When the new Germany lost its innocence
In almost every East German town you will see people wearing neo-Nazi emblems or slogans on their clothes or on their cars.
A German neo-Nazi at a rally in Remagen [file] Photo: Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters
It has been exactly 20 years now, but the images just won’t go away. I remember
August 23, 1992, as if it was yesterday. I was 11 years old and on TV I saw
houses burning, people applauding, cheering and shouting, “We’ll get all of
you!” Those words were directed toward the over 100 people trapped inside the
houses. It was in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, a huge housing complex in East Germany,
where several thousand asylum seekers and immigrants were living among some
Just days before German authorities planned to evacuate
the asylum shelters, the local population decided to take matters into their own
On August 22, they began to gather in front of the houses where
the foreigners were living and began to throw stones and fire-bombs towards the
building. The police were obviously unable and unwilling to interfere, and
fire-fighters couldn’t reach the burning buildings without police protection.
For three straight days the mob was allowed to attack the houses. Only at the
end of the second day, with massive reinforcement, could the police evacuate the
It was simply luck that the people trapped inside one of the
buildings were not lynched or burned alive. Only moments before some of the
neo-Nazis who had broken into the housing complex could reach them, they were
able to break through a door and escape to a neighboring house. This was not
Germany in 1933, but a country where one part had just toppled its socialist
dictatorship through peaceful demonstrations.
I was just a kid but back
then I learned that Germany was not alright, and maybe never really would be.
Since then Germany has tried everything to make those images disappear. At every
occasion you will hear how open-minded and tolerant a country today’s Germany
The millions of tourists visiting Berlin, Munich, Hamburg or
Frankfurt will confirm this impression; and in some parts of the country it’s
true. In many towns and cities you will find Turkish snack places, Italian
pizzerias and people with all kinds of different backgrounds, getting along
But beneath that there is the Germany of Rostock-
Lichtenhagen; people that still cling to a concept of “Volk,” who see everything
foreign as a threat to something called “Germany.” Even 20 years after
Rostock-Lichtenhagen, many parts of East Germany are still very dangerous for
non-whites, people with liberal political opinions or who are just dressed
When German NGOs and politicians warned in 2006 that certain
regions in East Germany basically constitute “no-go-areas” for non-whites, the
reaction was outrage. Not about the truth of the statement but about the
international image of Germany that such a statement would create.
this year a Jewish restaurant in Chemnitz had to move because it was attacked on
a regular basis and the local police were not willing to provide the protection
necessary. In 2011 federal authorities listed almost 11,000 criminal offenses
committed by neo-Nazis, among them 537 acts of violence.
So returning to
the pogroms of Rostock-Lichtenhagen, this largest racially motivated riot after
World War II in Germany had a lasting impact on society. First and foremost,
there was the shocking indifference of local and federal authorities. In a
country that claims to have learnt its lesson from history, protecting
minorities and enforcing the law was not a top priority.
reacted reluctantly, and lawmakers were more concerned with the picture that
Germany presented to the outside world, than with the people being harmed or
killed. Particularly telling was the reaction of the German parliament.
Immediately in the aftermath of Rostock- Lichtenhagen, the German parliament
changed the Asylum legislation in 1992, severely restricting the granting of
political asylum in Germany.
By this move German lawmakers basically
adopted the positions of right-wing hooligans, blaming the victims and thereby
rewarding the perpetrators.
And it was perceived as encouragement by
neo-Nazis throughout Germany. Rostock- Lichtenhagen was the precursor to a huge
wave of racist pogroms and attacks all over Germany; names like Mölln, Solingen,
Magdeburg, Gübeln are all synonyms for a violent, sometimes deadly racism in
Germany that has not disappeared until today.
Looking at statistics the
dimensions become even more alarming. A study by the German NGO Antonio Amadeu
Foundation found that 182 people have been killed by neo-Nazis since
Maybe more fundamental was the impact of Rostock- Lichtenhagen on a
many teenagers in East Germany.
They learned that racism was an accepted
way of thinking, that violence was a means to achieve political goals and that
the German state was obviously unwilling to meet this violence with the
necessary force. It is no coincidence that the three Nazi terrorists of the
National Socialist Underground who had killed at least 10 people during the past
10 years were part of this generation. They had been able to live and move in
extreme right-wing circles, and go on a killing spree despite the fact that
German security services were watching them and their friends.
it is true that the neo-Nazis have not been able to win in federal elections,
this doesn’t mean they aren’t successful. The neo-Nazi party NPD is currently
sitting in two state parliaments, in Sachsen and Mecklenburg- Vorpommern,
additionally they have representatives in many city councils in East
In almost every East German town you will see people wearing
neo-Nazi emblems or slogans on their clothes or on their cars. Even more
important is the grass-roots work of that party and similar organizations. They
organize community festivals, sport events, concerts and youth centers. Thereby,
they establish structures independent of the state and succeed in presenting
themselves as the real alternative to the traditional political parties in
In Rostock-Lichtenhagen the reunified Germany lost its
innocence. Twenty years after the terrifying pictures that I saw as an 11-year
old boy and now with the experience of having lived in East Germany for many
years myself, pessimism about the prospects of ending Nazism in Germany
The writer is a doctoral student at the Max Weber Center for
Advanced Cultural and Regiona studies in Erfiet.