a big thing in Germany is that we don’t know how involved the intelligence services are with the extreme-right scene.” Chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded answers, and a parliamentary committee has been convened to scrutinize the actions of the police and intelligence services.

The terrorists’ love triangle fascinates, too. Initially Zschäpe dated Mundlos; they were even engaged. But later she left him to date Böhnhardt. That is, she didn’t really leave Mundlos: the three lived underground, together, until the end. National and international media interest in the trial has been so overwhelming that it had to be delayed; media seats will now be allocated by lottery.

“The case has received huge attention in the media, but you have to remember that the number of neo-Nazis in this city of 100,000 was probably never more than 100,” says Jens Kobow, a Jena resident. “Sure, there are some neighborhoods where it’s cool to be a neo-Nazi and hit people, but this is a city of academics. The people who go extreme right here are kids who don’t know what they want.” Zschäpe faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.