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Rostock still reels 25 years after right-wing riots

Kate Brady Rostock-Lichtenhagen
August 22, 2017

This week marks 25 years since the worst right-wing violence in Germany since the Second World War. Some locals fear being stigmatized, but there are still lessons to be learned. DW's Kate Brady reports.

Burnt out house in Rostock
Image: imago/R. Schober

"It never had to reach that point," says Frau Kosfelder, clutching her shopping bag on the way to the supermarket. "The politicians failed us that summer."

The 77-year-old pensioner was among the German residents of the so-called "Sunflower house" apartment block who witnessed the escalation of right-wing violence between August 22 and 26, 1992.

Read more: Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots revealed 'the dark side of humanity'

The apartments were subjected to the worst right-wing violence in Germany since the Second World War. Alongside the German residents lived Vietnamese contract workers, who had been hired by former East Germany, as well as refugees at an asylum seeker reception center.

On August 22, 1992, around 2,000 people gathered in from the apartment blocks and began throwing stones. The violence escalated on the second day, however, when hundreds of well-known right-wing extremists traveled from across Germany to support the rioters.

The building was attacked with fire bombs as bystanders looked on, many of them chanting right-wing slogans such as "Germany for the Germans! Foreigners out!"

By the third night, police retreated after coming under attack. It wasn't until the early hours of August 26 that authorities finally brought the situation under control with water cannon.

Frau Kosfelder, resident in Rostock-Lichtenhagen
Kosfelder still lives in the 'Sunflower house' that came under attack in August 1992Image: DW/K. Brady

Today the apartment blocks have been extensively renovated, the sunflower mosaic on the side of the building clear to see from the highway. A far cry from the images which were sent around the world 25 years ago of blackened stonework, Molotov cocktails and smashed windows.

Opportunistic extremists

In the days leading up to the violence, the number of Romani refugees camping in front of the apartments had increased significantly, with many of them camping out in front of the reception center.

Read more: Why the rule of law burned down in Rostock-Lichtenhagen

"It was such a hot summer," Frau Kosfelder remembers. "Imagine: Mattresses everywhere on the green, dirty diapers, trash. I don't doubt for a second that the mayor drove by and saw this every day. But did the politicians do anything? No."

The lack of action from authorities enabled right-wing extremists to take advantage of a burning point, Kosfelder says. "These people look for violence. And they found their opportunity."

Deutschland Rechtsradikale Gewalt gegen Ausländer in Rostock-Lichtenhagen 1992
Thousands of right-wing extremists descended on Rostock-Lichtenhagen in August 1992, some having traveled from as far away as FrankfurtImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Twenty-five years on, the pensioner says politicians and authorities still have a lot to learn.

"The problems still aren't addressed in good time. Just look at the violence at the football last week. Many of these Ultras are already known to police. Why hasn't any action been taken to prevent this violence from happening?"

Read more: German Cup - Unruly fans at Rostock vs. Hertha

Herr Ströber, who owns a business on the estate, watched the riots of 1992 unfold on television. He believes a repeat could still be possible.

"The main problem is our justice system," Ströber says. There needs to be a crackdown on these right-wing groups.

"A lot of these extremists claim that they're badly done by and say that migrants get everything for free. But I usually ask them: 'And how much tax have you paid in your life? How many years have you received social welfare?' People who need it are more than entitled to it. But there are plenty of people who abuse the system, and that goes for Germans as much as some migrants," he adds.

Matthias Siems from anti-right-wing action group "Bunt statt Braun"
Matthias Siems from anti-right-wing action group "Bunt statt Braun" Image: DW/K. Brady

Matthias Siems from the association "Bunt statt Braun" ("Colorful instead of brown," a reference to Nazi Brownshirts), however, says that a repeat of August 1992 is unlikely, with many Germans now taking more responsibility in their local communities. In German, "brown" makes reference to the far-right.

"People are more active in civil society," Siems says. "After German reunification, there weren't any citizen initiatives. Many clubs and associations had closed down."

Right-wing extremism in eastern Germany

Siems admits, however, that right-wing extremism remains an issue, particularly in eastern Germany.

Read more: Study links far-right extremism and eastern German mentality

"We have a problem here that you can't compare with anywhere in western Germany. There's still work to be done and that starts with projects in schools. There are still prejudices and false opinions. But such a pogrom as we saw in 1992 wouldn't happen again."

But the number of right-wing extremist attacks is on the rise in Germany. Last year saw more than 22,000 such cases, nationwide - an increase of almost 6,000 over five years.

Info graph showing right-wing extremism in German between 2007 and 2017

Fears of stigmatization

As part of the events commemorating the 25-year anniversary of the attack, five new memorials are being unveiled this week at a total cost of 50,000 euros ($59,000).

Lichtenhagen residents Herr Ströber and Frau Kosfelder say they appreciate the need to remember the events but both believe the money could be better spent elsewhere in the infrastructure of Rostock.

Some critics have also complained that the memorials stigmatize the district of Lichtenhagen, says regional Social Democrat MP, Ralf Mucha.

Ralf Mucha, Social Democrat MP in the state parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania stands with a memorial stone
Ralf Mucha, Social Democrat MP in the state parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania supports the memorials which are due to be unveiled this weekImage: DW/K. Brady

'Don't dwell on the past; learn from it'

Wolfgang Richter, however, says it's imperative that people are reminded about the summer in Rostock-Lichtenhagen 25 years ago. As commissioner for Rostock-Lichtenhagen's foreigners office at the time, Richter experienced the violence first hand and helped dozens of Vietnamese residents to safety by climbing across the roof of the 10-story building.

Wolfgang Richter
Wolfgang Richter helped several Vietnamese contract workers escape to safety on the third night of the violenceImage: DW/K. Brady

"There's rarely a day when I drive along here on the highway and manage to look up at the building," he says.

But despite the difficult memories, history must be prevented from repeating itself, Richter adds: "Today there is a generation which knows nothing of these events. It's important that they know about what happened here. That doesn't mean dwelling on the past, but instead learning from it."