Between 1946 and 1990, the Yugoslav State Security Administration (UDBA) carried out a series of assassinations throughout Western Europe and in Canada, the U.S., Australia, South Africa and Argentina. A recent coproduction between Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Bavarian state broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk looks further into the string of killings on West German soil. The 42-minute film, with English subtitles, is viewable below. Accompanying it, we present a translation of an interview with the filmmakers from Die Welt am Sonntag.
Welt am Sonntag: Herr Grüll, you and your colleague spent a year researching the film. What was your motivation?
Philipp Grüll: In the preceding year, both of us had worked on reports about Croatia’s EU accession. These reports touched on the mysterious murder in Wolfratshausen, Bavaria, an event which placed major strain on German-Croatian relations. Shortly before its accession to the EU, Croatia passed a special law to avoid having to extradite those suspected of being behind the attack. That’s when it quickly became clear to us that this wasn’t just about one murder, but a whole series of assassinations that hardly anyone in Germany today knows about. These attacks were on a terrifying scale: the West German security services knew about them for 30 years, but this knowledge was kept strictly behind closed doors. This was what motivated Frank Hofmann and myself to research the topic more deeply.
Welt am Sonntag: Your film tells the tale of Robert Zagajski, who was 17 when he lost his father. What motivated him to allow cameras into his life?
Grüll: Robert Zagajski is looking for answers, but he’s not driven by a desire for revenge. That impressed me a lot. He just wants to know what happened on the outskirts of Munich in March 1983. Who killed his father. It disturbs him to this day that this crime and others like it could happen so easily in West Germany. He said he was happy for us to film him so that the public could find out about [these assassinations] after all these years.
Welt am Sonntag: Together, you’ve inched closer to the truth: you tracked down an agent in Fürth [near Nuremberg] who apparently spied on Robert Zagajski’s father until shortly before his assassination. How did it feel to sit opposite him?
Grüll: It was totally creepy. He comes over as relatively harmless, just a guy in his 80s. But if you’ve read the files and know how many Croatian émigrés in Bavaria and the rest of Germany he was shadowing, you see him through different eyes. The papers prove he was equipped with over a dozen weapons and gathered detailed information on the victims’ everyday lives before the attacks. Although he’s denied any link to the attacks, he said to us: “No-one was assassinated without reason.” This and other comments suggest he knows more than he let on.
Welt am Sonntag: Which makes it all the more remarkable that he let you into his apartment.
Grüll: Yes – other former Yugoslav agents in Bavaria were much more reticent. It was surprising he let us film. At first, he said Robert Zagajski’s father had been a good friend of his, but when we confronted him with the German secret service files that prove he was spying on Đuro Zagajski until shortly before his death, his mood changed instantly. He tied himself up in contradictions and suddenly began to claim he’d never had any contact with Zagajski.
Welt am Sonntag: In your film, a high-ranking secret service agent in Belgrade candidly discusses the planning of attacks in Germany. Can he really be this confident he won’t be prosecuted?
Grüll: In the Yugoslav successor states, ex-spies still have excellent networks, just as they did when Yugoslavia was whole. In some cases, these networks extend high up into government circles. These ex-spies also have a huge amount of information on the current political class, including compromising information. In the case of the Serbian interviewee, we can add to this that Serbia is not yet an EU member. Even if it were to join the EU, extradition would likely take a very long time.
Welt am Sonntag: Back to Bavaria. In Paul-Heyse-Strasse in Munich, three men were killed in the office of the Association of United Croatians (Bund der vereinigten Kroaten). In Augsburg, a restaurant owner was blinded after being shot in the head. There’s a whole string of sensational cases like these. How can it be that they didn’t generate more headlines at the time, and that investigations lead nowhere?
Grüll: This may be a difficult comparison, but there are parallels to the NSU murders – termed the “kebab murders” for a long time. In both cases, the victims were of non-German heritage, and in both cases, the repeated assumption [made by the authorities] was “they have feuds among themselves and probably have links to organized crime”. It seems German society and the investigators weren’t paying much attention for a long time. You’d think a triple murder in broad daylight would shock Munich to the core, but the investigations were shelved just a few months later. Another problem is that [as in the case of the NSU murders], our own security services were also embroiled in the situation. The former agent who we met living in Fürth – who’s still living here in Bavaria today, totally undisturbed – was also an informer for the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz).
Welt am Sonntag: Were the investigations hindered?
Grüll: It’s certain that there were absurd entanglements and several double agents working for both Yugoslavia and West Germany. And there are certainly signs that the German authorities held a protective hand over these people, and that this included blocking investigations in some cases.
Welt am Sonntag: A former State Secretary of the West German Foreign Office, Klaus von Dohnanyi of the SPD, has clear words on this issue: he says West Germany practiced “politics with dirty hands”.
Grüll: Yes, he and former interior minister Gerhart Baum (FDP) have been the first former members of the government to publicly admit that the West German government knew as early as the late 1970s that the Yugoslav secret police was liquidating people in Germany. But the governments of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt never publicly condemned these attacks so as not to endanger relations with Yugoslavia, an important strategic partner in the Cold War. The victims were apparently seen as an acceptable price to be paid to maintain Germany’s overarching interests. Egon Bahr, Helmut Schmidt and Hans-Dietrich Genscher all refused to speak to us, by the way.
Welt am Sonntag: Does this make you question the rule of law in our country?
Grüll: To a certain extent, yes. I guess it’s the ugly face of realpolitik. It’s horrible to see what sort of things have happened in the shadows of our lovely country.
Welt am Sonntag: At the start of filming, there was no indication that this story would become current again. But at the end of your film, we see Robert Zagajski observing the extradition of the former head of the UDBA at Munich Airport. Was this just journalistic good fortune?
Grüll: Real life wrote the script for us here. At the end of the film, Zagajski – who we’d first met months ago – suddenly had hope again. He understands that the trial is just the first step in investigating this series of assassinations. But seeing the man who had signed so many secret service files on his father being led away by German police just a few meters from him on the other side of the airport railing – that was undoubtedly an important moment for him. Maybe his father’s killing will come to trial in Germany one day.