“I Come From Erfurt”: Art and Darkness in a German Dollhouse

July 13, 2014   •   By Tom Christie

HAVING LARGELY ESCAPED the allied bombing campaign in World War II, the central German city of Erfurt is today considered a Puppenstube, or dollhouse. Its narrow cobblestoned streets wind through a stunning array of medieval, baroque, Gründerzeit, and modernist structures, including the absurdly charming medieval merchants bridge, Krämerbrücke, atop which rise 32 half-timber houses now filled with shops and cafés. And although less than a quarter of Erfurt’s 203,000 citizens are religious, due to the city’s recent past in the atheistic GDR, the gothic and Romanesque spires of some 25 churches, including those of the spectacular cathedral and adjoining St. Severi, continue to link Stadt und Himmel with the tireless grace of tall trees.

The capital of the state of Thuringia, sometimes called “the green heart of Germany” owing to its geography and forestry but better known for its bratwurst, Erfurt is the sort of city that could, on a hot summer afternoon, support multiple outdoor venues for its international folk dancing festival. While troupes from Taiwan, Kenya, Turkey, and Ireland waited their turns, young Polish dancers dressed as milkmaids worked their faux butter churns around the Wenigemarkt square, and a few miles away in the city’s biggest square, Angerplatz, twirling Mallorcan señoritas, backed by bagpipes, snapped castanets to distraction. Their audience, mostly middle-aged, some drinking beer from surrounding cafés or mobile bars, applauded with verve, real enjoyment. All around Erfurt, from the big outdoor theater at Domplatz square to yet another dance stage at the baroque Petersberg Citadel to public sculpture placed here and there, almost helter-skelter, you find evidence of a city embracing culture and history, and doing its best to happily blend the two.

Indeed, wherever you look in Erfurt, all seems ganz normal, entirely normal — and why not? Despite an unemployment rate of nine percent, nearly double that of Germany’s overall rate but much lower than the 21 percent it experienced in 2005, the city appears prosperous; construction cranes fracture its skyline, tourists crowd its squares, and the problems besetting Southern Europe seem from another world altogether. As that afternoon last July turned into evening, and then into what felt like a second, only slightly darker evening — at nine p.m. the air was still warm and remarkably fresh — the restaurants lining historic Michaelis Strasse filled to a dissonant, reverberating buzz.

Down a few blocks, some 20 or so people mingled outside Kunsthaus Erfurt, a contemporary art gallery and project space housed in a four-story brick building. Glasses of wine and small open-faced sandwiches in hand, they were a mix of young and old, dressed casually but conservatively — this was no Berlin or London or New York art crowd. The exception may have been Dirk Teschner, staff curator at the Kunsthaus and an echt Berliner. Lean with a slicked crop of black hair, short back and sides, and a thin strip of moustache, Teschner, 50, could be a distant cousin to Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks, only with wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a black sport coat, skinny black jeans, and a white shirt, open at the collar.

Moments before, the Kunsthaus being a relatively intimate operation, Teschner had been inside pouring wine, while Monique Förster, the 53-year-old director of what has grown from a women’s art club in 1990 into a regional contemporary gallery program, chatted amiably with patrons, an infectious smile-and-laugh duet animating her conversation. The evening was in fact a celebration of sorts — of survival, you could say — a group reading of various testimonies, personal and professional, commemorating what happened a year ago tonight when a typically sedate vernissage suddenly became, despite competition from the world’s edgiest and best-known curators and artists, perhaps the weirdest and most dangerous art opening of the year.

It was another warm July 13, an unlucky Friday. As they were this night, Teschner was outside and Förster inside talking with visitors to “Miss Painting,” an exhibition of four women artists. They were about to shut the gallery and head to a restaurant for dinner when from out of a whiskey bar a few doors down, the Johnny Worker, came a young woman and a man whose demeanor and attire did not bode well. The man, in his 20s, was wearing a brown T-shirt bearing an image of Horst Wessel, author of “The Flag on High,” commonly known as “the Horst Wessel Song,” the Nazi Party anthem. Wessel was and is a posthumous hero to National Socialists; a T-shirt featuring his image and now available on the internet reads “Dein Geist führt uns an [Your spirit leads us].”

The couple immediately engaged with the 10 or 15 people in front of the Kunsthaus, declaring that “the Jews and Israelis are killing 1,000 Palestinian kids a day,” according to Förster and Teschner. One of the artists, who asked that her name not be used, told the pair that if they didn’t stop she would call the police and report them for Verfassungsfeindliche Sprache, or speech hostile to the constitution. (Basically, the German version of our hate speech.) But if the pair was worried about the police, they didn’t show it, expanding on their anti-Israeli claims with the artist, who then did call the police. At this point another five men and a woman exited the same bar and joined their friends in front of the Kunsthaus. The eight ranged in age from 19 to 31, police would later determine, and had alcohol intake levels ranging from 0.06 to 1.87per mille, the latter nearly four times the legal driving limit. Shouting “Sieg Heil!,” one of the men greeted the crowd with the Hitlergruß, the Nazi salute, illegal in Germany. Another dropped his pants and mooned them.

