BERLIN, Germany — “I’m the one you’re looking for,” announced Beate Zschaepe when she reported to the police in Jena, eastern Germany, on Nov. 8.
Four days earlier, Zschaepe had blown up her apartment, apparently to hide evidence. Her two live-in companions had died of gunshot wounds, after botching a bank robbery. Authorities contend that one of the men, Uwe Mundlos, shot the other, Uwe Boehnhardt, before killing himself.
In mugshots seered into the German consciousness by non-stop media coverage, Zschaepe, 36, appears exhausted, her dark hair disheveled and smudged mascara ringing her eyes.
Officials quickly determined that she and her two dead companions were members of a far-right trio, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), that had been on the run for 13 years. Evidence emerged linking the group to a series of brutal murders of nine immigrant shop-owners and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007 — a hate crime spree that has unnerved Germany.
Zschaepe, it now seems, is an extreme example of a phenomenon that researchers have been warning of for years: Women are playing an increasingly prominent, and at times violent, role on the extreme right. They now account for an estimated one in five neo-Nazis. And because women are viewed with less suspicion, they have quietly infiltrated many mainstream organizations where they can spread their ideas — even targeting children.
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It is too early to say exactly how much Zschaepe knew about her companions’ alleged racist killing spree. Prosecutors admit they have no evidence that she herself killed anyone. She has been charged with arson and membership of a terrorist group. She is so far refusing to cooperate, and if she continues to maintain her silence the terrorism charge may have to be dropped.
When the story first broke, the tabloid press had little interest in examining Zschaepe’s political convictions, preferring to focus on the lurid details her sex life, speculating on a possible ménage-a-trois with the two men. She was described as the “Nazi bride,” “a hot vixen” or the “strange one with the bedroom eyes.”
Yet, the picture that has since emerged is one of a young woman who from an early age was a committed neo-Nazi. Born in 1975, she grew up on a high-rise estate in Jena with her unemployed single mother. As a teenager she was drawn to extremist militant groups like Kameradschaft Jena and the notorious Thüringer Hemaitschutz, both of which also counted Mundlos and Boehnhardt as members.
The intelligence authorities began monitoring the trio from 1995. In 1998, the police raided a garage Zschaepe had rented and found four pipe bombs and 1.4 kilos of explosives. The three fled before they could be arrested and it was only when the two men died and Zschaepe gave herself up that their whereabouts and the full extent of their crimes in the intervening years emerged.
The titillating press coverage was a dangerous distraction from the trend that Zschape represented, according to Rena Kenzo and Michaela Koettig of the Research Network into Women and Right-Wing Extremism. They wrote an open letter, complaining about the press coverage.
“Beate Zschaepe was being presented as a harmless follower,” Kenzo told GlobalPost. “That is something we objected to because at the time it was not yet at all clear what role she had in this group.”
“There are enough factors that point to the fact that she didn’t go underground because she wanted to go to bed with the two men, but that this was about political participation,” said Koettig, a professor at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences.
Koettig argues that this focus is typical of the approach of the media and authorities when it comes to women on the radical right. “Generally women are not noticed. We have pleaded with the intelligence agencies to also look at the participation of women.” Instead, she explains, they are dismissed as being of marginal importance, particularly because they are regarded as less violent than far-right men.
Women are only responsible for 5 to 10 percent of far-right crimes, according to the state police forces’ statistics. However, that could underestimate their role, argues Johanna Sigl, a researcher into women who have left the far-right scene.
“There is the cliché of the peaceful woman, so the police and press often minimize the possibility that women have actively participated,” says Sigl. “And even when they don’t commit acts of violence themselves, we find that far-right women know about the violence and tolerate it, and they often have a so-called ‘gallery function’ in that they are present during the violence and they egg on the men.”
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The cliché of the non-violent woman is something the far-right National Democratic Party (NDP) is keen to capitalize on as it attempts to make itself seem less threatening to voters. Currently women account for 27 percent of the party members and at the most recent party conference in November three women were elected to the party’s executive committee, the highest ever representation. It’s a development encouraged by an NPD-affiliated women's organization, the Ring of Nationalist Women (RNF), which formed in 2006.
Women are also joining and often playing leading roles in another extremist movement, the so-called “national anarchists.” A fairly recent phenomenon, these groups of young people dress similarly to the far-left anarchists, wearing hoodies and scarves, and deliberately seek out violence at demonstrations.
In fact, there has been a flourishing of extreme-right women’s groups since reunification. Between 1950 and 1988, eight women’s organizations were established in the former West Germany, whereas 39 new groups have formed across the country over the past 20 years.
Germany is far more advanced than other countries in developing specific female neo-Nazi structures. “It is the only country with so many women’s organizations, so many new groups and with such diversity on the right,” Kenzo explains.
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In addition to those who choose overt political activity, many women push the neo-Nazi agenda in other insidious ways.
The far-right uses women to hide the political nature of certain activities. Female members, for example, are often the ones who register demonstrations, rent venues for meetings, or go to anti-Nazi marches to take photographs.
Women are key to the far-right strategy of infiltrating different parts of society, such as sports clubs, community organizations or parent associations. And far-right women often pursue careers such as teaching, child care or social work which gives them access to younger generations. Often employers find out too late that the nice woman they hired is actually a neo-Nazi.
While these women may not be skinheads in jackboots, they share the same extremist racist and anti-Semitic ideology. Experts warn that the fact that they don’t fit the stereotypes can make this kind of political activity all the more dangerous.
“Women are wonderfully suited to this,” says Koettig. “Because people don’t give them credit for having a political position, never mind believe that they would strategically infiltrate a group in order to spread a particular set of politics.”