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More Politically Motivated Cases than Presumed – Earlier cases of extreme rightwing and racist violence reappraised

Mountains of files had to be studied for the project. Photo: MMZ.

Mountains of files had to be studied for the project. Photo: MMZ.

One spring evening in May 1993, Belaid Baylal, an asylum seeker from Morocco, and some of his friends went to a pub in Belzig. What may sound like a fairly normal evening ended in disaster. Two extreme rightwing skinheads beat him so brutally that he ended up dying from his injuries seven years later. This is the only case Dr. Christoph Kopke and his colleague Gebhard Schultz of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies (MMZ) cannot assign clearly into one of their categories at the end of their remarkable research project. Over two years, the scholars looked into homicides in the state of Brandenburg, mainly in the 1990s, in which rightwing extremism played a crucial role. They focused on whether these crimes had a political dimension. As of June 2015, they know the answer: Between 1990 and 2008, there were twice as many killings motivated by rightwing extremism than had been recorded in the crime statistics. The Brandenburg Ministry of the Interior – sponsor of the research project – had to adjust its numbers of murder victims from 9 to 18.

Of the homicides committed in the state of Brandenburg since German reunification on 3 October 1990, only nine were officially classified as rightist, politically motivated. But lists compiled by “Victims’ Perspective”, an advisory center for victims of rightwing and racist violence, by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, and media outlets such as “Die Zeit”, “Der Tagesspiegel” and “Stern” gave higher numbers. They compiled a total of up to 33 killings motivated by rightwing extremism: a situation neither the state nor the public wanted to put up with any longer. In their externally funded project “Revision of controversial earlier cases‚ death toll of extremist rightwing and racist violence in the state of Brandenburg since 1990”, the two researchers from the MMZ looked into the discrepancy. They wanted to disclose what was behind the different numbers given by the state, the police, and the judiciary and actors in civil society and the press. They also wanted to find out how the controversial 24 cases would be classified today.

By comparing individual cases, Kopke and Schulz developed categories to indicate the difficulty of comparing events and assessing what had led to the crimes. The researchers first analyzed the structure of each case in detail. They focused explicitly on the perpetrator or group of perpetrators, the victim and the qualities assigned to him or her, and the dynamics of the events. “As a matter of principle, several elements had to come together and be verifiable from the available sources with sufficient clarity and consistency to identify a motive as triggering, accompanying, or escalating a crime,” the study says. As a result, nine killings by rightwing extremists have had to be reclassified as politically motivated, including that of Belaid Bayal, which had been registered by the state of Brandenburg as politically motivated, but not as a homicide in the legal sense. The project may also help shed light on four cases designated as having no political motive. There are also cases in which perpetrators clearly affiliated with the rightwing extremist scene – despite thorough review and evaluation of the sources – cannot be classified with sufficient certainty as having a rightwing motive for committing a crime (6), as well as cases that cannot be classified today for a number of reasons – such as a lack of documentation (5).

Kopke and Schulz examined and reconstructed the events of each case with the help of documents, minutes, investigation, and press reports. When this did not suffice, they spoke to, among others, police and judiciary representatives. Journalists and others also helped them get to the bottom of what happened.

The researchers also explored whether the investigators and prosecutors had failed to follow up on suspicions of a crime being politically motivated. “In none of the cases did we get the impression that things were intentionally covered up,” Christoph Kopke says. “No indications point to this.” Rather, it was in the interest of the judiciary to put the perpetrators behind bars with no chance of appeal whenever possible. So they focused on the facts at hand.

In many cases, proving a political motive is indeed impossible: for instance, when someone is killed in a relatively spontaneous extortive attack, in which the victim happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The situation is clearer when people are deliberately chosen as victims because of their presumed “inferiority”. At least it is clearer from the current perspective. But particularly in the 1990s, the police and judiciary were very uncertain and focused instead on the concrete course of events. Less attention was given to a possible political background or surrounding circumstances. This changed only in 2001 with the introduction of the new system “politically motivated crimes” (PMK-Rechts). In fact, all controversial cases now categorized as being politically motivated date are from before 2001.

Currently, a commission of representatives of the federal states is reviewing PMK-Rechts, which Kopke and Schultz are following with interest. Their project has no immediate consequences for the perpetrators; it is social scientific research not aimed at a revision of cases. An advisory group of experts contributed substantially to the success of the project, including representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, the State Office of Criminal Investigation, the Solicitor General, “Victims’ Perspective” as well as other institutions and initiatives. “This working group did not exist merely on paper; it discussed actively,” Kopke says. He was particularly impressed by the working atmosphere in the group. “I think all members have learned a lot from each other, also about each other’s perspective. I benefited a lot.”

Politicians have since reacted. Brandenburg’s Minister of the Interior Karl-Heinz Schröter accepted the study’s findings in their entirety. The updated statistics now show 18 fatalities from extremist rightwing and racist violence since 1990. With the path embarked on by his ministry, lost confidence can be regained, Schröter said. “From the current point of view, it was a mistake not to probe the motives of the crimes sufficiently,” he admits. The lessons from the past will be learnt.

The Researchers

Dr. Christoph Kopke studied political science at Berlin’s Free University, where he also earned his doctoral degree in 2008. He is a project assistant at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies and an adjunct professor at the University of Potsdam.


Moses Mendelssohn Zentrum für europäisch-jüdische Studien
Am Neuen Markt 8, 14467 Potsdam
E-Mail: mosesmmz.uni-potsdamde

Gebhard Schultz studied political science at Berlin’s Free University and the University of Hamburg. He is a project assistant at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies.

The Project

Revision of Controversial Earlier Cases “Death Toll of Extremist Rightwing and Racist Violence”, a study in the framework and in continuation of the research priority “research into and prevention of rightwing extremism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism in the state of Brandenburg” at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies
Head: Dr. Christoph Kopke
Duration: 2013–2015
Sponsor: Ministry of the Interior and for Municipal Affairs, Brandenburg

According to statistics of the Brandenburg Ministry of the Interior, cases of extreme rightwing violence increased significantly in 2014. Of a total of 73 cases, 46 were classified as hostile to foreigners. Thus rightwing violence is at its highest point since 2007, when 93 cases were registered. 2013 saw 45 acts of extreme rightwing violence, 26 of them of a xenophobic nature. The hotspot of rightwing violence is the region of Lusatia.

Text: Petra Görlich, Translation: Monika Wilke
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
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