Theatre Courtyard Theatre Courtyard

Radicalisation of right-wing violence after 1990

In September 1997, children found a suitcase that had been painted with a swastika whilst playing in the forecourt of the Jena Theatre. The police initially believed it to be a theatre prop, but the suitcase soon turned out to be a dummy bomb. It contained no detonator, but a few grams of explosive TNT. The public prosecutor's office in Gera subsequently investigated a total of six right-wing radicals, including Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe, who later formed the „core trio“ of the NSU.

The events at Theaterplatz illustrate how quickly the transition from racist and right-wing extremist sentiments to active terrorism can take place. At the same time, they show that violence does not come out of nowhere, but always has a context and a history. Who were the perpetrators? What criteria and motives did they use to select targets for their high-profile attacks? And how did the police, the authorities and the public react? 


Biographies of the core trio

Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos, Beate Zschäpe, Ralf Wohlleben and other later members and supporters of the NSU grew up in Jena. During the GDR era, they were already active in various alternative youth scenes, especially in the right-wing skinhead scene, the so-called „Naziskins“. This scene grew in the late 1980s: in 1988, the State Security (Stasi) in Thuringia already counted more than 100 skinheads, although the number of unreported cases is likely to be significantly higher.

In addition, the security authorities noted an increase in brutality as well as an increasing „glorification and imitation of fascist symbols and organisational structures“ in public. Between March and June 1989, the Stasi in the district of Gera, which included Jena, noted „unusual incidents of neo-fascist content“ at schools on several occasions, primarily among students in the 8th and 9th grades. However, problems with neo-Nazis in the GDR were always denied by officials: The authorities and the media rather portrayed them as apolitical „hooligans“.

Uwe Mundlos‘ former teacher describes how his radicalisation from the 8th grade onwards passed his teachers by, despite his short-cropped hair, combat boots, and frequent provocations. According to the teacher, he always „tried to keep politics [...] out of the classroom“  and only „marginally noticed“ Uwe's development. What the students did in their free time was, after all, their „private affair.“

From 1990, the right-wing scene enjoyed new freedoms. Right-wing magazines and texts now became accessible to the later core trio, as did music by West German neo-Nazi bands such as Noie Werte, but also by the band Landser, founded in 1991, whose roots lay in East Berlin. The Winzerclub in Jena-Winzerla, which opened in 1991, became a meeting place for the right-wing scene: a free space for young neo-Nazis, who at the same time turned the area around the club into a fear zone for migrants and leftists. 


Uwe Mundlos (centre) at the opening of Winzerclub, September 1991, private collection/photo: Frank Döbert

A short time later, Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe became members of the Kameradschaft Jena (Jena Comradeship). From 1996, this belonged to the Thüringer Heimatschutz (THS), a network of right-wing extremist and militant groups with about 170 members (as of 2001), in which the „question of violence“ was openly discussed.

At the same time, the THS represented the link between the local, informal comradeships, the NPD and the nationwide neo-Nazi scene.  The trio began committing thefts and collecting weapons, which is why they were investigated several times in the 1990s. At the same time, a whole series of right-wing „initiatives“ began in Jena and the surrounding area.

Torsten Hahnel was a member of the punk scene at the time. Today he works for the registered society Miteinander e. V. (Together) in Halle and described the situation in an interview like this: 

There were youth clubs where Nazi bands could rehearse, where they could somehow expand their structures, where they could somehow expand their dominance and, and, and. Everything happened at that time, but what didn't happen was this question: How are those affected actually doing? 

Interview with Torsten Hahnel, 25.11.2020

Original soundbite Torsten Hahnel

The discovery of the dummy bomb was not an isolated case. Since 1990, the number of right-wing terrorist-motivated attacks and acts of violence in Thuringia has risen sharply. In 1994, the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution recorded 477 criminal acts in the „right-wing spectrum“ in Thuringia; two years later, the number had already risen to 939. In 1997, when the dummy bomb was found on Theaterplatz Square, 1,206 criminal acts were recorded. The number of unreported cases could have been significantly higher. 


Background: The right-wing scene in the 1990s

In August 1992, a „Rudolf Heß Memorial March“ took place in Rudolstadt, 40 kilometers southwest of Jena. The event shed light on the right-wing scene in the 1990s.

Despite an official ban, some 2,000 Nazis from all over Germany gathered in Rudolstadt on the anniversary of the death of Adolf Hitler's „deputy“. Among them was the later NSU core trio. The police did not intervene; rather, according to newspaper reports, they arrested 93 participants of a counter-demonstration.

What am I supposed to do? I have requested reinforcements from the ministry, but have not received any feedback yet.

The scene in Rudolstadt points out that the right-wing scene tried to conquer certain areas, especially in eastern Germany, after „reunification“. The focus was not only on the larger cities, but especially on rural regions. While right-wing extremist activities in the urban centres repeatedly attracted the attention of the authorities, there was more room for manoeuvre in the periphery.

