A black German citizen of Ethiopian descent has been beaten into a coma by two unknown assailants who called him "nigger" in an unprovoked attack that has reawakened concern about racist violence in eastern Germany.
The man, named only as Ermyas M., an engineer who has been living in Germany since 1987, was waiting for a tram at four o'clock in the morning on Easter Sunday in Potsdam, near Berlin, when two people approached him and shouted "nigger" at him. When he objected, they attacked him with a bottle and beat him to the ground. They ran off when a passing taxi driver stopped to intervene, and haven't been caught yet.
The victim, who is married and has two young children, sustained life-threatening head injuries and is in intensive care in a Potsdam hospital. He is being kept in an artificial coma and doctors described his condition as stable on Tuesday.
He had been talking on his mobile phone and leaving his wife a message on the answering machine when he was attacked, so police have a record of the assailants' voices which they plan to make available via the Internet on Wednesday to help catch them.
Police played the phone recording at a news conference on Monday. On it, Ermyas can be heard asking "Why are you calling me pig?" A voice says: "Beat it you stupid nigger." Ermyas says: "Why are you calling me nigger?". A high-pitched voice says: "Beat it you stupid pig!" Then a voice says: "We'll finish you, you nigger!"
The men stole €200 from his wallet.
Potsdam's chief of police, Bruno Küppert, said it was the worst racist attack in Potsdam since unification with the west in 1990.
Some 400 people gathered at the tram stop to demonstrate against violence on Monday. Jörg Schönbohm, the interior minister of the state of Brandenburg of which Potsdam is the capital, said: "In this state we won't tolerate that people are pursued, beaten up or even murdered by extremists because of the color of their skin, religion or political views."
Overt racism has been widespread in former communist eastern Germany where unification brought mass unemployment, and where people lived for decades without meeting foreigners, apart from Soviet soldiers and eastern European tourists.
In the early 1990s, when many of the thousands of asylum seekers who fled to Germany from war zones in the Balkans and elsewhere were sent to cities in the east, foreigners became scapegoats for post-communist problems and social dislocation.
The xenophobia has bred neo-Nazi groups and far-right violence. Attacks motivated by racism and anti-Jewish sentiment aren't confined to the east but are statistically most likely to happen in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Berlin, according to the 2004 report of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesverfassungsschutz.
Among Germany's 16 states, those three states have the highest incidence of racist attacks per 100,000 inhabitants, with Brandenburg topping the ranking at 4.08 in 2004, up from 3.37 in 2003.
More than 100 people have been killed in racist violence in Germany since unification in 1990. The worst incidents, including the 1992 firebombing of an asylum-seekers' hostel in the eastern port of Rostock where onlookers clapped in delight as the inhabitants struggled to flee, or the 1993 arson attack on the home of a Turkish family which killed five in the western town of Solingen, were followed by public outrage.
Police clampdowns on far-right groups and publicity campaigns promoting tolerance ensued, and the pogrom-style attacks on foreigners have stopped.
But the violence hasn't ended, and Sunday's attack shows that the physical threat is real, especially for people of color in eastern Germany. Most of the attacks are opportunistic - skinheads picking on foreigners in the street.
In 2004 alone, the Bundesverfassungsschutz recorded 776 cases of violent crime "with right-wing political motivation," up from 759 in 2003. Among them were 640 cases of physical assault resulting in injury, and six attempted murders but no actual murders.
The agency said there were 10,000 right-wing extremists prepared to engage in violence in Germany in 2004, a figure that is unchanged from 2003.