Wednesday 21 August 2019

The killing of Thomas Niedermayer

David Blake Knox recounts the story of an innocent German family who stumbled into a long-running Irish dispute - with devastating consequences

Ingeborg Niedermayer is comforted by her daughters Gabriele, left, and Renate at Thomas's funeral in 1980. Later on the three woman would take their own lives
Ingeborg Niedermayer is comforted by her daughters Gabriele, left, and Renate at Thomas's funeral in 1980. Later on the three woman would take their own lives
Thomas Niedermayer

Late one night, over Christmas of 1973, a car pulled up outside a modest bungalow in a quiet residential avenue in West Belfast. Two men got out and knocked on the door. A young girl answered, and was told that there had been an accident and her father's car had been damaged.

He was asleep, but she roused him and he went outside to inspect the damage. Once outside, he was overpowered and bundled into the back of another car. Thomas Niedermayer was never seen alive again by his friends or family.

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Niedermayer was the manager of Grundig's electronics plant in Dunmurry, a small town just outside Belfast. He had been living in Northern Ireland with his wife Ingeborg and their two daughters since 1961.

In that time, Grundig had become one of the biggest employers in Northern Ireland with more than 1,000 workers. By all accounts, Niedermayer was popular with the labour force. One colleague described him as having "a typical German's capacity for endless work" and claimed that Niedermayer thought about his job "day and night".

The tape recorders made in the Dunmurry plant were of high quality and the factory delivered impressive export figures. Grundig was conferred with a prestigious Queen's Award for Industry, and Niedermayer was rewarded for his vision and commitment with an honorary OBE.

But perhaps the award that held most meaning for Thomas Niedermayer came from his own country. In 1971, he was delighted to be appointed Honorary German Consul in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it was this distinction that contributed to him being kidnapped and killed by the IRA.

By the early 1970s, the Troubles had begun to engulf Northern Ireland, but Niedermayer had not permitted any display of sectarian loyalties on his shop floor. He seems to have thought that, as a neutral outsider, he was safe from the unwelcome attention of any of Ulster's warring factions. He could not have foreseen he would be identified by the IRA as a "legitimate target", or that his abduction would be planned and set in motion by someone he knew.

Brian Keenan had once been a shop steward in Grundig's factory. In that role, he had frequent - and sometimes stormy - meetings with Niedermayer. By 1973, Keenan had left Grundig and had become a leading figure in the Provisional IRA.

In March of that year, the IRA's army council decided to take their campaign to England. The plan was to explode bombs in London on the same day that a 'border poll' was due to take place in Northern Ireland.

In recent years, Sinn Fein has often called for just such a vote to decide the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. But in 1973 the poll was denounced as a 'sectarian headcount', and the IRA made plans to stage a 'spectacular' event that would overshadow its result. Four cars were hijacked in Belfast and brought to Dublin. They were fitted with false number plates, packed with explosives and taken by ferry to Liverpool. They were then driven to London.

The leader of the IRA unit that planted the car bombs was a young woman called Dolours Price - who later married the well-known actor Stephen Rea. Her sister Marian was also part of the IRA team. On the afternoon of March 8, two of their bombs exploded, injuring more than 200 people and killing one elderly shopkeeper.

All 10 members of the unit were arrested on the same day at Heathrow Airport on their way back to Ireland. In November, 1973, the Price sisters were each sentenced to 20 years in prison.

On the day that they were sentenced, the IRA issued a statement warning that "in due course, retribution will be exacted". The sisters immediately began a hunger strike, demanding their transfer to jails in Northern Ireland. They were force-fed in prison: a painful and distressing procedure that stirred memories of the suffragettes' campaign for female voting rights.

Brian Keenan was determined to help the Price sisters, and to restore the reputation of the IRA as an effective fighting force. He decided to kidnap his former boss and hold him as ransom for the transfer of the Price sisters. He believed that Niedermayer's status both as a German Consul and as a successful businessman would compel the British government to submit to his demands.