The „memorial march“ was organised, among others, by Thomas Dienel, who had formerly been a member of the Free German Youth (FDJ) and the Socialist Unity Party (SED), but now served as chairman of the Thuringian NPD. 

Dienel told a journalist that the goal of the march was to „make National Socialism hopeful [to be].“ He also said, „We have to get rid of foreigners and asylum seekers with brute force.“

In late 1992, he was convicted of xenophobic and anti-Semitic statements and served some time in prison. From 1995, he worked as an informant for the Thuringian Office for the Protection of the Constitution and received a total of 25,000 DM for his work, most of which he used for radical right-wing actions.

Two of the reactions to the march in Rudolstadt quoted in a newspaper article in taz are particularly noteworthy. One comes from a pensioner who was watching the march. She said, „If this is supposed to be unity, I don't give a damn.“

The quote illustrates the rapid convergence of the neo-Nazi scenes of East and West. From the perspective of the pensioner and many other East Germans, neo-Nazism and racism came „from the West“.

Although a „movement-like right-wing subculture“ already existed in the territory of the former GDR in the early 1990s, it was in fact supported and promoted in many ways by the established, well-connected actors from the „old“ Federal Republic. And the later murder victims of the core trio were predominantly German-Turks who had lived in the Federal Republic for decades. In particular, this hatred of Turks* can be seen specifically as a  „Western import“ born out of the xenophobic rejection of so-called „guest workers“ in the 1980s.

The second reaction came from the police chief of operations on the scene. He addressed the organisers of the march with the request, „Make sure that this does not become a problem here.“

The question arises as to what awareness of the problem the police had in the first place. In fact, it was probably not the case that the law enforcement agencies were unaware of the rise in right-wing violence in the 1990s; rather, they were simply overwhelmed by it.

The situation had been quite similar a few weeks earlier with the racist pogroms in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. There, too, the local police, who were completely inadequately equipped, had been unable - and in many cases presumably unwilling - to oppose the violent mobs.

In an interview with journalist Jana Simon in 2016, Jena criminal police officer Thomas Matczak retrospectively described the situation thus: 

We police officers did not follow these developments at the time. We were overrun and surprised by this crime phenomenon. We were helpless in the face of the right-wing extremists. It went like a spiral faster and faster, higher and higher.

Thomas Matczak, quoted from Simon, Jana: Unter Druck. Wie Deutschland sich verändert, Frankfurt a.M. 2019, p. 85.

The slogan „deeds not words“ spread among the increasingly self-confident neo-Nazis during this time. It marked an increasing radicalisation and readiness for action. The targets were always the same: migrants, asylum seekers and members of left-wing and anti-fascist groups. Accordingly, political scientist Andrea Röpke concludes, „The 1990s were characterised by an arming of the scene.“

Monument to Magnus Poser at the North Jena Cemetery, February 1996, private collection/photo: Frank Döbert

Case study: Poser monument

In 1996, the monument to Magnus Poser at the North Jena Cemetery was smeared with a swastika, the SS rune, and the phrase „Jews out“. The perpetrators were presumably the later core NSU trio. But why did they choose this monument of all places?

One reason was certainly the biography of Poser himself: Magnus Poser was a communist and a resistance fighter against National Socialism. A second reason was probably the significance of the monument in the GDR. For the socialist state, anti-fascist resistance to National Socialism was a founding myth. An attack on the monument was therefore also directly directed against the GDR itself. With the self-designation „National Resistance,“ the perpetrators of 1996 placed themselves in a supposed tradition of resistance against prevailing political conditions. 

Last but not least, a third reason could have been that Uwe Mundlos' former school was named after Poser: the Polytechnische Oberschule „Magnus Poser“, today's Montessori school in North Jena.

The attack on the Poser memorial shows how important and how complex the historical background was for the NSU's actions. On the one hand, the reference to National Socialism was always present, in conjunction with anti-Semitism, as typical of the right-wing scene. On the other hand, the perpetrator’s socialisation in the GDR and their hatred of leftists and communists presumably also played an important role in the selection of this target.

In an interview, Torsten Hahnel said about this :

It has never really been seriously thought about, what does that actually mean: that people, in the case then 40 or 50 years after the NS, refer to it positively. What do they actually want? It has always been played down.

Interview with Torsten Hahnel, 25.11.2020

Original soundbite Torsten Hahnel

The question is why the perpetrators chose the theatre in Jena for one of their attacks in September 1997. Shortly before, in July and August, the Kulturarena event had taken place there for the sixth time.

The events appealed to a predominantly young, open-minded audience and presented many international artists, in 1997 from Cuba, Algeria, Cameroon, Israel and the Congo, among others. Only a few weeks later, the suitcase containing explosives was found at the venue on the theatre square.

