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.

Thomas Haentzschel/AP/File
Police arrested a man in Rostock, Germany, during anti-immigrant rioting in August 1992, when 400 right-wing protesters attacked refugee housing in the city. Despite having occurred 20 years ago, the riots still influence how the city is viewed, both by residents and by foreigners.

From her fifth-floor apartment one late-summer night, Kathleen Fichtner is trying to exorcise this city’s demons.

"My third day visiting Ghana, I walked through a crowded square, and everyone was black," she tells a group of guests about her recent trip. "And I thought, 'They’re all going to rob me!'"

Beside her, sipping drinks, five Ghanaian political refugees howl with laughter.

But back home in her native northeast Germany, she encountered even wilder notions: "Do Africans use forks and knives?" a grandparent asked. "Do they have roads?"

Her guests roll around in their chairs, slapping knees, and each other’s backs.

"We don't have houses!" someone jokes.

"We sleep in trees," cracks Kofi Owusu.

Ever since 1992, when Rostock became site of Germany’s most racist riots since the days of Hitler, this Baltic Sea port has faced a long road to redemption. That August, an angry mob, fed up with scores of Eastern European refugees pouring in, ran riot for three days – hurling Molotov cocktails at a heavily immigrant apartment complex and then storming it, and at one point forcing the police into retreat. In the process, the city became a byword for the sort of neo-Nazism that’s plagued Germany for decades.

Over the past 20 years, though, Rostockers have labored to reinvent their city. They have restored their picturesque Old Town, which was bombed in World War II and mothballed under four decades of communism. They’ve expanded their deep-water port, which will dock a record of nearly 200 cruise ships this year. And they’ve modernized their 15,000-student university, founded in 1419 and now attracting talent from as far away as Korea.

“If it weren’t for the riots, we’d be known for the sea, tourism, maybe the university, soccer, and history,” says Thomas Niebuhr, an editor at the local newspaper Ostsee Zeitung.

Yet for many foreigners, Rostock – like much of eastern Germany – is considered a xenophobic place. Only about 3 percent of the city’s 200,000 residents are foreign-born, three times fewer than in most German cities. Since the riots, many say they still endure racial slurs in public places, mistrust local law enforcement, and interact daily with neighbors who voted their chief tormentors into public office.

Foreigners out

The refugee center Oekohaus Rostock offers a window into this world. Located in a dense cluster of trees near the final stop of a tram line, the fenced-in campus, which houses some 200 Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans, appears half public-housing project and half campground. Refugees assigned to the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania  by German immigration often linger here for years before getting cleared to look for work or private housing.

Maxime Sanvi Sodji, a 37-year-old Togo native and former refugee himself, is a social worker here. For 13 years, he’s braved the worst of Rostock with a grim determination. He's been called racial slurs hundreds of times, he says. He’s accustomed to watching people avoid sitting in empty seats near him on public transportation. And since his friend got badly beaten a decade ago – and the paramedics’ first question was if he had his papers – he’s joined an underground network of ersatz first responders.

"I can call the police, but I do not think they will be there in three minutes," he says. "But I am 100 percent sure that my fellow people will be."

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.

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."

Showing solidarity

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?"

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