Having refused to comment on her alleged crimes, Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of the murderous NSU neo-Nazi terror cell, remains an enigma. With her trial set to begin on Monday, prosecutors hope to illuminate the character of a woman described by neighbors as outgoing and likeable.
Beate Zschäpe's family is dead. That's what she said in November 2011, on the day that she turned herself in to the police in Jena. As she put it, her family consisted of Uwe Mundlos und Uwe Böhnhardt, the two men she first met at a youth club in the eastern German city where she grew up. She was romantically involved with both of them, eventually embracing a life of crime and going underground in 1998.
She was closer to Mundlos and Böhnhardt than she was to the grandmother who brought her up, acting as her substitute mother and main anchor in life. She was closer to them than she was to her parents. She never met her father and her relationship with her mother was distant.
Originally scheduled for April 17, Beate Zschäpe's trial is now due to begin in a Munich court on May 6 after a row over foreign press access. As an alleged founding member of a neo-Nazi cell calling itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU), she is accused of complicity in the murder of eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman, two bombings in Cologne and 15 bank robberies. Four others are charged with assisting the NSU.
Anja Sturm, Zschäpe's defense lawyer, is unwilling to comment on her client's state of mind ahead of the trial. "Any defendant, especially if they are remanded in custody, will become increasingly tense in the immediate run-up to their trial," she says. "Their mood will fluctuate between optimism and depression."
Zschäpe is allowed to follow the media coverage of her case on TV and in newspapers, but her lawyer won't confirm that her client actually does. All Sturm will say is that Zschäpe and her defense lawyers have agreed not to comment on her case.
As the only surviving member of the NSU, Zschäpe has become the face of what's been dubbed the Zwickau terror cell. For almost 14 years, she lived with two men who committed 10 racially motivated murders, carried out bomb attacks and robbed banks. Beate Zschäpe probably felt far more fulfilled during these years than she ever had before.
Formative Early Years
Zschäpe was born in Jena in January 1975. Her mother hadn't planned to have a baby. She became pregnant while studying dentistry in Romania. Her father is believed to be a Romanian student, who refused to acknowledge paternity. Zschäpe's mother left the baby with her parents in Jena and returned to her studies. Within a year, she married a childhood friend from Jena, who took care of the infant. But she divorced him as soon as she had completed her studies, remarrying and moving in with her new husband in his hometown of Camburg in Thuringia. Once again, the baby was left with its grandparents. This marriage also failed. Beate Zschäpe was five years old before she finally got to live with her mother.
They never managed to make up for the lost time. At first, they shared a cramped one-room apartment in the Lobeda district of Jena and later moved to the neighborhood of Winzerla. It was here, in a youth club, that Beate first encountered Uwe Mundlos, the son of a college professor.
They became a couple in 1993, getting engaged and immersing themselves in the local far-right scene. Eventually, she left him for Uwe Böhnhardt. Two years younger than her, he was the son of an engineer and a teacher -- and a fervent neo-Nazi.
"My daughter's political views were not the only reason for our estrangement, but they were a major cause," Zschäpe's mother told the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). She described their relationship as "tense" and characterized by a lack of mutual affection and interest. Nevertheless, she also said that her daughter never made xenophobic, far-right comments in her presence. She was shocked when the police raided their home in 1996, recalling that it was only then that she realized the extent of her daughter's involvement in the neo-Nazi scene.
Zschäpe allegedly had a number of affairs with far-right extremists while she was training as a gardener, despite her relationship with Böhnhardt. Nevertheless, the couple and Mundlos were said to be inseparable. Together, they would visit Zschäpe's mother and grandmother, Mundlos bringing flowers and Böhnhardt wearing operating room slippers over his polished combat boots -- they were too much work to unlace.
The three friends were among the founders of the far-right militant group called the Kameradschaft Jena ("Jena Comradeship"), attending rallies as well as weekly meetings held by another neo-Nazi group, the Thuringia Homeland Protection League (THS), which drew up to one hundred supporters. According to Thuringia's domestic intelligence service, THS had evolved into the state's most militant neo-Nazi group by the late 1990s, numbering up to 170 members.
By this point, the far-right network had become Zschäpe's ersatz family and her life of crime had begun. Together with Böhnhardt she vandalized a memorial to the victims of fascism in Rudolstadt and began renting a garage where they made fake bombs.
On Jan. 26, 1998, the police raided the premises and found several pipe bombs without detonators filled with 1.39 kilograms of TNT. The trio went underground. Shortly before disappearing, Zschäpe asked her grandmother for money and told her she was being chased.
In subsequent years, Zschäpe assumed over 10 different identities with apparent ease. Within the terror cell, her job was to create a veneer of respectability. She posed as a friendly neighbor, a loyal friend and a helpful roommate, explaining that one of the men she lived with was her boyfriend and the other her brother. After the NSU was discovered, investigators found out that while Mundlos and Böhnhardt often aroused suspicions -- what with their respective obsessive exercising and conspicuous tattoos -- Zschäpe appeared to have made an outgoing and likeable impression on most people she encountered.
"When she entered a room, you forgot your worries," recalls one former neighborhood acquaintance. Unlike her roommates, she cultivated outside friendships, organizing barbecues where she would get tipsy and dance in the yard. To all appearances, she was an outgoing young woman who would seek out the company of others when she and the two men went on camping trips.
Perhaps Zschäpe yearned for a normal life during her years underground. There were few people who knew of the terror cell's existence, and therefore few people she could confide in. "I would never have thought she was capable of murder and hatred on this scale," says one former neighbor. It's now up to prosecutors in Munich to prove that she was.