By Liz Fekete – Executive Director of the Institute of Race Relations (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It’s a long time since I was at the Munich Higher Regional Court, and I worry about the reliability of my memory. But after both visits I wrote emails to my friend Peter Pelz, and I include extracts from this correspondence here. Peter, many of whose family died at Auschwitz, is a co-director of the Soul of Europe, a mediation project working in the Balkans. Dust, Thou Art – a (forthcoming) memoir of his journey through the Balkans, is a reflection on the relationship between societal cruelty and cultural norms. While Peter has a great interest in the NSU case, my reading of earlier drafts of his manuscript also informed the way I related to the NSU trial. I found myself reflecting not just on the court proceedings, but wider cultural norms in Germany.
In December 2013 and November 2014, I travelled to Munich to observe the trial of the so-called National Socialist Underground at the Munich Higher Regional Court.
It goes without saying that my impressions of the trial are shaped by subjective factors. First, the fact that I don’t speak German means that I could not understand the proceedings directly and immediately. Colleagues from NSU-Watch would sit next to me, whispering to me what was being said.
As much time has passed, and in the absence of detailed notes, this makes it difficult for me to separate what I observed at the trial from the stories I was told by my colleagues when we met and discussed things after leaving the court. But the proceedings within the court, and the revelations of events outside, made a great impression on me, as the extracts from my correspondence with Peter should show.
I should also say that as a Londoner, the way I related to the space of the court room was shaped by the comparisons I couldn’t help but make, with the English court system.
What struck me from the outset was the different relationship that the defendants in a major terrorist case had with the actual space within the court room. In England, defendants in court cases are separated from the court proceedings. The fact that they are being judged, that they are not participants in the their own trial, is symbolised by the fact that they sit in an elevated position, usually at the back of the court room and most often (where major criminal conspiracies are concerned) behind a glass panel. They do not sit next to their lawyers, and share an intimate space with them within the courtroom. Nor do they sit at desks behind computers (which was the case with the NSU defendants). In an English court, a criminal defendant does not have the right to examine any documents or visuals put forward as evidence against them. Only the lawyers have access to this evidence in the court room.
The whole proceedings in the NSU case – as an outsider struck me as incredibly casual.
The fact that a crucifix is so prominently displayed in a Bavarian courtroom also immediately stood out to me as different, even intimidating. The absence of any recording of the proceedings also puzzled me. In England, we used to have a court stenographer, who took down notes of everything that was said in court. But from 2013 onwards the stenographer was replaced by a digital audio recording system. The idea that there is no official court transcript of proceedings struck me as a serious obstacle to the wider purpose of court proceedings, not just an attempt to prove the innocence or guilt of the defendant but as a vehicle for truth recovery.
On my first visit to the Munich Higher Regional Court, evidence was given by witnesses, including one police officer, who had had dealings with Beate Zschäpe, and a woman who was loosely connected to the neo-nazi scene and had had dealings with Zschäpe. Both saw Zschäpe as an ordinary person, nothing unusual about her, they said. What I learnt from this was that neo-nazis are considered ordinary citizens by many people, in some districts of Saxony.
– Email to Peter Pelz, 11th December 2013 –
I just wanted to give you a quick glimpse of what I learnt from my trip to Munich. The anti-fascist activists I met there are so solid – they understand that racism comes from the middle of society, and are totally committed to finding out the truth about the State’s relationship to the NSU…. But the trauma of the victims goes on and on and on…. the court case just reinforces this.
It seems to me that Beate Zschäpe is emerging as an iconic figure for the neo-nazis. The media fascination with her doesn’t help… Every day in court little stories emerge that give you a terrifying glimpse into the racism in the middle of society.
The gang were hiding out in Zwickau in Saxony. This story was recounted to me by an observer at the court case.
All the neighbours say that Beate Zschäpe was a model neighbour, very nice and caring with her cats. One story emerged from a neighbour – they talked of the good communal spirit in the block. Apparently, one of the neighbours who lived alone died, and everyone helped to clear out his flat. There wasn’t anything of value in the flat except for one thing, that a neighbour kept – a portrait of Adolf Hitler. So every week the neighbours would come together for a drink – to which Beate would attend – in a room where this portrait of Hitler hung over the mantelpiece.
