Germans

Right-wing extremism 25 years after Rostock-Lichtenhagen

August 24, 1992, marked a dark day in Germany's postwar history as right-wing extremists attacked a refugee home in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Twenty-five years on, experts met in Berlin to assess how far Germany has come.

Deutschland Rechtsradikale Gewalt gegen Ausländer in Rostock-Lichtenhagen 1992 (picture-alliance/dpa)

On the night of August 24, 1992, about 2,000 right-wing extremists descended upon Rostock-Lichtenhagen's Sunflower House, a large apartment building that was home to Vietnamese contract workers and also served as the northern town's central reception center for asylum applicants. The mob chanted "Germany for the Germans!" and "Foreigners out!" as they threw Molotov cocktails at the building.

Thousands of locals stood by and watched; some applauded. Police failed to control the violence, and shocking pictures made their way around the world .

Rostock riots revealed 'the dark side of humanity'

The Sunflower House

The Sunflower House was attacked in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in August 1992

As the 25th anniversary of the xenophobic attack approaches, experts met in Berlin on Tuesday to assess the current dangers posed by right-wing extremists in Germany.

Wolfgang Richter, the commissioner in Rostock-Lichtenhagen's foreigners office at the time, was present when the violence took place.

"I think not only in Rostock, but also other German cities, we have a society which has pulled together to support asylum-seekers," Richter told DW.

"In Rostock, there are a lot of young people who think very differently from 25 years ago and are ready to help," Richter said. "But, at the same time, that doesn't mean that racism isn't still present in parts of society."

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Experts assessing right-wing extremism in Germany

Wolfgang Richter, Beate Küpper, Mai-Phuong Kollath and Bianca Klose met in Berlin

Though about 85 percent of Germany's population favors democracy and diversity, there is also palpable polarization, the social scientist Beate Küpper said, citing polls.

"A small minority clearly opposes this wish for democracy and diversity, with the approval of racist statements also on the increase again in surveys," Küpper said. Even one-third of the 85 percent of respondents who claim to favor diversity say there is "too much migration" to Germany, she added. 

Rostock-Lichtenhagen, 1992

Police did not control the assembled extremists

Though politicians, authorities and civil society have taken a stronger stance against xenophobia in recent years, the situation has not changed fundamentally since the time of the attack in Rostock-Lichtenberg, said Bianca Klose, the head of Berlin's Mobile Counseling Against Right-Wing Extremism.

Info graph showing right-wing extremist crimes in Germany 2007-2016

Klose pointed to the days of riots that took place in front of an asylum shelter in the Saxon town of Heidenau in August 2015. Today, she said, Germany is facing two kinds of right-wing extremism: the type "organized" by known groups, and an "everyday" variety in which it has become acceptable to voice sentiments that had been unheard of for decades - at least in public.

"Considerable parts of the population are still able to be mobilized racially in tense situations," Klose said.

"Politicians must also not let themselves be steered by racist sentiments," she added, noting that extremists have most recently mobilized against displaced people in Germany.

'These fueled-up fears'

One right-wing group that has had a particularly big impact in recent years is the Islamophobic and xenophobic PEGIDA.

German issues in a nutshell: PEGIDA

The group, which formed in the eastern city of Dresden in 2014, helped make large-scale public displays of hatred acceptable again, Küpper said.

Right-wing extremist parties in Germany

Richter said the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party had also played a role in legitimizing the far right.

"In the context of the AfD, this right-wing populism appears to offer solutions to these fueled-up fears," Richter said. "But they aren't dealt with, for example, by speaking with people. Instead they're stirred up even further. And this allows a nationalist, right-wing populist opinion spectrum to develop, which is attractive to a certain group of German voters."

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With 10 percent support and less than six weeks to go until Germans head to the polls, the AfD is in third place in voter surveys - behind only Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and their main rivals, the Social Democrats.

"The fact that the AfD could enter Germany's federal parliament come September's election is something to be feared," Richter said.

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