From there, things quickly escalated. When Förster heard screams and ran outside, she says she was überfordert, overwhelmed by the scene before her: Teschner lay slumped between cars and the sidewalk, glasses nearby and blood spewing from his broken nose, as two male attackers and one female kicked and punched him. A woman who had only a few minutes before arrived on bicycle with her husband and two small children was getting her head slammed into the hood of a parked car, while another woman visitor was hit in the face by the second of the two female attackers. Förster immediately called the police, and as she pleaded with them to take this seriously — she phoned three times in all — someone smashed a nearly full beer bottle over her head, shampooing her with Pilsner and blood.

By the time police arrived 15 or so minutes later, the attackers had fled down a side street, Augustiner Strasse, named after the nearby Augustine monastery, where Martin Luther was once a monk. Förster and the other female victim tried to lead the police to the suspects; when she rounded the corner onto Augustiner Strasse, she saw other officers questioning one of the suspects. “And suddenly,” Förster says, “the other suspects came running down the street. I still have the image in my mind: a woman with wavy hair running at the police, her mouth wide open, screaming, as in a painting of the French Revolution.”

According to the Erfurt police, three officers were on Augustiner Strasse when the 27-year-old woman with wavy hair attacked. Though they were able to stop her, one of her male comrades ran up behind her aggressively, and as he was wrestled to the ground, he slugged a female officer in the forehead. Förster watched as the officer fell with a groan, concussed. An ambulance arrived and took the injured to the hospital. While Teschner had his nose x-rayed, set, and bandaged, Förster and the other woman were treated for minor head wounds. The policewoman would spend more than a week in the hospital, and further time recovering at home. The next day a report appeared in the Thüringer Allgemeine newspaper describing the perpetrators only as juveniles. There was no mention of the “Sieg Heil!” or the Hitlergruß, and when asked, Erfurt’s police superintendent said there were no known links to right-wing extremism.


German is of course one of the two languages of art history, and that history is long, beautiful, and, as with all things during the years of National Socialism, strange, beginning and for all purposes ending with the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937 — when the Nazis, curiously showing to the public what they considered to be degenerate art, put together perhaps one of the greatest contemporary art exhibitions ever, certainly a who’s who of the most prominent artists of the time. So when a Haus of Kunst is attacked, its curator’s nose is broken, and its director has a beer bottle broken over her head, and the perpetrators are neo-Nazis, it would appear to be significant, or at least absurdly crazy, and probably both. What the fuck? I thought. Where does that happen?!

Although the Kunsthaus Erfurt story was reported in newspapers and magazines, including Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, and a small item appeared in ArtInfo, it was news to whomever I mentioned it to in Berlin, and a shock. Yet after talking to people whose work has to do with countering right-wing extremism, it seems the Kunsthaus incident is a little more significant than officials and civic boosters in Erfurt and beyond would like to admit — thus, perhaps, the non-mention of neo-Nazis in initial reports by the police — and a little less absurdly crazy than non-Germans might assume. No one thinks the thugs targeted the Kunsthaus, per se, but when I asked Dirk Teschner if the attack surprised him, he answered with a shrug, noting that he had known Silvio Meier, a young Berliner who was beaten to death by neo-Nazis in a 1992 U-Bahn station attack, and to whose memory some 5,000 people in Berlin marched last November 23. Nazis, the shrug seemed to say, exist. Shit happens, German-style.

And it does. On the 111th anniversary of Hitler’s birth in 2000, for one example, Erfurt police rousted a group of teenagers who had been singing birthday songs to the Führer in a bar. The teens then walked a mile or so down the road and flung some sort of Molotov cocktail against the wall of the town’s one synagogue, briefly setting it afire. It was the first such attack in Germany in five years, and although the three boys arrested later expressed regret and said they had quit the neo-Nazi movement, they admitted that their purpose had been to show that National Socialism was not dead. Local and national officials were alarmed enough — perhaps at the very least by the bad press — to decide they needed to do something about right-wing extremism.

Among the developments from that incident was funding by Thuringia’s parliament, the Landtag, of organizations such as MOBIT (Mobile Beratung — advice, counseling, consultancy) and EZRA (mobile counseling for victims of right-wing, racist, and anti-Semitic violence), whose counselors help those impacted by right-wing extremism. Stefan Heerdegen is an adviser at MOBIT in Thüringen.

In Erfurt, “some people don’t think there is such a big problem with Nazis,” Heerdegen told me,

But that’s not true. The Nazis are not everywhere, but people who use a certain S-Bahn line often have problems with them — punks, gays who show they are gay, and of course people of color receive insults, abuse, and are sometimes beaten. It’s not so unusual. In the last year in Erfurt we had something like this happen every month.

Heerdegen noted that Germans who grew up under the GDR have a tendency to depend on the government to act, rather than to act for themselves. His goal therefore is not to help with his clients’ emotions, but to “empower them to use their civil rights, feel responsible for their own life as citizens, and for a democratic society. The best way to roll back National Socialism is democratic participation.”

Christina Büttner takes a more hands-on approach with post-abuse emotions. One of four counselors on staff at EZRA, she said there were 124 incidents in Thuringia the previous year, 22 of them in Erfurt. Sometimes it is racist (most Africans have been insulted) or anti-Semitic, sometimes it is simply differentness that sets them off, as with the punks or the hippies. With anti-Semitism, she says, “Sometimes the victims aren’t Jewish at all, but the suspects want to attack someone, so they say, ‘You are Jews!’ The actors create the reality for the attack.”

