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Germany remembers 1992 anti-immigrant riots in Rostock

August 22, 2022

The Lichtenhagen district in Rostock became infamous in 1992 as the scene of a racist riot against the Vietnamese and Roma communities. Some Vietnamese survivors feel even more bitter now about the lack of consequences.

Anti-racism protesters gathered in Rostock on August 29, 1992
Protesters demonstrated in solidarity with the victims following the violent attacks, but few legal consequences ensuedImage: Wolfram Steinberg/AP Photo/picture alliance

If anything, Dan Thy Nguyen said, he feels more bitter than ever about the Lichtenhagen pogrom of 1992.

The events of those days are recounted every few years: From August 22 to 26, 1992, several hundred neo-Nazis besieged a tower block that had been turned into an asylum-seeker reception center and a residence mostly occupied by Vietnamese people who had worked as foreign contract workers in East Germany.

Initially fueled by xenophobic rage against the hundreds of Roma who had been camped outside waiting to apply for asylum, the rioters threw rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails. They stormed the building, which was often called the "Sonnenblumenhaus" after the large mural of a sunflower adorning its side. 

About 3,000 Rostock residents gathered at the scene, occasionally applauding, and preventing police and rescue workers from intervening. On the third day, August 24, the building was set on fire, and, though it had been largely evacuated by then, about 100 Vietnamese people and a German TV crew were still inside. They were only able to rescue themselves by breaking through several doors and making it to the roof, from which they could still hear people down below shouting, "We'll get you all!"

A man makes a Hitler salute toward riot police in front of the Sunflower House on August 27, 1992
After the riots, many perpetrators of the Rostock pogrom faced no prosecutionImage: Jens Kalaene/ZB/picture alliance

Nguyen, a theater director, met some of these survivors when he created a stage piece about the siege a few years ago. The reason no one died, he said, was partly because many had grown up during the Vietnam War.

"People who were soldiers during the Vietnam War created emergency plans in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and so they knew how to escape, because they'd learned it when they were very young," he said.

Racism and its consequences

Nguyen, like many Vietnamese Germans, was himself deeply marked by the events, though he was only 7 years old at the time and living in the former West Germany. In 2017, he wrote a powerful guest article in Die Zeit describing how the pogrom made his father teach his children how to defend themselves with rudimentary clubs made of power cables. 

But, three decades on, Nguyen's preoccupation with Lichtenhagen has turned more political, which is where his bitterness comes from. "Even after 30 years, there are no real political consequences, no real judicial consequences," he told DW. "We still don't understand why the police didn't intervene that much."

And, on a social level, Nguyen said, Germany has contented itself with a rehashing media interest for round anniversaries. "The 20th anniversary was big, and now the 30th will be big, but I was there last year and there were a handful of people and no politicians, and I can imagine that next year everyone will forget that too," he said. "And in Lichtenhagen itself there are nearly no social connections to this pogrom."

Several historians and political scientists have discussed the lack of consequences drawn from Lichtenhagen. Criminal investigations were notoriously slow, and the small handful of convictions that were successful mostly ended in suspended sentences, despite charges of attempted murder.

Two investigations into police failures at Lichtenhagen lasted several years — only to be eventually dropped. Dozens of police officers were injured in the clashes, and there are several unresolved controversies over exactly why more police forces weren't sent, or why some forces on the scene retreated. 

As for political consequences, one historian, Gudrun Heinrich, told Deutschlandfunk radio this week that, if anything, the German government engaged in "victim-perpetrator reversal" after Lichtenhagen by tightening asylum laws and making it even harder for immigrants to find a place in Germany.

Hollow remembrance

The hollowness of remembrance, and the earnest anti-racism sentiments that come with it, was perhaps best illustrated at the Hansa Rostock football stadium on Sunday, when far-right fans were allowed to hang a banner emblazoned with the word "Lichtenhagen" and an image of a sunflower — an apparent reference to the building that was set ablaze.

In a statement to DW, Hansa Rostock football club denied that the banner had bearing on the 1992 riot, but simply belonged to a group of fans from the district.

"Both the club and our fans — especially from Rostock — are still clearly aware of the disgrace and the damage to the entire city, and of course no one wants such events to be repeated or forgotten," the statement read.

There have been efforts to foster better relations in Rostock. The organization Dien Hong was founded in the weeks following the attacks by 62 former Vietnamese contract workers. Now it is a support network for migrants and asylum-seekers, and has recently been helping Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Far-right AfD still holds appeal in the east

Since May, Dien Hong's Vu Thanh Van has coordinated "conversation circles" for Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese residents of Lichtenhagen, reflecting on the events of 1992. "There were some very far-reaching discussions," she told DW. "I think both sides learned more about the other sides feelings and thoughts. It was a good opportunity."

Dien Hong board member Susanne Düskau said Lichtenhagen served as a reminder of "the continuity of racism" in Germany. "People do feel safer now, but it remains an issue," Düskau said. "What has changed is that there is more potential for exchange now."

Nguyen has seen evidence of that in the reaction to his own play on Lichtenhagen, which he began working on in 2011. "At the beginning, no one was interested at all — a lot of people thought there was no importance in reflecting on that," said Nguyen.

That changed in 2015, when refugees came to Germany from Syria, an event met by another wave of anti-immigrant sentiment — and several arson attacks on refugee shelters. "When they started to see parallels, that was the moment when people found my work again," he said.

"One thing that has changed is that now we can talk about racism," Nguyen said. "I think 10 years ago, when I said something about it, a lot of people said: 'Oh no, we don't have racism at all in Germany.'" 

Now, Nguyen said, the emergence of a far-right political party in the Alternative for Germany has made it impossible to deny that racism exists. Racism may be addressed more openly, but it has also gained political legitimacy.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight