Immigrants in Germany Become Targets of Violence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Protests and violence against immigrants in Germany in the wake of the nation’s reunification were followed by brutal murders of ethnic minorities in November that shocked the world, forcing the German government to address the problem of neofascism in German society.

Summary of Event

After the reunification of Germany in October of 1990, the nation experienced an unanticipated dramatic increase in acts of violence against foreigners by the indigenous German population. The victims included recruited foreign laborers and their families as well as refugees who had been granted political asylum in Germany. Although discrepancies are found in the data provided by various government agencies, the situation was appalling by all accounts. Estimates of the numbers of xenophobic and racist attacks that took place in Germany in 1991 range from 1,255 to 2,426; in 1992, they range from 2,285 to 4,587. Estimates of deaths from these attacks in 1992 range from 17 to 26. Hans-Ludwig Zächert, head of the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), the German national police, stated that in October of 1992 alone, 904 such attacks took place, including more than 150 involving firebombs. Racial and ethnic conflict;Germany Anti-immigrant violence[Antiimmigrant violence] [kw]Immigrants in Germany Become Targets of Violence (Sept., 1991-Nov., 1992) [kw]Germany Become Targets of Violence, Immigrants in (Sept., 1991-Nov., 1992) [kw]Violence, Immigrants in Germany Become Targets of (Sept., 1991-Nov., 1992) Racial and ethnic conflict;Germany Anti-immigrant violence[Antiimmigrant violence] [g]Europe;Sept., 1991-Nov., 1992: Immigrants in Germany Become Targets of Violence[08170] [g]Germany;Sept., 1991-Nov., 1992: Immigrants in Germany Become Targets of Violence[08170] [c]Government and politics;Sept., 1991-Nov., 1992: Immigrants in Germany Become Targets of Violence[08170] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Sept., 1991-Nov., 1992: Immigrants in Germany Become Targets of Violence[08170] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept., 1991-Nov., 1992: Immigrants in Germany Become Targets of Violence[08170] Kohl, Helmut Rühe, Volker Seiters, Rudolf Stahl, Alexander von Zächert, Hans-Ludwig

There is no way to know how many individual acts of racially motivated violence were not included in these statistics. The apparent pattern of escalation, however, and the large scale of the incidents indicated that a violent sociopolitical movement was gaining momentum and was becoming increasingly well organized. The first highly publicized mass attack took place in September, 1991, in Hoyerswerda, a town of approximately 70,000 people. A mob of neo-Nazis and hundreds of local residents assaulted foreigners with baseball bats and bicycle chains and destroyed their homes. Police did nothing to stop the violence, which went on for six days. In the end, all 230 foreign-born residents of Hoyerswerda were forced to leave town. Representatives of the federal government, in effect, blamed the victims, saying that they were opportunists who falsely claimed they were fleeing political persecution in order to live off German social welfare.

The events in Hoyerswerda sparked a dramatic upsurge in xenophobic violence in Germany, and attacks continued to escalate in 1992. The victims were predominantly foreigners, but they also included Jews, homeless persons, homosexuals, and even the physically challenged.

In August, 1992, in the Baltic city of Rostock, a mob burned a refugee hostel and the adjoining guest-worker housing. More than one hundred Vietnamese men, women, and children barely escaped being incinerated. The neofascist rioters and their supporters numbered in the thousands. As in Hoyerswerda, the police did not intervene, the foreigners were relocated, and the government responded with only qualified condemnation of the perpetrators. Some politicians even expressed their sympathy for the rioters.

Because of the success that the xenophobic mobs achieved in eliminating the foreign populations of Hoyerswerda and Rostock, the same kind of violence erupted in Wismar and Quedlinburg in September of 1992, with identical results. Political refugees were attacked and their quarters were destroyed, and the German government responded by relocating the foreigners.

After the September incidents, the racist violence continued until, in Mölln, in November of 1992, a Turkish family was murdered in a firebomb attack by perpetrators who shouted, “Heil Hitler!” The incident drew horrified responses from governments around the world, international human rights organizations, and a majority of the German public.

Most observers acknowledge that a majority of German citizens disapproved of the vicious assaults and murders of foreigners that had been taking place. However, it may be that the ethnic nationalism and antiforeigner sentiment that formed the backdrop for those acts was much more widespread. Some have asserted that the answers to questions relating to why the purveyors of xenophobic violence were repeatedly able to apply a strategy for creating “foreigner-free cities” with little federal or local government opposition and only qualified condemnation can be found in Germany’s traditions and laws regarding citizenship and immigration, and in the partisan political dynamics of the time.

The constitution and laws of modern Germany are based on the historical concept that Germany is an ethnically defined country—a nation-state based on one culture. Full rights of citizenship are constitutionally guaranteed only to ethnic Germans. This legal fact is the basis for laws dealing with people who enter from foreign countries. German policies on foreign residents distinguish rights and access to citizenship based on ethnicity.