Büttner’s English is limited, as it is with many Germans from the East, who learned Russian as a second language in school. (This changed after reunification: a recent survey shows that while just 30 percent of Thuringers speak English overall, 73 percent of those age 18-24 do.) By actor Büttner of course means perpetrator, but there’s something deftly appropriate about the word’s pop-cultural connotation, suggesting a stage or screen upon which people play a role.

One aspect of that stage, said Heerdegen, is clearly history.

Nearly every German has visited a concentration camp. For some, it’s a fascinating thing, still today. After the war, the Allies minimized the Nazis in terms of government or military participation, but they didn’t do anything about the thinking of the people — so these traditions are alive.

The mindset, in other words, persisted.

In Germany, there are people who say anti-Semitic things without knowing any Jews. Same with immigrants. In Berlin and in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Cologne, and also in cities like Leipzig, it’s normal to live with people from Turkey and other countries. But not here. In Thuringia, we have 2–3 percent immigrants, but people are afraid of them and think that we have 30, 40, 50 percent.

Here, the thinking is: a German is a German with a German mother and a German father. Many people would not say, “I’m a fascist,” but they think this nevertheless. The NPD [National Democratic Party, the neo-Nazi party] states that you cannot become a German with a passport. It has to be the blood.

In the most recent election, in September, the NPD received 3.7 percent of the vote in Thuringia, down from the previous vote’s 4.3 percent but still amounting to some 40,000 people. On its most mundane level, noted Büttner, a typical situation for those with a nonwhite parent is the constant questioning in the street or on the subway, being asked by strangers where they come from. “And every day they must answer, ‘I come from Erfurt.’”


For a city not many people outside Germany have heard of, Erfurt has a remarkable history. Saint Boniface first mentioned a settlement in 742 in a letter to Pope Zachary, and then founded a diocese there. But non-Catholics settled in Erfurt, too: by the time the Krämerbrücke was built, in the 12th century, the town had a thriving and well-integrated Jewish community; the Old Synagogue, erected in 1100 and recently renovated, is thought to be the oldest synagogue in Europe still standing. In fact, of the world’s 10 surviving medieval Torahs, four come from Erfurt, while the two-volume Erfurt Bible, which required the hides of some 1,100 animals — one goat per page — is the largest medieval Hebrew Bible in the world.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Erfurt thrived as a trading center for Färberwaid, dyer’s woad, the mustard-like plant from which the predominant blue dye of the period was produced. (It was also known as German Indigo.) When trade routes to India later led to a cheaper indigo, the market for woad collapsed, but in the late 1300s, local traders were still prosperous enough to donate founding funds for the University of Erfurt, the third in Germany and soon to be its best and largest. By the year 1500, some 22,000 residents made Erfurt one of the biggest cities in the Holy Roman Empire.

One of those residents was Martin Luther, who entered the university in 1501, studying for a bachelor of arts. Four years later, after receiving it as well as a master’s degree, he suffered a horse riding accident and is said to have vowed that if he survived he would become a monk. Moving directly into Erfurt’s cloistered Augustine monastery, he lived, prayed, studied, and wrote there for six years before moving on to Wittenberg and his future battles with the pope.

Johann Pachelbel, he of Canon in D fame but known in his time for his organ compositions, was organist at Erfurt’s Prediger Church for 12 years. One of his students was Johann Christoph Bach, older brother to the young Johann Sebastian Bach; their extended family produced so many musicians in the area that all musicians were simply known as Bachs. Among other notable Erfurters were the sociologist Max Weber, who famously argued that the Protestant ethic contributed to the development of capitalism while Catholicism hindered it; the theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart, who was accused of heresy at the end of his life; and the mathematician Adam Ries, whose essential teachings in two books written in Erfurt led to the phrase “nach Adam Riese [according to the calculations of Adam Ries],” still used in Germany. John A. Roebling, who as the young Johann August Röbling went to school in Erfurt, would go on to design and build suspension bridges in the United States, including the Brooklyn Bridge, his last. Goethe, a frequent visitor from his home in nearby Weimer, called Erfurt “the Rome of Thuringia.”


But in the course of its long history, this little Rome has also known remarkable darkness. Drop Erfurt into a Google search and another word appears in the drop-down menu: massacre. Search further and you will find not just one but two Erfurt massacres. The most recent occurred in 2002, when a 19-year-old former student, Robert Steinhäuser, became despondent over his future after being expelled for a faked medical excuse. Dressing in ninja-style fatigues, he armed himself with a 9mm Glock and a Mossberg pump-action shotgun, then moved methodically through his high school, the beautiful 1908 Art Nouveau Gutenberg-Gymnasium, stopping in classroom doorways only long enough to fatally shoot 13 teachers. Two students were killed when he fired through a locked door; a police officer also died after being shot in the head from a distance. The killing stopped only when teacher Rainer Heise bumped into Steinhäuser, looked him in the eye, and said, “You can shoot me now.” Steinhäuser replied, “Mr. Heise, it’s enough for today.” Heise managed to lock Steinhäuser in a classroom, where he spent one last bullet on himself.

