How a Fashion-Conscious Teenager Became a Neo-Nazi Queen

Germany’s trial of the century heats up as a bad mother takes the stand. Peter Kneffel/AFP/Getty Images

What would Sigmund Freud make of it all?

Later this month, Annerose Zschäpe, a modest German woman who works in a government job-creation business, will take the witness stand in a Munich court in the trial of her daughter, the notorious neo-Nazi leader Beate Zschäpe, who is accused of multiple murders.

The mother and daughter have been estranged for years. Beate Zschäpe’s father disappeared from her life soon after she was born. The relationship between mother and daughter was so cold, it may have prompted Beate Zschäpe to seek out and find a replacement family in Germany’s largely subterranean neo-Nazi community.

That begs an important question. Could the killing spree Beate Zschäpe and her neo-Nazi collaborators set out on – Germany’s worst neo-Nazi murder case – have been averted if Annerose had looked after her daughter properly?

Beate Zschäpe, 38, is the main character in Germany’s trial of the century, a court case accompanied by such overwhelming media interest that press seats had to be assigned by lottery. The only surviving leader of the neo-Nazi terrorist group the National Socialist Underground (NSU), she stands accused of 10 murders, two bombings and 15 robberies.

In Germany’s previous trial of a generation, which began in 1975, the leaders of the Marxist Baader-Meinhof gang provided a spectacle, shouting obscenities and disputing the legality of the court. By contrast, Zschäpe hasn’t said a word since she went on trial in April. She has listened to dozens of witnesses that stretch from her friends and accomplices to family members of the murder victims.

Dressed impeccably in smart business suits, she gives the impression of a woman reluctantly attending a tedious work meeting, not sitting in the front seat at her own murder trial.  

Not only does she refuse to speak, she signals her disdain for her victims by appearing completely uninterested in the proceedings, frequently working on crossword puzzles and chewing candy. Sometimes she even flashes a chilling smile.

Four male accomplices join Zschäpe, but her two boyfriends and fellow leaders, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, are not there. According to police, on November 4, 2011, with the law closing in on them after a botched bank robbery, Mundlos first shot Böhnhardt dead, then himself.

For 13 years, the trio had been living underground, posing as respectable bourgeois Germans innocently going about their business. Their true existence was very different. Between 2000 and 2006 they killed nine foreigners: eight Turks and one Greek. All their victims were executed in cold blood with a Czech Ceska 83 gun. In 2007, they killed a German policewoman: She, too, was shot at point-blank range.

So who is Beate Zschäpe? “As a teenager, she was completely normal,” recalls Thomas Grund, a social worker who knew her well as a young woman. “She had her own fashion style and liked to buy new clothes. But since she couldn’t afford them, she’d steal to get money. She broke into day-care centers and other places to get money. But she didn’t steal to get money for alcohol. It was to get money for clothes.”

At the time, Zschäpe was living with her mother, but it was really her grandmother who raised her. “She always said, ‘I’m grandma’s kid,’ and the only family role she ever learned was that of grandmother,” explains Grund. “It was from her grandmother that she learned things like making sure there is food on the table. And she didn’t like father figures at all.”

Like Mundlos and Böhnhardt, Zschäpe comes from Jena, an old university town in the former East German state of Thuringia. Starting in her teenage years, she spent her spare time in Grund’s city-run youth club, the Winzerclub, located in a concrete jungle of a neighborhood.

Grund describes Zschäpe as a young, attractive woman of medium build, five-feet-five-inches tall to whom young men were magnetically drawn. “It was always, ‘I love you, Beate,’ ‘I love you, Beate’. But she was very picky.”

“Falk,” a former close friend of the trio, remembers Zschäpe as a young woman with no particular political convictions who joined the neo-Nazis because she was in love with Mundlos and the “scene was her family.” Neo-Nazis from West Germany found East Germany a fertile place for recruiting.

“It was always, ‘Things are the foreigners’ fault or the government’s fault’ and ‘Come to us, we’ll give you a bratwurst, we’ll give you a beer,’ ” he said. “Uwe [Mundlos] would say things like, ‘Germany is overpopulated’. Why didn’t he use his brain? It’s a shame. He was the one of us who had the most potential in life.”

Indeed, Mundlos possessed all the attributes for a life of success: He came from a stable, respectable home with parents in the professions. His father recently retired from Jena’s vocational college where he was a computer science professor.

“Sabine,”a classmate of Mundlos for 10 years in elementary and secondary school, reflects on the new political forces at play when they were all growing up: “Right and left – immediately after the fall of the [Berlin] Wall, those were new concepts for us. Before that, we all belonged to the [Communist youth league], and then all of a sudden you could choose a political direction. It was a period of testing.”

