Just after Christmas 1973, Thomas Niedermayer, manager of Grundig's Dunmurry factory, was bundled into a car by an IRA gang outside his west Belfast home. He was never seen again
The German industrialist and his wife, Ingeborg, survived the Second World War to build a new life in Northern Ireland. The author of a new book on the tragedy, David Blake Knox, says his kidnapping was planned by someone he knew ... with catastrophic consequences for his family
In early 2013, I was contacted by the author and journalist Ann Marie Hourihane. She wondered if I had heard a recent radio documentary on RTE. It concerned the kidnapping of a man called Thomas Niedermayer.
I hadn't heard the documentary, but I could dimly recall something about a German businessman who had been kidnapped and murdered by the IRA in the early-1970s. I had spent several years in the following decade working as a television producer covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but that was years after Niedermayer had been abducted and I was unfamiliar with the details of the case.
When I listened to the documentary on the RTE Player, I was both moved and disturbed by what I heard. It was clear that Thomas Niedermayer had not been the only victim of this kidnapping. The radio documentary, which was presented by Joe Duffy and produced by Ciaran Cassidy, revealed the terrible suffering and damage that his abduction and death had inflicted on his family.
It was a dark story, but it was greatly to the credit of Duffy and Cassidy that their programme was made. Ann Marie proposed that we should make a film documentary and, over the following months, we explored the background in Ireland and Germany. Our film was never produced. However, the story of the Niedermayers had snagged in my mind and I was drawn back to it in subsequent years.
Thomas Niedermayer had been the manager of Grundig's electronics plant in Dunmurry, just outside Belfast. He had lived in Northern Ireland with his wife, Ingeborg, and their two daughters, Gabrielle and Renate, since 1961. By 1973, the factory employed more than 1,000 workers.
By then, the Troubles had begun to engulf Northern Ireland, but it seems that Niedermayer did not tolerate any display of sectarian loyalties on his shopfloor. He also seems to have believed that, as an outsider, he was safe from the attention of Ulster's warring factions. He could not have foreseen that his abduction would be planned by someone he knew.
Brian Keenan had once been a shop steward in Grundig. In that role, he had frequent - and sometimes stormy - meetings with Niedermayer. And, by 1973, Keenan had become a leading figure in the Provisional IRA.
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In March of that year, the IRA took their campaign to England. The plan was to explode bombs in London on the same day that a border poll was due to take place in Northern Ireland.
In recent years, Sinn Fein has called for just such a vote to decide the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. But in 1973, the poll was denounced as a "sectarian headcount" and the IRA made plans to stage a "spectacular" event that would overshadow its result.
Four cars were hijacked in Belfast and brought to Dublin. They were fitted with false number plates, packed with explosives and taken by ferry to Liverpool. They were then driven on to London.
The leader of the IRA unit that planted the car bombs was a young woman called Dolours Price. Her sister, Marian, was also part of the IRA team. On the afternoon of March 8, two of their bombs exploded, injuring more than 200 people and causing the death of an elderly shopkeeper.
Ten members of the IRA unit were arrested that same day at Heathrow Airport on their way back to Ireland. In November of 1973, the Price sisters were each sentenced to 20 years in prison. On the day that they were sentenced, the IRA issued a statement warning that "in due course, retribution will be exacted". The sisters immediately began a hunger strike, demanding their transfer to jails in Northern Ireland.
Brian Keenan decided to kidnap his former boss and hold him as ransom for the transfer of the Price sisters. He believed that Niedermayer's status as the honorary German consul in Northern Ireland would compel the British Government to submit to his demands.
Late one night, over Christmas 1973, a car pulled up in a quiet residential avenue called Glengoland Gardens. Two men got out and knocked on the door of Niedermayer's home. His younger daughter, Renate, answered and was told that there had been an accident and her father's car had been damaged.
She roused him from his sleep and he went outside to inspect the damage. Once outside, he was overpowered and bundled into the back of another car. Thomas Niedermayer was never seen alive again by his friends, or family.
Kidnapping involves a deeply disturbing form of psychological terror, because it plays upon the tantalising hope that the kidnapped person might somehow be saved and brought home alive and unharmed.