This Erfurt massacre was for Germans much like Columbine and Aurora were for Americans. The cover of Der Spiegel featured a photo of a young girl hugging another girl, or perhaps her mother, with the headline “Tod in der Schule: Der Amoklauf von Erfurt [Death at School: The Erfurt Rampage].” Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s chancellor at the time, attended a commemorative mass in the Erfurt Cathedral, and as a result of the tragedy a public-address warning system was developed, whereby in the event of another attack an announcement would be made: “Frau Koma kommt [Mrs. Koma is coming].” Koma is amok backward.

The first Erfurt massacre occurred some 650 years earlier, in 1349, when the Black Death was marauding through Europe and Jews were considered the source of the plague; Erfurt’s Gentiles purged their city of its Jewish residents, as they did all over Germany. One hundred were said to have been killed outright in Erfurt before as many as 900 others went into their homes, and like many Jews elsewhere, set them afire, immolating themselves and their material possessions alike. Although the surviving 2,000 Jews were driven away, the plague nonetheless brought its black irony to town the following year, killing 16,000 Erfurters, presumably all of them Christians.

One wonders if their survivors blamed that too on the Jews, or at least on the bad karma brought on by their murders, but regardless, all was apparently forgiven five years later, when a new, smaller Jewish settlement reestablished itself, no longer in the center of town, where they had earlier lived among Christians, but outside it. One hundred years later, they were once again forced out, and the Jewish cemetery destroyed, its gravestones dispersed among the city’s construction projects. It would be another 300 years until Jews returned to Erfurt, the city built partially, literally, upon their ancestor’s names.

In 1998, during excavations in Erfurt’s old town, a sealed double-cup was discovered inside the wall of a medieval house. So impressive was the booty inside that it took three skilled workers two years to restore: more than 3,000 French silver coins, 14 silver ingots, and 700 pieces of jewelry, including a number of jeweled brooches and a spectacular gold wedding ring with an intricately crafted gothic tower featuring the words “Mazel Tov.” Since the coins were minted in 1328-1348, the cache is thought to have belonged to one of the prominent families killed in the 1349 pogrom. The collection, having traveled to New York, London, and Tel Aviv, has taken up permanent residency in Erfurt’s now-restored Old Synagogue, where it is called, apparently without irony, the Erfurter Schatz — Erfurt’s Treasure.


One could argue that there was in fact a third Erfurt massacre, perpetrated or at least largely abetted by the firm of J.A. Topf & Sons, which had in the late 1800s pioneered the art — or science — of crematoria. It was to this oddly named Erfurt firm — Topf means pan or crock — that the Nazis turned when typhus overran the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1939 and they needed help in disposing of the corpses. Buchenwald proved to be an audition of sorts for Topf & Sons, and having won the role, the firm would go on to supply “ovens” for several camps, including Auschwitz, Dachau, Belzec, Mauthausen, and Gusen. That they did so — at first — without knowledge of the real use of their incinerators is clear, to give them the supreme benefit of doubt. But by then, of course, it was too late: they were in bed with the SS.

At war’s end, while the Nazis did their best to destroy the ovens and other evidence, Topf & Sons’ directors, the grandsons of the founder, went into full denial. Even as he prepared to commit suicide before American troops could arrest him in 1945, Ludwig Topf professed his innocence, calling himself “the opposite of a Nazi.” His brother Ernst Wolfgang would tell a West German court in the 1960s, “What burned in those ovens was already dead. You can’t hold the builders of the ovens responsible for the deaths of the people who were burned in them.” Ernst Wolfgang was lucky to be in West Germany. Head engineer Kurt Prüfer, who had been arrested and released by the Americans, admitted to Soviet interrogators that he knew as early as 1942 what was going on, and along with two other Topf & Sons colleagues was sentenced to 25 years in a Soviet gulag for crimes against humanity and, perhaps more to the Soviets’ point, Russian soldiers. Prüfer would die there of a stroke in 1952, two years before his colleagues were released.

If, as it is oft remarked, the most chilling aspect of the Holocaust is the methodical, banal manner in which the Nazis perpetrated mass murder on an unprecedented level while the public remained willfully blind to it, one need go no further to substantiate this view than the “Topf & Sons — Builders of the Auschwitz Ovens Place of Remembrance,” a memorial opened by the city of Erfurt in 2011. Here, on one floor of the former plant, are diagrams of the ovens and their delivery and ventilation systems, communiqués between the SS and the Topf brass, and countless ephemera detailing the mind-numbing complacency shown by company directors and engineers under the rubric of normal business practice.

When I visited the Remembrance, located in a fairly desolate site on the former Topf grounds, next to a commercial strip mall, two young women were just leaving. I was alone in the multistoried museum, save for two older male attendants, whose weirdly solicitous attitude could have perhaps found them work as guards of a different sort in 1943. With its juxtaposed images of big, happy families and detailed technical drawings of the Auschwitz installations, the Topf & Sons exhibition is a particularly trying experience. (Just when you think you’ve uttered your last, “How could this have happened?” …) It got no easier when I later found on its official website these words, notable for their reticence, understatement, dispassion, and disconnection: “Erfurt, the capital of the State of Thuringia, thus acknowledges its responsibility towards history and preserves a historical place of learning along with the unique potential offered by this site for reflection on ethical aspects of work and economic activity.” As I left the Remembrance at 5:21, the attendants shut the doors behind me, despite a closing time of 6 p.m., apparently certain there would be no further visitors that day.


