One more month, then Kerstin Schmitz will sit opposite Thomas W. again. Together with 14 co-defendants, the tattooed and muscular man in his mid-forties will take a seat in the dock of the Erfurt Regional Court. And Kerstin Schmitz will take her place on the witness bench. Just like she did once before, at the first trial against the gang around Thomas W.
Only this time there is a major difference: the notorious neo-Nazi cannot stroll into the courtroom as a free man. He will be handcuffed and come directly from a prison cell. For Kerstin Schmitz, this will bring some small satisfaction, finally.
And then it will be back to the attack, just over seven years ago. On 9 February 2014, Thomas W. and his comrades attacked the members of a funfair society, including Kerstin Schmitz. The society organises a traditional folk festival in Ballstädt, a town with approximately 650 inhabitants near Gotha in Thuringia. There is an old church, the remains of a knight’s estate, a grocery store, a restaurant, and a nursing home. And then there is the so-called Yellow House. Thomas W. has been living in the former bakery in a shared flat with three of his associates since 2013.
Beating and kicking to the point of unconsciousness
On that February day in 2014, Kerstin Schmitz and her friends were at a late night party after the annual fair, in the cultural centre across the street – until Thomas W. suddenly stormed into the hall, masked with a skull and crossbones scarf. He demanded to know who had broken the windowpane in the Yellow House. Then W., equipped with punching gloves, beat up the people present. He called in a good dozen other right-wing extremists into the hall. They continued to punch and kick even as the victims lay unconscious on the floor.
Kerstin Schmitz hid herself away in an adjoining room and alerted the police, she remained unharmed. The attack lasted only two minutes, then the neo-Nazis stormed back outside, into the Yellow House. In the cultural centre, shards of broken furniture, and pools of blood were left behind. And ten people, some seriously injured, with lacerations, broken bones and a torn ear.
“We’ve never known such violence. They were there to make casualties. They knew what they were doing”, Kerstin Schmitz, victim of the attack
“We’ve never known violence like this”, says Kerstin Schmitz. “They were there to take casualties. They knew what they were doing.” Thomas W., however, remained free at the time, after a brief pre-trial detention, he continued to live in the Yellow House, strolling through the village with his dogs. He formed, together with several of the now accused, a right-wing extremist rocker group. First, they called themselves Bruderschaft Thüringen (Thuringian Brotherhood) then, based on a Germanic tribe, Turonen (the Turons). There is also an offshoot, the “Garde 20”, derived from the 20th letter of the alphabet, the “T”. Kerstin Schmitz is stunned by the development. “None of them respect the state. The Nazis do what they want.”
That is, until the state knocked on the Turons’ door after all. This happened five weeks ago, on 26 February this year. Special police forces entered the Yellow House at dawn through a first-floor window. They then proceeded to arrest Thomas W., who, according to observers, suffered a breakdown. At the same time, the police arrest six other suspects, aged between 24 and 55, including Thomas W.’s partner and cousin and two others accused of the Ballstädt attack, Rocco B. and André K. A prominent lawyer from the scene is also among the detainees: Dirk Waldschmidt, who briefly defended the Walter Lübcke murderer Stephan Ernst [editor’s note: Lübcke was a CDU politician advocating for the refugee policy, and as a result of this, targeted by the far-right. In 2019, he was murdered in his home by the right-extremist Stephan Ernst.]
13 other suspects are being investigated. A kilo of crystal meth and cocaine, 130,000 euros in cash, several long guns, as well as real estate, and tangible assets such as bar equipment worth 350,000 euros, have all been confiscated. The police also made an incidental arrest of two people, one of whom was found to have large quantities of crystal meth, the other had an outstanding arrest warrant for another matter.
More than 500 officers are deployed on this day at the behest of the public prosecutor’s office in Gera, the police operation has been prepared for months. The charge this time is not the commission of violent crime, but organised crime: Thomas W. and the other suspects are accused of selling drugs on a large scale, and running a brothel. The investigators want to prove a good 50 cases of drug trafficking and 40 cases of money laundering.
A heavy blow for the Turons
“The arrests were of course a bit of a relief for us”, says Kerstin Schmitz. The young woman is sitting in her office in Gotha at the beginning of April, sipping tea, talking in a calm and composed manner. Schmitz actually goes by a different name but doesn’t want it to be read in the newspaper or to be recognised in any other way. She is still afraid, even though she has moved away from Ballstädt. But she continues to travel to the village every week.