She remembers Mundlos as a rebellious student who would often contradict teachers. He was “the clown of the class. He wasn’t stupid, but he was lazy.” And, she says, his parents spoiled him, possibly to compensate for the fact that he had a disabled brother. When Mundlos started showing up in school in the typical neo-Nazi uniform of bomber jacket and springer boots, and his long dark curls sacrificed in favor of a shaved head, Sabine and other classmates assumed it was a fad that would pass.

But it didn’t. Around 1992, together with his new girlfriend Zschäpe, the 19-year-old started randomly beating up locals. “Mundlos and his gang, and other neo-Nazis, used to drive through the streets of Jena, get out, and attack people with baseball bats,” said Katharina König, a Socialist member of the Thuringia state parliament who at the time was active in Jena’s left-wing youth scene.

“Once they scratched a swastika into the wrist of a friend of mine,” she said. “If you were a leftist or a foreigner you were not safe, but anybody could be attacked, really.”

Grund acted swiftly to try to keep Zschäpe away from trouble. “I told [Mundlos] to get lost and not return to the Winzerclub, but Beate was already in love with him,” he recalled.

“She left the club too. Her attitude was, I’m somebody now, I don’t need you. And when they started attacking things like the Christmas market, she was actively involved. She wasn’t just there as Uwe’s girlfriend. It was notable because it was so different from the passive role usually played by women in right-wing extremist groups.”

In September 1996, Zschäpe, now 21 years old, joined a city-run vocational program for unemployed young people. She had trained as a gardener but, like many other young East Germans at the time, failed to get a full-time job.

Michael Strosche, her teacher, remembers a self-confident young woman. “She was a leader type and took command. I mean that in a positive sense. She got things done and didn’t try to get out of doing the work.” Nor did she hide her involvement with the neo-Nazis. “It was obvious; you could tell it from her clothes,” he said. “But her appearance wasn’t provocative, and she didn’t provoke anyone in the program.”

11-8-2013_DL0540_Nazi2 Thomas Grund (l) with Uwe Mundlos (3rd from left) at the Winzerclub in Jena. Courtesy of Thomas Grund When Mundlos left the area during his compulsory military service, Zschäpe dumped him in favor of Uwe Böhnhardt, a notorious neo-Nazi and troublemaker two years younger than her and four years younger than Mundlos. He was the son of a teacher and an engineer but even during his teenage years had acquired a long history of violence and far-right extremism. He was known as a street fighter, and he had been arrested for theft, for driving without a license, and for hanging a doll with a bomb and a sign reading “Jew” from a bridge.

After Mundlos returned he appeared to accept that Zschäpe and Böhnhardt were lovers and over time joined them in a ménage-à-trois. The trio founded the Jena Comradeship with a number of friends in 1996 and soon afterwards established the NSU.

According to Grund, Böhnhardt was the most evil member of the trio, a “man you didn’t want to encounter on the street. He was always carrying weapons. But he also idolized Mundlos.” The three formed a political and intimate group in which Mundlos, Zschäpe, and Böhnhardt were, respectively, the brains, the bride, and the brute.

Sebastian Jende, a contemporary of Beate Zschäpe in Jena’s youth club scene and now a social worker in the town, said the parents of Mundlos and Böhnhardt tried to get counseling for their sons. By contrast, Annerose failed to act. She had always shown little interest in her daughter. She was studying dentistry in Bucharest when she became pregnant with Beate. Her father was a Romanian dentistry student who never acknowledged Beate Zschäpe as his daughter.

After going to Jena to give birth, Annerose returned to Romania to complete her dentistry degree and left the baby with her mother. Only after she had married and divorced twice – including to the Mr. Zschäpe whose last name Beate adopted – did Annerose agree to have her daughter live with her. By that time, Beate Zschäpe was 5 years old.

But it was too late: After so long apart, the mother and daughter failed to establish much of a relationship. They had no interests in common and showed no affection to each other, Annerose told investigators from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA).

Annerose Zschäpe’s own life, by all accounts, has also been a profound failure: Due to allergies, she was obliged to abandon dentistry in favor of becoming a bookkeeper. After the collapse of East Germany in 1990, she lost that job, too, and she found herself unemployed with minimal prospects of finding work again.

“I just sat there and did nothing,” she told BKA investigators. Today Annerose lives with her mother in Jena, working in a low-paying job provided by the government. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to conclude that Beate Zschäpe blames her mother for the sordid course her life has taken. Freud would also find fertile ground analyzing whether her hatred of foreigners stems from anger with her father, the foreigner who rejected her as a baby, then abandoned her to her fate.