One of the better ways to get a sense of what it means to come from Erfurt is the Thuringer-Monitor, an annual survey designed to find out “what’s going on in the heads of Thuringers,” according to its director, Professor Heinrich Best from the Institute for Sociology at the University of Jena. Another response to the Erfurt synagogue attack and unique in Germany in terms of its regularity, the Monitor covers different peripheral subjects each year but retains a core set of indicators with a strong emphasis on right-wing extremism.

For this random sampling of 1,000 citizens, right-wing extremism is defined by a set of attitudes, including resentment against foreigners, anti-Semitism, and nostalgia for National Socialism. It’s an additive index, Best told me on the phone from his holiday in Switzerland, meaning that when people reach a certain number of points they are defined as an extremist; if someone agrees with just one item, it’s not enough to be labeled an extremist. “In the middle of the decade,” Best said, Thuringia reached “warningly high levels,” when the Monitor categorized 23 percent of the population as right-wing extremists. But a steep decline at the end of the decade brought the numbers down, to 12-13 percent, five percent of which are considered hard-core.

“We can now see we have a stable picture,” Best noted. “One reason is the relatively good development of the labor market, generally in Germany, but specifically in Thuringia. Resentments against foreigners are very much fed by resentment against foreign labor market competition, also against foreigners applying for welfare benefits.”

Still, if only 12 percent of your town or state identified as right-wing extremists, with five percent hard-core, it’s doubtful that you would breathe a sigh of relief. And nearly half of Monitor respondents say “absolutely” or “probably yes” to the question, Does Germany have dangerous levels of foreign immigration? Dictionaries give the word actually used in the question, Überfremdung, an even more sinister connotation: foreign infiltration.

One surprise in the Monitor’s results over the last decade is the high number of women deemed extremists, probably due at least in part to their vulnerability in the labor market. Perhaps a bigger surprise, to those unfamiliar with Germany, is the level of resentment felt by East Germans, 55 percent of whom believe that West Germans consider them second-class citizens.

“Among right-wing extremists, nostalgia for the GDR is particularly pronounced,” said Best. “A large number of them want to go back to a socialist regime.” Best points out what they associate the GDR with:

A homogenous society, a very strong welfare state (in theory), egalitarian, authoritarian. And all of these things are principles endorsed by right-wing extremists. But when you ask right-wing extremists where they are on the political spectrum, 90 percent place themselves on the Left.

Furthermore, said Best, although nostalgia for Nazism still exists, “the old-style right-wing extremism is retreating. I wouldn’t say anti-Semitism has disappeared, but it’s lost some of its symbolic power, and the Jewish population is not so much the target now.”

Indeed, only a small number of the reported acts of abuse or violence in Erfurt and surrounding Thuringia are anti-Semitic in nature: of the 124 people counseled by EZRA, just five sought help because of anti-Semitism. And of the 626 right-wing attacks in East German states and Berlin last year, only 10 were defined as anti-Semitic, while the largest number (276) were defined as racist.

Meanwhile, the feelings of the general population of Thuringia, based on recent Monitor results, appear to be relatively liberal, at least on paper. Eighty-one percent of respondents strongly disagree that National Socialism had its good sides, while 85 percent believe that it’s good that we learn about other cultures through immigrants. And only three percent strongly agree that the Jews are unique and don’t fit in with us while 64 percent strongly disagree. Of course, the current Jewish community in Thuringia is small — 500-700 in Erfurt, mostly (white) immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine — and attitudes might well change if it grew in both number and clout. But for now, the symbolic power has shifted to the much larger Islamic population in Germany.

In the end, Best cautioned, beware of oversimplifying:

You cannot link attitudes to violent behavior. These right-wing extremist groups coexist. A small minority are violent; a vast majority that have these attitudes don’t define themselves as right-wing extremists. They might even voice strong resentment against right-wing extremism, although they share some of the ideas. This is more or less my message: it’s more complicated, but in a way more interesting than what one thinks when one is confronted with the stereotypes about stereotypes.

That may well be true but as always there’s a bottom line, and this was for me clarified the moment I realized that the person or persons I was communicating with (via email) at Antifaschistische Koordination Erfurt kept signing their name(s) “die AKE.” At first I just thought it was a kind of cute affectation; finally, I asked if he or she or they are always anonymous, and the answer came back: “Yes, in order to protect ourselves against threats and pursuit by Nazis.” Is that really necessary, or is it simply left-wing hyperbole? I couldn’t be certain, but when asked if they feel Erfurt has a special problem, die AKE responded, “Erfurt, Thuringen and all of Germany has a problem with Nazis! Since 1990 there have been at least 190 deaths attributed to Nazis in Germany.” Hyperbole or no, you can’t really argue with murder, as Germans were shocked to discover in November, 2011, when those suspected in the shooting deaths of nine immigrants across Germany turned out to be neo-Nazis from Thuringia.


While Heinrich Best and his colleagues at the University of Jena were finding out what was in the heads of Thuringers during the decade following the 2000 synagogue attack, three young friends from the area were doing the unthinkable. Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt, and Beate Zschäpe, who met in the Jena neo-Nazi scene during their teens, together formed a secret terror cell, which they called the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and began acting out their darkest fantasies.

