The handbook of neo-Nazi terror organization Combat 18 (C18) is one part manifesto directed at the group’s “political soldiers” and three parts guide book, with extensive (if vaguely worded) instructions on how to get away with violent actions.
It rails against the “ZOG” (Nazi-speak for “Zionist-occupied government”) and calls on adherents to “get off your arse and get fit!” but it also provides them with some simple organizing concepts. Specifically, it distinguishes between what it describes as overt and covert action, with a strong emphasis on the former.
The guide goes on to subdivide covert action into direct, political, and social action. What C18 calls “political action” is the infiltration work. It involves joining right-of-centre groups for the purpose of either poaching members, taking over, or destroying rival organisations.
Some form of this action led members of the UK-based, neo-Nazi organization Order of Nine Angles (O9A) to join the nascent US-based Atomwaffen Division (AWD) in 2017 or 2018, resulting in a nearly fatal split within AWD.
Not coincidentally, O9A was led throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s by David Myatt, a lifelong supporter of National Socialism and long-time C18 propagandist despite his varied and complicated résumé (which includes a stint doing propaganda work for al-Qaeda).
Combat 18’s idea of “social action” amounts to efforts to “gain converts through the mechanisms of social and everyday life, such as the workplace”. The handbook specifically mentions teachers as apt candidates for this kind of work, citing their putative capacity to guide students “away from the accepted orthodoxies and encouraging their freedom of thought especially on subjects such as the so-called ‘holocaust’” [sic].
However, it also encourages members to quietly join “the Police and especially the Armed Forces” [sic], which is advice that was clearly heeded by, for instance, the C18 Flanders group, many of whom were in the Belgian military when they were arrested by Belgian authorities in 2006.
But the most immediate, explicitly violent threat posed by Combat 18 members comes in the form of what it calls “direct action”, which it describes as “the disruption and elimination of all that is detrimental to our race and opposed to the cause of National Socialism”.
This is where the group encourages a “lone wolf” approach, describing it as “the most effective way to do this”.
A number of supporters of Combat 18’s ideology have adopted a “lone wolf” methodology, including French national Maxime Brunerie, who posted on C18’s website on July 13, 2002, “Watch television on Sunday, I will be the star … Death to zog, 88!” (Just as the organisation took its name from Adolf Hitler’s initials, the first and eighth letters of the alphabet, the number 88 corresponds to the letters HH, an acronym for “Heil Hitler.”)
The following day, Brunerie tried to shoot then-French president Jacques Chirac during a Bastille Day parade. After the attempted assassination, the Combat 18 website was awash in praise for Brunerie’s heroism.
Other C18-affiliated “lone wolves” include Scottish would-be terrorist Connor Ward, who was arrested in 2018 with the makings of pipe bombs and a list of Scottish mosque addresses, and Stephan Ernst, a German man accused of killing politician Walter Lübcke last June.
Lübcke was a vocal supporter of migrants’ rights in Germany and Ernst, who was also a member of the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), is known to have been present and vocally outraged during at least one controversial public appearance by Lübcke in October 2015.
Apart from the “lone wolf” concept, the other approach to “direct action” that C18 recommends is “to form an active cell of comrades”, which it describes as “the only alternative to the ‘lone wolf’ tactic”.
Arguably the best-known example from the Combat 18/Blood & Honour network is Germany’s National Socialist Underground (NSU). It should be pointed out from the start that German-speaking researchers have generally taken to referring to an “NSU complex,” mostly because it expands the parameters beyond the actual killers and suggests that the group’s deadly activities were not solely the effort of its three core participants.
In fact, they could not have been carried out without the support of a larger network, aided by often incompetent and sometimes outright complicit law enforcement agents.
Blood & Honour Deutschland
Blood & Honour (B&H) was founded in the UK in 1987, but its German “division” dates to 1994.
By that point, its relationship with Combat 18 was such that it was often difficult to know where one group ended and the other began (this is true despite the fact that both groups were often divided between members who only wanted to promote their views through concerts and pamphlets and those who wanted to pursue a more aggressive course).
