Twenty Years after Rostock: Racism and Xenophobia Still Prevalent in Germany

By and

Twenty years ago, a neo-Nazi mob attacked a hostel for foreigners in Rostock, one of several similar crimes in the early 1990s. Today, however, Germany is still plagued by a significant level of racism and right-wing extremism in both the east and the west. For far too long, officials seemed content to ignore the problem.

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Christian Berntsen is nothing if not enthusiastic. An activist with Bunt statt Braun, a group dedicated to combating right-wing extremism in the northern German city of Rostock, Berntsen has been instrumental in helping plan and stage events dedicated to commemorating the xenophobic, 1992 assault on an asylum-seekers home in the city quarter of Lichtenhagen. The list of activities is long: films, podium discussions, international cooking courses in local schools and presentations by local and regional politicians of all stripes.

"The city is working hand-in-hand with us when it comes to the remembrance program," Berntsen says ardently. "And the events have been extremely well received and well attended."

The effort in Rostock is indeed impressive. The city has gone out of its way to ensure that the kind of hateful violence that flared up two decades ago does not make a reappearance. But elsewhere in Germany, particularly in the east, the situation offers decidedly less cause for optimism. There are, to be sure, myriad groups pursuing goals similar to Bunt statt Braun, but entire regions remain where foreigners are afraid to venture, towns dominated by neo-Nazi thugs and repeated attacks against those who look different. Twenty years after the despicable Rostock violence, Germany's xenophobia problem remains daunting.

"There is an atmosphere of distrust when it comes to foreigners in Germany, and an absence of normality in dealing with them," says Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, who was the federal commissioner in charge of issues relating to foreigners from 1991 to 1998 and is now deputy director of Gegen Vergessen -- Für Demokratie, a pro-democracy group founded in the wake of the xenophobic attacks in the early 1990s. "In the United States, people are used to the fact that some have foreign-sounding names but are Americans nonetheless. Here, if someone is called Özdemir, they are asked 'when are you returning home?'"

A Spate of Attacks

The attacks in Rostock marked the moment when any euphoria leftover from German reunification two years earlier evaporated completely. Hundreds of right-wing extremists and local thugs spent four days in late August of 1992 throwing rocks and firebombs at a building used to house asylum-seekers, most of them Sinti and Roma, in the outlying Lichtenhagen district. Thousands of others stood by and cheered on the attackers, shouting "foreigners out!" and other hateful slogans. The orgy of xenophobia ended when rioters set a neighboring building on fire housing dozens of workers from Vietnam and their families. With police and fire officials having retreated from the violent mob, victims -- including small children -- were forced to find their own way to safety by escaping onto the roof.

Rostock was not an isolated event. The previous year saw similar attacks against a refugee hostel in Hoyerswerda, which resulted in 32 injuries. In November 1992, a neo-Nazi arson attack on the house of a Turkish family in Mölln killed three. A further five lost their lives in a similar arson attack in Solingen in 1993.

Photo Gallery

11  Photos
Photo Gallery: Remembering the Rostock Riots
The events were a shock to the newly reunified country. Schmalz-Jacobsen recalls specifically the horror government officials felt at the attacks in Rostock-Lichtenhagen and subsequently "traveling around the country like an itinerant preacher talking about integration, citizenship and anti-discrimination."

But for all the myriad groups focused on combating racism and right-wing extremism that have sprung up around Germany in the last 20 years, anti-foreigner hate and violence remains prevalent in the country. Hardly a week goes by without new reports of swastikas being daubed on gravestones at Jewish cemeteries, bricks being thrown through the windows of Turkish restaurants, immigrants being beaten up or even mobs chanting "foreigners out" as they chased eight Indians across a town square.

While a worrying number of the attacks take place in western Germany -- indeed, statistics from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, show that the frequency of right-wing violent crimes in the west is similar to that in the east -- eastern Germany, a region of 15 million with a foreigner population of a mere 6 percent, remains ground zero of the country's extremist problem.

Latent Racism

"Eastern Germany is extremely thinly populated with foreigners. And that vacuum is immediately filled with xenophobic slogans," says Dimitri Avramenko, the politician in charge of immigrant issues for Schwerin, the capital city of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where Rostock is located. "There is also a huge amount of latent racism in the population."

It is a statement that is backed by recent election results in the region. The right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) has managed to clear the 5 percent hurdle for representation in state parliaments in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony during the past two elections there and is also well represented in municipal governments across the region.

Away from the political stage, recent surveys have found a significant level of latent prejudice not just in eastern Germany, but in the country as a whole. In 2011, the latest edition of the long-term study on racism and xenophobia begun by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at the University of Bielefeld found that 47.1 percent of Germans agree that "there are too many foreigners in Germany." Just short of 30 percent believe that foreigners should be sent home if jobs become scarce.

Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that, in addition to worrying levels of right-wing violence, many victims of extremist crimes complain of official inaction or unwillingness to see a racist crime for what it is.

