05/18/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

The Three German Extremist Friends Who Robbed Banks and Murdered Immigrants

The Three German Extremist Friends Who Robbed Banks and Murdered Immigrants

One autumn afternoon in the German town of Zwickau, a woman splashed ten liters of gasoline around her apartment, then set it on fire. She had been dreading this day for years, hoping it wouldn’t come to this. But on November 4, 2011, it did, and she needed to act quickly to save her two cats from the flames. Their names were Lilly and Heidi. One was black with white spots on its paws, while the other had gray and black stripes. She scooped them up, put them in their carriers, and walked downstairs to the street.

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A passing neighbor recognized the woman by her “strikingly long, dark hair.” Everyone seemed to fixate on this feature, perhaps because nothing else about her seemed distinct. She was five foot five, the average height of women in Germany. She was neither heavyset nor slim. Her face was wide, flat, expressionless, with thin lips and hazel eyes. Later, when her face became famous across Germany, there was one trait that nobody seemed to use to describe her. Which was strange because it was the only one that mattered: The woman was white.

Four years later, at the trial that would captivate the country, the white woman would claim that she waited to set the fire until the two men renovating the building’s attic left for a break, so they wouldn’t be hurt. That she had tried to warn the older lady who lived downstairs— who looked after Lilly and Heidi when she was away— buzzing and knocking hard on her door, to tell her to run from the flames. Her lawyer would tell a courtroom packed with judges, prosecutors, lawyers, journalists, neo-Nazis, and police that she’d taken great care to save lives the day she set the fire. The lives of other white Germans, and her two precious cats.

She wouldn’t have needed to set the fire if only the fifteenth bank robbery had gone as well as the fourteen before it. For over a decade, her two best friends, and sometimes lovers, had been robbing banks at gunpoint in towns across Germany. On their previous heist, the two men— who shared the same first name— had walked in carrying two pistols, a revolver, and a hand grenade, one wearing a vampire mask and the other a ski mask. They walked out with 15,000 euros in cash, making their getaway as they always did— on bicycles. Over the years, they’d stolen hundreds of thousands of deutsche marks and euros, worth nearly a million dollars today. For their fifteenth heist they drove two hours from Zwickau to Eisenach, the birthplace of composer Johann Sebastian Bach and where Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Latin and Greek into German.

On November 4, 2011, at 9:15 a.m., they walked in wearing sweatpants and sneakers, one in a gorilla mask, the other in a mask from the movie Scream. They pistol-whipped the bank manager, leaving a wound on his head. They pedaled away with 72,000 euros in a bag. At 9:30 a.m., police issued an alert for officers to be on the lookout for two men on bicycles.

Twenty minutes later, a witness told officers he’d seen two men ride bikes into a hardware store parking lot a half mile from the bank. They were in a hurry. They loaded their bikes into a white camper van and drove off. Hours passed without any sign of the culprits, and police theorized they might attempt to drive deeper into Saxony, the eastern German state where other recent bank robberies had taken place. Officers fanned out to patrol the roads leading west toward the city of Chemnitz. But at four minutes past noon, police spotted a white camper van parked on the side of the road a few miles north of the bank. Two officers got out of their vehicle and approached it. Just then, they heard a gunshot, then another. The officers took cover behind a nearby car and a dumpster. Another shot rang out. Then the van went up in flames.

The cops radioed firefighters, who rushed to the scene and quickly extinguished the blaze. Carefully, they opened the side door and looked in. Lying on the floor were the bodies of the two bank robbers, each with a bullet through the head. After setting the van on fire, one of them had shot the other, then turned the gun on himself in a sensational murder suicide.

Searching through the carnage, a police officer inspected the guns. On the vehicle’s right-hand seat was a Pleter 91 submachine gun and a Czech-made semiautomatic pistol. A black handgun was lying on a small end table between the two seats. But what caught the officer’s eye were the two shiny, brass-colored bullet cartridges. They looked just like the casings of his own, government-issued bullets.