The network that B&H established in Germany organized concerts for skinhead bands, but also distributed newspapers and booklets that, in the view of anti-fascist research organization NSU Watch, “propagated terror concepts and linked them with calls to take action”.
In the hope of establishing a “political fighting group”, Blood & Honour went so far as to formulate a “25 Point Program” in the fall of 1999 modelled on the 1920 Nazi manifesto of the same name. The German division’s growth during the mid-to-late 1990s allowed them to create an internal universe in which members and hangers-on “read B&H publications, got music from B&H, went to B&H concerts, maintained friendships with B&H people”.
German law is quite specific about banning symbols, gestures, and other reference points that recall the historical Nazi Party or support its ideological framework (sometimes those laws are even enforced), so it only makes sense that a network established for the purpose of promoting contemporary versions of that particular worldview would quickly develop practices for transporting and distributing illicit materials.
These clandestine supply chains would inevitably become instrumental in provisioning and financially supporting the fugitive members of the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU).
Origins of the NSU
Apart from the founding of Blood & Honour Deutschland, another important 1994 benchmark in the German neo-Nazi scene was Uwe Böhnhardt’s first visit to the “Winzerclub,” a youth-oriented social club in the city of Jena. That is where he met Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe. The three of them formed the “trio” that became the core of the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund a few years later.
Mundlos and Zschäpe were in a relationship when they met Böhnhardt, although Böhnhardt and Zschäpe surreptitiously became romantically involved later that same year when Mundlos was called up for military service. The affair seems to have done little or no lasting harm to relations between the three of them.
Böhnhardt, born in 1977 and the youngest of three boys, seems to have had a relatively happy childhood until he was eleven. That was the year when his seventeen-year-old brother died under mysterious circumstances. Passers-by found his body outside the door of his parents’ building in Jena.
Young Uwe was struck hard by the loss and started skipping school regularly. As he progressed through his teen years, he grew increasingly violent and received multiple prison sentences (Mundlos is believed to have been raped while serving at least one sentence.) He began associating with neo-Nazis in 1994.
Mundlos, born in 1973, was already a neo-Nazi skinhead by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and he only became more radical after that, developing a particular devotion to Adolf Hitler’s one-time right-hand man Rudolf Hess. When the Winzerclub opened in 1991, he became a regular presence there, along with a number of other skinheads who would become the core of the local neo-Nazi scene.
During his year of military service in 1994-95, the Militärischer Abschirmdienst (MAD, the German military’s internal investigative body) took an interest in Mundlos after he was caught singing far-right songs and replacing his own picture in his identification card with a photo of Hitler. When officials inspected his barracks, they found fifteen cassettes with illicit far-right music and fliers promoting the NPD.
Zschäpe, born in 1975, grew up largely estranged from her alcoholic mother and was raised primarily by her grandmother. She never met her father, who her mother claimed was Romanian.
Frequently unemployed during her early adulthood, Zschäpe started out in the left-wing punk scene in Jena and was caught for petty theft several times. She met Mundlos in 1989 or 1990 and soon began a relationship with him. They became Winzerclub regulars together.
That marked the start of Zschäpe’s swing to the far-right. Her embarrassment about her foreign-born biological father was not lessened by her transition to white power ideology, nor was it apparently an obstacle to adopting that worldview.
The immediate reason for the trio’s disappearance from public life on 26 January 1998 was a police warrant to search garages in a storage complex near Böhnhardt’s apartment in Jena.
Security forces suspected that the trio were making bombs in one of them – a suspicion that proved correct: one of the garages was rented under Zschäpe’s name and contained assembled pipe bombs (without fuses), 1.4 kg of TNT, and Mundlos’ passport. They had obtained the TNT through their friend Thomas Starke, who had, in turn, acquired it from Blood & Honour contact.
Officers went to Böhnhardt’s door that morning and asked him to lead them to the garages so they could inspect them. During the process, he managed to flee without a struggle, contact Mundlos and Zschäpe, and disappear.
