The NSU and Germany’s institutional racism
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The NSU and Germany’s institutional racism

Despite talk of integration, the racist assumptions that hindered the hunt for a murderous gang are reflected in German institutions.

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The last alleged member of the German neo-Nazi gang that murdered nine immigrants has been charged, a year after her arrest uncovered a decade-long terrorist campaign – but the case has also uncovered some uncomfortable truths about racism in Germany’s institutions. Last week, German state prosecutors chose the first anniversary of Beate Zschäpe’s arrest to reveal the charges they would be levelling against her. Because she is alleged to be the only surviving member of the murderous trio that called itself the National Socialist Underground, the prosecutors took a calculated risk and charged Zschäpe with complicity in all the group’s known crimes: 10 murders, two nail bombings and 15 bank robberies.

The judiciously timed announcement ended the first chapter of one of the most momentous criminal investigations in unified Germany, and next spring’s trial could potentially uncover the true extent of Germany’s underground neo-Nazi network. Even if it doesn’t, the court case will hopefully give new urgency to the obstructed parliamentary investigations into the authorities’ failure to stop the NSU.

Since last November, four separate committees (one federal, three regional) have drip-fed the country with revelations of incompetence or criminal collusion in every security body from the federal and state police forces to sundry intelligence agencies. Four secret service chiefs have lost their jobs.

Above all, the investigation has revealed how racist assumptions hindered detective work. We learned, for instance, that the police were so convinced that only the Turkish mafia would murder Turkish Germans that officers set up fake kebab shops and sent undercover investigators among the families of the victims.

While those infiltrating detectives found that the Turkish community suspected far-right extremists to be behind the killings, their suspicions were ignored. Meanwhile, numerous paid neo-Nazi informants – some of whom had contact with and supplied weapons to the real killers, the NSU – wilfully kept the authorities in the dark.

This slowly accumulating scandal, which German attorney general Harald Range called “Germany’s September 11”, is every bit as shameful as the police’s failure to protect asylum seekers at the Rostock riots of 1992, another anniversary that has just passed. But while Rostock could be put down to a fatal moment of cowardice by whoever was in charge that night, the failure to protect Turkish Germans from the NSU was built into the criminal investigation system itself.

The existence of the odd racist police officer is hardly news, of course. The real scandal is that racism is allowed to influence police work. In Germany, state institutions lack the rules to limit racial discrimination, and politicians lack the will to impose them.

This was well illustrated by a court case that began in March, when a black German who had got into a row with two officers on a train ended up suing them after they admitted in court that the police deliberately spot-checked non-white people more often. To the outrage of many ethnic community organisations, though not to the outrage of most of the German media, the court in Koblenz ruled that this was legitimate police policy. That verdict was overturned in October, but even the more progressive judge fell short of offering a formal legal ruling. Apparently he had little appetite for imposing rules on police procedure, so racial profiling remains a legal grey zone.

The same is true in Germany’s schools. In September, the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), an NGO that usually reports on human rights abuses in countries like Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan, submitted a damning briefing to the United Nations human rights committee about Germany’s state school system, uncovering “the consistent discrimination in education faced by ethnic minority children”. The OSJI recommended that one legal hole desperately needed to be closed: the fact that Germany’s anti-discrimination laws do not extend to schools, and that there are no laws, either state or federal, that prohibit ethnic segregation.

Germany’s “de facto racial segregation”, as the UN itself once described it, is partly an inadvertent consequence of the country’s three-tier educational system, which funnels children into one of three levels of secondary education straight after primary school.

But there is also a worrying new trend: there have been several reports of schools in districts with a large immigrant population offering ethnic German parents “guarantees” that their children will be put in classes where the majority is also ethnically German – to protect their language skills. One Berlin primary school has already been named and shamed, but Berlin Brandenburg Turkish association TBB, which helped collect data for the OSJI report, believes the practice is becoming more common. But here again, the fault is only partly with the schools. As one Berlin teacher told me, headteachers “fend for themselves because there are no guidelines in place on how to practise integration.”

There’s a lot of talk in Germany about that nebulous word, “integration”. But, while plenty of politicians complain about German Turks creating a “parallel society”, there is almost no political will to introduce rules that would foster greater participation. At the same time, a study published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation this week revealed just how pervasive far-right attitudes are. The survey found that 9% of all Germans had a “far-right world view”, while as many as two-thirds believed that “foreigners only come here to exploit our welfare state”. With attitudes like this common among the population, it’s unsurprising that it’s up to the UN to pressure Angela Merkel’s government to reform its school system. Let’s hope it works.