Both Uwes had come from stable middle-class homes. Mundlos's father was a mathematician for a time at Best’s university, his mother a sales clerk; the young Mundlos was described as charming and smart. Böhnhardt, the child of a teacher and an engineer, was apparently a normal, happy child until just before he hit his teens, when his 18-year-old brother died under mysterious circumstances — the brother's body was left on the family’s front porch, perhaps by friends who did not want to be held responsible for what was presumably a drug overdose — and things were never the same after that. Zschäpe was the daughter of a German woman who studied dentistry in Bucharest; her father, a Romanian dental student, was never in his daughter’s life, and Zschäpe spent much of her childhood living with her grandmother or moving around with her mother and either of two stepfathers.

In their teens, the two Uwes joined a succession of neo-Nazi clubs, including one called Thuringia Homeland Protection. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, reunification with and resentment against the West, more immigrants, fewer jobs, and further radicalization. In 1996, exemplifying a continued theatrical fascination with Nazism’s past, the pair was arrested trying to get into Buchenwald concentration camp wearing brown Nazi attire. When Mundlos later fulfilled his compulsory military service, Zschäpe, who had been dating him, fell in love with Böhnhardt.

And then in 2000, it began: Mundlos and Böhnhardt allegedly shot and killed Enver Simsek, a Turkish owner of flower stalls in Nuremburg. Nine months later, an immigrant named Abdurrahim Özüdoğru, who had been helping out in a tailor’s shop, became the second victim in what would become known as the Bosphorus or Döner Murders. He too was shot twice in the head at close range. Over the course of the decade, seven more immigrants would die — six Turks and one Greek, plus a policewoman from Thuringia, whose point-blank ambush remains somewhat of a mystery. (Was her gun, which was stolen and used in future killings, the sole reason for the attack? Or had Mundlos and Böhnhardt known her?) The Uwes were also allegedly responsible for a pipe bomb that exploded in a popular Turkish neighborhood of Cologne in 2004, injuring 22 people, four of them seriously. To finance the killings and their life underground, they robbed 14 banks around Germany.

On November 4, 2011, following one such robbery in Böhnhardt’s hometown of Eisenach, from which they made off with 70,000 euros, the Uwes rode getaway bikes back to a waiting RV. This time, however, the police were on to them, and when officers closed in, the RV was set afire from within. A decision was made: Mundlos shot Böhnhardt in the temple, then turned the gun on himself. Before doing so, he had evidently alerted Zschäpe: Hours later, in the flat the three shared in a multifamily house in Zwickau, a town in Saxony just to the west of Thuringia, she poured gasoline over everything and lit a match to it. After she left the house, an explosion blew much of the roof off. Only from guns, DVDs, and other materials found in the flat and the RV were police able to link the NSU to the murders, which they had previously believed to be Turk-on-Turk crimes.

“We’re seeing something inconceivable,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel at the time. “We suspect right-wing extremists are responsible for horrible acts of violence, for right-wing terror. It’s a disgrace and mortifying for Germany and we’ll do everything we can to get to the bottom of this. We owe that to the victims.” Indeed but there’s something curious about her choice of words. Inconceivable, check. Disgrace, yes. We owe that to the victims, certainly. The moral integrity of Merkel, the daughter of an East German pastor, is unassailable, yet there is something oddly distanced about mortifying for Germany. This was not a crime against Germans or Germany, Merkel appears to suggest, but, rather, against Ausländer, outsiders, living here. Last August, to her credit, Merkel appeared at Dachau to speak out on the dangers of extremism. In doing so she became the first German chancellor to officially visit a concentration camp.

Beate Zschäpe is now standing trial in Munich, charged with complicity to “commit murder and criminal acts dangerous to public safety” and “wreak major damage to the state.” If convicted, she could be sentenced to life in prison. In court last July 25, a 44-year-old neighbor in Zwickau described Zschäpe as “friendly” and “popular in the neighborhood.” She would occasionally drop by his basement for a glass of prosecco, according to Spiegel Online. This neighbor had a photo of Adolf Hitler atop his basement TV set, and when the presiding judge asked him about it, the witness claimed, according to Spiegel, that “it had no political meaning and was merely a remembrance of a neighbor who had died. The picture hadn’t bothered Zschäpe or anyone else, he added.”

Family members did not make much more of an impression. Böhnhardt’s mother told the court that police had bungled an attempt to bring the NSU in from the cold prior to the murders, and for the first time offered sympathy to the victims’ families, but not much of it and only when pressed to. Zschäpe’s mother also appeared in court merely to claim her right not to testify against a family member. Mother and only child did not look at one another.

Zschäpe’s cousin, Stefan A., later testified that Beate and her mother had had a difficult relationship. He described his cousin as “loving, kind, likeable” and “a funny person.” Stefan A. had also been a member of the far-right scene, but called his current political views “normal.” When asked for a response to images found on his Facebook page of NPD posters saying, “Money for grandma, not Sinti and Roma!” or “Being German is not a crime,” he was reportedly surprised by the question, saying, “Nothing wrong with that!” As for a photo of a Ku Klux Klan rally featuring a burning cross and several men including Uwe Böhnhardt with arms raised in the quasi-Nazi Kühnen salute, Stefan A. admitted to having been there but said that it was just something they did “in a celebratory mood.”


