The Post-Nazi Antisemitic Killing That (Un-)Shaped Germany

Germany has a long history of right-wing terror – before Hitler’s Nazism and after Nazism. The worst year of terrorism in the history of post-Nazi Germany wasn’t the much talked about year 1977 when Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF) killed seven representatives of the – as some called it –  Schweinesystem, the capitalist system run by pigs, including ex-top-Nazi Schleyer. And it wasn’t the year 2016 when an Islamist terrorist carried out the attack on Berlin’s Christmas market in which 13 people were murdered and 67 injured.

It was the year 1980 that occupies the top place in Germany’s post-war history – West & East – in fact, all of Germany. At that time, terrorists – mostly forgotten to this day – struck mercilessly. The most fatal attack of the year was a bomb attack on the Munich Oktoberfest. The killer was the neo-Nazi Gundolf Köhler. The date was September 26. Twelve people and the assassin were killed and 211 injured.

Just a few weeks earlier – on August 22 – a terrorist group led by the neo-Nazi Manfred Roeder threw an incendiary bomb into a refugee shelter in Hamburg’s Halskestraße. Two Vietnamese – Nguyên Ngoc Châu and Dô Anh Lân – died. On  December 24, 1980, the known West German neo-Nazi Frank Schubert shot two Swiss border guards – and himself – while trying to smuggle weapons from Switzerland into Germany.

In short, 1980 was THE year of West German right-wing terrorism. Strangely, most of these facts are forgotten today. Hardly anything in Germany has been so aggressively and so consistently silenced and repressed as the violence coming from Germany’s right-wing and related neo-Nazis. Worse, anyone who knows the history of Germany’s most evil death squad – the National Socialist Underground (NSU) – might want to add, this silencing still goes on today.

Right-wing terrorism has continuously shaped Germany’s post-war republic up to the immediate present. It has done so more continuously and more successfully than left-wing terrorism. Yet, the situation and the public image are exactly the other way around in the memory of most Germans. The violent acts of the RAF form a constant focal point for Germany’s self-glorifying public image.

Many West-Germans who consciously experienced the 1970s and 1980s will remember the faces of the RAF: Susanne Albrecht, Christian Klar, and Brigitte Mohnhaupt. These RAF faces were displayed in every bank and in every post office. Yet, the same did not happen for right-wing terrorists: no pictures of Gundolf Köhler, Michael Kühnen, Manfred Roeder, or Ekkehard Weil were ever displayed. Today, nobody knows what they look like.

This deliberate and rather aggressive disregard of right-wing terrorism is one of the biggest social, cultural, historical, and – above all – political problems of Germany. To make things even worse, another date is also missing from the above list of Germany’s prime year of right-wing terrorism –December 19, 1980. On this day, the former chairman of the Jewish community of the city of Nuremberg, Shlomo Lewin, and his partner, Frida Poeschke, were shot dead in their home in the Bavarian town of Erlangen.

Both were killed by a member of the neo-Nazi Wehrsportgruppe (WSG). The WSG was a paramilitary terror squad run by right-wing extremist Karl-Heinz Hoffmann, with whom the aforementioned right-wing Octoberfest bomber Gundolf Köhler had connections.

During Germany’s immediate post-Nazi years, Germany’s judiciary remained well represented by ex-Nazis. Surprise, surprise, Germany’s state apparatus reached two conclusions: a) that a leading WSG member – Uwe Behrendt – had committed the double murder of Shlomo Lewin and Frida Poeschke; and b) top neo-Nazi and WSG head (mini-Führer) Hoffmann played no role in the case.

In contrast to many other right-wing murders during the 1980s, the Erlangen crime had a rather personal dimension. It was not directed against an anonymous crowd like that of the Munich festivalgoers or unknown people in a Hamburg dormitory.

Rather, the neo-Nazis’ victim – Shlomo Lewin – was known to the violent right-wing terrorist Behrendt and his neo-Nazi boss Hoffmann. The killing was carried out on the basis of an extreme right–wing ideology of the WSG and Hoffmann. It was motivated by antisemitism.

Yet, Germany’s investigating authorities almost completely ignored this aspect of the murder. A Jew – Lewin – was targeted by the neo-Nazi WSG for being Jewish. More fundamentally, killing Jews for being Jews is highly significant for post-Nazi Germany. In other words, the Erlangen crime was an antisemitic double murder committed with an antisemitic motive, a terroristic right-wing extremist attack carried out by a neo-Nazi organization: the Wehrsportgruppe, a follow-up organization of Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen.

