Racism 'on the rise' 20 years after NSU bombing

 The storefront where a bomb exploded 20 years ago, the shop window filled with portraits of people
Twenty years after the attack, Cologne's bustling Keupstrasse is still a popular shopping district (image: Tuncay Yildirim/DW)

On 9 June 2004, a nail bomb exploded in the heart of a bustling Turkish community in Cologne. German officials quickly rejected the notion that the attack was motivated by racism – and they accused the victims instead

By Melis Yuksel

On 9 June 2004, just before 4 p.m., the lively shopping street Keupstrasse in Cologne's Mulheim district was rocked by an explosion. A nail bomb detonated in front of a barbershop run by a Cologne resident with Turkish roots. Windows shattered, cars were damaged and the shop was destroyed in a blazing fire. Twenty-two people were injured, four of them severely.

Nobody was killed, but those affected still carry the physical and emotional scars today – not least due to how the investigating authorities mishandled the case. Ali Demir was one of the first witnesses to testify to the police.

"I was sitting alone in my office on Keupstrasse when the bomb detonated," he recalled. "As the glass shattered, I threw myself on the ground. I thought it was just gas. Outside, people were screaming. The bomb went off at the same time little kids were being picked up from daycare. The aim was to kill the children and their parents."

Migrant community under general suspicion

One day after the devastating explosion, German Interior Minister Otto Schily told the public that preliminary investigations by security agencies suggested the attack was not linked to terrorist motives, but to a "criminal environment" and a power struggle between rivals.

A woman stands in her shop in front of pictures and awards, smiling into the camera
Meral Sahin chairs the Keupstrasse interest group that represents victims of the 2004 NSU terror attack: "Not much has changed," she says. "Several politicians came, posed for pictures and left. We're all alone again, but at least we're not suspects anymore" (image: Tuncay Yildirim/DW)

Witnesses who testified were asked if they had been in debt, if they had insurance, or if they knew about any "rivalries" in the area. "I knew every single shop owner on that street," Demir said. "There were no 'rivalries'."

He recounted how shocked everyone was to hear Schily's suspicions. With just one statement, the minister has criminalised an entire street and only made matters worse, said Demir. "The police carried out raids along the street, and accused shop owners."

That meant the state's general suspicion was directed at citizens with Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds, as they were the ones who owned most restaurants, shops, salons, jewellery stores and shoe shops that lined the street.

Decades later, questions remain unanswered

Initially, the radical right was briefly suspected of having carried out the attack, but that notion was swiftly set aside. It wasn't until 2011 that authorities determined that the far-right terror group the National Socialist Underground (NSU) planted and detonated the nail bomb.

After the news broke, Schily admitted he had made a "grave mistake". Kemal Bozay, a sociologist at the Cologne Centre for Radicalisation Research and Prevention at the International University of Applied Sciences, accused German politicians of being indifferent. 

"Between 1998 and 2011, attacks by the NSU were the topic of much debate in German politics and society," he said. "But these discussions did not lead to much change." Bozay added that even though it had become clear in 2011 that the NSU was behind the attack, many questions remained unanswered. 

At the time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised the relatives of those affected by the explosion that the militant NSU terrorist cell would be thoroughly investigated. That promise was not kept, said Bozay. "So far, no meaningful steps have been made in that direction."

Meral Sahin, chairwoman of the Keupstrasse community interest group, is also disappointed. "Not much has changed," she said. "Several politicians came, posed for pictures and left. We're all alone again, but at least we're not suspects anymore."

The NSU didn't target Cologne's Mulheim district at random: around one-third of its residents have a migration background. Keupstrasse, in particular, is one of the key focal points for many Cologne residents with Turkish roots.

Germany's art scene has addressed the attack in various forms over the past 20 years. In 2014, the German-Turkish rapper Eko Fresh wrote a song about the attack named "Es brennt" ("It's burning"). The 2017 German drama film "In the Fade" by renowned director Fatih Akin was inspired by the attack. It went on to win the 2018 Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

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Racist tendencies on the rise

For the past 10 years, on the anniversary of the attack, the cultural festival Birlikte (Together) has been held in remembrance of the violent event and to take a stand against hate. "It's about a terrorist attack," said Sahin. "Of course we don't celebrate the attack. But we want to create a festive atmosphere to invite people to come visit us and get to know our street."

Sociologist Bozay believes Germany has experienced a shift in attitude since the series of murderous NSU attacks was uncovered. "Today, one could say that German society has developed an awareness for the NSU and racism," he said. "After the NSU's attacks and killings, Germany became sensitised to right-wing extremism and racism. Compared to the past, people now speak more about the dangers that racism and right-wing extremism pose."

However, he also pointed out that people he considers racist continue to meet and make plans to "remigrate" parts of Germany's population, or that young, wealthy Germans apparently have no qualms about singing "Ausländer raus" ("Foreigners out – Germany for Germans") while on vacation, referring to a viral video of revellers outside a bar on the upmarket North Sea island of Sylt.

"These are clear indications that racist tendencies are on the rise," said Bozay. "This will lead to further societal polarisation and distrust. Migrant communities are becoming more fearful."

Melis Yuksel

© Deutsche Welle 2024