Kidnapping is usually regarded as one of the most odious of crimes. It is designed to exploit the emotional bonds that connect human beings. It involves a deeply disturbing form of psychological terror because it plays upon the tantalising hope that the kidnapped person might somehow be saved and brought home alive and unhurt.

Ingeborg Niedermayer was particularly vulnerable to this form of pressure. She had grown up in what was then known as East Prussia. In January 1945, when she was still a teenager, the Red Army had invaded Nazi Germany. Within a week, Soviet troops had severed all road and railway links, leaving East Prussia completely isolated. In the freezing winter of 1945, thousands of refugees died in desperate attempts to escape the Russian forces. They starved, drowned, died of hypothermia, succumbed to illness and injuries, or were killed by the invading army.

Tens of thousands of German women were raped by Soviet soldiers, and many thousands are understood to have died as a result of brutal sexual assaults. Ingeborg was one of those who fled in terror from the Red Army. Eventually, she found refuge hundreds of miles away in Bavaria, where she met and married Thomas Niedermayer.

Ingeborg may have survived the war, but that did not mean she emerged unscathed. It seems likely that she suffered from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the years, she came to rely heavily upon her husband's presence and support - and this dependence seems to have increased with the onset of the Troubles.

The day after Niedermayer's abduction, the shop stewards at Grundig issued a statement in which they described the Dunmurry plant as a "model factory" where Protestants and Catholics worked together on the basis of equality. They called on all trade unionists in Ireland "to join them in condemning this callous act" and "show the world that we will not tolerate it". They could not know that the kidnapping had been planned by someone who had once been one of their fellow shop stewards.

In the days that followed his abduction, everyone expected there would be some communication from the kidnappers. But there was only silence. Wild rumours and elaborate theories about the reasons for the abduction quickly surfaced. One newspaper claimed that Niedermayer had been killed by international arms traffickers. Another suggested he had been murdered by a jealous boyfriend.

Ingeborg received anonymous letters claiming that her husband had simply run off with 'another woman'. There were also hoax calls, and a self-styled clairvoyant arrived from Co Kerry. He sat for hours holding a hawthorn stick over photos of Niedermayer and a map of Ireland before announcing that the German businessman was still alive and well and was being held 12 miles outside Belfast.

Ingeborg pleaded with the kidnappers for more credible news. "Please let me know what has happened to my husband," she begged, "No one can appreciate the agony and strain you are putting me and my daughters through. I pray that you will show me some human compassion."

The West German chancellor, Willie Brandt, also made a direct appeal on local television, and a substantial reward was offered for information leading to Niedermayer's rescue. But there was still only silence.

Six months after the abduction, Ingeborg made a final television broadcast. "It is terrible living like this and never knowing," she said, her voice breaking with stress and pain. "I beg these people to let me know - my life has been shattered."

Once again, there was no response from the IRA. According to one RUC detective, "It was as if a man walked 25-yards to his front door, and fell off the edge of the world."

In the years that followed, Ingeborg continued to live in the home that she had shared with Thomas, and worked as a clerk in the factory that he had once managed. She was declared a widow by a German court in 1976, but she continued to pray every day that her husband was still alive. In 1978, she purchased a burial plot for her husband in the picturesque Church of Ireland cemetery in Derriaghy, close to the Grundig factory. It seems that Niedermayer had once said he would like to be buried there. Ingeborg also arranged for a marble headstone to be placed at the grave - although she was not yet able to record the date of his death. She often visited the cemetery and would stand for some time looking down at the empty grave in a state of unresolved grief.

Keenan's plan had been to ransom Niedermayer for the transfer of the Price sisters to Northern Ireland. However, his plans were abandoned when the German businessman was killed just three days after he had been kidnapped.

Niedermayer became one of the "disappeared", those victims of the IRA - such as Jean McConville and Columba McVeigh - who, for a variety of reasons, were killed and buried in secret.

The IRA denied any responsibility or knowledge of Niedermayer's abduction, and his body was hidden beneath a rubbish dump just a few hundred yards from his family home. It was not recovered until 1980 when an IRA informant revealed its location to the RUC.

