Germany is marking the 20th anniversary this week of a racist riot against immigrants and asylum-seekers in the eastern port city of Rostock. Between Aug. 22 and Aug. 26, 1992, hundreds of right-wing extremists hurled stones and firebombs at a high-rise apartment block where asylum-seekers, most of them Sinti and Roma from Romania, and Vietnamese workers were being housed.
Several thousand people stood by and applauded the attackers. At one point police and fire department officials retreated from the scene, abandoning the burning building and the people trapped inside. It was a miracle that no one was killed in the riots which first focused national and international attention on the growth of neo-Nazis and xenophobia in the former communist east.
Fast forward 20 years, and Germany still has a far-right problem. Media commentators say the police and government authorities have not done enough to combat right-wing extremism, which has festered especially in depopulated rural regions of the east where neo-Nazis sit on town councils, organize local sports festivals and youth activities and are even trying to staff kindergartens.
Many believe that unchecked hatred in some eastern German states of the sort seen in Rostock created an atmosphere that allowed the terrorism of the National Socialist Underground, the neo-Nazi cell uncovered by chance last November that murdered and bombed immigrants, to happen. But yet again, critics lament, there's no big push in German society to root out the problem. Unlike the left-wing terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof gang that plunged the country into a national trauma in the 1970s, the threat of the far-right has not become a major theme in the public debate. Society, politicians and the police are once again turning a blind eye towards everyday racist violence that has turned much of the east into a no-go area for people who aren't white, say German media commentators.
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The 10 neo-Nazi murders were uncovered nine months ago. Politicians and security authorities have returned to normal astonishingly quickly. The outrage over the crimes of the NSU has died down."
"Sometimes one remembers all the uproar that engulfed the whole of society after the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) murders and one is surprised about the general calm today."
"The everyday violent racism in Germany hasn't turned into a big issue. Meanwhile, those citizens who confront the neo-Nazis still don't get much help."
"The murders committed by the NSU haven't made authorities more sensitive. There are no orders to go all out in the fight against neo-Nazis. There are no new priorities in politics or the domestic security apparatus. There is no sign of new verve, new decisiveness, new courage in the fight against right-wing extremism. We're pretending that the NSU murders are one thing -- and that everyday violence against foreigners is something completely different."
"But it cannot and must not go on like this, the way it started 20 years ago. Twenty years ago this outrageous government indolence first became visible. Twenty years ago the backdrop of threat was created which led to eastern Germany being largely free of foreigners today. For 20 years, since the days and nights of the xenophobic attacks in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, foreigners know it's better for them not to live in eastern Germany. The backdrop of threat still exists: In eastern Germany non-white minorities make up just one percent of the population. Eastern Germany, excluding Berlin, is largely free of foreigners. The biggest success of the neo-Nazis in Germany is not their presence in regional parliaments but this fact: Among immigrants, eastern Germany is seen as a no-go area. The state and the police haven't managed to change the climate in two decades."
"The security authorities and the politicians have done so much wrong in the last 20 years. It is time for them to take action to redeem themselves."
The leftist Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The most harrowing aspect of the events of August 1992 was that the police had to temporarily leave the area to the far-right mob. That was disastrous, not least because of its symbolic impact, and one can assume that a lot of effort since then has gone into devising police strategies for dealing with public violence. But the optimistic view of state prevention of right-wing violence has received a dampener since the extent of the failures of the domestic intelligence service against the activities of the National Socialist Underground has become increasingly evident."
"It's no coincidence that the alleged terrorists of the NSU were radicalized at the same time as the events in Rostock and elsewhere. One can describe the years after unification as a wild phase of a new right-wing radicalism that largely escaped state control."
"One shouldn't just leave it at outrage over the state's failure in the face of the far-right danger. Calls for a clear positioning of state institutions must go hand in hand with a high level of awareness in civil society for all forms of racism."
"In addition to ostracizing racism, we need intelligent support programs for people who want to quit the scene."
The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:
"They are images that burned into one's memory: people who wanted to set fire to other people, flames, refugees running for their lives. Not somewhere far away, but here: Rostock, in the north of eastern Germany, in the hurriedly unified Germany."
"No, eastern Germany isn't right-wing extremist. Yes, people in the western towns of Solingen and Mölln also set fire to buildings inhabited by Turks, the Ruhr region too saw fear, hatred and one's own limitations trigger violence against different people and those with different views. But it's a sad fact that relative to the number of people living here, there are more xenophobic attacks in the old east than in the old west. And the terrorism of the National Socialist Underground also emanated from the (eastern state of) Thuringia to draw its murderous trail across the country, under the closed eyes of the security authorities."
"But above all, Rostock-Lichtenhagen has burned itself into the collective memory because the baying mob consisted of ordinary citizens. Society stood by and watched the flames."
"Unfortunately, the reaction of many eastern Germans to these painful events hasn't been to turn inwards and question themselves but to turn outwards and be outraged. (…) there is above all this one reaction: Eastern Germany isn't a far-right place. But that's not what it's about. Eastern German civil society, which is still in its infancy, provides space which the NPD party uses -- and not just to organize sports festivals."
"Many rural regions remain structurally weak, and many people still stick to the silence they learned in the days of the GDR."
"Ordinary citizens still often look away when someone gives the Hitler salute on the village green and calls for a 'Nationally Liberated Zone.' By remaining silent, they are relinquishing their own hard-fought freedom."