History of Europe

Rostock-Lichtenhagen:where xenophobia erupted

Last updated:2022-07-25

Right-wingers throw stones and Molotov cocktails, residents applaud:starting August 22, 1992, brutal attacks on foreigners in Rostock-Lichtenhagen continued for days. Politicians and the police are overwhelmed.

There were riots with advance notice:"In the night from Saturday to Sunday we're cleaning up in Lichtenhagen. It's going to be a hot night," threatened an anonymous caller to the Rostock daily newspaper "Norddeutsche Latest News" on August 19, 1992. And the "Ostseezeitung quotes three young people on August 21, who announced that "the Roma should be 'slapped up'". "The people who live here will look out of the windows and applaud," predict the three young people.

22. August 1992:The right-wing mob gathers

In August 1992, violence against foreigners erupted in front of the so-called Sunflower House. But only days later do the police shield the building.

What begins a day later is still one of the worst xenophobic attacks in Germany after the Second World War. On the evening of August 22, 1992, around 2,000 people, many of them residents of the district, gather in front of the so-called sunflower house in the Rostock district of Lichtenhagen. The central reception center for asylum seekers of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (ZASt) is housed in the building, which is named after the flower mosaic on its facade. Around 200 violent criminals, mostly young people, started throwing stones at the building on Saturday. The first window panes on the eleven-storey, long building, in which the Vietnamese also live, break.

"We had the feeling:This is a civil war"

Rostock-Lichtenhagen:Since the riots in August 1992, the district has stood for dull xenophobia.

The next day the first incendiary devices fly - an unleashed pack vents their hatred and frustration, supported by well-known German right-wing extremists who have traveled to the area. The assembled onlookers do not stop the violent criminals - on the contrary:they applaud the perpetrators, cheer them on. The approaching police officers come without protective uniforms and are unprepared for the angry crowd, whose anger also meets them. "It's a civil war here, we had that feeling back then," recalls Guido Nowak, who was a patrolman in Rostock at the time, appalled by the behavior of onlookers:"It was unbelievable for me that young people who attacked us were between the spectators could disappear, that the local residents made room, that they let them in."

"Germany for the Germans, foreigners out!"

It was only during the night that police officers from Hamburg and officials from the Federal Border Guard came to stop the violent criminals - for the time being. But the very next day, right-wing skinheads and other violent criminals ganged up again, threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the reception center and attacked the police. The cheering crowd applauds and chants:"Germany for the Germans, foreigners out!"

Police leave those who are attacked unprotected

Initially, the police had nothing to counter the incendiary devices aimed at the sunflower house and its residents.

The asylum seekers will not be evacuated from the reception center until Monday, the third day of the riots. But the attacks continue with the same brutality. In the evening, the situation is completely out of control:the violent criminals, most of whom are young people, fight a street fight with the police, several officers are injured. Eventually, the police withdraw - leaving the people who remained in the building unprotected. Shortly thereafter, the house is on fire.

Around 120 people trapped in the burning building

The trapped Vietnamese found it difficult to free themselves from the burning building.

The fire brigade is on site, but is hampered by the crowd in the rescue work. Around 120 Vietnamese are trapped in the building, including children. A ZDF television crew and the head of the central admissions office, Rainer Hagen, are trapped in the burning house with them. Those trapped manage to break through the emergency exits, which are secured with locks, and escape to the roof.

"I can't forget it because I was there"

Hung Quoc Nguyen lived in the Sunflower House in 1992. Like many others, he fled over the roof.

Hung Quoc Nguyen is also among those who, filled with fear, climb onto the roof. For 30 years he has not spoken about what he experienced - like so many others:"The Vietnamese in Rostock still remember the incident, but nobody wants to talk about it again," he says in the NDR documentary "Die Scar - Der Attack in Rostock-Lichtenhagen". In 1989 he came to the GDR from Hanoi as a contract worker. In Rostock he then works as a handling worker at the seaport. He lives with his colleagues on the 10th floor of the sunflower house.

On the day of the fire, he comes home in a friend's car in the evening. In the face of right-wing mobs, they leave the car and run away. "Then the rioters rushed over and set the car on fire. Then the police car, then others." Later, the flames also spread in the house, first on the first floor, then they eat up. Hung and his colleagues escape to the top floor and from there to the roof.

Miraculously, there are no dead

The building after the attacks. The fire brigade was initially prevented from extinguishing the fire.

About an hour later the fire is out and the terrified residents - some are still hiding on different floors of the building - are brought to safety.

The pogrom-like riots lasted more than a day. The police use water cannon and tear gas against the destructive mob. The police only got the situation under control on the night of Wednesday, August 26th. Miraculously, there were no deaths.

