The racist mob of the street

20 years ago, the worst xenophobic riots in Germany's post-war history occurred in the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen. 150 people were put in acute danger of their lives in the process. "What happened back then is not worthy of a democratic society," Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki emphasizes.


Lack of perspective as a trigger?
The deeds of that time are not to be excused, but a lack of perspective could have been a trigger, said the Archbishop of Berlin during a visit to Schwerin. We must learn from this for today, Woelki said, also with regard to the NPD, which is represented in the Schwerin state parliament: "Cheap arguments of such a party can of course be tempting for people. We had that before in the 1930s," said the cardinal. He could only hope "that we learn from the bitter experiences of this time and do not fall for these pied pipers".

One must offer the people perspectives, Woelki demanded further. He had experienced Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania as a liberal state open to the world. The fact that the churches participate in protest actions against right-wing extremists is one of their very own tasks, the cardinal emphasized. The churches are challenged wherever the Christian image of man, according to which everyone has the same dignity, is attacked.

Praise for churches in Mecklenburg-Vorpomme
Sylvia Bretschneider, president of the state parliament in Schwerin, praised the churches' involvement in the statewide initiative "WIR. Success needs diversity" against right-wing extremist tendencies. Justice Minister Uta-Maria Kuder (CDU) also thanked the churches for their commitment "against the well poisoners of society". The contribution of the Catholic Church in the pastoral care of prisoners and in the educational system should be particularly emphasized. Kuder said the three Catholic schools in Rostock, Ludwigslust and Schwerin in particular were "a success story".

President Gauck appeals to Germans to confront right-wing extremism without fear. "We don't give right-wing extremists our fear, we don't let them have their way," the German president tells the Rostock-based "Ostsee-Zeitung" newspaper. Refugee aid organization Pro Asyl urges changes in asylum law. Meanwhile, the Rostock Migrants Council criticizes the fact that there is still no memorial plaque, monument or museum commemorating the events in Rostock-Lichtenhagen.

Gauck: Many were susceptible to simple truths
Gauck will attend the commemoration ceremony on the anniversary in Rostock on Sunday. He wanted to "show that we in Germany have also really trained a culture of defense against extremism and that we want to remain active there". Among other things, Gauck sees the lack of an open civil debate in East Germany at the time as the cause of the riots. In the early 1990s, many people in the east were out of work and disoriented, it says. Some of them were susceptible to simple truths and black-and-white thinking.

Meanwhile, the refugee aid organization Pro Asyl is calling for a reversal in asylum policy. Pro Asyl recalls that after the riots, German asylum law had been tightened up. "To this day, the Rostock pogrom stands for the collusion of politics and the racist, violent mob of the street," the organization explains. Since then, the third-country regulation is supposed to keep protection seekers away from Germany.

Commissioner for Foreigners on the state of emergency in the Sunflower House
Wolfgang Richter was Rostock's commissioner for foreigners for a total of 18 years. It is difficult to say whether he would have held his office for such a long time even without the serious riots in the Lichtenhagen district in August 1992.
"Probably rather not," he says himself. But in those hours in mortal danger, there was a moment of pause in which Richter made two promises to himself.

On the night of 25. to the 26. August 1992 Richter looked out of the window. A year before the riots in Lichtenhagen, he had applied for the position of foreigners' commissioner. Now people knocked stones out of the street in front of the house, which they threw into the lower floors along with Molotov cocktails.

Richter heard window panes shattering, heard the chants of "foreigners out" and the crowd cheering and clapping after each litter.
With him, 150 people were stuck in the burning house, mainly Vietnamese contract workers, also a camera crew of the ZDF and employees of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

"Pogrom" – a word from another time
Wolfgang Richter, a tall slim man, then 36 years old, had studied geography and history. "Pogrom", for him, was a word from another time. Now he was in the middle of what were probably the worst xenophobic riots in Germany's post-war history. He spent three nights in a state of emergency in the "Sunflower House," a large prefabricated building from GDR times.

In the night of 26. August stood judge at the window, below the violence and the fire, above the hectic activity of those trapped. Richter made two promises to himself: "I vowed at that time to do everything I could to ensure that the political leaders would be held accountable if I were to get out of here alive again. And I have decided to continue, not to leave this city and not to leave this country to the mob in the streets."

Along with a handful of others trapped inside, Richter somehow managed to barricade the lower floors and find a way out via the roof of the building. The 150 people managed to escape through the roof into another staircase. The hours in the burning house, the jubilation – while at the same time people were fighting for their lives – were a caesura, Richter says. The experience shaped him and divided the time into a before and an after.

Looking for a new job, however, was out of the question for him. He shifted the focus of his work to the right-wing scene
coordination and management tasks, promoted the development of migrant representative bodies and created neighborhood-based counseling services. His ideas attracted nationwide interest.

Richter turned to ministries after the riots
The moments in the Sunflower House, tragic as they were, may also have been helpful in achieving his goals as commissioner for foreigners, Richter says. He could not exclude that he had gained access to ministries of the state government, to state secretaries and ministers through the riots, and that he was listened to a little longer and better on one or the other occasion.

Arno Poker (SPD), mayor of Rostock between 1995 and 2004, puts this assessment into perspective. "Wolfgang Richter never played the Lichtenhagen card," he says, "he didn't need to.". For him, Richter is a man with a clear vision who knew exactly what he wanted, "reliable, very responsible, highly political".

20 years later Wolfgang Richter has moved into a new office in downtown Rostock. Since January 2010, he has been divisional director of the Rostock Society for Health and Pedagogy. Richter felt the need to start over again, to take on a new task. The trained teacher now has more to do with pedagogy than with migration again. But on the wall still hangs an intercultural calendar.

Background

From 22. until the 26. August 1992, the worst xenophobic riots in Germany's post-war history occurred in the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen. In the course of the four days, 150 people's lives were in acute danger. The violence, expressed through slogans, chants, stones and finally firebombs, was mainly directed against Roma and Sinti who were in the completely overcrowded Central Reception Center for Asylum Seekers. After the asylum seekers were relocated, perpetrators of violence set fire to the neighboring dormitory for Vietnamese as well as against apartments of Vietnamese contract workers. The perpetrators included neo-Nazis from all over Germany. The riots of a few hundred violent people were caused by about 2.000 to 3.000 sympathizers and onlookers supported on the spot.

The reception center in the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen was housed in the so-called Sonnenblumenhaus (Sunflower House), a large prefabricated building from GDR times. Although the police were unable to put an end to the riots for three days, they withdrew from the area on the evening of 26 August. August back. The people who remained in the house – Vietnamese contract workers, a television crew from ZDF, and employees of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees – were in danger of dying from smoke inhalation or from the fire that started on the lower floors. Escape across the roof into another building elevator finally saved their lives.

The August 1992 riots had a longer history. Tensions on the ground had been rising for months. Wolfgang Richter, then Rostock's commissioner for foreigners, had already written a letter to Interior Minister Lothar Kupfer (CDU) in the summer of 1991 on behalf of Lord Mayor Klaus Kilimann (SPD). Among other things, it said that he could not guarantee anything in this part of town and that homicides could not be ruled out if the local situation did not change in the short term.

In the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen, a large proportion of residents were unemployed at the time, unsettled by the fall of the Berlin Wall and deprived of functioning social structures. For months, refugees who had allegedly not yet been admitted due to overcrowding at the initial reception center had been camping in the open spaces between the high-rise buildings.

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