The World from Berlin German President Demands 'Courage' in Face of Racism

German President Joachim Gauck on Sunday demanded courage from civilians and more action from officials to prevent a repeat of the orgy of racist violence that shook Rostock two decades ago. Commentators say the speech said too little on the amount of racism still prevalent in German society.

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"We are strong. We know that we are strong. Our homeland will not fall into Nazi hands!" That was the central message delivered by German President Joachim Gauck on Sunday at events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the racist attacks on an asylum-seekers hostel on the outskirts of Rostock.

"We can't erase the biggest xenophobic riots in the history of post-war Germany," he said. "As such, we are all the more obligated to prevent the incident from being forgotten."

As he spoke, Gauck stood in front of the so-called "Sunflower House," a concrete block building in the Rostock suburb of Lichtenhagen which was once used to shelter asylum seekers. For four days, from Aug. 22 to Aug. 26, 1992, a right-wing mob -- supported by thousands of sympathetic locals -- surrounded the building, chanted xenophobic slogans, threw rocks and, ultimately, set a neighboring building on fire where over 100 guest workers from Vietnam lived.

The police response was largely ineffective. Incredibly, nobody died in the attack, but the sheer scale of it came as a shock to post-reunification Germany and turned it into a symbol of the several, large-scale xenophobic attacks that marred the country in the early 1990s. Rostock became shorthand for similar riots in Hoyerswerda in 1991 and for the deadly arson attacks in Solingen and Mölln in 1992 and 1993.

'We Need Courageous Citizens'

The president's speech was the apex of a week of events, activities and discussions organized to mark the anniversary. And thousands turned out on Sunday for Gauck's appearance, one of particular importance to the president. Gauck, after all, was born in Rostock and worked for many years as a pastor in a nearby town. Born during Nazi times, Gauck grew up in communist East Germany, getting to know two brands of totalitarianism in the process.

"Seldom in our recent history has an event made it so clear to me as the riots in Rostock that we need both: We need courageous citizens who don't look away when our democratic and peaceful society is challenged," Gauck went on. "But we especially need a state that is both willing and able to protect the dignity and lives of people."

The president was speaking to the ineffectiveness of the police response two decades ago. But it was also a reference to recently revealed official failings relating to the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a trio of neo-Nazis who were able to murder 10 people between 2000 and 2007 -- nine of immigrant descent and a policewoman -- without being caught. Investigators failed to identify the killing spree as being racially motivated until late last year.

The German press on Monday likewise takes a look back to Rostock and examines Gauck's speech.

The Schweriner Volkszeitung, a daily in the capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania where Rostock is located, writes:

"President Joachim Gauck, himself from Rostock and now an honorary citizen of the city, issued clear demands on Sunday. Democracy, he said, needs courageous citizens … and an effective state…. Well said, but now it must be implemented in every case and in every place. Forceful action against right-wing extremism demands courage, the willingness to intervene on the behalf of others instead of allowing oneself to be intimidated. In western Germany, nobody should act as though xenophobia or right-wing ideas are just a problem in former East Germany, the product of a mixture of a lack of experience with democracy during communist times combined with the disappointment of those whose lives did not dramatically improve following reunification."

"Immigrant houses burned in the west too, in Mölln and Solingen, xenophobic ideas are also alive and well in the west too, as can be seen by the right-wing mobs that form there. The confrontation must take place across the entire country, particularly in the schools, so that right-wing hate does not take root in people's heads."

Left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Gauck delivered an excellent speech. But it was only a speech. What else could it have been? It could, for example, have been an analysis -- and attempt to come to terms with the present. A reference, for example, to the number of right-wing criminal acts in Germany -- it was 34 per day in the first six months of this year -- would have been welcome…. As would a few thoughts on how police -- officially -- do what they can to arrive at as few right-wing extremists and xenophobic crimes as possible."

"Maybe it is clever of the president not to say everything that citizens already know. But Gauck surely knows that a flashy speech doesn't just serve to educate, it can also blind people…. 'We are strong. We know that, we are strong!' he said. But merely knowing it won't be enough."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Gauck's speech in Rostock was, at its core, a call for realism. A society that has no fear of that which is foreign is an illusion. The cohabitation of people from different backgrounds and cultures is hardly possible without conflict. As a result, an immigration country such as Germany must reach agreement on the 'amount and conditions of immigration,' as Gauck noted, in order to create the conditions for cohabitation within which conflicts are resolved with mutual respect."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Gauck's speech leaves a bitter aftertaste. The president didn't say a word about the failure of state security officials in other right-wing crimes, like those of the National Socialist Underground, which involved 10 unresolved killings, one of them in Rostock. Gauck avoided drawing concrete connections to the present. His plea to 'not let grass grow' over the events doesn't change that. As such, the commemoration in Rostock-Lichtenhagen became a history lesson, far away from the racism that is prevalent in the year 2012."

-- Charles Hawley

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