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 311 (R) (photo credit: Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters)
A German neo-Nazi at a rally in Remagen 311 (R)
(photo credit: 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 10,000 Germans.
Just days before German authorities planned to evacuate the asylum shelters, the local population decided to take matters into their own hands.
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 shelters.
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 is.
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 pretty good.
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 differently.
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.
Only 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.
The police 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 1990.
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.
Although 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 Germany.
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 Germany.
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 prevails.
The writer is a doctoral student at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Regiona studies in Erfiet.