Could the bank robbers be police? 

Investigators had learned little from the series of bank heists across eastern Germany in the preceding years. Two months earlier, police in the town of Gotha described the suspects as “both about 20 years old, slender figures, approx. 180–185 cm, masked, dark brown hair, darker skin tone, German language without an accent.” That last phrase— German-speaking, without an accent— seemed intended to distinguish the men from immigrants or foreigners. The robbers were German, or at least they sounded the part. But the second to last phrase— “ darker skin tone”— seemed to differentiate them from the typical German, by implying they were not white. But the Gotha police got it wrong. That much was evident as officers looked inside the van at the bodies of two men, some of their white skin charred by the fire.

When news reports began circulating that two bank robbers had killed themselves in a blaze of fire and gunshots, only one person in all of Germany knew who they were: the white woman with the long dark hair and two cats. Knew that they weren’t just two money-driven men with a death wish. Knew that while robbing banks had been a talent of theirs, it was only a means to a more sinister end: murdering immigrants, to keep Germany white. They weren’t merely bank robbers, the woman knew— they were serial killers, terrorists.

She knew this because she was one, too. 

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The three friends were not predestined to become killers. It was the culmination of their decade-long indoctrination into Germany’s far-right world.

They didn’t radicalize alone, but as part of a white supremacist community. Its ringleader was a government informant who used taxpayer money to turn disillusioned young Germans into violent political operatives. Some tried to warn the world about what they were up to. One leftist punk began photographing far-right rallies and documenting the white supremacists who attended, unaware that some of them would grow up to be terrorists or that she would one day be called upon to expose them. Before the murders began, a police officer had tried to arrest the trio for their other, foreboding crimes. But he was sidelined by a law enforcement system that cared less about protecting the public than protecting its own. 

Growing up in eastern Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, far-right youth called themselves National Socialists— Nazis. Like the original Nazis half a century before them, they blamed minorities for their ills. They despised Jews and didn’t consider them to be part of the white race. They derided Blacks. But above all they fixated on immigrants: workingclass men and women and their children, from Turkey, Vietnam, and Greece. Children like Gamze Kubaşık, whose family emigrated from Turkey to Dortmund, where they opened a corner store. Children like Semiya Simşek, whose parents came from Turkey and sold flowers at stands across Bavaria. But to the white woman with long dark hair, and to her two white friends, these immigrants posed an existential threat to the white nation they wanted Germany to be.

And so they killed them, or killed their next of kin. One year before the Islamist terror attacks of September 11, 2001, three German terrorists set out to rid their nation of immigrants. Over many years, and in many cities, they shot immigrants where they worked and bombed the neighborhoods where they lived. Shot them in their corner stores, kebab stands, a hardware store. Bombed them in a grocery store, a bar, a barbershop. German authorities didn’t catch on to what they were doing. Blinded by their own prejudice, they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that sixty years after the Holocaust, some white Germans could still be radicalized to the point of carrying out racist mass murder. And so each time an immigrant was killed, officers would lie to the victim’s family, fabricating evidence to feed officers’ fantasies that immigrant crime syndicates were to blame. While police ignored evidence that the killings were being carried out by white Germans, men of Turkish and Greek background continued to be murdered one by one.

Thirteen years passed before the trio’s crime spree finally ended. The country’s reckoning Munich courtroom, the city’s largest, renovated just in time to hold Germany’s trial of the century. Each day, former far-right skinheads and former leftist punks filed into the courtroom as witnesses, defendants, lawyers, spectators. Each day, for five years. The truth trickled out slowly. The spy in the cybercafe. Taxpayer funds given to far-right extremists. The intelligence agents who shredded documents in a frenzy.

The trial would force Germany to grapple with what drove an ordinary German woman and her ordinary German friends to carry out a serial assassination of innocent people— people selected for the country from which they came, the accent in their voice, the color of their skin.

