Munich — The surviving member of a German neo-Nazi cell went on trial on Monday for a series of racist murders that scandalised Germany and exposed the security services’ inability or reluctance to recognise far-right crime.
The chance discovery of the gang, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which had gone undetected for more than a decade, has forced Germany to acknowledge that it has a more militant and dangerous neo-Nazi fringe than previously thought.
Beate Zschaepe, 38, is charged with complicity in the shooting of eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman in towns across Germany between 2000 and 2007, as well as two bombings in immigrant areas of Cologne and 15 bank robberies. Her two presumed male accomplices both committed suicide in 2011.
In a tailored black suit, white blouse and big earrings, and with her long hair looking glossy, Zschaepe’s appearance in court was very different from the surly mugshots that have been splashed over German media ahead of the eagerly-awaited trial. One of four other defendants charged with assisting the NSU hid under a dark hood.
Defence lawyers immediately challenged the presiding judge’s impartiality for ordering them but not some other participants to be searched thoroughly before entering the Munich court.
“This implies the defence lawyers are so stupid they might bring forbidden objects into the court,” said attorney Wolfgang Stahl, adding that Judge Manfred Goetzl seemed to suspect the defence team might pass messages or objects to their clients.
The case has shaken a country that believed it had learned the lessons of the past, and has reopened a debate about whether it must do more to tackle racism and the far right.