Programme of the 6th Kulturarena Jena, 1997

A direct connection between the Kulturarena and the bomb dummy cannot be proven retrospectively. One thing is certain, however: the theatre stood and stands for the „other“, colourful side of Jena and it thus matches the right-wing scene’s idea of the enemy. In addition to the historical references that became clear during the attack on the Poser monument, the NSU's acts also had a strong topical reference. The neo-Nazis' hatred was directed against very current developments in the 1990s: against cosmopolitanism, against immigration and integration, against a diverse society.

Further attacks and the reaction of the authorities

The combination of historical and contemporary references is also evident in the further targets of the attacks. In April 1996, a suspended dummy with a yellow „Jewish star“ was found on a motorway bridge. In October 1996, a dummy bomb turned up in the Ernst Abbe Stadium. At the turn of the year 1996/97, letter bomb dummies were sent to the editorial office of the Thüringische Landeszeitung, the city administration and the Jena police department. At Christmas 1997, a wooden box with a swastika painted on it was again found at the Poser monument. This time it was empty.

Last but not least, organisations and associations such as The Voice, Asyl e.V., the Young Community, victim counselling centres and committed individuals presented at the previous stops on the tour have repeatedly pointed out right-wing and racist violence. Nevertheless, politics and the authorities reacted late and inadequately.

On 26 January 1998, several garages were searched in Lobeda and Winzerla, including that of Beate Zschäpe. Nevertheless, the core trio was able to go into hiding: Böhnhardt was even on site during the search, but was not prevented by the police from leaving. Shortly afterwards, four functioning pipe bombs with a total of almost 1.4 kilogrammes of TNT explosives were found in Zschäpe's garage. 


Items found during the garage search in January 1998, private collection/photo: Frank Döbert.

Two days later, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the three „Jena bomb makers“ for the production of the „theatre bomb“. However, it was not until two weeks later, on 12 February 1998, that they were publicly put on the wanted list. The following day, the Leipziger Volkszeitung wrote in retrospect about the slow reaction of the authorities:

When a doll with a yellow Star of David was found on a motorway bridge near Jena in April 1996, everyone still assumed it was an isolated case. Even the fact that the doll was connected with wires ending at a cardboard box led to confusion rather than serious concern. Thuringia, it was said, as a centrally located federal state, was readily used by right-wing extremists as a place to march; no one believed there was a serious danger.

"Neo-Nazi scene has been growing for years", Leipziger Volkszeitung, 13.02.1998.

Admittedly, after the findings in the garages, even Helmut Roewer, the president of the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Landesamt für Verfassungsschutz, LfV), spoke of a „new quality of willingness to use violence“. Right-wing groups and organisations were now banned more frequently. But in part this only led to a retreat of right-wing terrorists into informal structures or underground - where they continued to have large shelters at their disposal.

A look at Helmut Roewer in particular shows that the actual danger was underestimated. Under his leadership, the LfV continued to recruit trusted informers (Vertrauenspersonen) from the right-wing scene and continued to pay them large amounts.

For the right-wing radical actors, actions such as the placement of the dummy bomb outside the theatre were about making symbolic statements. They showed what means they would potentially resort to. They tried to intimidate those concerned, to occupy spaces and to create fear zones. Possibly, the local population as a whole was also to be frightened and thus discouraged from visiting certain places, such as the theatre.

However, fear zones did not emerge from one day to the next. Interviews with contemporary witnesses show that individual events rarely had a major impact. Rather, the impact came about precisely because it did not remain at single right-wing terrorist incidents. The incidents in Jena were only part of a long line of attacks on migrants, from Hoyerswerda to Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Mölln and Solingen, which were supported by parts of the respective city residents.

It was only in combination with the overtaxed or indifferent reaction of the law enforcement agencies and society that the acts of right-wing terrorists could unfold their threatening and exclusionary potential. In an interview, the former foreigners' representative of the city of Jena, Margot Eulenstein , reports:

[...] I was approached by foreigners about the increasing fear after the incidents in Rostock and Hoyerswerda, where homes were burned and foreigners then said, yes, these arson attacks are coming closer and closer, further and further south. So there was already a fear that was palpable and where people considered... Yes, should we stay or should we actually leave? 

Interview with Margot Eulenstein, 16.12.2020

Original soundbite Margot Eulenstein

Text: János Varga

Further reading: 

  • Quent, Matthias: Rassismus, Radikalisierung, Rechtsterrorismus. Wie der NSU entstand und was er über die Gesellschaft verrät, Weinheim 2016. 
  • Röpke, Andrea/ Speit, Andreas (ed.): Blut und Ehre. Geschichte und Gegenwart rechter Gewalt in Deutschland, Berlin 2013. 
  • Schultz, Tanjev: NSU. Der Terror von rechts und das Versagen des Staates, München 2018. 
  • Steinbacher, Sybille (ed.): Rechte Gewalt in Deutschland. Zum Umgang mit dem Rechtsextremismus in Gesellschaft, Politik und Justiz, Göttingen 2016.