BERLIN – What connection is there between a sheepishly smiling politician making flimsy excuses to an investigation committee in Berlin and the mad rage of a bloodthirsty mob bent on murder in a Baltic coast town 150 miles away – and twenty years in the past? And why worry about distant events, long past and best forgotten?

There were some who could just not forget them. About six thousand such resolute people, with a wide banner, flags and posters, walked together to a big, conspicuous building with three giant sunflower mosaics on one side, visible to every summer visitor driving to the beach. The banner said: “Solidarity, with no borders: 20 Years after the Pogrom.” They were recalling a terrible week in August, 1992, when hundreds of young men, cheered on by 3,000 on-lookers, threw stones, hunks of cement and Molotov cocktails into parts of this building in Lichtenhagen, a suburb of the East German city of Rostock. The resulting fire threatened to kill over a hundred Vietnamese men, women and children – two pregnant women among them – as well as a German TV crew. Just in time they found a crowbar, broke open locked doors and escaped to relative safety over the rooftop of the eleven-story building. 

At fault, the media reported, was East German racism, after less than two years of all-German freedom. Racism, pure and simple, they said. But had it been so simple?

After 1990, as a follow-up of all kinds of “velvet revolutions” in Eastern Europe plus bitter conflicts in once-united Yugoslavia, many refugees streamed into Germany. Once, after the Berlin Wall kept skilled East Germans out, West Germany had given a temporary welcome to workers from Spain, Italy and Turkey.

But these new eastern and Balkan immigrants were not at all welcome. Poor, often neither young nor muscular, and not “fleeing to freedom from Communism,” they were not even good for propaganda purposes. Helmut Kohl’s conservative government decided to limit the lenient rules for refugees.

The slogan, assiduously spread by much of the media, was “The boat is full!” But to alter constitutional rules the votes of the Social Democrats were needed, and they were reluctant to reverse their century-old traditions.

Processing refugees was a slow process; some got permission to remain, others did not, either way it could take months, often years to decide. (It still does, in fact.)

A processing center in Rostock, whose 300 beds in the “sunflower building” were soon filled, began to send the growing number of waiting families to camp outside, among lawns and shrubbery. After all, many were “only Gypsies” from Rumania and Yugoslavia. With minimum financial help, no canteens and no toilets, but with hungry children and nearby supermarkets, friction and anger was inevitable after a few weeks. Every attempt to move the families into a big, empty military housing unit was postponed or simply (but secretly) ignored.

The local press, with new West German owners, published without comment racist letters with menacing ultimatums and a threat of a “hot weekend.” The responsible authorities did nothing. Most of them had come to rule here from West Germany; for the weekend they went home to western Hamburg or Bremen.

Crowds gathered, so did journalists and TV crews. And so did carloads of West German neo-Nazis, who often directed the mob during three days of attacks, not against the refugees, who had fled the area in time, but against the peaceful Vietnamese families who had worked in the GDR and, the first to become jobless after 1990, were awaiting decisions on their fate.  

By August, 1992 over 40,000 people in Rostock were out of work, half of them more than a year; out of a population of 240,000. After so many GDR years when everyone had jobs, the disappointment and frustration of East Germans was bitter.

But with growing political disorientation, especially among young men, and with almost no experience with people of  other countries (the number from Vietnam was quite small), it sadly proved all too easy to direct hatred not against those who had made glorious promises and then shut down the big shipyards and fish industry in the area, but against foreigners. The police, most of them East Germans re-hired on a probation basis (whether they were truly “for democracy”), tried at first to control the growing mob, despite violent and bloody attacks. But then, strangely enough, whenever the situation became more critical during those three or four days, even the limited number of police sent in was withdrawn from action.

So were the water cannons; this meant that when the sector where the Vietnamese lived started to burn, they were unable to leave the buildings; the police were nowhere to be seen.

This meant that the fire engines could not move in. In at least two cases, the top officials, back at last from their West German homes, avoided the scene and went home to “change their shirts.” The chief of police, after changing his shirt, decided on an afternoon nap and was inaccessible for hours.

Ironically, he was later promoted to a higher state job (which he only lost due to his overly intimate relations with a brothel owner and pimp). Some members of the mob were briefly arrested; none received sentences worth the name. Ironically, left-wingers who hurried in from West Germany in a rented bus to help the Vietnamese were stopped, frisked and refused entry to the area.

But the resulting excitement about the perils of foreigners pouring in provided the required atmosphere for altering the constitution to discourage and discriminate against future refugees. The Social Democrats voted “Ja” with the government. The mob violence had achieved the desirable – and undoubtedly intended – results.

