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'Nazi Bride' case highlights rising influence of women in Germany's far-right movement

German Police via Reuters

Beate Zschaepe, 38, is accused of complicity in the murder of eight ethnic Turks, a Greek and a policewoman, two bombings and 15 bank robberies. She has been described as "Germany's most dangerous neo-Nazi."

MAINZ, Germany -- Dubbed the "Nazi Bride," Beate Zschaepe has become the face of right-wing militancy in Germany.

The 38-year-old woman is allegedly the sole surviving member of the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terror cell accused of a seven-year racist killing spree.

On Monday, Zschaepe will go on trial accused of complicity in the murder of eight ethnic Turks, a Greek and a policewoman, two bombings and 15 bank robberies

But she is alleged to be far more than just the tagalong lover of the far-right gang's leader. 

German federal prosecutor Wolfgang Range alleges that Zschaepe gave the terror cell "the appearance of legality and normalcy towards the outside."

German Police via Reuters

National Socialist Underground member Uwe Boehnhardt was found dead after a bungled armed robbery in November 2011.

Speaking to Der Spiegel magazine, Range added: "I am convinced that she wasn't just an accessory or merely a companion, but was in fact acting on the same level as the others." 

Zschaepe and two alleged accomplices, who took their own lives, have been described by Range as a "unified killing commando" responsible for a series of execution-style murders.

Zschaepe's case will spotlight the increasingly prominent role that women are playing in the neo-Nazi scene. In particular, they have been gaining influence in German far-right politics.

Statistics suggest nearly 20 percent of executives in Germany's extremist NPD party are women, which is a higher percentage than in many smaller mainstream parties.

"Women are increasingly taking center stage in the far-right scene," said Michaela Koettig, a professor for social work at the University of Applied Sciences in Frankfurt. "They are filling important positions after being fully socialized by the scene."

Up to 40 far-right women's organizations alone have been established since 2000, according to Koettig.

"Like their male comrades, women from the extreme right are also violent and fully politically motivated in their actions," said Koettig, who has been conducting research on far-right extremism for the past 20 years. 

Overall, the German government's domestic intelligence agency estimates that there are more than 22,000 active members in the country's right-wing scene, including 9,800 violent extremists. Statistics on the exact number of female supporters do not exist.

Zschaepe, who has been branded "Germany's most dangerous neo-Nazi," has so far kept silent. Prosecutors hope that she will testify during her trial, which could run for more than a year in Munich.

If found guilty, Zschaepe faces life in prison.

Zschaepe's alleged accomplices, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boenhardt, were found dead following a bungled armed robbery in November 2011.  Zschaepe turned herself in to police three days later.

The German intelligence community came under fire for failing to detect the group and was accused of being blind on the "right eye," suggesting that the agencies had dedicated too much of their attention to left-wing extremism and Islamists instead.

German Police via Reuters

Uwe Mundlos was the third member of the National Socialist Underground, according to German authorities.

Investigators had focused on the victims’ potential links to the local crime scene and to foreign criminal organizations, while neglecting a possible far-right motive in the killings, which occurred between 2000 and 2007.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly apologized to the families of the murder victims.

German officials now warn that right-wing extremists are trying to conceal their true identities in order to gain a foothold in German society.

In its annual report, the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution, an intelligence agency in this southern German state, highlighted that neo-Nazi groups are disguising their organizations to recruit new members and spread right-wing ideology.

"We do not see a widespread infiltration into civil society yet, but right-wing groups and the far-right NPD party are investing a lot of time and money to mask their ideology, to set up a facade," said Markus Schaefert, spokesman for the Bavarian intelligence service.

In the city of Fuerth, neo-Nazis this year launched a so-called "citizens' initiative" called "Soziales Fuerth" -- or "social Fuerth" -- which is aimed at creating the image of an organization that cares for the needs and concerns of local residents.

The website prominently displays the face of a young blond-haired child with blue eyes. Its logo features the slogan "out of love for the people and the homeland."

According to the latest intelligence report, these new so-called "social initiatives" are following "the strategy to draw attention to issues on the level of local politics and to present themselves as an electable alternative."

Such groups are turning to social media and sites such as Facebook to mask their ideologies. 

But even more worrying are the groups' strategies to influence young people as early as possible, experts say.

"As there is mounting political and social pressure towards the neo-Nazi scene and the right-wing NPD party, the extremists, who themselves are often parents with young children, are trying to ingrain [themselves] in society," said Winfriede Scheiber, head of the intelligence service in the eastern German state of Brandenburg.

Experts say that neo-Nazis are using community facilities to reach adolescents and young children, seeking to influence their thinking at an early stage in life, or to even recruit them.

"We are worried about the development that moms and dads with right-wing ideologies are increasingly taking up duties in kindergartens, nursing homes or sports clubs," Schreiber added.

Koettig, the social work professor, said such extremists "stay inconspicuous at first and then, once they play a leading role in sports clubs or have become members of their school's parents' association, gradually introduce their ideology."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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