The Support Network
At some point in the year or two before they disappeared, the trio had helped form a new organization called the Kameradschaft Jena, with Böhnhardt as its provisional leader. (Kameradschaft is a word that simply means “camaraderie” or “comradeship,” but it also frequently marks informal neo-Nazi groups in Germany and Austria.)
The co-founders of the Kameradschaft included their friend and Winzerclub regular Ralf Wohlleben. When the trio went underground, Wohlleben provided them with the escape vehicle that they used to travel about an hour east of Jena to a safehouse in Chemnitz in the neighbouring state of Saxony. Wohlleben was the local chairman of the NPD in Jena and party spokesman for the entire state of Thuringia. He was also an active promoter of far-right music festivals, including bands that were affiliated with the Blood & Honour network.
Once the trio arrived in Chemnitz, they holed up in an apartment that was arranged for them by Thomas Starke, Zschäpe’s close friend. Starke has a long and colourful history as both a neo-Nazi organiser and music promoter as well as an informant for the Berlin Landeskriminalamt [State Office of Criminal Investigations]. Starke had become an informant after he was interrogated during an investigation into Landser, a Berlin-based neo-Nazi band that was part of the B&H community.
It was well-known in far-right circles at the time that Starke had, in fact, provided law enforcement officials with information about Landser during his interrogation. He even suffered a severe beating at the hands of a few skinheads because of it, prompting him to retract his statements about the band and Blood & Honour. However, his fellow travellers were most likely not aware of his status as an informant and, at least for the six months that the “trio” remained in their Chemnitz apartment, he had full access to them.
Carsten Szczepanski, one of the original members of C18 in Germany, and Jan Werner, leader of B&H in Saxony as well as editor of the unsubtle Blood & Honour magazine White Supremacy, attempted to acquire a gun for the trio in 1998 (both Szczepanski and Werner would later become informants for different law enforcement agencies). B&H Chemnitz member Antje Probst, a close friend of Szczepanski’s and all three members of the trio, once planned to give Zschäpe her passport so she could flee the country.
André Eminger, a skinhead with a “Blut und Ehre” [Blood and Honour] tattoo who journalists Christian Fuchs and Daniel Müller describe as the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund’s “most faithful supporter” was a B&H leader who had become radicalised through concerts organized by its network. There were many others who donated money or provided material support, but it is sufficient to point out that the Blood & Honour network was absolutely crucial to creating the necessary conditions for three people to live off-grid in German cities while carrying out an ongoing terror campaign for thirteen years.
At some point in the late 1990s, a power struggle erupted between the Chemnitz B&H outfit and the leadership in Berlin, resulting in the Chemnitz branch’s official ouster from the organization. By 1999, national authorities were closely monitoring Blood & Honour and assembling evidence that could be used to ban it (a ban was finally enacted in 2000).
Because the Chemnitz chapter had been kicked out, it was spared a great deal of scrutiny: they were no longer part of the organisation and therefore fell outside the purview of government investigators. Given that it was extensively involved in supporting the trio on a day-to-day basis, NSU Watch has raised the question of whether or not B&H Chemnitz provoked the Berlin organizers to kick them out as a means to protect the trio.
Murder and Armed Robbery Underground
When the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund committed its first murder, shooting florist and Turkish immigrant Ender Şimşek in his own truck on 9 September, 2000, it demonstrated a giddy sadism, taking photos of the victim as he lay dying in a pool of his own blood. Photographs and video recordings became part of their routine over the course of the eight subsequent racially motivated murders they committed between 2000 and 2007.
The NSU was careful to kill individuals in disparate parts of Germany with no obvious link to one another apart from their status as immigrants or “non-Germans”. As a result, both law enforcement officials and most of the general public (with the exception of the Turkish and other immigrant communities) were slow to understand the series of murders as connected.
The perpetrators eventually used the images they had shot in a bizarre video they produced using heavily edited Pink Panther cartoons to both claim responsibility and mock their victims. They were prevented from distributing the video by the deaths of Mundlos and Böhnhardt and by Zschäpe’s subsequent attempt to destroy the evidence by burning the Zwickau apartment where they were living at the time.
