Looking back at neo-nazi military group: their leader was called karl

40 years ago, the paramilitary neo-Nazi association WSG Hoffmann was banned. Its terror has not been conclusively clarified to this day.

Start of the trial against neo-Nazi Karl-Heinz Hoffmann in 1984 Photo: Sommer/imago

When the then Federal Minister of the Interior Gerhart Baum banned the Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann (WSG), named after its leader, on January 30, 1980, it was one of the most important associations of neo-Nazism in West Germany. More than 400 people were organized in the Wehrsportgruppe at that time.

In the course of the searches, 18 carloads of explosives, weapons and ammunition were seized. The WSG was centered in Bavaria, but neither the then CSU Minister of the Interior Gerold Tandler nor Minister President Franz Josef Straub saw the need to take action against the organization. Instead, it took the determination of FDP politician Baum to finally ban the paramilitary group.

The danger posed by the WSG became abundantly clear that same year. On September 26, a bomb exploded at the entrance to the Oktoberfest, killing 13 people and injuring over 200, some seriously. Among the dead was the student Gundolf Kohler. Witnesses observed him placing a bag in a wastebasket shortly before the explosion.

Kohler’s connections to the extreme right quickly became known: Before the crime, he expressed to acquaintances the need to commit an attack that would appear to be the work of left-wing terrorists; in Kohler’s apartment, investigators found a membership card of the Wiking Youth, and it also became known that Kohler had participated in exercises of the WSG. Despite these indications, the motive was quickly located in the personal sphere, the investigation was narrowed down to the hypothesis of a "single perpetrator" and accordingly discontinued in 1982.

New investigations

Numerous inconsistencies remained. For example, Kohler was observed talking to two men in green parkas immediately before the crime. In Kohler’s car, in which several people had been observed hours before near the crime scene, 48 cigarette butts with different saliva adhesions were found.

Among the most striking contradictions is the mystery surrounding a hand fragment found at the crime scene, which cannot be attributed to Kohler or any of the known victims. On the other hand, a fingerprint was found in Kohler’s documents that matched an imprint of the hand found. However, a DNA match that is feasible today is no longer possible: the hand fragment disappeared before the end of the investigation in the Bavarian LKA.

In 2014, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office resumed the investigation. This is primarily the result of decades of efforts by journalist Ulrich Chaussy and victim advocate Werner Dietrich. The new investigations continue to this day. Contrary to reports to the contrary, an end is not in sight in the summer of 2019.

The association in Lebanon

In the course of the new investigations, the so-called "Lebanon complex" is also being looked at once again. In Lebanon, Karl-Heinz Hoffmann built up a new military sports group in cooperation with the PLO after the ban. The "Wehrsportgruppe Ausland" took up quarters in a training camp in a suburb of Beirut. But contrary to the expectations of many members, everyday life did not consist of actions or active participation in the fight against Israel. Rather, life in Bir Hassan was characterized by construction work, military sports exercises and authoritarian drill.

Over time, the latter developed into a rampant sadism, which was exercised by Hoffmann, but also by other high-ranking members of the military sports group. This sadism ranged from exhausting forced marches with backpacks weighted down with stones to physical, humiliating punishments and brutal torture. WSG member Kay-Uwe Bergmann probably also succumbed to this torture.

Again and again, he had to endure punishments because, for example, he had violated Hoffmann’s smoking ban. Witness statements suggest that Bergmann died during one of the tortures. His body was never found, and the circumstances of his death were never determined.

New insights into the terrorist attacks

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office’s involvement with the Wehrsportgruppe Ausland could thus clear up another unsolved homicide. And with regard to the Oktoberfest attack, this focus may also provide new insights – after all, WSG member Walter Behle confessed to a bartender in Damascus only a few days after the attack: "That was us." When Behle was later questioned by German authorities about his confession, he recanted it, blaming a thirst for recognition and alcohol.

But the Lebanon complex is also relevant to two other murders. On December 19, 1980, Jewish publisher Shlomo Lewin and his partner Frida Poeschke were shot dead in their bungalow in Erlangen. In addition to the bodies, metal remains and a pair of Schubert sunglasses were left at the crime scene. The metal pieces were quickly identified as the remains of a homemade silencer.

The sunglasses, as it later turned out, were custom-made and a gift from the manufacturer to Franziska Birkmann, who lived only 16 kilometers away in a castle in Ermreuth with Hoffmann and Uwe Behrendt, who was later determined to be the perpetrator.

Investigations in the wrong direction

But despite this spatial proximity, despite the fact that Lewin was publicly committed against the danger of neo-Nazism and in this context explicitly addressed Karl-Heinz Hoffmann and his Wehrsportgruppe, and regardless of the fact, that an issue of the Italian magazine Oggi, in which not only Hoffmann was prominently featured but in which Lewin also finds clear words against Hoffmann, was found at Hoffmann’s home during the searches after the Oktoberfest attack – despite all these indications, the investigation did not pursue the suspicion that neo-Nazis might be the perpetrators until months after the crime.

Instead, the investigations and the public initially focused on the victim Lewin. The Erlangen News, for example, spoke of "inconsistencies" in Lewin’s "colorful past," and it was speculated that Lewin was an agent of the Israeli foreign intelligence service. The investigation files also show that after the crime, the police first made inquiries in the Jewish community in Nuremberg. Lewin was chairman there from 1977 to 1979.

It was not until May 1981, half a year after the murders, that Schloss Ermreuth was searched, and the neo-Nazis of the Wehrsportgruppe were questioned in the following months. In the course of this, WSG members reported that Hoffmann had not only built a silencer together with Behrendt, as it had been used in the crime, but had also allegedly tried to recruit WSG members to murder a Jew. Several details in the procedure were described, which can be found in the commission of the crime.

Contradictions that could be resolved

Finally, in 1984, the trial against Hoffmann and Birkmann began. It ended two years later with an acquittal for both of them on all charges relating to the murders. Although Hoffmann admitted to assisting Behrendt’s escape to Lebanon and destroying evidence, in the end Uwe Behrendt was considered the lone perpetrator. He also allegedly took his own life as early as 1981, according to statements by WSG members.

Essential questions were not answered: How did Behrendt get to the crime scene? Where is the murder weapon? Did Behrendt really act alone and without a mission?

The Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann has long since ceased to exist, but most of its members are still alive. And: The murders of Lewin and Poeschke, as well as the attack on the Oktoberfest, must be considered unsolved and current as long as the contradictions persist. The investigations of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office could still clear up some of these contradictions.