Blog post

Lone wolves, one-off attacks and a recurring litany of failures

Wolfgang Kaleck
Blog post

Right wing radical violence and government secret services – it’s a never ending story. We can look to Italy, for instance, where state intelligence services are suspected to have had a  direct hand in a series of bombings carried out by right wing extremists as part of the secret NATO operation Gladio. The attacks killed 17 people in Milan in 1969 and left 85 dead in Bologna in 1980.

A similar uncertainty surrounds right wing attacks here in Germany. A parliamentary inquiry in Thüringen set up to investigate the National Socialist Underground (NSU) group has now published its final report. The report is scathing in its criticism of Thüringen authorities but also leaves a huge number of questions unanswered. These uncertainties extend right up to the federal level, particularly in relation to the role of domestic security agents in NSU crimes and the question of how much the government agents knew.

The German parliament must now establish a second NSU investigatory committee – assuming, that is, that the issue is actually as important to the parties as they initially claimed. The trial of Beate Zschäpe and others at the Higher Regional Court in Munich, set to continue until at least the summer of 2015, might provide a good opportunity for the establishment of a further inquiry.

Given the historical and more recent indications of close links between radical right wing violence and intelligence services as well as the litany of investigative mistakes and irregularities – clearly indicating that the problem goes beyond mere individual incompetency – I find it hard to believe that the request to reopen investigations into the Oktoberfest bombing of 1980 has attracted so little attention.

Werner Dietrich, the Munich lawyer representing the victims of the attack, has been working for 29 years to rebut the prosecution’s theory that the bombing was the work of one man working alone. The Oktoberfest celebrations, which are getting under way again in Munich this week, were marred by a bomb explosion on 26 September 1980 that killed 13 people and left 200 injured.

Shortly after the attacks, authorities attributed the bombing to Gundolf Köhler, who died in the explosion. Police and prosecution authorities were quick to assure the public that the perpetrator acted as a lone wolf, an explanation that is presented again and again in cases of right wing violent extremism: “It’s a stand-alone case, very serious, yes, but as there’s no discernable organization behind it we see no need for political consequences…”

The theses put forward by attorney Dietrich are supported by authors Ulrich Chaussy and Wolfgang Schorlau, who wrote about the attack and its cover-up. Soon after the attacks, indications began to emerge that Köhler may have had links with militant neo-Nazi groups. The West German authorities charged with investigating the bombing failed to pursue this line of inquiry as to do so would have forced them to admit that various radical groups – the Hoffman paramilitary group and groups centered on arms dealer Heinz Lembke and Neo-nazi Odfried Hepp – did in fact exist. Authorities also ignored witness testimony relating to other individuals seen at the scene of the crime who may have been involved in planting the bomb. A lone wolf perpetrator, a one-off act, investigatory failures: always the same story.

In the last few years the Munich city council and the state parliament of Bavaria have supported the resumption of investigations. But even if the case is reopened, the 34 years that have elapsed since the attack means that the search for evidence will be mired in difficulties. But this shouldn’t stop us from trying to establish the truth and open up the case files that have to date been kept secret. Indeed there is no shortage of good reasons to unswervingly pursue judicial and parliamentary inquiries into the Oktoberfest bombing and the attacks and murders carried out by the NSU.