40 years of the Munich Oktoberfest attack: the first right-wing lone perpetrator

September 26th marks the anniversary of the crime. The worst terrorist attack in the history of the republic remains unsolved.

The mug shot of the Bavarian LKA from 1980 shows a photomontage by the 21-year-old student Gundolf Köhler Photo: Handout Polizei / dpa / picture alliance

As early as 1982, when Attorney General Rebmann stopped the investigation for the first time and presented Gundolf Köhler as a frustrated, lovesickly afflicted individual without political motives, a number of disagreements put this decision into question.

As if preprogrammed, the investigations at the time resulted in the thesis of the apolitical individual perpetrator. This is also made clear by the interrogations of Köhler’s friends. The investigators asked extensively about sexual preferences and romantic relationships. Questions about political background or contacts with right-wing groups, on the other hand, were asked rather sporadically and hardly followed up in detail.

Despite these tendentious investigations, it was completely obvious that Gundolf Köhler adhered to anti-Semitic, National Socialist and racist ideas and did not hold back with them. In the interviews there was repeated mention of a picture of Hitler over the bed or of statements against Jews.

Over the years, thanks in particular to victim lawyer Werner Dietrich and journalist Ulrich Chaussy, more and more contradictions came to light, of which the missing hand is probably the most prominent. Said hand was found at the crime scene after the explosion. Then as now, the investigators attributed it to Gundolf Köhler.

Internal betrayal

But that cannot be: Serologically it could not be assigned to the assassin and, in contrast to the rest of Koehler’s body, no traces of the bomb component nitrocellulose were found on the hand. Finally, a former BKA explosives expert came to the conclusion that the hand, which was barely damaged by burn marks, could not have come from Koehler because his hands and forearms were probably torn into tiny pieces by the force of the explosion.

Today, a DNA examination of the hand could determine whether it came from Koehler – but both the hand and the forensic medical report were made to disappear in the course of the investigation.

In 2014, the Federal Prosecutor finally gave in to the pressure and resumed the investigation into the Oktoberfest attack. However, the results with which she announced the hiring five years later are thin. It is true that the strategically communicated figures of the many surveys conducted and did not check traces of their target and were found in almost every press article. But the amount of individual investigative measures cannot outweigh what the investigations as a whole failed to do.

So the question arises why the Federal Prosecutor’s Office entrusted the Bavarian LKA with the investigation instead of the Federal Criminal Police Office, and thus precisely the institution that had carried out the original investigation without success. Bearing in mind the obvious assumption that these investigations were severely disrupted and influenced, for example, by the theft of evidence or the betrayal of internal investigations, this decision seems simply wrong.

Linked to this is a second omission: the resumed investigations did not deal with the errors of the first special commission as an independent investigation objective. However, this omission is incomprehensible in view of such fundamental errors as the disappearance of the hand. For what motives, with what effects, to what extent and with whose participation the investigations were sabotaged in the 1980s, was never the subject of the resumed proceedings – another knowingly missed chance to clear up the background to the attack.

Destroyed traces

The investigators were also unable to identify possible accomplices and associates of Köhler. The men in the green parkas, who were observed by various witnesses talking to Koehler immediately before the explosion and shortly afterwards on the run from the crime scene, remain unknown, as is the young woman with whom other witnesses saw Koehler at the scene. The traces from Köhler’s car are also puzzling: Who owned the green parka that was found in the car, to whom did the 48 cigarette butts of different brands and with different saliva accumulations belong? A DNA comparison is also ruled out here; the traces were destroyed.

The press release closes with the succinct statement “that questions remained open and that individual issues could not be fully ascertained or assessed”. These open questions and the failure of the highest investigative authority, which is badly concealed in this sentence, should form the core of the assessment, because the open questions touch the core of the subject. Who were the men Koehler was seen with just before the explosion? How was the bomb detonated, how did Koehler get the explosives, where and by whom was the bomb built? Who did the hand found at the crime scene belong to and who made it disappear?

A look at Italy shows that it is not a law of nature that investigations must remain inconclusive after 40 years. Later that year, the right-wing terrorist Gilberto Cavallini was sentenced to life imprisonment for providing logistical support to the attackers in the 1980 attack on Bologna train station.

It borders on insolence that 40 years after the bloody attack in Munich, on the one hand, not having contributed anything to the investigation and at the same time proclaiming the banality that the act was politically motivated.

The lone perpetrator

The termination of the investigation is a scandal. It reveals the entitlement of the bereaved, the injured and the dead to the investigation of the crime and the determination of the guilty. This claim remains unpaid. The attitude is also momentous in that it is historiography and thus works equally in the past and present. She contributes to the construction of a historical figure that never existed and that still causes damage today: the right-wing lone perpetrator.

The decision is doing the historical subject an injustice, because weighty circumstances indicate that Köhler did not act alone. It also contributes to the fact that present and future right-wing terrorism is not understood as the work of networks. Victims remain unpunished and perpetrators unknown.

The attack on the Munich Oktoberfest on September 26, 1980 remains unsolved and challenges us. Bertolt Brecht’s sentence applies: “Only as much truth prevails as we enforce.”

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