Much more to say – but till we meet next time.
– Email to Peter Pelz, 16th November 2014 –
Dear Peter ,
My second visit to the Munich courtroom proved very interesting. The evening before, I had met with my colleagues, the lawyers and activists observing the case. They had planned my visit for a time when I would hear the testimony of a police informant. (The story is very complicated, as no one seems to be able to work out whether he was a police officer who had infiltrated the neo-nazi scene or a Nazi acting as a police informant).
In the end, I was not to hear his evidence. My colleagues were upset, because the afternoon prior to my arrival, there had been an ugly scene outside the courtroom, when someone tried to photograph this witness, and he turned violent, threatening to beat the photographer up if he didn’t give him his camera. He then pulled a mask and placed it over his face and left.
The judge did not call him the next day. Instead the day in court turned into something out of a bad pulp crime thriller. My colleagues thought I would be bored, but no. It provided an insight into a shady, seedy world, a criminal underclass of which the NSU were a part. Here is the background.
The man suspected of supplying the murder weapon to the NSU had refused to come to court to testify (He is Swiss, and apparently, and for me, unbelievably, he cannot be compelled to attend a court in Germany, even though he is suspected of supplying a gun which was used for the purpose of murder!) But his former girlfriend (if there ever was a gangster’s moll, this was her, really enjoying her moment in the limelight), did give testimony. And from what I understood of this woman, her motive for giving evidence was nothing more than to revenge her former lover, ‚Muller‘ was his name, on the account of him having sexually betrayed her by having an affair with a friend of hers.
My friends described her testimony as part of a ‚the rose war‘. I have never heard this expression used in English, have you? Her testimony seemed to focus almost entirely on issues of sex. She started telling the court how women from Thuringia find Swiss men so attractive, because of their sexy accents. When asked if she had had sex with Muller’s friend, she said ’she couldn’t quite tell‘, and she didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with the ’nazi milieu‘ Muller sold weapons too. It was just normal.
Muller’s ‚friend‘ had sent a written statement to the court, saying that ‚when he saw this woman, he thought that Muller’s taste in women had gone downhill, as she looked like a witch on a broomstick‘. Everyone was laughing at this stage.
It is amazing how something so serious can turn into a farce.
Going to court is so strange, as the visitors‘ gallery is filled with lonely people and obsessives. There is a retired sports teacher, who is very lonely, who comes every day for someone to talk too, and a baker, who works in the evening, and spends his free time in the visitors gallery, writing a salacious blog about the crime of the century (my friends like him, he is a harmless working man). Then there is a big fat man from Berlin, who has fallen madly in love with Beate Zschäpe. He came to court in a jumper with a motif of a big throbbing heart. He hopes that she will return his gaze (but she never looks at him). At one point she wound her little fingers (and she knows full well she has dainty little hands) through her long hair, and he practically fell off his chair, he is so mesmerised by her every little action.
Zschäpe comes across to me as a brilliant manipulator. The last time I came to Munich, she wore her hair down and she was casually dressed, but all in black – like some sort of Gothic ‚earth mother‘. Now her appearance is totally different, very business-like, hair neatly arranged. It’s as if she is the assistant to her lawyer, not the defendant.
Each morning there is the same routine in court. Zschäpe dominates the space, we are hardly aware of the other defendants. She enters like a model on a cat walk, and then turns her back on the official court video-man (who has to be there at the beginning of each day, to film who is present, it is the court rules). Her two lawyers flank her, forming a protective shield around her. One of her male lawyers is very intimate with her, they share jokes and giggle and they pick sweets out of the same little tin of candy.
In the background, the Crucifix, obligatory in a Bavarian court room.
What struck me from all of this was how Nazism is embedded in organised crime in that Alpine region of Europe. Nazism is like a form of mafia-behaviour, organised crime. Which brings me back to Zschäpe, who was an exemplary neighbour. Everyone (ie the so-called ‚German Germans‘) came to her with their problems, no neighbour had a bad word to say about her, and before she set fire to her flat, she made sure to save her cat, and take it to her neighbour to care for her.
Sorry to go on at length, Peter, but I wanted to get all my impressions down before I forgot.