Death threats received by Seda Basay-Yıldız, a German-Turkish lawyer involved in the National Socialist Underground (NSU) case, launched in regard to the killing of eight Turks in Germany, were a hot topic of discussion in Germany for a few weeks recently. Yıldız received the first of these threat letters -- which were all faxed -- Aug. 2, last year. Yıldız, who had previously received many threat messages during the NSU trials, filed a criminal complaint this time because the senders in this letter dated Aug. 2 threatened to kill her two-year-old daughter as well.
The letter was signed "NSU 2.0," a clear reference to the NSU. The Frankfurt police, following the clues obtained during the investigation, found that the information the senders of the fax had on Yıldız had been accessed from the computer of a female police officer from the Frankfurt police department. Further examination revealed that a far-right group in the police department had a WhatsApp group where they shared cartoons and pictures with illegal Nazi imagery (i.e., swastikas), and especially those of houses with billowing chimneys (a reference to the ovens where the Jews were burnt in the concentration camps). As a result of the investigation, six police officers found to be involved in the sending of the threats were suspended from duty.
Lawyer Yıldız received another threat in December. This time the message contained her parents' full names and the address where they lived. And this letter warned her of consequences with regard to the investigation launched after the first message, and dauntlessly issued yet another threat, saying "Apparently you have no idea what you are doing to our police friends," meaning the police officers who had been temporarily suspended sometime before that. In spite of the police investigation, more threat messages came, the last one being the fourth letter since the first one in August. It has, however, yet to be revealed whether the final threat message was written by the police officers themselves or they just disclosed the confidential information on Yıldız and his family members to third parties. To add insult to injury, German police advised Yıldız to obtain a carry license for a hand gun for self-protection, which scandalized the public by implying that Germany, a country that upholds the rule of law, is incapable of protecting its citizens with immigrant backgrounds.
It is known that it was not only Yıldız -- who represented the family of the first victim of the racist NSU, Enver Simsek -- who was threatened; many other lawyers in the NSU case as well as other lawyers representing immigrants in similar cases in Germany have received threats. Mehmet Daimaguler, for example, who became a de facto spokesperson for the families of the victims in the NSU case, also filed a criminal complaint with regards to the threats he received. And shortly after the fax sent to Lawyer Yıldız, another NSU case attorney, Mustafa Kaplan, received a threat message with a similar content and was again signed "NSU 2.0." Kaplan explained that he received this message because he was Erdogan's lawyer in the libel suit against German comedian Jan Böhmermann.
Far-right extremists in German state
The scandal around threat messages must not be considered separately from certain incidents that happened during and after the NSU trials. The first one to leap to mind would be that, during the investigation stage of the NSU case, the police initially made accusations against the families of the murdered Turks. German public grew increasingly more suspicious how this underground organization had been able to commit all those murders over the years without being noticed. There is a broad consensus in German public opinion that this situation points to the existence of deep relations between the group and the German police and intelligence. Indeed, the fact that a German court imposed a 120-year access ban on a document that allegedly suggests a relationship between the German intelligence and the underground group only increased these doubts. What has sparked further controversy is that many witnesses in the case have since died suspiciously and that the murders, committed over the course of many years by a very intricate structure and as part of a complex web of relationships, were pinned on the NSU, which allegedly consists of only three people.
Lawyer Yıldız made public statements when the NSU trials, in which she personally became involved, were still ongoing. One of her criticisms was that certain state institutions persistently withheld many documents from the lawyers in the case. Another was that the victims were treated as perpetrators. "I'm very angry. This case has proved to me that I will never be accepted into this society. My belief in the rule of law has been deeply shaken," she said in one of her statements, expressing her complete bewilderment at the legal scandals she encountered.
German authorities have in the past years spent millions of euros investigating the overall political impact of former Nazis in the first few decades after the war, particularly the impact of those nested in the Interior and Foreign Affairs ministries. Looking at the current landscape, however, we can surmise that the influence still wielded by political cadres with far-right ideology has not yet been sufficiently investigated. As recently as 2017, for example, it came to light that Franko A., a German army (Bundeswehr) first lieutenant, had founded a secret organization in the army to stage a coup and assassinate certain politicians. According to the statistics, 200 soldiers who were found to be far-right extremists and racists were expelled from the army between 2008-2018, while some others who were found to harbor similar feelings were allowed to continue in their duties. It is estimated that the number of extreme right-wing soldiers has reached 400 in recent years.
We should at this point remind that the extreme right-wing cadres in the German police became a topic of discussion during President Erdogan's recent visit to the country: an investigation was launched against two police officers from the German special forces that protected Erdogan during his visit because they were found to have both chosen the name "Uwe Böhnhardt" -- an NSU member -- to use as a code name.
