The Pogrom of Lichtenhagen – 20 years later the EU is making the same mistakes

Today is the last day of the 20th anniversary of the events (often called ‘riots’) of Rostock-Lichtenhagen. In Germany, it is also referred to as the pogrom of Rostock-Lichtenhagen.

The GDR had been under travel and immigration restrictions, but did have immigrant workers. 368 Vietnamese workers had come to Rostock since 1981, mostly to work in the harbour and docks. Nominally, there was no unemployment in the GDR. Everyone had a right to work. Following the collapse of the GDR and the reunion, many people lost their jobs, unemployment was rising and the future looked exceedingly uncertain.

At the same time, over 440 000 asylum seekers came to Germany in 1992, and the recognition rate dropped to 4.3%. In 1986 the conservative party had started a campaign against “asylum fraud” and “economic refugees”. The emotionally charged discourse on “the asylum question” had partly resulted in rising votes for far right parties.

Since the summer of 1991 racist violence had been on the rise. In September of that year, a 500 strong mob had attacked the residence of immigrant workers and refugees in Hoyerswerda. People were applauding Nazi skinheads and the police capitulated and evacuated 300 victims of the attack. Attacks happened all over Eastern Germany, and sometimes in Western Germany. An 18 year old Rumanian was beaten to death.

There were incidents in Rostock as well.

The sun flower house in Rostock-Lichtenhagen got its name for the large mural of sun flowers on the wall. One part of it, number 19, was home to over 100 Vietnamese workers and their families, who had been in the country for up to 10 years. The other part, number 18, was turned into a Central Reception Centre (ZAst). The Central Reception Centre is where asylum seekers go through the process of applying for asylum. The process takes several days, and the sun flower house was set up to house up to 300 people. The ZAst in Lichtenhagen was the only one in Mecklenburg Vorpommern, a German state which at the time had a population of about 1.8 million and covers an area of over 23 000 square kilometres.

In reality, up to 650 people were living there. The building was not large enough, so they ended up camping on the front lawn. Images taken in 1992 in Rostock-Lichtenhagen show families sheltering in nooks and crannies outside, effectively left homeless.

Authorities were repeatedly informed of the conditions, but did nothing. Far right parties had been distributing leaflets announcing “Rostock will remain German!” and called residents to “take charge of the asylum problem”. Two local newspapers received calls announcing that “order would be restored” and exhorting people to “clean up Lichtenhagen” on the weekend of 22./23. August. They also predicted that residents would be looking on and applaud those actions. Both papers printed these threats without comment.

On the evening of Saturday, 22. August 1992, around 2 000 people assembled outside the sun flower house. Soon about 200 of them started attacking the house, throwing bricks and stones. Early on, a molotov cocktail was thrown. Some shouted “Germany for Germans, foreigners out!” and “Sieg Heil!”. Street vendors set up to sell food and drink to the attackers and their audience.

30 police officers were beaten back. No reinforcements were sent. Rostock at the time had 1 100 officers. At 2am two water cannons arrived, from the back of the attackers, pushing them towards the house, instead of away from it. Not until 5am did the last of the attackers leave.

In the end 160 police officers were sent. They arrested 9, all of whom were released the following day.

On Sunday, the crowd started gathering around midday. Nazis and fascists including a number of well known figureheads (such as Christian Worch) had traveled from all over Germany. The attacks on the house started in the afternoon. Attackers stormed the part of the building where the Vietnamese workers were living, making it several floors up. The police pushed them back, but was severely attacked. They fired warning shots and one aimed shot. 74 officers were injured. 130 people were arrested. 60 of those arrests were protestors attempting to march against racist violence in solidarity with the victims of the attack.

I haven’t found any information on the number of injured asylum seekers or Vietnamese workers.

By Monday the crowd started gathering in late morning. By 3pm the ZAst had been evacuated. Not so the Vietnamese families. Over 100 people remained in number 19, including children, babies and pregnant women. Also in the building was a camera team of one of the public TV channels, and some civil servants. This is the part of the house which had already been stormed by the attackers the previous night.

Over half the police forces had been withdrawn by evening. The house remained unprotected.

In a repetition of the previous night, bricks and molotov cocktails were thrown. The house was stormed and attackers destroyed the furniture with baseball bats before spilling gasoline and setting the house on fire. They shouted “We will get you, all of you!” and “You’ll get roasted!”

The police received the first call at 9:25 pm. The fire brigade was called by a resident at 21:38. They did not know about the fire. At this point the fire had spread across the first and second floor. The fire trucks were repeatedly blocked and fire men were heard commenting that the police were not helping, or not present at all, in recorded radio messages.

It took over an hour, until 22:32 before the police sent reinforcements. It took them until 22:55 to open a passage through the crowd to get the fire trucks to the house. Less than an hour later, the fire was extinguished.

100 people were locked in the burning building. The camera crew kept on filming and you can see the fear in those faces, and the thickening of the smoke. A door, marked as a fire exit but locked, was broken down and some people fled into the building next door, the evacuated ZAst. Others fled to the top floor and arrived at a door secured with two locks and a grill. The locks were broken and the grill bent and finally broken down, allowing people to flee onto the roof. At 11:30 pm attackers below were still shouting “We will get all of you!”

Women and children fled over the roof to another block. They got into the building, but no one would open their door. They had to walk down four floors before they found someone willing to help them. They were then put onto buses and evacuated to a local gym.

The pogrom in Rostock-Lichtenhagen lasted four horrible days. No one was killed. The footage of the camera team and other footage was made into a documentary about the events and the lead up (an English version is available here).

Being in Greece reminded me of Rostock. The same charged and dangerous discourse by politicians, speaking of “hygienic time bombs” and that they will “clean the streets” of migrants and refugees. The unemployment and uncertain future. The rise of racist attacks, by attackers often wearing the logo of Golden Dawn on their clothing. Golden Dawn, the fascist Greek party that scored 18 seats in Greek parliament has been acting with impunity. The economic crisis with mass unemployment, workers not being paid and the future looking bleak. And people who come for safety, from countries like Afghanistan where we are fighting not terror, but people. And once they get here we leave them destitute on the streets.

But this is on a bigger scale. If Lichtenhagen was the result of German policy, what is happening in Greece and other European border countries is the result of European policies. These are the same countries hit hardest by the economic crisis. The countries who have the least resources to provide for refugees. None of the refugees we spoke to in Greece had set out for Greece. They were on their way to the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Norway, Sweden… They get trapped in Greece because of European regulations which force people to apply for asylum in the first European country they arrive in.

To be clear: Lichtenhagen and many other attacks could have been prevented, if asylum seekers would have been provided with shelter, food, and other basic needs. Walking through a central park in Athens early in the morning, we saw dozens of homeless refugees. At the police station where refugees are sent to make their asylum claim, people told us they have come once a week for two months, six months, two years, without being able to start the application process. They sleep in parks. They depend on charities and churches for their meals. They have difficulties getting medical treatment. They are attacked on the streets.

If nothing is done, the EU is creating a new Lichtenhagen. A Lichtenhagen on the scale of an entire country. I hope I am wrong.

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