Imagine, 47 years after the end of the Second World War, a pogrom is raging in a German city - and hardly any politicians go there afterwards. And then it takes another 30 years until the head of the Federal Republic visits the crime scene - and says what is necessary.
On the afternoon of August 25, 2022, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is standing in front of the east side of a twelve-storey prefabricated building in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. The windowless wall of the house is decorated with huge sunflowers. Steinmeier, accompanied by Prime Minister Manuela Schwesig, puts a sunflower in a white vase in front of the residential building. Then he remains silent in front of the wall. He will speak later, in the Rostock town hall.
Sunflowers are cheerful, summery symbols of courage. In the Lichtenhagen district of Rostock, however, the “sunflower house”, which is now a listed building, is associated with sheer fear of death. The Federal President visits the traces of a racist upsurge in which, three decades ago, no one died purely by accident. Not only the street terror that lasted for four days, but also the reactions to it marked a low point in German post-war history.
When the Sunflower House caught fire on the evening of August 24, the riots had been raging for three days. The police were completely overwhelmed, just two dozen officers tried desperately to keep the mob in check. Young men, including organized neo-Nazis, threw incendiary devices, and when the flames raged, thousands of citizens applauded. A total of 120 people, including many Vietnamese contract workers, who lived in the house, narrowly escaped a horrific death by fire.
Steinmeier stands today where 30 years ago Chancellor Helmut Kohl should have stood, or Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, or any other representative of reunified Germany. But they didn't come.
When asked whether the German head of government was planning a trip to Rostock, the government spokesman said in Bonn at the time that they wanted to avoid "condolence tourism". Only a still largely unknown family minister named Angela Merkel traveled to the Hanseatic city at the time in search of dialogue with young offenders. However, the encounter in a Rostock youth center, in which Merkel conducted research into the causes of skinheads, left many questions unanswered.
In Bonn, the pogrom was ultimately seen as the regrettable collateral damage of a bumpy Eastern reconstruction process. At that time, the public prosecutor's office opened 375 investigations against suspected arsonists and stone throwers. There were 44 convictions, of which only three were imprisonment without parole. Most perpetrators got away. When the Bundestag restricted the basic right to asylum in May 1993 with a two-thirds majority from the Union, SPD and FDP, the perpetrators of Lichtenhagen were able to feel like they had won. Their ruthless militancy had ultimately paid off politically.
The brutal scenes from the Hanseatic city, adequately documented by many television crews and broadcast almost live to German living rooms, did not fit into the narrative of the blooming landscapes less than two years after reunification. It was left to the chairman of the Central Council of Jews, Ignatz Bubis, to travel to Rostock in November 1992 and show empathy for the victims.
He cried in front of the sunflower house. And in the Rostock town hall, the chairman of the internal affairs committee, a local CDU politician, asked him: You describe yourself as a German citizen of the Jewish faith, right?” Then he added: “But your homeland is Israel. What do you think of the acts of violence between Israelis and Palestinians?” Bubis' visit ended with an uproar.
After 30 years, Frank-Walter Steinmeier found a friendlier reception in the Rostock town hall. But the German state that he represents has a lot to make up for here. towards the victims. Steinmeier probably also came to make up for what the political elite of the reunified Federal Republic did not want or could not. The accusation of “state failure” is used almost inflationary today. In connection with Rostock-Lichtenhagen, however, there is no alternative.
The rule of law, which had the duty to protect people, left them alone, says Steinmeier in the town hall. "And so they were exposed to an unleashed crowd of people, many of whom were their neighbors in previous years. What happened in Rostock is a disgrace to our country." And then: "Politics bears a great deal of responsibility for this disgrace."
He repeatedly turns to individual guests, such as the former contract worker Nguyen Do Thinh, who came to the GDR from Vietnam in 1982 and stayed in Rostock despite the pogrom. "We can only imagine your fear of death, your feeling of being abandoned in those hours," he says. "They survived." Steinmeier describes the pogrom in great detail, in all its dark facets. And then, of course, he also approaches the question, "how could that happen?" Many Rostockers also thought that what happened was impossible.
But, according to Steinmeier, one had learned from the darkest chapters of our German history "that the idea of the unimaginable was a fatal flaw in reasoning". "Unimaginability is a protective formulation to avoid having to deal further with what is happening - or how what happened could have happened".
This question should not be left hanging in the air, says the Federal President. “Answering them means naming precisely what was”. According to Steinmeier, the core of this question is “not about East and West”. The core is the realization of "what a society is capable of doing in the worst case - and how it can arm itself in the best case against it not happening again".
But that's where the head of state gets a little fuzzy. It is true that there were murderous arson attacks in the West in the early 1990s, for example in Mölln, Solingen and Lübeck. Neo-Nazis set fire to houses where Turkish families lived, many died. However, no neighbors gathered in front of these houses, who cheered the perpetrators and applauded. And it is precisely at this interface that a terrorist attack becomes a pogrom.
On the other hand, it is precise and correct that the Federal President calls the "riots in Rostock-Lichtenhagen a catastrophe with an announcement". A few days earlier, members of a "vigilante group" had announced in a local newspaper that they "wanted to clean up" the central contact point for refugees. If the city in Lichtenhagen doesn't ensure order, "we'll do it. In our own way," said an anonymous caller. The riots in Rostock were therefore conceivable, says Steinmeier, and therefore also avoidable.
The violence of that time, "that trace of right-wing terror, is unfortunately still there". It stretches across the country in waves. Steinmeier also mentions the series of murders by the right-wing terrorist NSU. “We haven't taken this lead seriously enough for far too long. We should have learned the right lessons from Rostock-Lichtenhagen."
At the end of his speech, Steinmeier describes these teachings in three points. It is important to disarm verbally, because "words can be weapons". Words can activate a society's potential for violence. He observes with concern how the boundary between the sayable and the unspeakable is shifting. It is important to resist the mechanisms of social media, "which reward the most disgusting verbal sword with the greatest reach".
The second lesson is aimed at politics. The state must always do everything possible to protect every single citizen in an open society against attacks. "We have not taken the danger of right-wing terror seriously enough for far too long." A state that sits on the sidelines for too long or underreacts does not adequately protect the vulnerable from those who are at risk. "A state that is absent at the crucial moment faces terrible consequences."
The third lesson from Lichtenhagen is to "offer protection to those who are potential victims". One must be alert to "hairline cracks in coexistence", "defensive against the enemies of this society, peaceful in dealing with one another and in solidarity with those threatened". You should never let them down.
It was probably Steinmeier's strongest speech of his term of office so far. One vacancy is still to be lamented. When Ignatz Bubis found out what was going on in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, when he saw the pictures of the burning sunflower house on television, he thought of the Kielce pogrom. In July 1946, around 40 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were killed in the Polish city, and Polish residents set fire to a house they had fled to.
A pogrom, as the dictionary defines it, is “riots against national, religious or ethnic minorities”. Exactly what happened in Lichtenhagen during the four days of August - although many Rostock residents didn't want to hear it for a long time.
But this word "pogrom" did not appear in Steinmeier's work. An accident? In any case, this is not trivial, especially since the president of the citizenship, Prime Minister Manuela Schwesig and a deputy mayor also used the word at the commemoration event in the town hall. Nevertheless, the Federal President in Rostock made a brilliant reckoning with the recent history of the republic. It was definitely long overdue.