Apart from outright murders, the trio also committed three bombings, including a nail bomb attack in Cologne in 2004 on a street lined mostly by Turkish-owned businesses. Twenty-two people were injured, including one almost fatally, but authorities initially ruled out terrorism as a motive, opting for a theory that the bombing was motivated by revenge.
Apart from the material and financial support they received directly from their own network, the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund also committed no fewer than fifteen armed bank robberies (they occasionally even robbed the same place twice), mostly in and around Chemnitz and Zwickau. In the course of a robbery in Heilbronn on 25 April, 2007, they killed a police officer and injured her partner, stealing the dead officer’s gun in the process.
The End of the NSU
At 9:15 on the morning of 4 November 2011, Mundlos and Böhnhardt robbed a bank in Eisenach in western Thuringia before fleeing on bicycles to their nearby RV. Once there, they drove to a residential neighbourhood and parked.
What exactly happened next is uncertain, but the most likely theory is that they were listening to a police scanner and, realizing that they were surrounded, set fire to the vehicle and shot themselves. Soon after, Zschäpe burned the apartment in Zwickau and left, spending several days wandering aimlessly from city to city before giving herself up to the Jena police on 8 November.
After a lengthy trial, Eminger, Wohlleben, and two other accomplices were given prison sentences of two and a half to ten years. Zschäpe maintained silence for most of the trial, but finally read a statement in court in September 2016, some three and a half years into the proceedings, asking National Socialist Underground victims for forgiveness and renouncing her former beliefs.
Observers have largely regarded Zschäpe’s statement as opportunistic and insincere. The court handed down a life sentence in 2018.
The arc of the NSU’s activities represents, among other things, a significant failure on the part of German law enforcement. It is difficult to understand how they could have gotten away with it for as long as they did, given the number of (often paid) informers in their network. But those informers and their handlers had their own objectives as well.
Sometimes informers fed investigators false information in exchange for money, which they not infrequently channeled right back into neo-Nazi activity. Sometimes law enforcement agents declined to take action in the interest of preserving their sources in a constant search for the next big break in their ongoing investigations.
When Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer formally banned Combat 18 on 23 January, one question that immediately called for an answer was “Why did it take so long?” After all, the group had been operating in Germany – and under the scrutiny of German police – for years and was recognised as a violent affiliate of the Blood & Honour network, which German authorities had already banned in 2000.
A second question that Seehofer’s announcement raised was “What, in practical terms, will a ban really mean?” The ban and the ensuing raids were announced more than six months in advance, giving participants ample time to hide or destroy evidence.
Moreover, as the cases of Identity Evropa in the US (now known as “American Identitarian Movement”) and Bastion Social in France (now operating multiple venues under no particular name at all) have shown, it is not difficult for far-right organizations to avoid legal complications by simply rebranding and continuing as they were.
Finally, C18 and B&H have largely had their day anyway, as trends in the international far-right have shifted away from neo-Nazi skinhead culture and the oi! bands that fueled it toward the neo-folk and national socialist black metal genres, which are largely the province of different, sometimes rival networks that appeal to a younger crowd that is often more interested in a dystopian, accelerationist vision than endlessly commemorating mid-century Nazis.
Note, however, that German authorities just this week raided the homes of twelve members of a group called the “Aryan Circle Germany.” Its leader was apparently seen multiple times in the company of Mundlos and Böhnhardt. Banning the old skinhead groups at this stage may still be a valid choice, but it is also far too late in coming.
Nonetheless, the networks that these groups established and maintained across decades make it all too apparent that the internal cultures – and the violence – that characterize modern far-right movements are international in nature and should be understood as such, even as we acknowledge the specificities of local and national manifestations.
The styles change, but past movement heroes only accumulate and inspire more violence.
Their narratives (like that presented in the ultraviolent Turner Diaries), strategies (such as “leaderless resistance”), and mythologies (the putative heroism of The Order, the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund, or, at this stage, individual mass shooters from Oslo to Christchurch to Pittsburgh) are not easily contained by national, geographic, or language barriers.