Attacks on Foreigners and Immigrants in Post-Reunification Germany

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Attacks on Foreigners and Immigrants in Post-Reunification Germany

Book excerpt

By: Maryellen Fullerton

Date: April 1995

Source: Fullerton, Maryellen. Germany for Germans: Xenophobia and Racist Violence in Germany. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995.

About the Author: A professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, Maryellen Fullerton is an expert on procedural law, focusing on federal jurisdiction in the United States as well as on refugee and asylum systems in many countries worldwide. She has written books concerning Germany's refugee policies for Human Rights Watch, and has co-edited three volumes concerning migration in Hungary. Human Rights Watch is a non-governmental organization established in 1978 to monitor and promote the observance of internationally recognized human rights in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as the signatories of the Helsinki accords.


This report highlighted concerns about the increasing number of violent racial and anti-Semitic attacks that had been taking place in Germany in the early 1990s since reunification of the country in 1989. The incorporation of the large but economically weak German Democratic Republic into the Federal Republic of Germany, following the collapse of socialism, had resulted in major economic and social pressures on the whole country, and some blamed Germany's large and increasing immigrant community for their problems. Extreme-right wing groups, such as the Neo-Nazi movement, were able to exploit these conditions to gain support, particularly in the former German Democratic Republic, where conditions were particularly severe and unemployment levels very high. These movements blamed foreigners for the country's problems, encouraged the growth of xenophobic (anti-foreigner) attitudes, and encouraged their members to carry out violent racist attacks on immigrants.

Ever since the 1950s Germany's immigration levels have been among the highest in the world. Immigrants in Germany fall into three broad categories. The largest group consists of those who entered under the 'guest worker' programs of the 1960s and early 1970s, mainly from Turkey and Morocco. Many of these guest workers later settled permanently in Germany, bringing family members to join them. Second, there are a substantial number of ethnic Germans from former Eastern European Communist countries such as Russia and Poland. Hundreds of thousands of these people, who held German citizenship, entered Germany every year from the late 1980s until 1993 when the citizenship rules were changed. Finally, like other European countries Germany experienced a major influx of asylum seekers in the 1980s and 1990s, from Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

Despite the high levels of immigration that Germany has experienced, successive German governments until recently did not regard immigration as a significant policy issue in Germany, and have tended to treat its immigrant population as temporary settlers. As a result, there was traditionally little attempt to integrate or assimilate them, and immigrants developed their own communities outside mainstream German society. This was the case in the German Democratic Republic as well as in the West. In 1989 East Germany had a non-Russian foreign-born population of around 190,000, including many from Vietnam and Mozambique, who had entered the country as labor migrants under government agreements, and were accommodated in special housing away from the native population. Typically, Germany's immigrants in both the east and the west are economically disadvantaged compared with native Germans, and their living conditions are often poor. This separation of Germany's native and immigrant communities has led to a situation in which there is widespread distrust and fear of foreigners on the part of some sections of the population, particularly the working class youths most affected by the economic upheavals of reunification.

The violent attacks on foreigners that began in eastern Germany soon after reunification had disturbing connotations with the Jewish Holocaust, when millions of Jews were rounded up and killed under the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s. Soon after unification, slogans such as "Germany for the Germans" and "foreigners out" were commonly used by the radical right wing groups that beat up foreigners on the streets of eastern Germany, and carried out arson attacks on their homes. Initially, asylum seekers and refugees were the main targets, but soon the violence spread to include attacks on ethnic Germans and the large community of Turkish immigrants. Violent anti-Semitic acts were also carried out, but because there were very few Jewish people living in Germany by this time, these were mainly directed at symbolic targets such as Jewish cemeteries and museums rather than individuals.

Before long, xenophobic attitudes and radical right-wing movements including neo-Nazism spread across the country, with increasing numbers of attacks on foreigners taking place in the former Federal Republic. Although many of the attacks were perpetrated by small, unorganized individuals and groups, extremist right-wing parties also gained support in mainstream politics in the early 1990s, garnering a significant proportion of votes in some municipal elections.

Concerned at the growth of racist movements, the Government banned about twenty neo-Nazi and other extreme right-wing groups in the early 1990s, and increased the powers of the police and the judiciary to deal with racial violence. Among the general population there was widespread disgust at the violent attacks on foreigners, and public demonstrations were held in protest against right-wing radicalism, including candlelit processions known as "human chains of light," intended to show solidarity with immigrants.

