1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'What happened in Rostock is a disgrace'

August 25, 2022

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has spoken at a commemoration event to mark the anniversary of the xenophobic riots in the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen 30 years ago.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaking into microphones, standing in front of the so-called sunflower house where the riots took place
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier took part in the commemoration of the racist pogrom in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in 1992Image: Jens Büttner/dpa/picture alliance

Steinmeier commemorates Rostock pogrom

"What happened in Rostock is a disgrace for our country. Politicians bear a great deal of responsibility for this disgrace," President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told a crowd gathered in the northern city of Rostock on Thursday.

The president blamed all of Germany's political parties for using rhetoric that was laced with resentment in the early 1990s. And, after the attack, the country waited a long time for authorities to offer a clear condemnation of the riots, he added.

For four nights in August 1992, a mob of rioters and right-wing extremists attacked a central reception center for asylum-seekers and a shelter for Vietnamese workers in the Lichtenhagen district of Rostock, a city of the former East Germany. Local onlookers applauded, while the police were completely overwhelmed, and at one stage forced to retreat.

The lessons of Lichtenhagen should be taken to heart, Steinmeier said. The violence of that time, "that trace of right-wing terror, is unfortunately still there," he warned. "The state must do everything possible at all times to protect each and every citizen against attacks."

Steinmeier thanked the people who for decades, often against great opposition, worked with the victims and remember the xenophobic attacks.

People standing outside the burned-out sunflower house in August 1992
In August 1992, a racist mob besieged the "Sunflower House" in Rostock-LichtenhagenImage: Jens Kalaene/dpa/picture alliance

One of them is Hajo Graf Vitzthum von Eckstädt, of an anti-racism initiative in Rostock that fights right-wing extremism.

"I was shocked," he said. "It was one of those excesses waiting to happen. The federal and state governments had failed."

Rostock-Lichtenhagen was the first pogrom after the end of the Nazi reign of terror. Vitzthum von Eckstädt said local officials in Rostock at the time did not just look the other way: "Politicians used the event."

Times of upheaval

Germany experienced turbulent times in the early 1990s. Helmut Kohl had ruled West Germany for ten years and then continued heading the government of reunited Germany. After the euphoria of German reunification in 1990, came the collapse of the East German economy. And then that of the entire East German society. At the same time, the country experienced a sharp increase in immigration. With the fall of the Wall, the Iron Curtain of the Cold War also fell: Hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe subsequently moved to Germany.

'Foreigners Out!': Legacy of Rostock riots

But the atmosphere was heating up. Right-wing extremists — "skinheads" — were on the streets in both the West and the East. There were violent xenophobic attacks all over the country. "There was a lot of skepticism at the time against foreigners and immigrants, against Sinti and Roma," recalls Hajo Graf Vitzthum von Eckstädt. "And the politicians at the time just let that boil over — because it was in their own interests."

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative government had been working for some time to drastically tighten German asylum law. This had been crafted after the Nazi dictatorship and World War II with a view to offering permanent and unrestricted protection to politically persecuted persons. And this was enshrined in the constitution.

Political observers speculated even then that the federal government wanted to use the riots and protests to put pressure on the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD) to agree to a constitutional amendment restricting the right to asylum. The calculation was that the SPD would fear losing support and bow to mob hatred and political pressure from the streets.

Mehmet Daimagüler in a courtroom
Mehmet Daimagüler sees the pogrom in a long line of xenophbic attacksImage: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

Calculated racism?

In Rostock, politicians stood back and watched events unfold. In the months before the pogrom, Sinti and Roma from Romania were stranded in front of the reception center for asylum seekers in the Lichtenhagen district, in front of the Sunflower House, where Vietnamese workers lived.

The authorities were overwhelmed by the numbers, leaving the new arrivals to camp on the lawn in front of the facility. Hygiene was lacking, nobody set up mobile toilets, and the police attitude towards the Romanians was hostile.

Mehmet Daimagüler, the federal commissioner for antiziganism, said the situation in Rostock-Lichtenhagen followed a tradition of discrimination against Sinti and Roma in Germany. Also, he said, the murder of hundreds of thousands of them by Germans during the Nazi era had at the time never really been recognized. "Their persecution continued in other forms after the Nazi era."

Reunification — not for migrants

Daimagüler has been fighting racism and right-wing extremism for years as a criminal defense lawyer, book author and publicist. He, too, was shaken by the pogrom in 1992. "It cast a shadow over the joy of reunification."

He experienced what many Germans from immigrant families reported: The nationwide jubilation over reunification went hand in hand with a new intensity of racism. "The reunification was by Germans for Germans, and we migrants were not part of it," Daimagüler said. "We didn't sit at any of the round tables — neither in the West nor in the East. We were treated the way we were seen: We were irrelevant."

In 1992, people whose families had immigrated to Germany were still mostly labeled "foreigners," even if the country had long been their home, even if they had been born here. Only people with German parents were seen as German. Daimagüler speaks of "blood law," the ancient "ius sanguinis,". Blood and soil (Blut und Boden) was the slogan expressing Nazi Germany's ideal of a racially defined national body ("blood") united with a settlement area ("soil").

Ignatz Busbis and Michel Friedman at the scene in 1992
Michel Friedman (left) and Ignatz Bubis (center) of the Central Council of Jews in Rostock-Lichtenhagen were greeted with antisemitic insults at the sceneImage: Jens Büttner/ZB/picture alliance

Michel Friedman was one of the first representatives of civil society on-site in Rostock at the time of the pogrom. Then, he was Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews and accompanied its president, Ignatz Bubis. Both were horrified. "On the spot, we were struck by the force of the guilt of so many who did not prevent this from happening," he recalls.

A scandal developed: A city councilor from the center-right Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) disparaged Bubis and Friedman as foreigners because they were Jews. "After all, in Germany, we always talk about 'Never Again!" Friedmann told DW. "And then you get to a place where everyone looks the other way — including the police, including the politicians."

The Rostock pogrom had an immediate impact: In 1993, the Bundestag voted for a far-reaching restriction of the right to asylum. Three days later, neo-Nazis murdered five people of Turkish descent in the town of Solingen, setting fire to their house.

What has Germany learned 30 years after Rostock?

"What has improved," Friedman said, "is that civil society stands up for human dignity."

Vitzthum von Eckstädt agrees. But skepticism is huge.

"If society had learned, we wouldn't have the many deaths after the racist attack in Lübeck in 1996, we wouldn't have the series of murders by the self-proclaimed National Socialist Underground, we wouldn't have the far-right attacks in Munich in 2016 and in Hanau in 2020," Daimagüler said.

Many people in Germany continue to be in danger, Friedman said. "The misanthropes are more powerful than they were in 1992." With the far-right populist Alternative for Germany, he said, a party has established itself that is increasingly openly showing its extremist far-right views.

Rina Goldenberg contributed to reporting.

This article was originally written in German.

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.