An antisemitic double murder indicated an antisemitic intention – almost by definition. However, when the state presented both neo-Nazi killers – Behrendt and Hoffmann – as having a “lack of intention”, the real motive of their murder – antisemitism – vanishes from the crime scene. Neo-Nazi hate crime simply disappears. From a purely legal point of view, every murder is based on an intention in the form of an intent to kill. Without this a murder is simply grievous bodily harm resulting in death or it would be just an accident.

Of course, a murder is conceivable without reference to the Jewish identity of the victim when, for example, a murderer acts out of greed and the perpetrator simply does not know whom he is murdering. Yet, in the case of an act of violence resulting in death, there must first be an intent to kill; otherwise, it is not a murder.

In the case of an antisemite murder, this intention must be proven. It must be shown that the murder occurred because it was the result of a will to kill a Jew or a person whom the killer considers to be a Jew.

To complicate this even further, German law distinguishes between murder and manslaughter. Incidentally, this is still much discussed in German criminal law – not least because of a legal history dating back to the infamous president of the Nazis’ Volksgerichtshof and super-Nazi Roland Freisler.

In any case, a murder is characterized by motives such as, for example, acting out of lust to kill, out of greed, or to satisfy one’s sexual instinct. The execution of the murderous act can involve special cruelty.

In the insidious murder in Erlangen, the two victims were completely harmless and defenseless. The crime can very clearly be characterized as murder, whereby the killing of Poeschke also had an additional element. Being a witness to the murder of Lewin, Poeschke was also eliminated. German authorities believed that they could classify this violent crime as murder in a legally and criminally watertight manner. Worse, they could do this without having to present an antisemitic motive for the murder.

This incurs two worthwhile objections: in historical terms, one cannot tell the story of the double murder without showing that the motive for the crime was so clearly antisemitic; the second argument concerns the legal level: an antisemitic motive makes the motiveappear particularly low, rendering it a hate crime.

With that, the motive for the antisemitic double murder can now be stated clearly: on the one hand, the antisemitic attitude of the perpetrator has to be explained, while, on the other hand, it has to be shown that the motive for the murder was antisemitism – it was deliberately directed against a Jew. In short, Lewin’s Jewish identity played an important role in the history of this murder.

Yet, the investigation testifies to the fact that Germany’s post-Nazi society, including its key institutions, showed an inability und perhaps even an unwillingness to deal with an antisemitic murder. In West Germany, however, the hate crime of an antisemitic killing is made even more complicated by the fact that this double murder took place in a post-Shoah society – a society that had created Auschwitz.

In many ways, the antisemitic killing directly threatened the continued delicate Jewish-non-Jewish reconciliation in Germany of the 1980s. Perhaps it was for those reasons that the possibility that the assassination was a neo-Nazi terrorist murder of a Jew and his partner wasn’t considered at first.

Yet, years later, an attempt was made to hold neo-Nazi terrorist Führer Hoffmann accountable for the crime. However, Hoffmann was acquitted of the antisemitic double murder after one of the longest criminal proceedings in the history of Germany.

After that, German society was allowed to forget the names of Frida Poeschke and Shlomo Lewin. Yet, it remains important to understand the context of the murder of Frida Poeschke and Shlomo Lewin and what the murder and the official state treatment of the crime meant to the victims’ families and to Germans. Although most neo-Nazi attacks were motivated by a variety of reasons, antisemitism nearly always played an important role in Germany’s right-wing milieu, made up of right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis.

The history of German neo-Nazi terrorism and – in particular – that of the killer squad, the Wehrsportgruppe (WSG), remains vital. There is a rather remarkable, yet upward, trajectory of violence that occurred not just inside Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen, but – unsurprisingly – also inside Hoffmann’s WSG.

Much of this occurred “after” the WSG’s banning at the beginning of 1980 and its subsequent flight to Lebanon. In Lebanon members of the WSG undertook further radicalization training through dehumanizing military-style drills and torture. For this the group trained in a camp run by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Beirut.

The PLO – more precisely, the FATAH faction and its security service – offered the two German antisemitic double murderers of the WSG a new home. In Lebanon, they simply continued to train for future neo-Nazi activities.

Through the WSG’s cooperation with the PLO, the Middle East conflict played a significant role in the history of the German antisemitic double murder. Lewin and Poeschke became victims because in Lewin, German neo-Nazis saw not only a representative of German Jews, but also a representative of Israel. The two murder victims – Frida Poeschke and Shlomo Lewin – embodied the German-Israeli relationship in all its fragility.