The German Government also tackled the problems by changing the laws on asylum and citizenship, which made it more difficult for foreigners to enter the country and almost immediately reduced levels of immigration significantly. The Asylum Law of 1993 gave Germany the power to turn away any asylum seekers from countries where there was deemed to be no threat to their safety, or those who had passed through another safe country on their way to Germany. Laws were also passed limiting the entry of ethnic Germans from countries such as Poland and Russia, who had automatically been granted citizenship before this time.



Attacks on Foreigners and Immigrants in post-Reunification Germany

The Federal Republic of Germany has undergone an entire epoch of history in the past five years since trainloads of East Germans crossed into Hungary and Czechoslovakia searching for a route to the West in the spring and summer of 1989. In November 1989, people rushed over the Berlin Wall, border crossings opened, and crowds danced on top of the grim edifice that had scarred the city once known as the "capital of Europe." The euphoria culminated one year later in December 1990 in the Treaty of Unification. Two states became one: the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was transformed into five federal states (Bundeslander) that joined with the existing eleven federal states to constitute the Federal Republic of Germany.

This transformation has been accompanied by heady euphoria at freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom to buy a fabulous array of consumer goods provided by a free market economy. It has also been accompanied by a dramatic increase in unemployment in the East and heavy tax burdens on the more prosperous citizens of the West. Resentment of these two economic consequences of unification has led to bitterness with the present and nostalgia for the past. Many former citizens of the GDR feel a loss of a sense of community, as well as a loss of jobs and social support. Many also feel a loss of their bearings and values. In the former West Germany many citizens resent the economic cost of unification and are angry that the social process of unification is not already complete.

This darker side of the transformation has had a violent, sometimes murderous, aspect. The racism endemic in many societies has exploded in a public way in Germany in the past five years. Hostility against foreigners, a phenomenon seen in many countries, has linked up with right-wing and neo-Nazi movements in Germany to yield incidents of violence and brutality. Television audiences around the world watched with horror as the local population in certain German cities crowded around and supported neo-Nazi assaults and arson attacks on defenseless asylum seekers. People whose only offense was that they did not look German have been killed. Other "foreigners" have been driven from their houses. Widespread beatings of "foreigners" seem to have become a regular feature of major holidays in some places in Germany.

It is clear that racist attacks and killings are not unique to Germany. Genocide has been committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Many violent attacks against foreigners have occurred in France, England, Sweden, and other West European democracies in the early 1990s. However, the German government was slow to respond to attacks on foreigners and to initiate specific measures to combat right-wing violence. In fact, the federal government must shoulder much of the blame for the increase in right-wing violence that took place during the first years following unification. What is more, history has left a special legacy for Germany. The massive persecution and execution of "non-Aryans" during the Nazi era set a backdrop for violence against foreigners that is too vivid to forget.

Taken as a whole, Germany has been confronted with a disturbing escalation in violent crimes against those who are different, and especially those who are perceived as not ethnic German during the period since unification. For example, between 1990 and 1992, there was over an 800 percent increase in the number of attacks on foreigners.

Due, in part, to more forceful government measures to combat xenophobic violence, there has been a significant decrease in the number of violent crimes against foreigners in Germany in the last two years. Government statistics indicate that, from 1992 to 1994, there was a 46 percent decline in the number of violent attacks against non-Germans. The government has expanded the number of police and prosecutors trained to investigate and prosecute cases of xenophobic violence. It has also restricted the right to asylum, a step long urged by the extreme right, thereby expropriating a major aspect of the far right's political platform, at least temporarily.

Despite the significant drop in the number of violent attacks, however, the figures were still significantly higher in 1994 than prior to 1991. Figures for 1994 were still more than 400 percent higher than comparable figures for 1990. According to the Office to Protect the Constitution, 1,233 violent attacks motivated by xenophobia were reported to the German authorities in the first eleven months of 1994. According to foreigners' rights groups, a large number of attacks also went unreported.

There were also troubling failures by local and federal authorities in responding to specific cases of violence. Although the police response to attacks on foreigners does appear to have improved significantly over the past two years, many foreigners are still under the impression that they cannot rely on the German police to protect them. This impression is based, in part, on foreigners' experiences with the police during the 1990–92 period. What is more, foreigners' rights groups and our own research indicate that there is a growing problem of police brutality against foreigners, which makes it very difficult to assess whether foreigners are reporting xenophobic crimes as frequently as they may have done in previous years. This is especially so for foreigners whose residency status has not been determined or for illegal aliens who fear deportation. These groups are particularly vulnerable to violence, and the least likely to report such violence to German authorities.