In August 1997, Beate Zschäpe graduated from Strosche’s job-training program. She and the other NSU members kept up their politically motivated criminality. They daubed swastikas on the tombstone of a concentration camp victim, they assaulted left-wing activists, they burned crosses, and planted fake bombs at the municipal theater and the offices of a local newspaper. After she attacked a left-wing woman and broke her hand, Zschäpe was sentenced to community service.

Belatedly, police began investigating her and her collaborators. In January 1998, they raided Zschäpe’s garage and uncovered a bomb factory. The trio went underground. Former friends were convinced Beate and her sidekicks had moved to Scandinavia, where, as Falk explains, “there are lots of neo-Nazis.” In fact they were mostly living in Zwickau, less than 60 miles away. Neighbors there remember her as a sociable, apparently normal woman, in stark contrast to her menacing-looking “brother” and “boyfriend.”

Indeed, throughout her criminal career, Zschäpe has retained a respectable facade. During their years in hiding, her two boyfriends would barely interact with neighbors. Zschäpe, however, happily chatted with them, sometimes organized parties and even acted as a baby-sitter. Police found children’s toys in the terrorists’ apartment.

Though Zschäpe was as fanatical in her beliefs as the “two Uwes,” as they’re usually called, she appeared normal. “I was shocked when I saw the photo of Beate after her arrest,” said Grund. “The Beate I knew would never even have touched that tattered T-shirt. She always took care of her appearance.”

The terrorists’ love triangle would present another rich source of material for Freud. Though Zschäpe had dumped Mundlos in favor of Böhnhardt, the trio remained inseparable. In fact, in spite or perhaps because of their ménage-à-trois, there were tensions that once resulted in a knife fight between the two men.

After their deaths, Zschäpe set the apartment on fire, went back to Jena with the trio’s two cats, and gave herself up to the police. The two men, she told the police, were her family. She made no mention of Annerose.

German domestic intelligence agencies were well aware of the NSU and its activities and had placed its top members under surveillance. Perhaps because Zschäpe was seen simply as a fanatic and not thought to be violent, Thuringia’s intelligence agency even considered recruiting her as an informant, finally deciding against it “because of her drug use.”

Yet the police waited until 2011 to move in on the group. Why did it take so long? After the deaths of Mundlos and Böhnhardt, a parliamentary commission was established to investigate how the country’s deadliest terrorist group could hide in plain sight for 13 years. Many Germans believe the police were slow to act because they didn’t want to acknowledge the severity of neo-Nazi extremism.

“Individual police officers tried to investigate, but by and large the police ignored the problem or described it as gang warfare between left-wing and right-wing groups,” says König. “Why were the NSU people not arrested when the bomb factory was found in Beate’s garage? The police always paid a lot of attention to us [left-wingers], but when neo-Nazis attacked us, nothing happened. When I was attacked by one of Beate’s friends, I even gave her name to the police, but they did nothing.”

König and others suspect the police haven’t yet arrested everyone they suspect of being involved in the 10 murders. “Three people holed up in an apartment in Zwickau [in the East],” he said. “How could they know which immigrant would make a good target in a city like Dortmund [in the West]? There’s no doubt they had people who scouted out targets for them.”

Terrorists invariably take credit for their killings. Their murderous activities are, almost by definition, publicity stunts. But the NSU never released statements explaining why people like Mehmet Kubaşık, a German-Turkish kiosk vendor in Dortmund, deserved to die. Or Turkish greengrocer Süleyman Taşköprü in Hamburg, or Abdurrahim Özüdoğru, a Turkish tailor in Nuremberg. Indeed, police long assumed they were killed by fellow Turks.

Why be a terrorist if nobody knows you are one? As “Oliver,” another former neo-Nazi from Jena, explained, in the neo-Nazi movement you learn that “you’re nothing. “The People” is everything. It doesn’t matter whether you go to prison, die, or kill yourself.” (Oliver has since left the neo-Nazi scene with help of the group Exit-Deutschland. Fearing retribution by neo-Nazi groups, both he, Falk, and Sabine asked that their names be changed.)

Recently a witness in Dortmund came forward to claim they had seen Zschäpe at the site where the kiosk-vendor Kubaşık was shot dead in 2006. Prosecutor Harald Range argues that the NSU trio took its decisions collectively and that Zschäpe is fully responsible for its crimes, even if she didn’t personally carry them out.

In the end, the NSU leaders did claim responsibility for the killings, but in a strangely cowardly way. Police investigating the trio burnt-out Zwickau flat discovered a DVD they had painstakingly put together – a bizarre collection of footage from the murder scenes interspersed with cartoons and pop music. It is blood-curdling to watch. As was the way they saw their role in the killings. Like a rock-and-roll band, they dubbed their killing spree their “German tour.” 

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