Media fiasco at Nazi trial
Deutsche Welle - Germany - Nazi Trials

Media fiasco at Nazi trial

The postponement of the neo-Nazi terror trial in Munich is just the latest stage in an ongoing fiasco over press accreditation that has forced interventions from the foreign minister and Germany’s highest court.

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Courtroom A 101 of Bavaria’s Higher Regional Court in Munich – described by one German newspaper as “stuffy, ugly, and burdened with history” – has been revamped ahead of the trial of alleged neo-Nazi murderer Beate Zschäpe and her four accomplices. New microphones and tables have been installed, plus booths for simultaneous translators to render the proceedings for the visiting press.

Along with various security enhancements, these improvements have cost around 1.25 million euros ($1.64 million), but they haven’t been able to fix the biggest problem – the courtroom, despite being the biggest Munich has to offer and so always used for major trials, is too small. While its lower level has been reserved for the 70 co-plaintiffs and their 50 lawyers, the 101 seats in the balcony have to be shared by the media and members of the public.

The court at first decided to distribute the press allocation on a first-come-first-served basis, even though it was obvious that this would disadvantage the foreign press. As a consequence, the court trapped itself in an ugly PR controversy following outrage from people like Celal Özcan. The European news editor for the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet said he was “very disappointed and angry” when it emerged that Turkish reporters – along with journalists from the BBC and the New York Times – would only be put on a waiting list for court-side seats. Of Zschäpe’s 10 alleged victims, eight were of Turkish origin and one was Greek.

Diplomatic intervention

It’s not the first time that the Munich court has been accused of insensitivity. During the trial of former concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk in 2011, the court put up signs reading “Demjanjuk collection zone” for reporters outside the same courtroom, which some saw as an echo of the language used by the Nazis to organize their transportation network.

“The full parochialism of the German bureaucracy is exposed by a big trial,” said Roger Boyes, former Germany correspondent for the British Times newspaper and veteran of several major German trials. “The administration of a trial is left to the tiny media department of the state prosecutors, who typically only have contacts with the local specialized press and who fall off their chairs with excitement if anyone from a major newspaper comes.”

Last week, Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle himself described the court’s press allocation process as “problematic,” and said this was a “formative phase for Germany’s image in Europe and the world.” In the end, Germany’s Constitutional Court was forced to cut the knot of controversy last Friday and rule that at least three courtroom seats must be allocated to “representatives of the foreign media with a special association with the victims of the alleged crimes.”

Reflecting on Germany

While the constitutional court acknowledged that the Munich court should be independent of political considerations, it also had a responsibility “to take into account the situation of those whose interest in the trial was foreseeable.”

Up until that point, the Munich court president Karl Huber had only dismissed the outcry with statements like, “We are holding a legal process and not a show trial,” and insisted that the accreditation process had been fair.

Westerwelle’s statement and the constitutional court’s verdict were clearly self-conscious reactions – how does this bureaucratic approach make Germany look abroad?

“I personally think it does make Germany look bad,” said Philip Oltermann, a German journalist now working in London for The Guardian. “There is a sense that the judges are being very crusty and bureaucratic and in a way proudly so, and so have missed the symbolic value of the trial. But that’s not something that’s been picked up in a big way in the UK yet.”

“Obviously what should be done is get a foreign ministry liaison officer and a room with direct transmission in case of overspill,” Boyes told Deutsche Welle. “Westerwelle is right to get excited but do you think anything will change? Of course not.”

Nazi saturation

On Monday the accreditation fiasco led to the court’s decision to postpone the start of the trial until May 6. Not that the Anglophone press seems to mind much – it has been fairly slow to report on the impending trial.

“I think people haven’t quite realized yet what a big story it is,” said Oltermann. “I think it’s going to be huge. But I think the British media is trying to self-correct a bit, and not do too much about Nazis and neo-Nazis. There’s a sort of awareness that for a long time that that’s the only thing that’s been written about Germany.”

Boyes agrees that the enthusiasm in the Anglophone press is fairly limited. “I would say we are less interested in neo-Nazi crackpots than in universal issues such as the holocaust, corporate corruption or cannibalism,” he said. “Neo-Nazis doesn’t really do it anymore for global audiences unless they directly touch UK or US readers.”