Siobhan Dowling: Neo-Nazi trial sparks debate on Germany's racist undercurrents
Enver Simsek was their first victim. On September 9, 2000, the Turkish immigrant and businessman was gunned down at one of the flower stalls he owned in Nuremberg, shot in the head eight times.
It was the start of an alleged killing spree by the far-right National Socialist Underground (NSU) that saw 10 people murdered between 2000 and 2007: eight men of Turkish origin, one of Greek descent and a German policewoman.
The case has left Germany reeling and has revealed not only severe failings on the part of the authorities but also a blind spot when it came to the threat posed by the extreme right.
In fact, the NSU crimes only came to light in November 2011 when two of the gang, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Bohnhardt, killed themselves after a botched bank robbery. The surviving member, Beate Zschape, then set fire to the apartment they shared before handing herself into the police.
Now Zschape and four alleged accomplices are on trial in Munich in Germany's biggest domestic terror case since the Red Army Faction trials of the 1970s. Not surprisingly there is intense media interest in 38-year-old Zschape, who appeared in court last week wearing a smart business suit, nothing like the stereotype of a jackbooted skinhead.
There has been much tabloid titillation about the fact that Zschape, dubbed the 'Nazi Bride', had a romantic relationship with both men. Yet she was also a committed neo-Nazi who met the other two on the radical right scene that sprang up in their hometown, the East German city of Jena, in the early 1990s. She faces charges of involvement in the murders, two nail bombings and 15 bank robberies.
Many in Germany, particularly members of the country's three-million strong Turkish community, hope that the trial will shed light on exactly how the police and intelligence agencies spectacularly failed to detect the gang's string of racist killings.
Instead, investigators stubbornly sought the culprits within immigrant communities, assuming that the victims had links to Turkish organised crime, which led the media to brand the murders the 'Kebab Killings'. The grief-stricken families also came under suspicion, adding to their trauma.
A parliamentary inquiry is now probing exactly how such a mammoth blunder could have occurred.
The fragmented intelligence and criminal system is certainly partly to blame. Different bodies in various states failed to share information, which meant crucial clues were not followed up. Furthermore, after 9/11 attention was focused on the threat from Islamists rather than the extreme right.
The official reaction has been to shake up the intelligence agencies and create a register of neo-Nazis. Heads have rolled, most prominently Heinz Fromm, president of the domestic intelligence agency, who quit after it was revealed that staff had shredded files relevant to the case.
Meanwhile, there is a renewed political attempt to ban the far-right National Democratic Party.
Yet this feels like little more than window dressing. Beyond the intelligence failures, the authorities' assumption that the murdered foreigners had criminal links points to a pervasive institutional racism. And there is little evidence that the fiasco is prompting anything like the soul-searching that occurred after the Stephen Lawrence murder in the UK.
Furthermore, while the NSU crimes may be spectacular, anti-racism groups argue that far-right violence is actually an everyday occurrence. There have been at least 152 murders by neo-Nazis since reunification, not to mention frequent attacks on foreigners.
Germans are rightly praised for dealing with their Nazi past, Third Reich symbols and salutes are banned and there is little electoral support for the NPD, which attracts just over 1pc of the vote. However, that belies a much wider problem of racism in German society. A recent study found that 9pc of Germans had far-right views, while a stunning 25.1pc held xenophobic opinions.
Racism often seems to be almost socially acceptable. Many immigrants were, for example, dismayed when the 2010 book by former Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin in which he claimed Muslim immigrants were dumbing down Germany, became a huge bestseller.
The NSU trial will undoubtedly throw up many troubling details of neo-Nazi networks and intelligence failures, but it remains to be seen whether it will launch the genuine debate about racism in Germany that is sorely needed.
Siobhan Dowling is a Berlin-based journalist.