Another example that highlights the extreme right-wing formations in official German institutions is the fact that an extreme right-wing network inside the police leaked the arrest of two young men, a Syrian and an Iraqi, as the prime suspects in a murder case in the city of Chemnitz as well as their names and nationalities. With the leaked information beginning to make the rounds in no time, extreme right-wing groups gathered in the city center at short notice and attacked a number of foreigners.
However, instead of launching earnest probes into these scandalous events, German authorities, very conspicuously, ignore them or do not take them as seriously as they should. Especially in the case of Lawyer Yıldız, the opposition criticized Peter Beuth, the Hessen State's interior minister from the CDU, for not informing the state council and the judicial authorities of what was going on. Likewise, the fact that First Lt. Franko A., who allegedly founded an extreme right-wing organization in the German army (Bundeswehr), was released on grounds of insufficient evidence (even though German Defense Minister von der Leyen had clearly acknowledged the existence in the army of an extreme right-wing formation) is indicative of obvious efforts to downplay this whole episode and make it look like an ordinary judicial case.
Physical attacks result of 'otherizing' policies
Without understanding the dominant political discourse that has prevailed in Germany for some time, we cannot truly appreciate how racist attacks have been increasing in number and severity and how extreme right formations have been acting so blatantly. There is a concrete rise in the number of Islamophobic attacks concomitant with the rise of the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutscheland) and with this party's discourse being embraced by more and more figures from the central political stage. There are, in fact, concrete examples of rising Islamophobia: last week in Berlin, a young girl of 12 wearing a headscarf, or hijab, was attacked by a German woman, and two teenage Syrian girls were attacked and punched by a group of racists.
About a German politician of Turkish descent, President of the far-right AfD Alexander Gauland said, "Explain to her what German culture is. Then she will never come here again, and we will get rid of her by sending her back to Anatolia (thank God)," which further underlines the parallelism between the two trends.
Institutional racism and physical attacks on foreigners should be interpreted in the light of Germany's so-called cultural integration policy aimed at assimilation. In fact, this policy is directly reflected in the daily lives of immigrants living in Germany. One of the crippling impacts of this policy is that, in many schools across Germany, while speaking English during breaks constitutes no problem, there is a ban on speaking Turkish. And similarly, on top of the policy of assimilating different religious and cultural groups in the name of "Leitkultur" (main or leading culture) have recently come the hot debates around what is called "German Islam." These debates, aimed at "reformatting" the Muslims in the country in line with the German state's understanding, seek to, first, denigrate the Turkish and Muslim identities, and then, efface them altogether, instead of accepting them as they are. The scope of hate crimes (which already includes the carrying of Nazi symbols) must be therefore widened to include discrimination and otherization toward different cultures and identities. Physical attacks on foreigners and institutional racism will persist as long as Germany does not abandon the practice of otherizing the cultural identities of those German citizens who came to the country as immigrants.
The alarming circumstances that make even Yıldız, a lawyer with an immigrant background who studied in Germany and once had ideals about this country, say that she no longer believes in the rule of law and does not feel safe in Germany must be understood well. Institutional racism, which is becoming more and more visible by the day, and the physical attacks, which are a concomitant result of this state-level condoning, are utterly alarming.
Developments unsettling to Jews as well
In Germany, the question of institutional racism and racist attacks, each of which is a scandal on its own, is a source of profound concern for not only Muslims but also Jews. As a matter of fact, a survey made by the Die Welt daily with a number of Jews living in Germany on rising antisemitism has produced some unsettling results. How one of the Jews surveyed, a blogger, feels about this frightening transformation reflects the gravity of the situation. She said: "I have no intention of buying any property in Germany, and I have been living for some time as if something bad will happen any moment and I will have to flee this country. I used to think that the events of the past would never repeat. I don't think so anymore."
It should not be forgotten how the Nazis transformed the culture, society and the language of politics in the process that began with their election win and culminated in the extermination of Jews in concentration camps. Institutional racism will never be eliminated unless the perpetrators in the NSU case are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and all the institutions and people who allegedly played a part through negligence or who are themselves directly involved are not brought to justice.
Institutional racism will be perpetuated as long as the German state does not quit its cultural assimilation policies and strong tendency of securitization with regard to foreigners, and particularly Muslims. The way Germany can save itself from the impression that it is a powerless state unable to protect its citizens with different religious and cultural identities is to create a multicultural and free social environment in which all German citizens can live in peace. And the achievement of this is contingent on abandoning the "Leitkultur" policies (namely, downright cultural assimilation) and establishing a new kind of relationship with German citizens with different religions and cultures, in which they are seen as equals, addressed at an "eye-level," and treated the same as all other German citizens. Otherwise, Germany will cease to be a state that upholds the rule of law, and end up turning into one that makes its own citizens live in fear just because they come from different religious and cultural backgrounds.
By Zeliha Eliacik
- The writer is researcher at SETA's Directorate of European Studies, working on Orientalism, minorities in European and Muslim societies, Islamophobia, and the foreign policy of Germany.