There have been no more direct confrontations with Thomas W. and the other Nazis there recently, Schmitz says. “But they were a continued presence, walking their dogs, acting in a very self-assured way. The bus stop is right outside their door. There was always tension when you ran into them.” And the neo-Nazis continued to make provocations at the fair in the years after the attack. Tonight they would come again, they threatened. They did not come but the fear remained.
Now, however, Thomas W. and his cronies are in custody. It is the first heavy blow against his Turons. They have about 30 members, according to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Several of them have committed criminal offences, have already been in prison, play in bands, and are considered sympathisers of the radical Combat 18 and Blood & Honour networks. The group repeatedly organises concerts, including the largest right-wing rock festival in Germany to date, in 2017 in Themar with around 6,000 neo-Nazis. The group has networks abroad; it also staged a major concert in Switzerland in 2016 and is said to have earned 150,000 euros there alone. And its members maintain contact with the two closest aides of the NSU (National Socialist Underground) murderers: Ralf Wohlleben and André Eminger.
And now they are apparently running an organised drug network.
It’s an accusation that weighs heavily – all the more so for supporters of the far-right scene, where drugs are considered frowned upon. “Raising money is all well and good, but not how they did it”, read a comment in a neo-Nazi forum after the arrests. Others made appeals to “wait and see what’s really going on.”
The police strike comes as a surprise to local politicians in the region. A spokesman for Gotha’s mayor Knut Kreuch (SPD) affirms: “The operation took us completely by surprise. We were not aware of any drug trafficking. That was on our radar here.” Ballstädt’s mayor, Horst Dünkel, a friendly CDU man, had also taken little notice of the situation. “Nobody here knew about that”, he said during a conversation at his garden fence. “Nobody in the village has anything to do with the right-wing extremists.”
Kerstin Schmitz didn’t know about the drug deals either. But she had a hunch. Because again and again there had been cars with foreign license plates in front of the Yellow House, even from abroad. “And the Nazis are so unscrupulous, we had suspected something like this.”
Others definitely had a closer eye on the Turons’ criminal goings-on. Antifa activists from neighbouring Gotha, for example, who became aware of the Turons’ new meeting places early on and warned: “They’re playing mafia here.” Or Katharina König-Preuss, a Linke member of the state parliament who has been asking questions in parliament questions about the group for years and, even before the arrests, warned that the Turons “have long since merged with organised crime.” Security authorities have also been investigating the Turons for a year over drug allegations – after the Office for the Protection of the Constitution stumbled upon the businesses through intercepted phone calls and reported them to the State Office of Criminal Investigation.
Thomas W., the main defendant
Thomas W. is now considered the main defendant. The man in his mid-forties comes from Gotha, he has never learnt a trade. As a teenager, he had already become part of the right-wing extremist scene – and ended up in court again and again. Sometimes he was accused of theft, sometimes of coercion, threatening to commit a crime or displaying unconstitutional behaviour. Over the years, W. has collected more than 25 convictions and thousands of euros in fines. At the end of the 90s, he went to prison for the first time, where he caught up on his secondary school-leaving certificate.
When Thomas W. was released, he immediately became active on the scene again. He set up a recording studio to produce music for the scene and founded a music label. He himself plays as a drummer in bands called “Treueorden” or “Sonderkommando Dirlewanger” and releases songs called “Führer Adolf” or “Final Race War”. In 2013, Thomas W. moved to Ballstädt – he attacked the funfair society there a few months later.
The Erfurt Regional Court sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for this in May 2017, the highest of the sentences handed down. Recorded telephone calls from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution contributed to his conviction. In addition, witnesses had seen the attackers run into the Yellow House. Kerstin Schmitz describes the brutal violence in court. Thomas W. finally confesses his involvement, a co-defendant reveals even more. The other defendants engage in provocations: they march into the courtroom in clothing distinctive of the right-wing scene, present tattoos such as “Ran an den Feind” (Get on the enemy), or pretend to be asleep. In the end, ten of them are convicted, four are acquitted over lack of evidence.
The convicts, however, appeal against the verdict and thus remain free for the time being. The Federal Supreme Court actually overturns the verdict in May 2020 due to formal errors and orders a retrial. “That was a shock”, says Kerstin Schmitz. “And only emboldened the Nazis even more.”
The Turons’ business model
In fact, Thomas W. expands his Turons troop, unimpressed by the trial. Photos show him together with other Gesinnungsgenossen (comrades) in black leather cowls with the group logo, like some sort of rock band. They provide security at the concerts. The proceeds for the big Swiss concert in Unterwasser go through a Thuringian bank account, the name of one of the co-organisers is written on the mailbox of the Yellow House today. An acquaintance also turned up at the concert in the town Themar: André Eminger, who stood by the NSU trio in hiding until the end. Eminger also travels to another Turonen concert in 2018.
