In the former East German state of Thuringia, Uwe Böhnhardt was a good student in elementary school. Then something changed. He would wind up at the center of a murderous Neo-Nazi criminal cell. Böhnhardt's parents try to retrace the steps that l
JENA-LOBEDA - The teenager in the photographs is 16 years old. In one picture, he and his girlfriend hold hands and smile shyly at the camera. "Maybe it's better he's dead," says his mother softly. "We wouldn't know how to relate to him after what he's done."
The pictures were taken in 1996 and show Uwe Böhnhardt, who was to become a multiple murderer, and Beate Zschäpe, his girlfriend and accomplice-to-be.
The couple belonged to the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU) – National Socialist Underground – a terror cell. Also involved in the group was a man named Uwe Mundlos, with whom Böhnhardt and Zschäpe allegedly robbed 14 banks and shot nine people to death. They may also have been involved in the killing of a policewoman in Heilbronn. In 2004, they set off a bomb in Cologne and apparently had a video made in which they bragged about it. The series of attacks was the most deadly committed in Germany in the last 20 years.
Along with Mundlos, Böhnhardt died in an apparent suicide pact earlier this month. It was the first news the parents had of their grown son in more than a decade, recount Brigitte, 63, and Jürgen Böhnhardt, 67, as they sit in their apartment in Jena-Lobeda, in the state of Thuringia, formerly in East Germany. Mrs. Böhnhardt has made coffee, and placed a tin of homemade cookies on the table.
She and her husband speak of trying to understand and forgive their child. They look for reasons, causes, signs, some hint as to how their lanky teenage boy could have become a cold-blooded murderer. They still love him: "He's our son, we can't help it," says Brigitte Böhnhardt.
Her husband, an avid hiker and retired engineer who worked for decades in the development department of the German glass company Schott, follows the conversation attentively but mostly just nods.
"He always did well in school, always did his homework," says Brigitte Böhnhardt, an important marker for a woman who was a teacher for 40 years in both the East and West German systems. Uwe's brother, eight years his senior, developed without problems, she said.
Then Uwe failed seventh grade. This was the summer of 1991, the dawn of a new era, when the whole school system in East Germany – and everything else -- was being overhauled. It was a tumultuous time "with totally frustrated kids and totally frustrated parents," says Böhnhardt.
In the fall of 1991, Uwe began to skip school. As far as his parents were concerned, all was well: he got up every morning and his mother watched him walk into the nearby school from the balcony. What she didn't know was that he was walking in the front door – and right out the back.
Then the stealing began, starting with things like candy and cigarettes. Uwe was breaking into kiosks and early in 1992 the police came to the flat to search for stolen goods. "It was a very tough time for us," says Brigitte. "We could feel how he was slipping away from us."
Reluctantly, in early 1992 Uwe's parents sought out the youth welfare department, which placed him in a home for juveniles. From there he was bussed to and from another school every day. His parents kept telling themselves it was only a few months until the end of the year, when he wouldbe back home, hopefully having passed seventh grade.
But Uwe managed to skip school in his new set-up just as he had in the old, and after two months his parents were asked to take him back. For a while he attended a special class, which seemed to be going pretty well until Uwe and some of his friends broke into the school and stole computers. Uwe was expelled.
After a series of thefts, break-ins and acts of violence, he finally ended up in jail where his parents visited him every week. Uwe Böhnhardt looked set to pursue a career as a criminal – but then signed up to train as a skilled construction worker, getting 81/100 on his final exam. "That was a period of great hope for us," says his father.
It was around this time – beginning in 1994 – that Uwe got to know some right-wing extremists, including his would-be partner-in-crime, Uwe Mundlos. His parents, hoping he would soon find a job, bought him a red Hyundai. His mother dreamt that he would also meet a girl and fall in love. "That can sometimes make all the difference," she says.
But Uwe Böhnhardt couldn't keep a job. In 1997, he allegedly hung a doll from an overhead pass spanning the Autobahn. He adorned the doll with a star, like the ones Jews had to wear during the Nazi era, and the words "Danger! Bomb!"
His parents were outraged. "I said to him ‘Do you even know any Jews? Where do you get these ideas?"" his mother recalls. By now, Uwe was meeting his right-wing friends almost daily, and his girlfriend, Beate – who his parents liked – had started hanging out with them too.
Uwe Böhnhardt started ranting about the Führer, Volk and Vaterland. His parents tried to talk sense into him, "but he would just laugh and say ‘I think it's time we stopped this discussion,"" says Brigitte.
How to prevail? In one case, a judge asked them why they just didn't kick their son out. "He couldn't believe we showed up at every court session to give Uwe moral support.""
The police paid regular visits to the Böhnhardt flat, looking for weapons, stolen goods, and propaganda material. But his parents continued to let Uwe live at home, so as not to lose touch with him completely. And they kept thinking they could somehow fight whatever was taking over their son's life.
A losing game
On Jan. 26, 1998, Brigitte and Jürgen Böhnhardt finally realized the battle was lost. During yet another search of their apartment, authorities seized a computer, plasticene and insulating tape. They then found a pipe bomb containing 1.5 kilos of TNT in a garage nearby. Uwe disappeared. His life underground had begun. An acquaintance drove his red Hyundai back and threw the keys into the mailbox.
Later his parents found a note in the mailbox, saying to go to a specific phone booth on such a day at such a time and wait for the phone to ring. The Böhnhardts followed the instructions and spoke with Uwe. "It was a relief to know he was still alive," says his father. They tried to talk him into giving himself up, saying they would support him, that he could get through these problems. All three of them were crying. Uwe refused. There were a couple more contacts like that, and then nothing.
His parents eventually cleared their son's room. His mother told herself he'd probably left Germany, gone someplace like Australia, made a fresh start. But an early morning phone call this past Nov. 5 ended those illusions. Brigitte picked up the receiver.
"Hi, this is Beate," a woman's voice said.
"Me, Beate. Beate Zschäpe."
"Beate? How's Uwe?"
"Uwe won't be back."
"Are you going to give yourselves up?"
"Is he dead?"
The story dominated news reports. The parents read, listened, confused, disbelieving. Our Uwe? The police came round, asking when they'd last seen their son. His body needed to be identified before he could officially be declared dead. Uwe Mundlos had been found dead with him.
Every day brought new revelations about the NSU, and what its members had done. It was a long time before Uwe's parents could finally believe it. "That's not my son, it can't be," his mother says she kept thinking. "But I have to accept it."
Read the original story in German
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