The rise of white terrorists who set out to kill minorities and immigrants

She would later claim that she had waited to set the fire until the two men renovating the building’s attic left for a break, so they wouldn’t be hurt. That she had tried to warn the older lady who lived downstairs – who sometimes looked after the cats – buzzing at her door to tell her to run from the flames. She’d taken great care, her lawyer would add, to save lives the day she set the fire. The lives of other white Germans.

She wouldn’t have needed to set the fire if only the 15th bank robbery had gone as well as the 14 before it. For over a decade, her two best friends, and sometime lovers, had been robbing banks at gunpoint across Germany. In that time, they’d stolen hundreds of thousands of deutsche marks and euros, worth nearly a million dollars today. For their 15th heist they drove two hours from Zwickau to Eisenach. One wearing a gorilla mask, the other a mask from Scream, they pistol-whipped the bank manager. They pedalled away on bicycles with €72,000 in a bag, then loaded the bikes into a white camper van and drove off.

Hours passed without any sign of them. But at four minutes past noon, police spotted a white camper van parked a few miles north of the bank. Two officers approached it. Just then, they heard a gunshot, then another. The officers took cover. Then the van went up in flames.

Firefighters rushed to the scene and extinguished the blaze. Inside, lying on the floor, with a Pleter 91 submachine gun, a Czech-made semiautomatic pistol and a black handgun nearby, were the bodies of the two bank robbers, each with a bullet through the head. After setting the van on fire, one of them had shot the other, then turned the gun on himself.

When news reports began circulating about what had happened, one person in Germany knew who the men were: the white woman with the cats. She knew that they weren’t just money-driven men with a death wish. Knew that while robbing banks had been a talent of theirs, it was only a means to a more sinister end: murdering immigrants, to keep Germany white. They weren’t merely bank robbers, the woman knew – they were serial killers, terrorists. She knew it because she was one, too.

Over many years, and in many cities, they’d shot immigrants where they worked and bombed the neighbourhoods where they lived. Shot them in their corner stores, kebab stands, a hardware shop. Bombed them in a grocery store, a barbershop.

German authorities didn’t catch on to what they were doing. Perhaps they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that 60 years after the Holocaust, some white Germans could still be radicalised to the point of carrying out racist mass murder. Police blamed immigrant crime syndicates instead. And meanwhile men of Turkish and Greek background continued to be murdered one by one. 13 years passed before the trio’s violence finally ended. 

After setting fire to their home – an apparent attempt to destroy evidence – the white woman ran before turning herself in. Beate Zschäpe’s five-year trial would captivate the country, and reveal that she and her friends, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, had formed the core of a much larger terrorist cell called the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

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