This is no coincidence. The Turonen seek proximity to right-wing terrorism. Already 11 years ago, a year after the NSU was uncovered, Thomas W.’s band released a song in which they showed solidarity with a second imprisoned NSU aide: the Thuringian Ralf Wohlleben, once an NPD functionary, now accused of procuring weapons. “Freedom for Wolle”, W.’s band sings. Shortly afterwards, Thomas W. posed with later Turons and decorative arms for a photo, including the commentary: “NSU reloaded”.
At the end of February, an apartment in the Burgenland district in Saxony-Anhalt was also searched: that of Ralf Wohlleben. The 46-year-old, who was released in 2018 after six years in prison, is alleged to have received funds from the Turons, in the current trial he is considered a witness. Wohlleben has a confidant, whom the Office for the Protection of the Constitution sees as the second leader of the Turons, alongside Thomas W. This person is called Steffen R., a man in his late thirties from Saalfeld, who has been active in the right-wing rock scene for years, once also for the NPD. He is not arrested, but, according to taz information, he is one of the 13 other defendants.
And the Turons cultivate their penchant for violence. At one of their concerts, a singer shouted: “Blood must flow, thick as a truncheon. Let the knives slide into the Jews’ bodies.” When Thomas W. received a letter with an anti-Nazi imprint, he offered up to 2,000 euros for information on the sender, calling it “hilarious to DEATH”. The authorities count a total of 32 investigations against members of the Turons since 2019 alone, for assault, fraud and insult among other things.
In the autumn of 2018, however, a festival in Magdala, Thuringia, failed. The authorities decided to enforce a ban, leaving the Turons sitting on their losses. The series of large-scale concerts thus breaks off. Shortly afterwards, investigators believe, is when the neo-Nazis got into the drug business. For Thomas W. this is nothing new: already in 2008, according to taz information, he had been fined for illicit trade in drugs.
A brick building in Gotha
Next to the Yellow House in Ballstädt, an old brick building with a large extension, located on a small side street in the north of Gotha, now becomes the headquarters of the Turons. “Company premises, no trespassing”, reads a sign in front of the sandy parking lot. From the outside, nothing points to the neo-Nazi troupe; the building is leased.
According to local residents, Thomas W. was regularly on site before his arrest. Building materials were delivered again and again, and concerts and weight training were said to have taken place inside. This is not exactly clandestine. In front of the hall, expensive cars are often parked, some with license plates like “T20”, alluding to the Turons. One car is a white stretch limousine.
According to information from taz, the Turons displaced older dealer structures in the region and work together with contacts from eastern Europe and the rocker scene. Only two street corners away, the group runs its brothel, in a blue-painted house, monitored by cameras. Thomas W.’s partner is said to have been jointly responsible for the establishment.
On a sign, there is only the name of a British postbox company, which leads to a resident from Gotha with contacts to the Czech Republic. The same company name is emblazoned on a pub under construction on the other side of the street. Just a few hundred metres away, the Turons also own a warehouse. A second brothel was being planned on the outskirts of town.
All these places were searched by the police in February, a total of 27 flats and business premises. The stretch limousine was also confiscated. The city does not want to comment on the locations because of the ongoing investigation. The only thing they will say about the brothel is that it did not have a permit because of the Covid-19 restrictions.
There is a role model for the Turons and their activities in Austria: the right-wing extremist network “Object 21”, which also organised scene concerts years ago and was involved in arms and drug deals – and kept contact with Thuringia. When the group was busted, two Thuringians were also arrested in 2013. One of them had helped acquire the Yellow House in Ballstädt.
Known in the drug scene
One who is familiar with the drug scene in Gotha is Angela Gräser. She has been working as a sex worker in the city for 25 years. The crystal meth scene is large, says Gräser. Recently, cocaine has also become more popular, which is now cheaper. Turons being involved in the deals, sending out young sellers, is something she’s heard from clients over and over again in recent months, she says. “I remember Tommy from way back. He was actually one you could talk to for a long time. Not someone who snapped immediately. It’s sad how his life turned out.” But she was never able to prove the drug allegations, Gräser says. “They’re clever.”
