There had been previous cases of far-right extremists setting fire to migrants' homes. But Mölln, 25 years ago, was the first time people died. Both the town and the victims are still struggling to come to terms with it.
He must have enjoyed walking down the high street in Mölln all those years ago. Faruk Arslan is 53 years old now, but as he walks around the little town in Schleswig-Holstein, his younger self shines through. An aunt comes up to him; there are kisses on both cheeks, a flippant remark about her headscarf; two of his nephews are over there in front of the hairdresser; there's waving, laughter. Idyllic half-timbered houses with red-tiled roofs. "I've lived here for 32 years. Mölln is one of the loveliest towns in the world," he says, in his deep, rough, velvety voice. Then he turns right, towards Mühlenstrasse. Arslan's face suddenly becomes expressionless. The little street ends right in front of the house where, 25 years ago, his 10-year-old daughter Yeliz, his mother Bahide and his niece Ayse died — in a fire started by neo-Nazis.
Faruk Arslan stops outside the front door of the house. This is where they lived. To the right of the door, a plaque affixed to the wall bears the names of those who died. "Only someone who's experienced it himself can understand the pain, and it doesn't fade," he murmurs. His shoulders are hunched. A line of clay ornamentation on the facade, representing flames and water, stretches from just above the door right up to the roof — a reminder of the night of November 23, 1992. The two far-right extremist perpetrators started fires in two residential houses in Mölln, then called the fire brigade to let them know, and declared "Heil Hitler." The occupants of the other house managed to escape. At the Arslans' house, the hall and stairwell were alight. Some members of the family managed to climb out of the windows. Faruk Arslan was visiting his brother. He rushed back to the scene. "My daughter was on a stretcher. She said 'Papa' one more time. That was the last thing I heard her say." His 7-year-old son Ibrahim survived – his grandfather had wrapped him in damp towels. Faruk Arslan has been receiving psychological support for 20 years.
The murderous attacks in Mölln in November 1992 were another dreadful escalation in a series of violent far-right incidents in newly unified Germany. The mob outside the contract workers' hostel in Hoyerswerda; the jeering crowd in front of the burning accommodation in Rostock-Lichtenhagen.
Germany's far right mobilized in the 1990s as refugees came from the Balkan Wars; these scenes are from Rostock
But that was in the new federal states in the former east; and no one had died. Now three people were dead. Concerned headlines spoke of the swamp of the far right in Germany that never seemed to dry out, and defiant disillusionment in the interior. After Mölln, tens of thousands of people demonstrated all over the country against racism and xenophobia. The federal prosecutor's office took over the investigation. The arsonists were locked up for 15 and 10 years respectively. The case was solved, but since then the town of Mölln has had an image problem — and a mission.
Jan Wiegels wasn't in Mölln on the night of the arson attacks. He was living in Düsseldorf at the time, but has been the mayor of his hometown since 2010. He prefers to see his municipality as the cheerful "Eulenspiegel town" — Till Eulenspiegel, the famous "Owlglass" trickster figure in German folklore, is said to have died here in the 14th century. However, sitting in his office, Wiegels admits, "It's true that when I'm traveling outside of Schleswig-Holstein, people usually associate Mölln with the arson attacks." He places his hands flat on the Formica desktop. "That is now part of the recent history of the town." And so, he says, it needs to be addressed.
Wiegels describes how they are dealing intensively with far-right extremism and xenophobia, trying to engage with and educate people. "This sort of thing should never happen again — not in Germany, and certainly not in Mölln," warns the mayor. The town holds a memorial event every year in November, and this is a central focus of its commemorations. These have been attended by many prominent people on numerous occasions, the mayor says, especially on key anniversaries. He lists this year's attendees: "The Turkish ambassador, the German government's commissioner for integration, Turkish politicians, a state secretary for internal affairs." There are also exhibitions and discussion events. It's hard to evaluate quite how successful these efforts are, but as a yardstick: No fewer people vote AfD in Mölln than in the municipalities nearby.
Who gets to decide how to remember?
But there are those who criticize Mölln's culture of remembrance. Some believe the town has a particularly stubborn neo-Nazi element, and is not doing enough to deal with it. Of course, there are also those who say that at some point there has to be an end to recalling that terrible night. And there are others who say it should be left to the victims to organize the memorial. For this reason, there is also the "Mölln Speech in Exile" event, which Faruk Arslan's son Ibrahim organizes, with a group of friends. This time it is taking place in Berlin; next year it will be in Vienna.
Faruk Arslan has made his peace with the public commemoration in Mölln – with that, at least. Next to the house in which the members of his family were killed, a pathway leading over the town's historical moat and on to a park has been named "Bahide Arslan Gang," complete with street sign.
"For a long time they refused to write on there how my mother died," he said. Now a small additional sign underneath states that the path is named after Bahide Arslan, who was "murdered in a racist arson attack." He sees it as his duty to his dead mother to take a stand against far-right extremists. "My mother did so much for people here. She was a strong woman," Faruk Arslan recalls. One of the neo-Nazi perpetrators used to come to her shop, and was in the same class as his sister. "It's simply incomprehensible that it was idiots like these. We even gave them food!"