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Germany

Why the rule of law burned down in Rostock

In 1992, the port of Rostock saw some of the worst xenophobic violence in post-war Germany, when a mob of young people attacked a building housing asylum seekers. The incident had serious consequences for the country.

The pictures were beamed around the world: In August, 1992, a mob of right-wing extremists and locals besieged an apartment block housing asylum seekers in the northeastern port city of Rostock. They chanted xenophobic abuse and threw stones and petrol bombs. Neighborhood onlookers cheered on the rioters, who were mainly young men.

The apartment block, known as "Sunflower House," because of the giant sunflower mural on one side of the building, was in flames. The building served as a central reception center for asylum seekers in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Rostock's official for foreigners' issues, Wolfgang Richter, was in the building as the violence escalated. He said the scale of the attack rendered him speechless.

"It didn't matter to them whether there are over 100 people inside the building who could have been killed by the fire," he said.

Riot tourism

Amazingly, no one was hurt in the fire. Residents were able to flee the flames by scrambling onto the roof of the building. The mob raged for two days and two nights at the overfilled asylum-seekers center before policymakers finally reacted by bussing the asylum seekers to safety.

Asylum seekers rush to board a bus to escape on25.06.1992 in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Foto: Bernd Wüstneck

Asylum seekers rush to board a bus to escape from the area

But the mob then turned on the Vietnamese workers who remained in the building, and on the police. The officers were completely overwhelmed. At times, 30 police officers were attempting to hold off 300 rioters. Additional security forces turned up later, but they were poorly equipped and not trained for such extreme situations.

Neo-Nazis then started using the clashes for their own propaganda purposes. Right-wing extremists travelled in from elsewhere and mixed in the rioters and xenophobic portions of the local community. The mob swelled to some 1,000 people.

Archive photo of right-wing extremists protesting on the night of September 5/6 in Eisenhüttenstadt, Brandenburg. Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Racist violence reached a peak in the early 1990s

What appeared to be a spontaneous outbreak of violence had a history. Weeks before the riots, hundreds of asylum applicants were camping on the lawns outside the center. While they waited for a decision on their asylum applications the living situation dramatically deteriorated under the summer sun. Local residents blamed the asylum seekers for the rubbish, noise, smell and thefts.

The fact that one in five people living in the local area had lost their job after the reunification of Germany in 1990 added to the problem. Instead of defusing the tension, politicians added to the radical mood Wolfgang Richter said directly after the events: "There was talk of waves of refugees and 'the boot is full' and a criminalization of asylum seekers everywhere."

Inadequate response from authorities

Then as now one question kept coming up: How could it come to this? For Hajo Funke, a racism researcher at the Free University in Berlin, the violence was the result of a chain of failings.

"The city, the regional authorities and even the state allowed the situation in Rostock escalate and did not take any appropriate action," Funke said.

Funke added that there was a lack of political will to stem the violence, "In that sense it was an attempt at a pogrom which was given conscious approval by these authorities," he said.

Youths in Rostock 25.08.1992 Foto: Bernd Wüstneck picture-alliance/dpa

The scene of the riot attracted right-wing and other onlookers

The political response was slow: 44 people were handed sentences of between one and three years. Rostock's then mayor and the interior minister for the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were forced to step down as a result of what happened. It remains unclear who carried responsibility for the chaotic police operation. It was only when a police unit detailed to protect the apartment building withdrew without being replaced that the mob violence escalated.

Thinh Do was one of the Vietnamese guest workers who were trapped in the burning building. Ten years after the attacks, he claimed that the port city had learnt from what had happened.

"I don't think that something like that will happen again in Rostock because the local authorities and the police have been sensitized by the experience of Lichtenhagen," he said.

Racism goes underground

Sonja Steffen; Foto: Stefan Sauer dpa/lmv

Sonja Steffen took part in an anti-Nazi demonstration

Funke also said he believes that open hate campaigns against foreigners are less likely to happen now, as a result of a greater awareness in the press and improved police guidelines. But, he said, the xenophobic potential has not diminished. Instead, racism has taken on other forms, he said. Instead of mass protests, right-wing extremists operate in underground networks, just like the neo-Nazi terror cell discovered in Zwickau in November 2011 - thought to be responsible for the murders of at least 10 migrants in recent years.

Systematic terror by right-wing extremist underground organizations is however only the tip of the iceberg. Many people living in Germany face discrimination every day, and that is often made light of by the authorities, Funke said. This form of "institutional racism," where the police "turn a blind eye, where mayors ignore what's in front of them and where journalists decide not to write about it" is a phenomenon Funke said he observes today.

The German parliamentarian, Sonja Steffen, who represents the Social Democrats in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, wants to build an active civil society in the fight against both public and more hidden forms of xenophobia. She recently took part in a demonstration against the far-right NPD party and said a lot has changed since the Rostock riots.

"There were 2,000 people took part in this peaceful demonstration to show that we are standing up against the ideas of the NPD," she said.

That's a lesson that also appeals to German President Joachim Gauck, who used to work in Rostock as a pastor. He wants to keep the memory of what went on there alive. He is to hold a speech on Sunday in front of the Sunflower House. And he hopes that, 20 years on, new images of Rostock-Lichtenhagen will go round the world.

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