At the Kunsthaus last July, 60 or 70 people filed up past the current exhibition’s stair-hugging installation, then sat patiently in the heat as a dozen citizens of Erfurt stood before them and in a scripted, quasi-theatrical act of remembrance, read the words of those involved in or responding to the Kunsthaus attack — including the police, newspaper reporters, and such interested parties as Erfurt Art Museum director Prof. Dr. Kai Uwe Schierz; an American student at the University of Erfurt named Katie Leary; and the Dickensian-named chairman of Erfurt’s culture committee Prof. Dr. Alexander Thumfart.

“No one can deny any longer that there are Nazis in Erfurt,” said Schierz’s stand-in.

“Now a limit has once again been exceeded,” read the ersatz Thumfart. “A stage has once again been occupied […] a certain inhibition has disappeared.”

For her part, the faux Leary described a night on the weekend after the Kunsthaus attack. Leary, three other young women, and one male friend were in the Burger King on Angerplatz when they were confronted by neo-Nazis who, greeting them with the Hitlergruß, called them “occupiers.” Later, when Leary et al came out of the Burger King, her male friend was slugged and knocked down, then kicked in the face. Their primary attacker threatened to kill them. When the police arrived, Leary asked them how it was possible that Nazis run around freely. “Please don’t say the word Nazi any longer,” a policewoman told her. “It’s provocative.”

One of the hosts at the Kunsthaus was Dr. Lucrezia Jochimsen, an author, former television journalist, and a member of the Thuringen parliament, where until recent elections she was cultural spokesperson for Die Linke, the far-left political party. “This whole story fascinated me,” Jochimsen told me later on the phone.

Also the aftermath — what politicians did, what the media did, what the debate was in the parliament, the debate in the prosecutor’s office. A year has passed, and the prosecutors sit on 500 pages of statements and interrogations and that’s it for the moment. This is a scandal on top of the scandal.

And I think there are two messages: One is for the guys who came and used their kind of violence against these people, that more than a year can pass and really nothing happens to them. So why should they change their attitudes, why should they be afraid in the future to repeat what they did. And the other message is very cynical, that politicians always appeal to the citizenry, and say, “Well, you have to show courage, you have to stop things when you see them,” and “democracy lives on citizenship and civil courage.” But in order to have this courage, you must be sure that in the end police and the judiciary are protecting you, are on your side. And here you see that they are obviously not on the side of the people who stand up.

This is not a Germany-wide problem, suggested Jochimsen, but, rather, a local one. “In Thuringia you can get away with things that wouldn’t be possible, for instance, in Hamburg. If this attack on the Kunsthaus had happened in Hamburg, I’m sure the police and the public prosecutor would have acted differently.” She placed blame not on the people of Thuringia but rather on officials operating with a misperception of democracy. “They say, well, this was the GDR, we don’t want that [system] anymore, and if there are youngsters who think right-wing music and slogans are appropriate for them, well, it’s part of the new freedom.”

Asked if she believes the level of right-wing extremism is dangerously high in Erfurt and Thuringia, Jochimsen took a breath before saying:

Yes. Events like the one at the Kunsthaus and also one at a youth center, it’s so typical for the development of right-wing violence. They always start with contemporary art, which they don’t like, and where they think people are weak. This is a historical experience, and we have to think about consequences. We have to draw red lines, we have to say, “Stop it.” We need a populace that doesn’t hide and duck, but that stands up to these people. This is fundamental to our democracy, and politically we have the responsibility to back them up.


The Augustinerkloster, the monastery in which Martin Luther served as a monk, is today a conference center that features meeting and dining rooms, a restaurant, exhibitions about Luther, a library of evangelical texts, the 737-year-old St. Augustine’s Church, and 67 Spartan but nicely rendered hotel rooms. It is, like so much of Erfurt, charming (if antiseptic in the Protestant way), its employees friendly, if not overly so: courteous, professional, the yin to the city’s architectural yang. My room offered views of the Puppenstube, from one window the church and courtyard, from the other the neighborhood’s tiled rooftops.

On the modest desk in my room lay a book, Luther’s Breviary, a selection of “meditations” from Luther for every day of the year. With its friendly blue cover, the breviary looks like one of those Hallmark-y productions meant to make you feel better about things. I opened it to the Luther quote for July 13, which is based on Ephesians 5:5: “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” A fairly standard reminder that we’re fucked, basically, but Luther takes it up a notch:

Avarice, prostitution and immorality are great and terrible sins and our Lord God punishes them with plagues and shortages […]. But the sin is not adultery and whoring, indeed it is not a human sin, but, more than that, it is diabolical that people despise, ridicule and mock the great grace of the fatherly visitation of God on earth. Punishment will certainly follow from that kind of sin, and who can offer any help to those who are not only weak but who trample underfoot those who would lead them? It is simply more than enough that we are sinners but, in addition, we want to slay the person Who would bear with us and bring us to salvation, in other words, our Lord Jesus Christ. Only the irksome Devil does this sort of thing together with those who are full of devils.

Not exactly Hallmark material. But then Luther was, after all, a young man whose impression of his university as a “beerhouse and whorehouse” led him to self-cloister in this very monastery. Devout priggishness became him; distaste for his fellows marked him. Few men in history have been as influential as Luther, and one cannot help but wonder what effect he has had on his place, this place, where some to this day consider talk of devils a form of meditation. Luther damned the Christians around him who did not meet his religious and behavioral standards, and late in life he damned the Jews for refusing to convert; 400-odd years later, the Nazis hewed closely to the recommendations in Luther’s 1543 book On the Jews and Their Lies. Jews, Luther wrote there, were “full of the devil’s feces,” their synagogue an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut,” which should be burned to the ground along with Jewish schools. Their rabbis should be forbidden to teach, their wealth should be taken from them, and the Jews themselves should be forced into slave labor.

