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NSU verdict approaches: who is woman at centre of neo-Nazi terror trial?

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NSU verdict approaches: who is woman at centre of neo-Nazi terror trial?
Zschäpe during the trial in Munich. Photo: DPA
09:57 CEST+02:00
For Beate Zschäpe, the woman at the heart of Germany's neo-Nazi murder trial which reaches a verdict on Wednesday, the dark path began in the far-right skinhead subculture that flared after the Berlin Wall fell.

When the communist East German police state collapsed in 1989, Zschäpe was just 14 and living in the drably-uniform tower blocks of Jena, a city near the Polish border.

That turbulent era was marked by jarring images of rage-filled youths with shaved heads, bomber jackets and steel-capped boots who attacked migrants, torched refugee homes and targeted leftist activists.

Two of these xenophobic thugs would become Zschäpe's boyfriends and accomplices: Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt.

She first met Mundlos, whose father was a professor, in 1991, then while he was away for military service, she started a relationship with Böhnhardt, their younger mutual friend.

The relationship triangle would last for the rest of the two men's lives, which they dedicated to a homicidal race war vision of ridding Germany of foreigners.

Their killing spree, in which 43-year-old Zschäpe is a co-accused, left nine Turkish and Greek migrants dead, as well as a German policewoman.

Complicity in murder?

Now Zschäpe, 43, is accused of complicity in the 10 deadly shootings carried out by clandestine trio the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

The NSU's two gunmen - Mundlos and Böhnhardt - also shot dead a German policewoman during their 2000-07 killing spree before they died in an apparent suicide pact in 2011.

It was only then that Germany awoke to the news that the nationwide killings, long blamed by police on immigrant crime gangs, had in fact been committed by organised fascists from Germany's formerly communist east.

The case deeply shocked Germany, which has struggled to atone for its dark Nazi past and which had associated terrorism mainly with far-left and Islamist militants, not rightwing thugs.

Prosecutors have demanded the maximum punishment for Zschäpe - a life term that translates to 15 years behind bars but can be extended if she is deemed an ongoing threat to society.

Visions of white race war

Zschäpe, who grew up without knowing her Romanian father and spent much time in the care of her grandmother, would later say the pair "were my family".

As juvenile members of the neo-Nazi skinhead scene, the three teenagers had steadily gained notoriety in the suburbs of Jena.

They brawled with anti-fascist activists, joined white pride events, and had links with Germany's extremist NPD and a local "homeland defence" group.

In 1996, the three showed up in mock Nazi uniforms at the memorial site of World War II concentration camp Buchenwald, which hit them with lifetime bans.

They earned money from selling a homemade board game modelled on "Monopoly", adorned with swastikas and SS symbols, which they called "Pogromly" - a reference to the 1938 Night of Broken Glass anti-Jewish pogroms.

When police found explosives in Zschäpe's rented garage, the three went into hiding and founded the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU), the cell behind the 2000-2007 killing spree.

Investigators believe they were inspired by the apocalyptic vision of a white race war described in "The Turner Diaries", an American novel published in 1978 which has been dubbed "the bible of the racist right".

'I'm the one you're looking for'

During their years in hiding, Zschäpe used at least 11 aliases and upheld the facade of a normal household.

She handled domestic chores and, prosecutors allege, some of the logistics behind the shootings, bomb attacks and bank robberies.

Neighbours later described the woman they knew as Lisa as "a gentle soul" and friendly -- among them a Greek restaurant owner with whom she sometimes
drank ouzo.

Then in 2011, when Zschäpe heard the two men had died in a murder-suicide after a bungled bank heist, she torched their shared house, dropped her two cats Lilly and Heidi with a neighbour and fled.

Zschaepe criss-crossed Germany on trains for four days, growing increasingly paranoid and dishevelled, at one stage visiting the place where the two men died.

She tried to see her grandmother one last time but didn't manage, and then walked into a police station and declared: "I'm the one you're looking for."

At the start of her trial in 2013, Zschäpe upset victims' relatives with a self-confident demeanour and apparent lack of remorse, refusing to even state her name.

She broke her silence more than two years later, claiming to have been an innocent, disapproving and scared bystander to the murders.

Top-selling Bild daily, like most trial observers, judged her confession as tactical and "nothing but excuses".

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