A nation that liked to think it had atoned for its racist past would be forced to admit that violent prejudice was a thing of the present. That sixty years after Hitler’s Nazis led Jews and other minorities to their deaths during the Holocaust, German police were so blinded by bias that they couldn’t recognize the racist violence unfolding around them. The case would compel Germans to acknowledge that terrorism isn’t always Islamist or foreign. More often, it’s homegrown and white. And that in an age of unparalleled mass migration, the targets of white terrorism are increasingly immigrants.

This is true not just in Germany, but in Western democracies around the globe. Since 9/11, more people in the United States have been murdered by far-right extremists than by any other kind, including Islamist ones. And it’s getting worse: The year President Donald Trump took office, American white supremacists murdered twice as many people as the year before. Trump’s anti-immigrant, antidemocratic rhetoric inspired white terrorists across the globe. In Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, minutes before a white man shot up a mosque during Friday prayers, he circulated a manifesto that called for the “removal” of nonwhite immigrants from Europe and praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

He wasn’t the first white man to find common purpose in terrorizing immigrants and racial minorities, Muslims, and Jews. And he wouldn’t be the last. Another white terrorist found it at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, slaughtering nine Black worshippers in 2015. 

Two years later, another found it in a mosque in Quebec City, Canada, where he opened fire just after an imam led the congregation in prayer, killing six people and injuring five. One month after that, another one found it in Olathe, Kansas, where he yelled at two Indian engineers, calling them “terrorists” and “illegal immigrants,” and screamed at them to “get out of my country,” before shooting and killing them. A few months after that, another found it on a train in Portland, Oregon, shouting racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two Black teenagers before stabbing three people, killing two.

Yet another white terrorist found it at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, killing eleven Jewish people and injuring six. Another found it as he hunted Mexicans in the aisles of a Walmart in El Paso, killing twenty-three. Another one found it in the Asian American spas and massage parlors of Atlanta, where he killed six Asian American women and injured two others. One month later, another found it at a FedEx in Indianapolis that employed Indian Americans, killing four Sikhs and four others.

Another one found it in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, where he entered a grocery store and slaughtered eleven people, almost all of them Black. Another found it in a store in Jacksonville, Florida, where, on the sixtieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in August 2023, he ordered white people to leave before killing three Black shoppers in a suicide attack.

To stop this carnage, we need to acknowledge who the terrorists really are. Just as in Germany, most terrorists who strike in the United States are homegrown and white.

Today, some Germans want to confront their domestic extremists. But many wish to look away. It’s a sentiment shared around the world. No one wants to believe that their neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens may be radicalizing around them, or that white terror is on the rise. They’d like to think it doesn’t happen often, or that it couldn’t happen here. Germany’s failure to recognize its first white terrorist spree of the twenty-first century— much less stop it— is a chilling warning for other nations that are failing to fight extremists at home. Having briefly earned a reputation as a haven for the world’s refugees, Germany is now struggling to protect them from violence by native-born whites.

“There are those in the east and the west who want to see Germany as an open society”— one that embraces immigrants, said Heike Kleffner, a German journalist who investigates the far right. But there are other Germans who would like to make Germany white. “This rift is played out in families, in small towns, big cities, villages. It’s a battle about defining this country.”

This upheaval is transforming Germany’s politics and calling into question what being German even means. Similar debates are engulfing nations around the world. When three white Germans began their anti-immigrant spree, white terrorism was already a global phenomenon, though few yet knew it by that name.

To understand what white terror is, who is spreading it, and how to stop it, we must look to Germany’s east, where three friends from a small town set off to murder immigrants— and the government that was supposed to stop them chose to look away.

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Excerpted from Look Away: a true Story of Murder, Bombings, and a Far-Right Campaign to Rid Germany of Immigrants, by Jacob Kushner. Published by Grand Central Publishing. Copyright 2024. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.