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'The dark side of humanity'

Astrid Prange / dcAugust 26, 2015

Heidenau, Solingen, Rostock-Lichtenhagen: Germany has a long history of attacks on asylum seekers. One former Rostock city official has spent his career thinking of ways to combat xenophobia.

Gedenken Rostock 20 Jahre Krawall Rassismus Demonstration
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It was 23 years ago that right-wing extremists in Rostock-Lichtenhagen stormed a home for asylum seekers and set fire to a building housing mainly Vietnamese workers. More than 3,000 people stood by and applauded. The latest attacks on a home for refugees in Heidenau remind Rostock's former commissioner for foreigners, Wolfgang Richter, of those terrible nights in August of 1992.

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Richter, do you see parallels between these latest attacks in Heidenau and what happened in Rostock-Lichtenhagen?

Wolfgang Richter: In Heidenau, a decision about the location for this home for asylum seekers was made very last minute. That stirred up the insecurities of locals. Neo-Nazis and racist provocateurs jumped on it, and that's where I see parallels to Rostock-Lichtenhagen.

You were left alone with 150 Vietnamese residents in a burning building, waiting in vain for the police and the firefighters to come to your rescue. Is police protection for refugees better today?

After two days of violence, the police completely retreated. For two hours, we were alone in the building with no way to protect ourselves from the attackers. Here in Rostock, we had close contact with the police after that and the cooperation is much better. The police in Rostock would never fail people like that ever again.

Deutschland Ex-Ausländerbeauftragter Wolfgang Richter
Wolfgang Richter was Rostock's commissioner for foreigners until 2010Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Wüstneck

Better police protection for refugees is one lesson. What other lessons can be learned from what happened in Rostock-Lichtenhagen?

The location of a home for asylum seekers has to be chosen very carefully. In the mid- to late 1990s, we began trying to place these homes in the city, instead of on the outskirts or in some industrial area. And it's also important to organize meetings with local residents so that they don't learn about the plans in the media. We were present in the area and formed councils where both residents and migrants were represented.

Your work with refugees became known in Germany as the "Rostock Model." Would that be a model for Heidenau?

The "Rostock Model" is about integration, so that goes beyond the initial care and accommodation of refugees. We developed five main areas of focus: day care centers, schools, job training for young migrants, jobs and language training for adult migrants, and self-organization. In order to address these points, you need partners in politics. You need a mayor who will clearly state his or her position publicly.

Homes for asylum seekers continue to pop up practically overnight without discussing the situation first with local residents. Is that because of the sheer number of people who need accommodation?

That is possible. But even if you need to set up a home for refugees quickly, you should still try to call a public meeting. Of course it's a big job. And the attitude with which it is done is also very important. The tone in Germany now is very different than it was at the start of the 1990s.

Gedenken Rostock 20 Jahre Krawall Rassismus Demonstration
Twenty years after the riot, demonstrators protest against racismImage: picture-alliance/dpa

After the events in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, were you in touch with xenophobic citizens or do you try to avoid such people?

After the attacks in Lichtenhagen, I got a lot of support for my work as the commissioner for foreigners. For months, I had flowers in my office from people who spontaneously came by to visit. And that helped me a lot. But I also got plenty of hate mail, as well as nine death threats.

On the night of the fire in Lichtenhagen, you and the Vietnamese workers feared for your lives. Did you lose your faith in humanity?

Something did change in me and that has to do with what I think people are capable of. Before, pogroms were something I only knew from history books. In Rostock-Lichtenhagen, I learned that there are people who really don't care if other people burn to death. I had never seen this dark side of humanity before.

Have you met people who managed to overcome their xenophobic views?

I had people come up to me on the street in Lichtenhagen and tell me that they were part of it for the first two days. On the third night, after the house was set alight, they then realized that what they were doing was wrong. Last fall, Pegida supporters in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania tried three times to organize demonstrations in Rostock, but they were unsuccessful because they could never mobilize enough people. Instead, there were counter-demonstrations with 3,000 to 4,000 people. That was a very big and very positive sign in Rostock.

Wolfgang Richter served as the commissioner for foreigners in Rostock until 2010. Since 2011, he's been working for a social enterprise, overseeing day care centers, family aid, and early learning support as well as developing new projects.

The interview was conducted by Astrid Prange.