In 1980, West German society had only just begun to develop a new, constructive, and a bit more honest relationship with its Nazi history and the Holocaust. Germany was slowly overcoming the infamous idea of simply coping with the past that was established in 1945. As a consequence, Nazism still provides an important reference point through which one needs to view right-wing extremism in Germany.

However, antisemitism offers an additional perspective. By 1980, 35 years after the Holocaust, West Germany’s non-Jews and the state of Germany as a whole still had a hard time developing a sustainable relationship with the small Jewish community living in Germany at that time. Only four years after the Holocaust, US High Commissioner John J. McCloy declared the development of a safe Jewish living space in Germany the real touchstone for the progress of Germany.

The murder of the Jew Lewin and the subsequent treatment by the state spoke against such progress. Lewin had returned to Germany of his own free will, also to give the country a chance to find its place among the community of democratic, modern, and enlightened states. Frida Poeschke was a Protestant committed to Jewish-German reconciliation. The Erlangen double murder destroyed this. It destroyed the efforts of Poeschke and the hopes of Lewin.

Such right-wing terrorist attacks do not happen in a politically empty space. On the contrary, neo-Nazi terrorists closely monitor the society they want to terrorize. That is why it is important to analyze the political context of neo-Nazi terrorism. It is in the character of such things that neo-Nazi terrorists keep an eye on politics and on the rule of law enshrined in police, criminal offices, constitutional protection, public prosecutors, etc.

They do this in order to be able to assess how much leeway they have and what violent actions they can carry out. The decisive factor here is whether society and the state have recognized the problem of neo-Nazis at all.

However, neo-Nazi terrorists tend to target the population as such – or at least – a part of it. At times, the targeting of the innocent has been – somewhat paradoxically – the goal of recruiting new sympathizers and even the general population. Just as in the case when German neo-Nazis murdered Poeschke and Lewin in 1980, German neo-Nazi terror continued with “highlights” like the postwar killer squad of the  neo-Nazi NSU – the National Socialist Underground.

The NSU killer trio – Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt and Beate Zschäpe and their support network of between 100 and 150 neo-Nazi sympathisers – murdered ten people and committed numerous bombings and bank robberies between the years 2000 and 2006. They select their victims based on the respective mood of society and how the ideological goals of right-wing extremists can best be advanced.

Interestingly, German authorities repeatedly and continuously stress that only left-wing terrorists like the RAF were involved in an extensive network of activists. For decades, German authorities claimed – and, in some case, continue to claim – that the same does not exist in the right-wing and neo-Nazi camp. This created the no-right-wing-network myth.

Yet, if one were, for example, to consider the actions of the local population of the Bavarian village of Ermreuth – the location of the WSG’s headquarters – regarding a clash during an anti-Nazi rally that took place in July 1978, and then hear a local eyewitnesssaying it was a full-on success for Hoffmann, one might start to doubt the official “no neo-Nazi support” myth.

All in all, the year 1980 was a momentous year in the history of post-Nazi Germany, precisely because the antisemitic murder has been forgotten and because Germany has drawn all the wrong lessons from the right-wing and neo-Nazi terrorist wave of the subsequent years.

On this, a political-ideological camp was formed that integrated the attacks into a relatively consistent narrative. This political camp focused primarily on the left, which – so the story goes – had been radicalized since the 1960s to commit violent terrorism.

From this perspective, the violent terrorism that came from the right was made to appear to be of lesser importance. It was also considered to be weaker. Ultimately, right-wing and neo-Nazi terrorists and extremists were presented as ideologically poorly trained, confused, organizationally poorly integrated, and having no network of sympathizers. In the case of Germany’s left-wing terrorist narrative, this view was reversed.

Consequently, when dealing with the events of that time, the impression quickly arises that there was a very serious lack of ambition, disinterest in investigative determination, and perhaps even empathy with the victims – both Jewish and non–Jewish. This story is continued in the case of the NSU and the more recent Hanau terrorist attack.

Back in 1980, this can – at least partly – be explained by the appointment of ex-Nazis and other right-wingers into the state institutions of Germany after 1945. There was a rather substantial personnel continuity with the Nazi regime (1933-1945) placing ex-Nazis into many institutions of the West German state. That was still the case in 1980.

As a consequence, the antisemitic double murder of Erlangen is a story of concealment, denial, and even of secret consent not to seriously investigate Germany’s neo-Nazis.

It is also a story of utter ignorance, disinterest, and a lack of empathy. Today, those old Nazis in Germany’s state institutions have died out – most of them retiring comfortably before dying – unlike their victims. Yet, their spirit lives on. It is just as Madeleine Albright says in Fascism: A Warning,

It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps
than to kill the ideas that gave them birth.”

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).