Lichtenhagen in the early 1990s - a social powder keg

The television pictures from Rostock-Lichtenhagen shock the world. Bad memories of the pogroms of the National Socialists are awakened. To this day, the Rostock-Lichtenhagen district stands for brutal xenophobia. But how did the riots come about?

In the early 1990s, unemployment in Rostock-Lichtenhagen was high. After reunification, many former shipyard workers lost their jobs. Frustration is rampant in the densely populated neighborhood of 18,000 people. At the same time, as a result of the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the number of asylum seekers across Germany is skyrocketing. The new federal states also take in part of the stream of refugees. The central reception center for asylum seekers (ZASt) for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is housed in the sunflower house in Lichtenhagen. Any asylum seeker assigned to the country must register there.

Hundreds of refugees are camping in front of the reception center

In the summer of 1992, many asylum seekers had to wait days for their registration. The reception area is completely overcrowded.

In Rostock alone, more than 1,000 people applied for asylum every month in 1992. The reception center is soon completely overloaded. Asylum seekers often have to wait for days until they are finally registered and allocated to dormitories in other parts of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. At times, up to 650 people are waiting to submit their application - and new asylum seekers are arriving every day, many of them Sinti and Roma. Since there are only 350 beds in the building itself, hundreds of refugees are holding out on the green spaces between the houses. There are no toilets there - the city refuses to take appropriate precautions in order not to "legalize" the conditions around the ZASt.

Unclear responsibility at the authorities

Months before the riots, complaints from residents about the conditions around the sunflower house were piling up. But nobody in the authorities feels really responsible:The city of Rostock sees the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania as having an obligation, since the ZASt is a state authority. The government in Schwerin, on the other hand, holds the city of Rostock responsible.

The anger of the residents is growing

"I would still help throw stones," confessed this woman in the summer of 1992.

The situation in Lichtenhagen continues to deteriorate. Given the large number of refugees, many residents feel that politicians have let them down. Frustration and resentment towards the strangers are growing:"For us on the block, they are, to put it in German, filthy pigs! They shit and piss around our block! They're lying in the corner!", a resident complained shortly before the riots. The atmosphere is explosive.

Those responsible at the police and the city are informed that unknown persons and right-wing extremists have announced protests and riots for the weekend of August 22nd and 23rd. They discuss whether the reception point should be cleared to be on the safe side - and decide against it.

Announced riots - those responsible are in the weekend

"It might have been better if the decision to clear the ZASt had already been made on Saturday, when the danger was looming. When you saw something could be brewing. I'll admit that," says the then department head for foreigners' issues in the Interior Ministry Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Winfried Rusch, later looking back. He took part in the deliberations in August 1992.

But nothing happens. Instead, most of those responsible travel to their families in West Germany for the weekend - including the police operations manager, Jürgen Deckert. And at the beginning of the riots, the police in Rostock had no clear leadership.

The media stir up fears, politics and the police are failing

At the beginning of the 1990s, politicians and the media stirred up fear of the refugees with the nonsense "glut of asylum seekers".

The list of fatal mistakes made by politicians, authorities and the police who preceded the riots is long. These include unclear responsibilities, a complete misjudgment of the situation, a lack of staff in the responsible authorities, insufficient capacity in the emergency quarters and the failure to heed complaints. At the same time, not only right-wing extremists, but also democratic politicians had fueled the mood against the growing number of asylum seekers. With reports about the alleged "flood of foreigners" and "glut of asylum seekers", the media contributed to fueling fears of foreigners.

"A lot has certainly come together. And then there's also the inability to deal with such problems. I'm not ruling myself out. That's the way it is," admits Wolfgang Zöllick 20 years after the attacks in 2012. The CDU politician was from 1990 until 1994 deputy mayor of Rostock.

Many perpetrators get away with it

257 criminal proceedings are initiated after the riots, but most are dropped. In 1993 and 1994, 40 attackers were given suspended sentences, mostly for breach of the peace and arson. Only three perpetrators get prison sentences - the maximum is three years. The last trial only ends in 2002. In it, three more perpetrators are sentenced to suspended sentences of between 12 and 18 months for arson and attempted murder. The anonymous crowd who cheered on the perpetrators, obstructed the fire brigade and didn't lift a finger to help the threatened people in the building go unpunished.

Memorials in Rostock:five steles in five places

25 years after the attacks, the memorial steles of the artist group SCHAUM were erected in Rostock.

Since 2017, five marble steles in Rostock have commemorated the brutal xenophobic attacks in the summer of 1992 - five individual memorials in different places in Rostock, which commemorate the various social components that fueled the riots at the time or did not prevent them:politics, vigilantism, state violence, Media, society and empathy.