This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Rostock riots – the most disturbing resurgence of anti-immigrant violence in Germany since the rise of Nazism.
In the quarter of a century since, many foreigners arriving in Germany have experienced the warmest of welcomes – but a few have experienced chilling acts of hatred. This series explores how a small minority of ultra-xenophobic Germans has tarnished their nation‘s reputation as a haven for the world‘s displaced masses. These stories are primarily told through the experiences of immigrants and asylum seekers who survived xenophobic harassment or attacks.
Their stories are the exception to the norm: incidents of violent xenophobia are rare in Germany compared with other countries. Indeed, Germany has welcomed more asylum seekers in recent years than any other European nation – the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and magnitudes more than the far more populous United States. W hen faced with the largest exodus of people since World War II, none of these nations welcomed refugees as unconditionally as Germany did. It‘s precisely because of this reputation that Al Jazeera is taking a hard look at what happens on the occasions when that welcome culture goes awry.
This is the first story in a seven-part series.
Rostock, Germany – On a summer afternoon in August 1992, Sylvia Modrow returned from a holiday with her family to find scores of Germans gathering around her 11-storey apartment building.
Modrow was a German resident of the building known as the “Sunflower House”, located on the outskirts of Rostock, an ordinarily calm town on the Baltic Sea in the country’s east.
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Located in the district of Lichtenhagen, the building, with a huge mural of a sunflower on the side of the structure, housed a number of immigrants from Vietnam. It soon attracted newly arriving refugees fleeing economic hardship and discrimination in Eastern Europe.
That summer, dozens of Roma families had begun sleeping outside the Sunflower House. The city didn’t house them or provide them with food, water or bathrooms.
“People didn’t have toilets, so they had to urinate and do everything outside. It was stinking. The Romanians were stealing in the supermarkets because they didn’t have money to buy food,” recalled Dorit Kesselring, editor of Ostsee-Zeitung, the largest newspaper in the region. She said their presence came at a strange time.
“It was just two years after the [Berlin] wall fell. Everything was in change, everything was uncertain,” Kesselring said. “There was a change in people’s fears – fears of the immigrants taking away our jobs and our living space.”
Three days of violence
Modrow witnessed what followed from the window and balcony of her fifth-floor apartment. At a nearby intersection, she saw men stopping vehicles in the middle of the road.
“It must have been some gangs that were controlling it, and they were picking out everyone who looked like foreigners,” Modrow recalled. “I watched as one car accelerated across the grass with a Vietnamese driver inside.”
He drove straight up to the building, jumped out and ran. She couldn’t see whether he made it inside.
“Who knows what they would have done to this man,” Modrow said. “It was obvious he was fleeing for his life.”
Over three days, thousands of people stood by and watched as mobs consisting of hundreds of xenophobic Germans threw stones or lobbed Molotov cocktails into the Sunflower building. They’d use petrol from their cars to make the explosives.
“We looked at the parking lot and we saw them preparing the cocktails, and we were surprised there were no police there,” Modrow said. “There was smoke everywhere.”
She didn’t dare leave her apartment, for fear of getting caught up in the violence.
Part of the building caught fire, and residents were forced to escape to the roof, babies and children in their arms. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Though hundreds of arrests were made and charges were filed, only a few protesters were convicted of violence against police. Not one was convicted of violence against the immigrants themselves.
It wasn’t until a decade later that three men were found guilty of attempted murder. But they received no prison sentence beyond the year and a half they’d already been in custody.
Accounts of buses arriving full of demonstrators to the parking lot opposite the building bolstered claims by residents that the attacks seemed calculated.
“It was planned to allow it to escalate – to set a symbol,” Kesselring said.
Resurfacing of xenophobic violence
Today, the Rostock riots are generally remembered in Germany as the moment when right-wing, xenophobic violence resurfaced in the country.
In the years since the end of World War II – Germany had gone to unimaginable lengths to reconcile with and compensate for the xenophobic period that culminated in the Holocaust.
There’s even a word in German for this reckoning – Vergangenheitsbewaltigung: to publicly debate problematic periods in the past, to cope with them.
German teachers taught the uncensored history of how racism and xenophobia escalated into violence, and schools invited Holocaust survivors to come tell their stories to students. German churches preached repentance. Until a decade ago, Germans rarely flew their nation’s flag, uncomfortable with the connotations of its nationalistic past.
But when the Berlin Wall fell and East Germans in particular faced unemployment as they abruptly encountered a free market, a small minority began once again to blame Jews and immigrants for their problems.
“Everything was changing,” Modrow said. “A lot of people started fearing losing their jobs, which was a feeling they hadn’t known before.”
She added: “I think people were overwhelmed with a lot of refugees coming. This is what made people scared and nervous, because we didn’t have that in the GDR before.”
In the early and mid-1990s, disgruntled Germans committed numerous arsons against immigrants, some of whom were killed in the attacks.
In the days following the Rostock riots, similar disturbances erupted across northeastern Germany.
In November, neo-Nazis set fire to the house of a Turkish family just a few hours’ west in the town of Molln, killing three. Five more immigrants were killed in a similar attack in a west German town near Cologne the following year.
“The fact that the perpetrators of Rostock, after all the crimes that happened, were not brought to justice was a big factor in the radicalisation of a generation of xenophobic youth,” said Heike Kleffner, a journalist who has researched the extreme right since the 1990s.
It sent a signal: “They could do whatever they wanted to. They could commit physical attacks against migrants and leftists, they could attack the police and they would never be brought to justice.”
Undercurrent of attacks
Kleffner says even today, German authorities often fail to investigate such crimes or sentence their perpetrators with due force, sending a signal that they aren’t that serious.
“The parallels to today’s events are striking,” wrote Kleffner in an article for Amnesty International.
The mass arrival of refugees to Germany beginning in late 2014 saw a wave of anti-immigrant violence.
Since then, the number of xenophobic crimes has increased, with hundreds of arsons of buildings housing asylum seekers as well as dozens of physical assaults of immigrants themselves now taking place each year. As with the Rostock riots, few of Germany’s modern-day attackers of immigrants are brought to justice.
“Did police learn anything from Rostock-Lichtenhagen? No,” said Kleffner. “After that, whenever the police should have been responsible for protecting immigrants, in many cases they weren’t there either.”
In 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the Rostock riots, Dimitri Avramenko, a politician in Rostock, told Der Spiegel that there remained “a huge amount of latent racism in the population”.
“Eastern Germany is extremely thinly populated with foreigners. And that vacuum is immediately filled with xenophobic slogans,” he said.
Kesselring believes that times have changed.
“People who live here are more experienced with having immigrants around, which wasn’t the case back then,” she said. Rostock, she points out, has become the primary stopover for thousands of recent refugees from Syria, Eritrea and elsewhere as they board ferries to cross the Baltic Sea to Scandinavia.
These days, “people give out clothes and bed sheets at the station or help refugees get on a boat to go to Scandinavia and prepare them sandwiches,” Kesselring said. “There has been a shift in the welcoming culture. In 1992, nobody would have helped those victims of those attacks. No one would have prepared them sandwiches.”
Of the violent events of August 1992, she said: “I don’t think it could happen again.”
Modrow isn’t so convinced.
“I can’t understand these people anymore. We Germans are so unfair in that boats full of people sink just because we don’t want to have them here with us,” Modrow said of the refugees fleeing to Europe’s shores.
“I could imagine this could happen again. Especially now that there is such a move to the right in society. There’s too much right-wing thoughts among the population here. Anything is possible.”
This reporting was made possible by a McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany.