Nov 142011

Unless you spent the last couple of days under a rock, you will have heard about the terrible series of (at least) ten neo-Nazi murders that has stunned Germany. In my view, three things are particularly remarkable about this crime.

First, the mainstream media including the public broadcasters and the left-liberal press refer to the series as ‘Dönermorde’, i.e. ‘Kebab Killings’, because most of the victims were small businessmen of Turkish origin. This is impious at any rate, and not exactly sensitive in the context of ethnically motivated violence.

Second, for most of the media the victims are ‘foreigners’ (‘Ausländer’), although they spent much of their lives in Germany. The BBC and other English-speaking media refer to ‘ethnic Turks’ or ‘persons of Turkish origin’. Much food for thought here.

Third, Germany has seventeen offices for the protection of the constitution (one in each state as well as a federal institution), effectively secret services that are given the task to observe extremists. Add to that the same number of federal and state criminal investigation offices, plus seventeen crime prosecution services, plus countless special branches and task forces who are supposed to keep an eye on Neo-Nazis.

These agencies are not understaffed or underfunded, and their employees are not lazy: In 2003, an attempt to ban the NPD collapsed because the party leadership had been infiltrated by so many undercover agents that some of the judges sitting on the Federal Constitutional Court were not sure the NPD had any political life of its own. How could the killers possibly escape this machine?


Three possible answers spring to mind:

  • Parts of the left claim that the state still turns a blind eye when it comes to right-wing extremism. That may or may not have been true in the past but is certainly not a correct description of the situation today. The various agencies’ performance has much improved over the last decade, and much of the increase in the number of reported hate-crimes is due to the fact that officers are now trained to look very carefully for extremist motives, and that the rules for collecting statistics have been harmonised.
  • Quite predictably, the right (and many politicians who specialise in Home Affairs) argue that coordination and communication between the various agencies need to be improved. While this may seem reasonable, this is a perennial and very delicate issue in Germany. For historical reasons, the constitution puts strict limits on the cooperation between secret services and the regular police. Moreover, policing is generally the domain of the states, which jealously guard their rights.
  • Finally, many observers just begin to wonder if one or more agencies were involved much closer with the killers than they let on at the moment. Nobody really seems to know how many Neo-Nazis are moonlighting as undercover agents for whom. Is it possible that agencies did not share their information with other institutions in order to protect their sources? Given the scale of the NPD disaster in 2003, it seems quite possible. I strongly
    suspect this is how the story will pan out over months to come.
Mar 192009

Radio 4 never fails to amaze me. This morning, just three minutes before the 9 o’clock news, they interviewed David Spigelhalter. Spiegelhalter is obviously the man who gave us BUGS. But he  is also Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, and a man who can (within the 90 seconds they allocated him) explain to a lay public why a spade in knife-crime (last summer, four people were killed in the space of just one day) is not totally unlikely and does not necessarily indicate an increase in the murder rate, illustrating the idea of clustered risks in passing. He even convinced the anchor that stats is actually fun, even if you look at 170 murders per year in a population of just 7 million Londoners. I was duly impressed (you can listen here to the interview with Spiegelhalter). In fact, I was so impressed that I googled him once I reached the office and came across his website, which has full coverage of the London murder mystery (that is solved by modelling a Poisson distribution of the incidents).