Upon entering Germany, an individual is classed as an ethnic German, a recruited foreign worker, or a refugee. The concept of the ethnically defined nation means that there is an institutionalized legal structure of differential treatment of these groups. Ethnic Germans residing in the countries that were annexed by the Third Reich as of December 31, 1937, and their descendants, are considered to be eligible for German citizenship upon entering the country, as are the descendants of ethnic Germans who were scattered throughout Europe during World War II. This is not considered an immigration policy; rather, it is seen as the repatriation of true Germans.

Because the government’s policy is that Germany is “not an immigration country,” refugees and recruited workers are not eligible for citizenship, have significantly limited rights, and are viewed as temporary residents in spite of the fact that some “guest-worker” families have been in the country for three generations. In 1990, legislation was passed that made it possible for second- and third-generation foreign-born residents to apply for German citizenship under certain conditions, but these are still exceptions to the rule of the ethnic state. Some observers have asserted that the laws pertaining to citizenship and differential rights based on ethnicity created a segmentation of German society, with foreigners being designated a less desirable group. This in turn fostered an atmosphere in which a significant proportion of the German population felt that strong antiforeigner sentiment was socially acceptable and justified.


The lack of a decisive government response to the violence throughout 1991 and most of 1992 was related to the political struggles of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with several right-wing parties, the most prominent being Die Republikaner (REP). Before East and West German reunification seemed probable, the REP had been gaining some political support with calls for a restoration of Germany’s 1937 borders and drastic reductions in the foreign population. The CDU had long advocated the reunification of East and West Germany, and when the Berlin Wall Berlin Wall fell with little warning in November of 1989, the party was able to preempt the REP’s position by making reunification a reality in less than one year. Germany;reunification

Kohl, however, had promised that taxes would not be raised in the West as a result of reunification, and it soon became apparent that the enormous cost of shoring up the economy of the former East Germany would require just that. In the face of growing public opposition to increased taxes and reductions in public spending in the West, the CDU opened, during the summer of 1991, what was called the “Asylum Debate,” through which the party hoped to eliminate Article 16 of the German constitution, which guaranteed asylum to foreigners fleeing political persecution. The main thrust of this event was the idea that Germany’s economic problems could be alleviated through the elimination of the cost of providing for refugees; repeated references were made to “fake asylum seekers,” and it was asserted that many refugees were really “economic migrants.”

Some observers have asserted that the CDU’s determination to eliminate or amend Article 16 was the reason for the government’s conditional criticism and lack of strong action following the mob violence against foreigners in 1991 and 1992, and this may have encouraged neo-Nazis to escalate the level of xenophobic violence. After the Hoyerswerda incident, for example, national-level politicians—including the federal interior minister, Rudolf Seiters, and the general secretary of the CDU, Volker Rühe—issued statements to the effect that the violence was understandable given the strain caused by the large numbers of refugees in Germany as the result of large-scale abuse of asylum laws.

The level of xenophobic violence reached in November, 1992, forced the German government at last to take a number of actions. Alexander von Stahl, chief prosecutor, directed law-enforcement agencies to arrest members of four neo-Nazi organizations that were responsible for much of the violence, and a government ban on those organizations followed. In addition, Article 16 was amended to limit the admissions of those seeking asylum in Germany. Racial and ethnic conflict;Germany Anti-immigrant violence[Antiimmigrant violence]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Betz, Hans-Georg. Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Provides an examination of the political movements in Western Europe that provide the backdrop for extremist violence. Includes tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Björgo, Tore, and Rob Witte, eds. Racist Violence in Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Collection of essays includes two chapters that focus on racist violence in Germany during the 1980’s and 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fekete, Liz, and Frances Webber. Inside Racist Europe. London: Institute of Race Relations, 1994. Provides concise description of racist and xenophobic acts in Europe and explores the role played by various European governments, including Germany, in discouraging, encouraging, or even participating in such acts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fenner, Angelica, and Eric D. Weitz, eds. Fascism and Neofascism: Critical Writings on the Radical Right in Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Collection of essays addresses both historical fascism and contemporary neofascism throughout Europe. Several chapters discuss Germany. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kemper, Franz-Josef. “New Trends in Mass Migration in Germany.” In Mass Migration in Europe: The Legacy and the Future, edited by Russell King. London: Belhaven Press, 1993. Discusses the impacts of recent increases in the foreign population in a society with a long tradition as an “ethnic state.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kurthen, Hermann, Werner Bergmann, and Rainer Erb, eds. Antisemitism and Xenophobia in Germany After Unification. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Collection of essays discusses many aspects of the violence that followed unification in Germany. Contributors include American and German scholars in political science, mass communication, history, and sociology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomos, John, and John Wrench, eds. Racism and Migration in Western Europe. Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1993. Collection of essays examines racist and xenophobic responses to large-scale population redistribution all over Europe. Includes a chapter focused on contemporary Germany.

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Categories: History