Ingeborg Niedermayer was particularly vulnerable to this form of pressure. She was still a young teenager when the Red Army invaded Nazi Germany. In the freezing winter of 1945, many thousands of refugees died in desperate attempts to escape the Russian forces. Ingeborg was one of those who fled in terror.
Eventually, she found refuge in Bavaria, where she met and married Thomas Niedermayer. She may have survived the war, but she did not emerge unscathed. She came to rely heavily upon her husband's presence and support - and this dependence, perhaps as a result of her turbulent background, seems to have increased with the onset of the Troubles.
The day after Niedermayer's abduction, the shop stewards at Grundig issued a statement in which they described the Dunmurry plant as a "model factory", where Protestants and Catholics worked together on the basis of equality.
They called on all trade unionists in Ireland "to join them in condemning this callous act". They could not know that the kidnapping had been planned by someone who had once been one of their fellow shop stewards.
In the days that followed the abduction, Ingeborg begged for news of her husband. "No one can appreciate the agony and strain you are putting me and my daughters through," she told the kidnappers. But there was only silence.
Six months later, she made another television appeal. "It is terrible living like this and never knowing what has become of my husband," she said, her voice breaking with pain. There was still no response from the IRA.
According to one RUC officer: "It was as if a man walked 25 yards to his front door and fell off the edge of the world."
Ingeborg was declared a widow by a German court in 1976, but she continued to pray that her husband was alive. In 1978, she bought a burial plot in the Church of Ireland cemetery in Derriaghy, close to the Grundig factory.
She arranged for a marble headstone to be placed there and often visited the cemetery, standing at the empty grave in a state of unresolved grief.
The German businessman became one of the Disappeared: those victims of the IRA, such as Jean McConville and Columba McVeigh, who, for a variety of reasons, were killed and buried in secret.
The IRA denied any knowledge of Niedermayer's abduction and his body was hidden beneath a rubbish dump in Colin Glen, a public park just a few hundred yards from his family home. It was not recovered until 1980, when an IRA informant revealed its location to the RUC.
In March of that year, a group of workmen from the "West Belfast Environmental Action Group" spent a month clearing thousands of tons of stinking garbage from Colin Glen. In reality, the workmen were undercover RUC officers and they kept Walther PPK automatic handguns hidden under their waterproof jackets.
They were on the verge of abandoning their mission when one of them uncovered some muddy trousers. There were human leg bones inside them. Nearby, they found the slippers that Niedermayer had been wearing on the night he was "disappeared".
His body had been buried in a shallow grave, face down. In the chilling words of one of his killers, that was so he could "dig himself deeper".
One of the kidnappers later told detectives that Niedermayer had tried to escape on the third day of his captivity. He had broken a window in the bedroom where he was being held and called out for help.
When his body was finally recovered, the post-mortem examination revealed two depressed fractures to his skull, consistent with being struck by a heavy object, such as the butt of a revolver.
After his funeral, Ingeborg returned to Germany; she had not lived in that country for almost two decades and may have felt almost as much of an outsider there as she had once been in Northern Ireland.
In June 1990, she returned to Ireland. She booked into a hotel in Bray, Co Wicklow, and asked for a room with a sea view. A few days later, a jogger came across her body, which had been washed up on a beach further down the coast. Ingeborg was fully dressed, wearing a beige coat, blue skirt and black shoes.
Within a year of her mother's death, Renate, the younger of the daughters, also killed herself. In 1996, Gabrielle, the elder of the two, also took her own life. This awful succession of deaths in their family was not yet complete: a few years after Gabrielle's death, her husband also killed himself.
For me, the story of the Niedermayers is not only one of exceptional poignancy. It also illustrates the corrosive and long-term effects that acts of terrorism can have on succeeding generations - even on ones that are yet to be born.
In this case, an innocent German family stumbled into a long-running Irish dispute, whose intensity they couldn't begin to understand, and they paid with their lives.
The Killing of Thomas Niedermayer by David Blake Knox is published by New Island, priced £13.99