1943 was 1349 all over again. Following Kristallnacht in 1938, in fact, the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Thuringia published a collection of Luther’s writings, saying in his introduction that “on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany,” and Germans should listen to the words of “the greatest anti-Semite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews.” In 1937, the City of Nuremberg had presented a first edition of On the Jews and Their Lies to Julius Streicher, the notorious publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, and it was later exhibited at the Nuremberg rallies. It would make another appearance at the Nuremberg war crimes trial of 1946, when Streicher defended himself by claiming that if he was guilty then Martin Luther ought to be tried alongside him. He had a point, though it was probably of little comfort when he stepped onto the hangman’s scaffold on October 16, murmuring the name of his wife Adele, and his executioner managed to muff the job, thus prolonging Streicher’s suffering.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it should be noted, Lutheran synods began to distance themselves from Luther’s anti-Semitic writings and beliefs — that is to say, 40 to 50 years after World War II and only 20 to 30 years ago.


I made a subsequent visit to Erfurt in mid-August, staying again in the Augustinerkloster, and that morning the NPD staged a protest against Erfurt’s lone Halal butcher, ostensibly for the protection of animals against Halal-style “unstunned” slaughter (generally illegal in Germany). It was a permitted protest, a member of the AKE named Volker later told me. (He declined to provide his last name.) As Volker described it, when the 25 or so Nazis arrived at the planned time, escorted by the police, they were met by around 250 antifascists, some of whom carried a large anti-Nazi banner. At one point, a Nazi attempted to rip the banner from out of its holders’ hands, which led to pushing and shoving, mainly between police and antifascists. According to Volker, the police roughed them up; police and newspaper reports confirm that two antifascist protestors and two police officers were lightly injured, and two antifascists briefly detained. It is an old and familiar scenario in Germany, the far Left versus the far Right, fueling one another, the vast middle lost in the scuffle.

Sitting outside a coffee shop on the square abutting the Citadel, I was again struck by the city’s pleasant normality. I saw several people of color, for instance — East Asians, primarily, a few Southeast Asians, one or two people of African descent. At least one appeared to be a student; in fact, the University of Erfurt has a department of Islamic Studies with a dozen post-graduate fellows. Later, on the way to the Halal butcher, I would pass a döner kebab stand, a pair of Asian restaurants, and a Middle Eastern pizza joint, inside which stood several young Middle-Eastern men talking and seeming perfectly at home, or at least at home away from home. This mix of new cultures and old racism seems to be the norm. When he first moved to Erfurt from West Germany, Volker told me, he was amazed by the racist attitudes he heard casually expressed here.

I found the Halal Fleischerei half-way down a darkened street near the train station. It was closed, but light came from the small market next door, illuminating a young man leaning against the streetlight. I asked him if he knew the owners of the butcher shop, and he nodded toward the market. Inside I met Raja Abbasi, who owns the market as well as the butcher shop and a third business next door.

A striking man in his early 40s, Abbasi was wearing a form-fitting yellow T-shirt and several large rings. He seemed direct and friendly enough, but also someone you would not really want to fuck with. (As it happens, both he and his wife were police officers in Pakistan.) I asked him about the morning’s events, and he scoffed, saying there were just a few Nazis and so many of the antifascists that it really was nothing. Had he such troubles before? “Never!” he bellowed. He has lived in Erfurt for 20 years, he told me in a mix of German and English. “Everyone is welcome here in our shop. We must all get along, no?” And what about insults in the streets, had he experienced that? “Oh das ist normal,” he said with a shrug. “Ganz normal.”

When Abbasi took a phone call, he passed me a business card, and I went back out onto the sidewalk. The young man was still there. He was a refugee from Afghanistan, he told me in broken English. As best I could understand, he came to Germany with his mother and sister. His mother needed surgery; she has many physical problems. Germany has been very good to them, though life has not perhaps been easy. No, he has not really experienced racism; one time someone yelled something out a passing car window, but that’s it. He also needed surgery, on his nose, with which he has had issues since a day in Afghanistan when his car was stopped by some men who ordered him out into the street, where he was beaten, his nose broken. “I love the people of Afghanistan,” he said without prodding. “They are very very beautiful people, and it is a great culture. But some people, a few people, they are very, very, very bad.”

On the way back to the Augustinerkloster, I paused on a small bridge over a creek. But for its slowly moving waters, all was quiet, entirely still, a dollhouse after dark. It was both beautiful and unnerving. In the morning, the skies were once again blue, the Puppenstube as lovely as ever. Church bells rang out across the city. I walked over to the Krämerbrücke for some breakfast. Already the tourists were busy on it, aged Lilliputians clambering across their architectural Gulliver. Sitting in the corner window of a small café overlooking the stream below, upon which Erfurters had been gazing for some 900 years, I pulled Raja Abassi’s business card out of my shirt pocket. In the center, in large red-brown print, were the words, “Afro Asia Shop, Erfurt.”


On August 19, more than two years after the attack on Kunsthaus Erfurt, the suspects in the case will finally go on trial.


Tom Christie is a writer based in Berlin.