Rostock, notorious for Germany's worst racist riots, struggles for redemption
In 1992, Rostock was tarnished by the worst racist rioting in Germany since the days of Hitler. But current Rostockers, including African immigrants, are trying to change that.
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Sodji's concerns about the police may or may not be warranted – a police spokeswoman said the department's internal investigations office has found no recent case of racist policing. But in recent years, his unease has been substantiated by the ballot box. Since 2003, when the German government failed in court to ban the extreme-right National Democratic Party (NPD), that party has won two of 53 seats on the Rostock city council and five of 71 seats in the state parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Of Germany’s 16 federal states, the only other to do that is the fellow eastern Germany region of Saxony.Skip to next paragraph
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The NPD splashes its pamphlets with pictures of smiling white adults and children, alongside phrases like “Promote German Families.” In campaign season, they achieve an outsized voice with posters that cry out statements like "No mosques in Rostock!" or "Foreigners out!"
To be sure, only 4 percent of Rostock’s voters supported the NPD in the 2011 elections, while in certain rural districts near the Polish border that ratio climbed to 33 percent.
"We’re not a right-wing stronghold," says Tim Bleis of the victim-support group Lobbi E.V., which has documented about 100 cases of Neo-Nazi attacks, vandalism, and intimidation in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in each of the last few years. "But that doesn't mean we don't have a problem with right-wing extremism."
But some native residents are pushing back. Graffiti and stickers tagging the streets of Rostock these days are more likely to say "antifascist" than anything else. The police view left-wing groups with as much concern as right-wing extremists, a spokeswoman says.
In August, at the 20-year memorial of the Rostock riots, neighbors planted an oak tree in solidarity with the erstwhile refugees. Three days later, it was chopped down – by a left-wing group convinced the tree referenced oak plantings in the 1930s by the Hitler Youth.
On a cool night a few weeks later, about 100 people – including Ms. Fichtner and the Ghanaian refugees – met in a busy square to rally. Kicking things off, the emcee handed the microphone to the first speaker – who was hiding in an orange van, behind a black flag that read, "Stop It! Fight Racism! Close all Refugee Settlements!" For 10 minutes, a women’s voice boomed from speakers, urging passersby to stick up for foreigners.
Such advocacy is not without risk. "The NPD keeps track of us," she said, explaining her desire to hide her identity. The emcee asked a reporter to delete a photograph of her.
Last fall, months after right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 Norwegians, German authorities uncovered a domestic terror cell, "National Socialist Underground," charged with 10 slayings – including a Turkish man killed in Rostock in 2004. In July, German officials warned that immigrants, politicians, and social workers who help foreigners could be at risk.
Sodji has watched many immigrant friends flee Rostock for Berlin or Hamburg, he says. He had never considered doing so until recently, when his five-year-old daughter, a German citizen, came home from school to ask why an older girl had called her a highly offensive racial slur and claimed she wasn’t German.
"That hits me deep in the heart," Sodji says, then pauses. "But if all the foreigners leave Rostock, who will show that we can all live here together?"