Prosecutors call Beate Zschaepe Germany’s most dangerous neo-Nazi and from Wednesday she will sit in the dock in the country’s biggest far-right murder trial of the post-war period.
However, as the proceedings get underway against Zschaepe and four alleged accomplices in the southern city of Munich, the unassuming bespectacled brunette remains an enigma behind a wall of silence.
When she walked through the door of the police station of Zwickau, a sleepy town in former communist East Germany, on Nov. 8, 2011, to turn herself in, she told officers simply: “I’m the one you’re looking for.”
Since then, she has refused to divulge any secrets from the previous 14 years which she, according to the authorities, spent underground and on the run as part of a far-right killer trio blamed for 10 murders.
“Everyone in Germany knows her name, but no one knows who she is,” the daily Die Welt wrote about a woman who has shaken the country’s self-image as having learned the lessons of its Nazi past.
Four days before she gave herself up, the two men, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, died in an apparent murder-suicide after a bungled bank robbery, finally bringing their lethal “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) to light.
Investigators say the three were locked in a macabre love triangle, robbing banks and living comfortably off the proceeds while they carried out a nationwide hunt for immigrant victims.
Now 38, Zschaepe, the only surviving member of the group, is suspected of involvement in the killing of nine shopkeepers of Turkish or Greek origin across Germany between 2000 and 2006 and a German policewoman in 2007, as well as 15 armed robberies, arson and attempted murder.
However, those who knew her in Zwickau, where she shared a spacious rented apartment in an attractive pre-war building with Mundlos and Boehnhardt, say she was a “gentle soul” who never revealed her far-right views.
“She was a kind of big sister, someone with a big heart,” a shocked neighbor, who gave her name only as Heike K, told German television.
Federal prosecutors say that although she likely never pulled the trigger, Zschaepe played a “dominant role” in the NSU, maintaining the delicate “emotional link” between herself and her lovers.
She fell first for Mundlos, the soft-spoken son of a university professor often seen taking care of his wheelchair-bound brother, at the age of 16 and later took up with Boehnhardt, a more volatile type with a weakness for weapons.
“Ms Zschaepe acted like a wife, but for two men,” one of their alleged accomplices told authorities.
Zschaepe held the purse-strings, managing the windfalls from their bank heists, prosecutors say.
She juggled several identities, using them to defraud Germany’s generous social welfare system, they allege, while she did the cooking and took care of their two pet cats, Lilly and Heidi.
On Nov. 4, 2011, she allegedly blew up their apartment in a bid to destroy evidence after the death of the two Uwes — after dropping off the cats with a neighbor.
Zschaepe had a chaotic upbringing. Her mother gave birth to her in East Germany, apparently without knowing she was pregnant.
Her father was believed to be Romanian, but refused to acknowledge her as his child, and she spent much of her youth with her grandmother.
Zschaepe was 14 when the Berlin Wall fell, causing economic and ideological shockwaves that led many to the political extremes.