The Riots in Germany

By Wolfgang Bosswick
Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 1990)
Issue theme: "Inaugural issue"

Most of the riots occurred while I was on vacation in Poland. I had no news from Germany. We went into only one town to shop, so I didn't hear of the riots before I met my Polish friends in Krakow. They were very afraid of crossing into the former GDR (East German) territories on their trips to Germany because there had been some serious incidents during the last year (scarcely mentioned by the German press). The growing violence is not only directed against immigrants and asylum seekers, but also against tourists from Poland. In the last two years of the Communist regime there was a growing hostility toward Polish people crossing the border to the GDR to shop, and this mood seemed to be at least accepted by the former [East German] government. I had to get the information on the riots from old press releases after I returned, and I missed the live reports on TV from Rostock, Quendlinburg and Wismar. I should explain some things to an American audience. The term 'right-wing extremist' is a bit misleading in this case. There are clearly racist and even fascist propagandists currently gaining support in growing circles of the mostly unemployed and frustrated east German youth. On several occasions, police raids uncovered weapons and Nazi-like propaganda materials during the last several months. Nevertheless, the majority of the rioting people seem not to be organized, and not even to have an ideological relation to these circles - they seemed to come mostly from the local, suburban neighborhoods. But, doubtless, there had been right-wing activists participating in the riots and their propaganda gave a background for these violent attacks. The rioters legitimate themselves by a postulated necessity for a 'wake-up call,' and the most frightening aspect of these riots is the broad applause given by the spectators from the neighborhood. As far as I can see, there are several reasons for the outbreak. There is a deep and widespread frustration in the former East German population about the conse-quences of the reunification and their feeling of being completely ignored by the West German political elite. There are growing nostalgic sentiments and the feeling of their territory being almost 'occupied' by their counterparts from the wealthy, densely populated western part of Germany. The majority of employable people lost their formerly 'safe' jobs, mainly because of the complete collapse of the eastern Europe market for industrial exports (which is related to currency unification), the unclear ownership of real property in the former GDR (which hinders new investments), and the loss of the local consumer product market to goods imported from west German enterprises. Many of the key positions in the political parties are taken by west German 'import' politicians and very few are widely accepted. The western legal and administration system was implemented without regard to conflict over the ownership claims of West German citizens against their former properties confiscated by the Communist regime, and over the Abortion law (�218 Criminal Code). 'Crossing the former wall from Berlin-Mitte to Kreuzberg and Neuk�lln, with its nearly 40 percent Turkish population, must have been a very strange experience for East Germans...' There is a mood of resistance and provocation against the political system and the administration - these produced violent attacks during the riots, not only against the foreigners, but against the police. The police force is often perceived both as the old 'Volkspolizist,' to which, of course, a lot of the staff had belonged, and as the representative of the new state, now dominated by the west Germans. This is certainly a psychological problem, and it should be taken as seriously as the economic turmoil. Finally, there is an obvious hostility against foreigners nowadays, especially against the asylum seekers who have been a major source of controversy in the election campaigns for years. Compared to the situation in west German communities, the total number of asylum seekers in east Germany is quite low, but the coincidence of violence against asylum seekers in west Germany, the heavily discussed question of the asylum legislation, and the nearly complete absence of foreigners in the daily life of the former GDR, are all opening a valve for these incidents. There were guest-workers from Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam and Cuba during the last decades, but their numbers had been small compared to the labor migration into West Germany, and they had been strictly separated from the German population. The official 'Internationale Sozialistische V�lkerfreundschaft' (International Socialist Peoples' Friendship) propagated by the regime (although sometimes in sharp contrast to the real treatment of these guest-workers) adds one more facet to this complex situation. Crossing the former wall from Berlin-Mitte to Kreuzberg and Neuk�lln, with its nearly 40 percent Turkish population, must have been a very strange experience for East Germans at the time when it first became possible. Many of the rioters are unemployed; most of them are very young (14 to 18 years old). Part of the problem also seems to be that many of them, formerly involved in the GDR youth organizations with their sophisticated programs, now regard themselves as abandoned by the state. There is no immediate competition between the East German natives and the asylum seekers on the job market, but in matters of social services and the housing market, they certainly are perceived as a massive burden. Conflicts similar to those in west Germany between the second generation of labor immigrants, the lower class natives, and the recently arrived ethnic Germans from the East - related to competition in the labor market - are unlikely in East Germany. The Vietnamese guest workers had been employed in some segments of industry in the former GDR. There was a treaty with the Peoples' Republic of Vietnam defining the terms of this labor migration. The presence of the workers was limited to five years, women becoming pregnant had to abort or leave the country immediately, and the wages were only partially paid to the workers. Sending goods to Vietnam and the exportation of goods on the way back was very restricted. The guest-workers lived in separate housing areas, worked in separate departments, and contacts with the local population were, although not forbidden, sharply restrained by the authorities and the secret police, STASI. 'In the case of the riots in former East Germany, I think that the government, but also the other parties, have failed to address the problem in an appropriate way.' The Rumanian Gypsies are asylum seekers and most of them enter via Poland. A Polish friend of mine in Krakow told about her visit to her parents in Przemysl (located in southeast Poland, just at the Ukrainian border). There, hundreds are living on the streets under very bad conditions, crowding the main station, parks and the downtown section of the city. There are reliable reports of frequent pogroms against the Gypsies in Rumania (often supported by local authorities), but there also seems to be a well-organized smuggling network marketing the migration option to the Rumanian Gypsies. Many of them try to proceed to Germany and to apply for asylum. In late September, the German government signed a treaty with the Rumanian government in which Rumania agrees to receive deported Rumanians from Germany, even if they don't have any identification documents. Whether the chanted slogans of the rioters can be defined as 'Neo-Nazi' is as problematic as the term itself. Many of them are coming from the right-wing background mentioned above; some of them clearly do have a racist attitude. Obviously these riots are not mild civil protests against the dispersal of asylum seekers to the local neighborhoods, but violent attacks - verbal and physical. Some incidents, such as the riots in Rostock and in Quendlinburg, gave the impression that the intervention of the police had been at least half-hearted. Several attacks with fatal results during the last two years have been clearly racially motivated, and directed against people with African or Asian ancestry. In the case of the riots in former East Germany, I think that the government, but also the other parties, have failed to address the problem in an appropriate way. They should have refrained from deploying contingents of asylum seekers in east German communities in the same concentration as in the west German communities, without an appropriate political and organizational preparation. The focus on asylum seekers in public debate during several election campaigns promoted by the CDU and CSU political parties, while ignoring the large scale migration from east to west Germany and the immigration from eastern Europe with all its social consequences, has resulted in a paralysis of reasonable measures and the lack of an immigration policy. This is contributing to that situation. My main concern is - as John Tanton points out in his Social Contract editorial - that more and more people will draw the conclusion from these incidents that violence works. Nevertheless, I think that it is problematic to compare the Los Angeles riots with the German ones; in the unique background of German reunification, there are probably more differences than similarities. I am seriously concerned about these events, although I think there is a real chance to overcome them and to find reasonable solutions. 