The case of the Jewish restaurant Schalom in the city of Chemnitz is hardly out of the ordinary. For years, owner Uwe Dziuballa's establishment has been a target, with swastikas painted on the walls, lamps broken outside and countless threatening phone calls. Once, a pig's head labelled with the word "Jude" -- Jew -- was left in front of the restaurant. Dziuballa says that the authorities have often been unresponsive, to the point that he has even stopped reporting incidents to the police. "It is unbelievable what the right-wingers can do here without facing any consequences," Dziuballa recently told the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which focuses on working against neo-Nazi violence and racism.

Appalling Failure

Many others have similar complaints. In a recent investigation for the foundation, the product of dozens of interviews across the country with people on the front lines in the battle against right-wing extremism, political scientist and journalist Marion Kraske found widespread resistance among officials when it came to pursuing right-wing crimes and identifying them as such.

"I found the magnitude of the state's failure appalling," she said in an interview. "These are not individual cases we are documenting here, it is a pattern. The political crimes and their backgrounds -- the right-wing extremist ideals behind them, or in some cases the anti-Semitism -- are not taken seriously. They are disputed or trivialized."

A case at the end of February this year in the small town of Mücheln in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt is telling. Neo-Nazis attacked the owner of a small Turkish restaurant in town and threatened to kill him if he didn't close up shop by April 20, Adolf Hitler's birthday. When the police arrived, they gave the restaurant owner a breathalyzer test, told him he didn't need a doctor even though he was bleeding out of one ear from a shard of glass and reported the crime as a "conflict over the smoking ban." It was only after the victim got the Turkish consulate in Hanover involved, who then contacted the Saxony-Anhalt interior minister, that officials began taking his case seriously.

"Victims initially face a wall of rejection," Kraske says. "Their stories are doubted and sometimes they themselves are suspected of criminal activity."

The Neo-Nazi Terror Cell

As if to illustrate her point, Germany has been rocked in recent months by revelations that a neo-Nazi terror cell, called the National Socialist Underground, was allowed to operate freely for years from 2000 to 2007, a period during which the trio of extremists murdered nine people of foreign descent and a policewoman. Throughout the crime spree, officials failed to make connections between the crimes and consistently operated under the assumption that the victims, all of whom operated small businesses, were somehow associated with drug dealing or other mafia-like activities. Worse, once the story broke last November, officials at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution destroyed documents relating to the case.

"I find it horrifying, really horrifying," says Schmalz-Jacobsen, referring to the apparent unwillingness of officials to look into potential racial motivations for the crimes. "It would seem to be self-evident. It shows that people, bureaucrats and politicians alike, simply don't have it on their radar."

There is some hope that change might now be in the air. German officials from the federal government on down are taking the problems revealed by the NSU case seriously. Soon after news of the trio hit the headlines, the German parliament passed a unanimous resolution stating: "The context of this inhuman crime, which has now been revealed, proves in a distressing fashion that the structures of security agencies on both the federal and state levels must be urgently examined." The parliamentarians also pledged to redouble efforts to combat right-wing attitudes and crime.

But political scientist Kraske has her doubts. "Of course it is praiseworthy that there is finally a cross-party consensus on the issue, and that certainly is progress," she says. "But the fact is that it's not happening. The resolution isn't doing anything for the people on the ground who are having to deal with the daily terror posed by right-wing extremists. The victim counseling and citizens initiative groups have all told us they are having financial problems and that ... each year they don't know how they will continue their work."

Some experts believe the problem goes well beyond such initiatives and that it can only be tackled if countries address a gap between rich and poor which has been growing dramatically in Europe in recent years, particularly in Germany. Michael Privot, director of the European Network Against Racism, says that xenophobia is a significant problem across the Continent, and that frequently, socio-economic problems are to blame. "Our analysis shows that the expression of racist sentiment is definitely linked to the economic situation and social context in which people are living."

'Part of the History of Rostock'

Governments, he says, must do more to increase the standard of living across all of society. Without that, he says, intercultural sensitivity efforts won't help much. "It is needed, but it is definitely not enough. What is the point? Let's all be poor but happy? I'm sorry but people want to have a different life."

Privot's sentiment would seem to be born out in the strength of right-wing parties in several of Germany's neighboring countries -- the kinds of anti-Islam populist groups which have not attracted much support in Germany. Many xenophobic parties have seen their poll numbers increase as the euro crisis has become worse.

But given the troubling situation in Germany, Schmalz-Jacobsen warns against such comparisons. "Racism has indeed been on the rise in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, but it exists here too and we have to address it here," she says. "It isn't enough to just say yuck and criticize the right-wing. You have to strengthen those who are courageous enough to do something about it. Unfortunately, there are plenty who don't have that courage because they are afraid of being threatened or attacked."

Christian Berntsen and his colleagues at Bunt statt Braun (which roughly means diversity instead of Nazis) aren't among them. Their calendars are full of events year round, arranging for immigrants to speak -- or even cook -- at local schools, getting children involved in political activities early and even holding public demonstrations of Tai Chi at public parks in Rostock, all as a way to ensure that attacks such as those that occurred in the city 20 years ago can't happen again.

"It is the job of the state, its institutions and schools to say yes we have the responsibility to keep the memory alive," he says. "We have to recognize that this is a part of the history of Rostock."

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