This brings us to the present. Last November a scandal occurred, with a shock effect too big to sweep under the German rug. Over a span of twelve years, there were bombings, one with 22 people injured, a series of bank robberies, and the murder of nine immigrant men, eight of Turkish, one of Greek background, plus a 22-year-old policewoman, in many different regions of Germany. The deaths of the immigrants, mostly small shop-owners, were blamed on alleged “turf” wars in immigrant communities. Since two of the victims were killed in shops selling Turkish “döner kebab” rolls, the term “döner murders” was coined.

But then, after a bank robbery in Thuringian Eisenach, two men were found dead and a 37-year-old woman was arrested after setting fire to the apartment of the three. It still contained the Czech-made weapon used in all the murders plus the weapons of the murdered policewoman and her seriously injured colleague as well as a boastful video detailing all the murders and with long lists of future victims. With the murders and attacks the trio wanted to sow chaos and hatred against foreigners in hopes of re-establishing “genuine German” rule, as in Hitler’s day. That was on Nov. 4, 2011.

A committee of the Bundestag was formed to investigate the matter, with all parties included and with subpoena powers. A strange, complex murder mystery began to unfold (and is still unfolding)! The trio had not been lone wolves, but part of a network. They had been forced into hiding years earlier, but information about their location had either been ignored or, in one case, led to a raid on their hideout which was suddenly called off at the last minute, no one seemed to know why. One week after the crimes came to light, on Nov.11, 2011, the federal attorney general ordered all security and secret service authorities to turn over every bit of relevant information. The central office of the Constitutional Protection Bureau and its Thuringian subsidiary had piles of information on a rightwing extremist group with 140 members to which the three had belonged; it had largely been organized by one of their main spies! But on that same day, when all material was requested, they had put everything on crimes and connections between 1997 and 2003 through a shredder! Their explanation? The date of the statute of limitations had arrived!


More and more ties were discovered between the murder trio and the legal neo-Nazi party and – and with spies sent by the government into both the legal and secret groups. One employee of the Constitutional Protection Bureau was  recognized at the scene of one of the murders, holding a package possibly containing a weapon. Why had nothing ever been reported, why had nothing ever been done to prevent further murders and punish the murderers?

Somehow, this “bungling” was attributed to inefficiency, inability and lack of coordination between various protective agencies of the government. Most media offered less and less on the growing evidence of collusion, and the blurring of all distinctions between activities of the informers and of the hate-mongers and murderers they were supposed to check on.

Some officials, like the head of the Constitutional Protection Bureau, decided on early retirement, and there was some organizational rearrangement; a new directory of violence-prone rightists was created with lots of “earnest” ballyhoo.

But the slime kept oozing out from under the closing doors. Now the Berlin big-wig has been caught in his own contradictions. The Christian Democratic Frank Hempel, second in command in the city of Berlin since his party formed a coalition with the Social Democrats last year, is a hearty, popular figure, steadily eclipsing Mayor Wowereit, whose poll ratings plummeted since the multi-billion euro fiasco with the huge new airport, whose opening has been delayed by well over a year.

But now someone noted that another shady spy sent into the Nazi groupings, himself a criminal, had once reported on his knowledge of the probable whereabouts of the murderous trio. He had known the woman very well. But his information, which might have exposed some of the many manipulations by the authorities, had illegally been kept secret from the Bundestag committee – by Hempel. He maintained lamely that the attorney general’s office had asked him to keep it all “temporarily” secret – to protect the life of the informer. But this alibi was quickly denied by that office and, all of a sudden, the future career of jolly Frank Hempel no longer looks jolly; he could join the other early retirees. Or perhaps the mayor can save him, and with him the governing coalition.

Almost every day adds a new installment in this dramatic whodunit, but only a very few seem to recall that the Constitutional Protection office was dedicated from the start to hitting not the right but the left. That explains the large number of former Nazi SS men it employed. They died out over the years, but snooping and spying aimed most in one main direction. With troops in Afghanistan and atomic submarines sold to Israel, checking on „Muslim terrorists” is now also part of their job, but although it would be unjust to accuse many in the current government of loving fascists, some find it useful to have them around.

As long as there are Nazi marches, rallies, bloodthirsty concerts and attacks on foreigners, and as long as people on the left protest against them, often peaceably, like the 6,000 people who marched in Rostock on the anniversary of the violence 20 years ago, but occasionally with a hothead (or sometimes a police provocateur) throwing a bottle or rock in the direction of the tough, disciplined neo-Nazis, it is always possible to orate against “terrorists of the right and the left,” equating the two evils (just as Nazi Germany and the GDR are almost daily equated).

The Ministry of the Interior has just announced: “It is fully clear that the Left Party will remain under observation.” It is just like twenty years ago; while many are forced to tighten their belts, hatred against foreigners continues to mislead and distract them. While those on the left continue to get hit, true criminals on the fascist right still get their wrists slapped. And the vaults, marinas, fancy garages and hangars of a very few get fuller and fuller all the time.


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.