Investigators, however, are amassing so much evidence that the warrants still stand today – even against one lawyer: Dirk Waldschmidt. Waldschmidt, who is in his mid-fifties, has been active in the right-wing extremist scene for years. In Hesse, he was once the deputy leader of the NPD, and most recently he held legal training sessions for the right-wing extremist splinter party “III Weg”. Again and again, Waldschmidt represents neo-Nazis in court, the most prominent one almost two years ago (even if only for a short time), Stephan Ernst, the Lübcke murderer.
Waldschmidt also knows the Turons well. In the Ballstädt trial, he appeared as defence counsel for a defendant, and last year also as that of a far-right Thuringian hooligan. There, the lawyer showed up with Thomas W. and other neo-Nazis, some dressed in Turonian garb. Now Waldschmidt himself is an accused. According to taz information, the investigators accuse him of money laundering, he is said to have been involved in the Turons’ real estate deals. His lawyer does not want to comment on the accusations.
For Thuringia’s head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Stephan Kramer, Waldschmidt’s arrest is a turning point. “Apparently there are some lawyers who don’t just defend right-wing extremists, but use trials as a stage themselves and become part of criminal networks.” Kramer calls the blow against the Turons a “great success” that shows how important close cooperation between the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the State Criminal Police Office is in the fight against organised crime.
“The blow has been effective. The Turons have recently appeared more and more brazen.” Georg Maier, minister of the interior of Thuringia
Linke MP König-Preuss also praised the arrests: “The blow is enormously important because it will be a hit to the neo-Nazi scene far beyond Thuringia.” She is now calling for far-reaching investigations that would have to uncover not only the criminal but also the political network of the Turons. In addition, she said, a new investigative committee on right-wing terrorism in Thuringia is needed. “Not only the Turons, but also other Thuringian actors appear again and again in right-wing terrorist contexts, including the NSU. This urgently needs to have light shed on it.”
Thuringia’s interior minister Georg Maier (SPD) has taken up the fight against right-wing extremists. When the Turons were arrested, the SPD man travelled specially to Ballstädt. “The blow was well struck”, Maier says, pleased. “The Turons have been acting more and more brazen lately. They were probably confident that nothing could harm them. The arrests are also important so that the people in Ballstädt regain confidence in the rule of law.”
But neo-Nazis are still living in the Yellow House at the beginning of April. The window, smashed by the police, is provisionally covered with cardboard, in front of the door is a VW with “T20” license plates. Otherwise, it is quiet, almost all windows are covered, a camera hangs on the wall of the house, a cat roams over the screened yard. Even in front of the Gotha headquarters, cars continue to park, people enter the building.
Even before the condemnation for the Ballstädt attack, the neo-Nazis posed for a group photo under a banner that the village had hung up after the attack: “Ballstädt stands up for democracy and diversity, and stands against right-wing violence”. Grinning, the neo-Nazis posed in Turonen gear, Thomas W. in the middle.
“They are laughing at us”, says Ballstädt’s mayor, Horst Dünkel. The current arrests, therefore, he also sees as a relief. But is that all from the neo-Nazis? Dünkel raises his shoulders. “Well.” Short silence. “One doesn’t know. And even if they disappear from Ballstädt, they’ll turn up in another village.”
Kerstin Schmitz doesn’t trust their absence yet either. “Of the dozen attackers back then, only three are in custody now”, says the young woman. And then there is the second, new trial on the Ballstädt attack, which is to begin on 17 May. Allegedly, the court is negotiating a “deal” with Thomas W. and the other defendants: confessions in exchange for suspended sentences. “This must not happen”, says Schmitz. Mayor Dünkel says: “The judiciary must consider the consequences of its decisions. It’s about doing justice.”
Right-wing extremists in Thuringia
At the end of the 90s, the “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) was formed in Thuringia around Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, which was only exposed in 2011. By then, they had murdered ten people, with 43 attempted murders, and had committed three bomb attacks.
Most recently, Thuringia has been in the spotlight for large-scale right-wing extremist concerts, culminating in the 2017 festival in Themar with 6,000 neo-Nazis. Interior minister Georg Maier warned of a “considerable radicalisation of the scene, especially via the internet.” The scene cadres Thorsten Heise, Tommy Frenck and Stanley Röske, who are active nationwide, live in Thuringia. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution is also keeping an eye on the AfD Thuringia around its state leader Björn Höcke.
Acts of violence
On Wednesday, the victim advisory centre “ezra” presented its annual statistics. According to the statistics, there were a total of 102 acts of right-wing violence in Thuringia in 2020, most of them racially motivated. A 52-year-old man was murdered in a homophobic attack.