In 1992, three people were killed in a racist attack in the northern German town, during a spate of neo-Nazi violence. What was different in Germany back then, and what has stayed the same?
On November 23, 1992, shortly after midnight, two neo-Nazis threw Molotov cocktails into two houses in Mölln. Lars C., then 19, and Michael P., then 25, chose the houses in the small town in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein because Turkish families lived there. After the attacks, an anonymous caller contacted the police and the fire department, reported the fires and concluded his call with, "Heil Hitler."
The residents escaped from one of the houses, although some were seriously injured. In the other house, 51-year-old Bahide Arslan, her ten-year-old granddaughter, Yeliz, and her 14-year-old niece, Ayse, were killed. Bahide saved her seven-year-old grandson, Ibrahim, by wrapping him in wet cloths.
A wave of racist attacks
At the time, shortly after Germany's reunification, the attack was one of a series of violent racist incidents over a few months: in Hoyerswerda, Rostock, Mölln, and Solingen. Mölln saw the first fatalities. Another five people in a family of Turkish decent died in Solingen.
Timo Reinfrank, executive director of the anti-racism NGO, Amadeu Antonio Foundation, described the mood at the time: "Right-wing extremists perpetrated outright street terror and set the tone in many places, especially in eastern Germany," he told DW. "At the same time, there was a racist debate about asylum in the media, which fueled hatred against refugees."
It was a time "in which there was a great social exclusion of the migrant population and of people of color, (...) in almost all areas," according to Hamburg lawyer, Katrin Inga Kirstein, who has represented the Arslan family several times. She also said that the media played down the incidents to "cover up this pogrom atmosphere of the early 1990s and thus save Germany's international reputation after reunification."
Kohl did not want 'condolence tourism'
But there was also a wave of indignation and sympathy after Mölln. On the evening after the attack, several thousand people gathered in the city for a spontaneous silent march. In the days and weeks that followed, demonstrations and chains of lights against racism and xenophobia took place all over Germany.
At the funeral service in Hamburg with around 10,000 people, two federal ministers also took part, but not then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl , who said that the federal government did not want to lapse into what he called "condolence tourism."
A novelty at the time, federal prosecutors took over the investigation because the attack was deemed to "impair the internal security of the Federal Republic of Germany," as then Federal Prosecutor General Alexander von Stahl explained.
The perpetrators of Mölln went on trial, and a year later were sentenced to several years in prison for triple murder as well as the attempted murder of seven people. Both have since been released.
Halle, Hanau, and attack on Mölln mosque
While Chancellor Kohl did not attend the memorial service for the victims of Mölln or Solingen 30 years ago, such a reaction on the part of politicians would be unthinkable today.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently spoke to bereaved families of the Mölln arson attack at his official residence in Berlin, including about the difficulties they had and still have with authorities. In a speech in August, Steinmeier warned of a social climate in which acts of violence could occur and called on the state to do everything it could to protect people from collective anger, agitation, and violence.
How has the social climate changed since Mölln? Katrin Kirstein's answer is to refer to her client, Faruk Arslan, the son of Mölln victim, Bahide Arslan, who said: "Nazis today are in suits and ties. They are no longer readily recognizable. But they are still there."
"Racist violence is still everyday life for many people," Reinfrank said, pointing to the 2019 attack on the Halle synagogue, and the 2020 shooting of people with foreign roots in Hanau, which claimed nine lives. These "have once again highlighted the acute danger still posed by right-wing extremists in Germany."
That is still the case in Mölln. At the beginning of September, unknown people set fire to a message board at the entrance of the Fatih Sultan Camii Mosque, where a family also lives. No one was injured. The investigation is ongoing.
Who commemorates and how?
On Wednesday, the mosque in Mölln and then St. Nicolai Church will commemorate the arson attack 30 years ago. Claudia Roth, the federal government's culture commissioner, and Turkish Ambassador Ali Kemal Aydin are expected to attend. Afterwards, wreaths will be laid at the sites of the fires. Faruk and Ibrahim Arslan also plan to speak.
Arslan, now 37, was the boy saved at the time by his grandmother, who perished in the flames. He complained about the annual commemoration in Mölln in an interview with NDR, saying the city was trying to appropriate it. Those affected were never asked how to deal with the official commemoration, he said.
'The state did not protect them'
Katrin Kirstein says that also different is "that those affected today support and visit each other at their memorial events, strengthen each other, and multiply and strengthen their demands — demands also against the state that did not protect them and covered up and in part made murders possible in the first place by not acting, or looking the other way."
Reinfrank of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation thinks it is "very important that politics and society today understand that racist and anti-Semitic attacks do not only apply to individuals, but to entire groups and thus to the entire country."
A recently published study by the University of Leipzig also shows how topical the issue of racism still is in Germany. Although it recognizes a decline in far-right views among Germans, xenophobic attitudes remain widespread.
Almost one-third of those surveyed said that "foreigners" only come here "to take advantage of our welfare state." And almost as many see the Federal Republic as being "dangerously overrun by foreigners."