In March of that year, a small group of workmen from the West Belfast Environmental Action Group spent a month clearing thousands of tons of stinking rubbish that had been dumped illegally in Colin Glen, an area of public parkland. Apart from the dreadful stench of rotting material, the site was infested with rats and other vermin. The workmen's objective was apparently to restore the glen to its former natural beauty. In reality, they were all undercover RUC officers and they kept Walther PPK automatic handguns hidden under their waterproof jackets.

Colin Glen was close to the IRA's stronghold of Andersonstown and the policemen's lives would have been in grave danger if their true identities had been discovered.

The policemen were on the verge of abandoning their mission when one of them discovered some muddy grey trousers. There were human leg bones inside the trousers. Nearby, they found the slippers that Niedermayer had been wearing on the night he was kidnapped. A few minutes later, they dug up a skull. The body had been buried in a shallow grave, face down. In the chilling words of one of his killers, that was so he could "dig himself deeper".

One of the kidnappers later told detectives that Niedermayer had made an attempt to escape on the third day of his captivity. He had broken a window in the bedroom where he was being held and called out for help.

Niedermayer was restrained by four members of the IRA who pistol-whipped him and forced his face into a mattress. When his body was finally recovered, it was impossible to determine whether he had been smothered or beaten to death. However, the post-mortem examination revealed two depressed fractures to Niedermayer's skull, consistent with him being struck by a heavy object - such as the butt of a revolver.

Ingeborg may have felt some relief when her husband's body was finally recovered. But that was offset by her pain when she learned that he had been buried so close to their home, and that she had often passed the rubbish dump where his body was concealed.

At Niedermayer's funeral, the Church of Ireland minister paid tribute to the way in which Ingeborg had "come through the sorrow and the suffering with great dignity".

Thomas Niedermayer "had ended his life in a dreadful way", he told the large congregation, "and we all feel the shame of it".

The last time Ingeborg had seen her husband was on the night of his abduction. He had visited her earlier that evening in hospital and had brought a bunch of red roses to her bedside.

As his coffin was lowered into the ground, Ingeborg took a red rose from one of the wreaths and threw it into the grave.

After the funeral, she decided to return to Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, Ingeborg had been officially classified as a 'displaced person' and perhaps she never lost that negative identity. The world of East Prussia in which she had grown up was gone for good. It had been dismembered and absorbed by Russia and Poland

By 1980, Ingeborg had not lived in West Germany for almost two decades and may have felt almost as much of an outsider there as she had once been in Northern Ireland.

Sadly, in the years that followed, Ingeborg and her children continued to struggle with what happened on that cold December night, and to feel a crippling mixture of guilt, anger and resentment. All of this seems to have fractured the family's unity, and added to their sense of isolation.

In June 1990, Ingeborg returned to Ireland. She booked into a hotel in Bray, Co Wicklow, and asked for a room with a sea view and a double bed. She told hotel staff that she found the sight of two single beds upsetting since the death of her husband.

A few days later, a jogger came across her body, which had been washed up on the north beach of Greystones. Ingeborg was fully dressed, wearing a beige coat, blue skirt and black shoes.

At the time of her mother's suicide, Renate Niedermayer - the younger of the daughters - was living in South Africa. She is said to have been tormented by the thought that she had opened the door to her father's killers and had woken him from his sleep. Within a year of her mother's death, Renate also killed herself.

On the night of her father's abduction, Gabriele - the elder of his two children - was staying overnight with a friend.

Like Renate, she moved away from Northern Ireland. She attempted suicide in the years that followed her sister's death and, in 1996, she killed herself. The awful succession of deaths in their family was not yet complete: a few years after Gabrielle's death, her husband also took his own life.

The long-term impact of Thomas Niedermayer's abduction and killing may be unique, but, sadly, it is not entirely exceptional in Northern Ireland.

It reveals the long-term and corrosive effects that acts of political terrorism can have on succeeding generations - even on ones that are yet to be born.

In this case, an innocent German family stumbled into a long-running Irish dispute - whose intimacy and intensity they couldn't begin to understand - and all of them ended up dead.

The Killing of Thomas Niedermayer by David Blake Knox (New Island), 15.95 euro (£13.99 in UK).

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