Moreover, other forms of xenophobic violence appear to be on the increase in Germany. Anti-Semitic crimes soared during 1994. Government statistics indicate that an estimated 1,040 anti-Semitic crimes occurred during 1994, representing a 60 percent increase over 1993. Of these, fifty-six were violent offenses. Although this category of crimes includes criminal harassment and intimidation, it also includes expressive conduct that Human Rights Watch/Helsinki believes should not be criminalized. Such statistics may, however, be a measure of the depth of anti-Semitic sentiment in the society, and as such are troublesome. A growing number of right-wing crimes against other minorities, such as the handicapped and homosexuals, was also reported….

Throughout 1991 and 1992, the German government coupled its condemnation of violent attacks on foreigners with a call for restricting the number of asylum seekers in Germany. "By linking these two issues, the government fail[ed] to acknowledge the severity of the crimes being committed against foreigners by German citizens. Instead it subtly shift[ed] the focus and the blame to the foreigners themselves." On May 26, 1993, the Bundestag (parliament) voted 521 to 132 to amend the country's constitutionally-guaranteed right to asylum. Since July 1, 1993, when the new asylum law took effect, the right of asylum does not exist for refugees who pass through safe countries before they reach Germany or who come from homelands deemed safe. Legislation defines safe transit countries and safe home countries. Since July 1993, there has been a significant reduction in the number of foreigners legally entering Germany. Government statistics indicate that the number of foreigners seeking asylum in Germany decreased by 60 percent from 1993 to 1994.

The asylum debate has left a legacy that continues to have a negative impact burden of right-wing violence on the victims—the asylum seekers—rather than on the perpetrators. Schmalz-Jacobsen, the federal commissioner for foreigners' affairs, put it succinctly: "The asylum debate was irresponsible at times. It is easy to destroy a climate, and hard to create one." Numerous others agree that the asylum debate encouraged hostility and violence against foreigners in Germany, Ernst Uhrlau, the director of the Office to Protect the Constitution in Hamburg, noted that the impact of the asylum debate was great on the youths who participated in spontaneous violence against foreigners.

The government had pushed for restrictions on the right to asylum, arguing that it was necessary to prevent a further escalation of xenophobic violence. However, on May 29, 1993, only three days after the Bundestag voted to restrict the right of asylum, five long-time Turkish residents died when four youths allegedly set fire to their house in the town of Solingen. This was the worst single attack on foreigners since unification and set off yet another wave of attacks on foreigners….


Despite the measures taken by the Germany government in the mid-1990s to address the problem of right-wing violence against immigrants, the attacks increased in frequency during the second half of the decade. In 2000 a record high of 10,000 attacks were reported.

Integration programs and language training schemes have been introduced to help immigrants assimilate better into German society, but these appear to be having little impact on the problems, with anti-immigrant movements growing in strength. The extreme right-wing National Democratic Party has been gaining support in mainstream politics, particularly in the former East Germany, where it won parliamentary seats in 2004.

This presents a major challenge to the German government, which needs to address the problems of racism and anti-immigrant feeling, while at the same time acknowledging that Germany will need increased numbers of immigrants in the future due to its changing demographic profile and the need for more working-age people in the labor force.



Bergmann, Werner, Erb Rainer, and Hermann Kurthen, eds. Antisemitism and Xenophobia in Germany after Unification. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kitschelt, Herbert, and Wolfgang Street. Germany: Beyond the Stable State. Portland, Ore., and London: Frank Cass, 2004.

Niven, Bill. Facing the Nazi Past: United Germany and the Legacy of the Third Reich. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.


Anderson, Lieselotte. "Immigration and Social Peace in United Germany." Daedalus 123 (Winter 1994): 85-106.

Bering-Jensen, Henrik. "A Flood of Strangers in Estranged Lands." Insight on the News, January 4, 1993.

Klusmeyer, Douglas B. "Aliens, Immigrants, and Citizens: The Politics of Inclusion in the Federal Republic of Germany." Daedalus 122 (3) (1993): 81-114.

Rosenthal, John. "Anti-Semitism and Ethnicity in Europe." Policy Review 121 (2003): 37-58.

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Attacks on Foreigners and Immigrants in Post-Reunification Germany

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