Twenty years ago in the drab pre-fab housing blocks outside the east German town of Jena, swaggering youths gave Sieg-Heil salutes and flaunted their far-right views, as the structures of the only state they’d ever known crumbled around them.
Among them were three local teenagers, Beate Zschaepe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, whose racist hatred would fuse with a militancy not seen before in the neo-Nazi scene.
The series of murders laid at their hands have profoundly shaken a country that believed it had learned the lessons of its past, and reopened an uncomfortable debate about whether Germany must do more to fight a far-right fringe it had thought to be small, mostly non-violent and contained.
Already known to police for their hate crimes - such as hanging a doll bearing the sign “Jew” from a motorway bridge - the trio slipped underground in 1998 to found a cell known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU).
The NSU would go on to wage a seven-year racist killing spree across Germany, utterly undetected.
Zschaepe, the only surviving member of the trio, is due to go on trial in Munich next week, charged with complicity in the murder of eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman, two bombings in Cologne, and 15 bank robberies. Four others charged with assisting the NSU will sit with her on the bench.
“Initially Beate was a young, friendly girl,” said Thomas Grund, who still works at the Jena youth club they attended.
“Then she got together with Mundlos, a different type, who wore combat boots and parted his hair on the side (like Hitler). Then she changed.”
The existence of the NSU only came to light by chance in November 2011, when Mundlos and Boehnhardt committed suicide after a bungled bank robbery and torched their caravan in the eastern town of Eisenach.