Racist violence in West Germany before 1990

Photograph: Ralf Hirschberger/AFP/Getty Images

While racism has always been an integral part of radical-right ideology, the West German radical right scene started with extensive racist activities in the late 1970s. Since then, agitation against migration has become a more central theme of radical right activism. Migration was certainly never a “new” phenomenon to the German society: (mainly labour) migration to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) had already taken place since the 1950s. However, in the late 1970s, societal debates on integration and the question of when the immigrants would return to their origin countries arose. Supposed problems and disadvantages of migration dominated the debate: migrant workers were presented as “not integrable”; furthermore, the growing number of war refugees who received asylum in West Germany was problematised. These debates became recurring issues throughout the following decades.

The West German radical-right scene took up these discourses while engaging in racist agitation with numerous initiatives, campaigns and acts of violence. Among the first racist terrorist attacks in the FRG were the assaults of the German Action Groups (“Deutschen Aktionsgruppen”, DA) around Manfred Roeder in 1980. This group committed several arson attacks against refugees, for example on the Federal Reception Camp for Foreigners in Zirndorf and on refugee homes in Leinfelden and in Lörrach. On 22 August 1980, two young Vietnamese refugees also died in an arson attack on a refugee home by the DA in the Billbrook quarter of Hamburg.

Although the DA members were arrested shortly after their attacks, this did not mean an end to racist violence. In February 1981, a group called “Aktion Wehrhafter Demokratraten” (“Action of Defensive Democrats”) set off two pipe bombs in the cars of two Turkish migrants in Kassel. The motive of such attacks was clear – with the group expressing itself using explicitly racist and genocidal slogans, such as “Death to the Kanaks!” or “Turkish pigs in concentration camp!” Another extremely violent act was the attack by Helmut Oxner, who shot at visitors of a discothèque in Nuremberg, which was mainly attended by African-American service members and immigrants on 24 June 1982. He killed two African-American U.S. citizens and injured several guests. Afterwards, he fired on foreign-appearing pedestrians on the street and murdered an Egyptian citizen. He then fired two shots at himself and died a short time later.

In the early 1980s, another racist group emerged in West Germany: The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), originally located in the United States, attempted to establish branches at several Air Force bases in the FRG. In the United States, the KKK had experienced an upswing at the end of the 1970s, which also affected the U.S. Army bases in the FRG. The members of these groups were US-soldiers, but they connected with German neo-Nazis as well. Gerhard Kromschröder, a journalist of the West German magazine ‘Stern’, found out in 1981, that a network of German and American neo-Nazis and racists had come together under the umbrella name of the “Ku Klux Klan” (KKK). Together, German and American neo-Nazis in KKK uniforms went out and intimidated black US soldiers. German radical right activists also established contacts with the organization beyond West Germany. Manfred Roeder, for example, came into contact with leaders during his stay in the USA in the late 1970s.

The DA had anticipated what became more and more frequent since the early 1980s: Racist violence on the streets, as well as arson and murder attacks against immigrants. In 1982, the West German domestic intelligence service reported twenty bomb and incendiary attacks, most of which were directed against migrants.

Finally yet importantly, since the mid-80s, more and more cases of street violence against first- and second-generation immigrants occurred. Imported from England, the skinhead movement became extremely popular in Germany, also among mainly young people with a radical right and racist attitude. Skinheads were a sub-cultural milieu that was constantly evolving. More and more young people became Skinheads for political reasons and organised in neo-Nazi groups at the same time. Both scenes inspired each other, and to some extent merged into one movement.

This development was accompanied by a growing number of attacks and acts of violence, which also caused fatalities. The violence was often directed against immigrants from Turkey. For example, supporters of a right-wing motorcycle club killed a Turkish man in January 1981 in Baden-Württemberg, just as several Germans killed another man from Turkey in June 1982 in northern Germany. Moreover, in July and December 1985, skinheads and neo-Nazis likewise murdered two young Turks in Hamburg.

Media and police authorities, after the attacks in Hamburg, assumed that this was the peak and end of the racist violence, but this was a fallacy. As we now know, between 1989 and 1994 there was an unprecedented wave of racist violence, in which neo-Nazis as well as “normal citizens” from East and West Germany participated. This wave of violence reached its first sad climax in December 1988: A racist attack in Schwandorf (Bavaria) on a house inhabited mainly by migrants caused the lives of a Turkish couple, their eleven-year-old son and a German man. The violence ceased in 1994, not least because a contemporary poisonous asylum debate subsided when in May 1993, the German Bundestag decided to considerably restrict the right of asylum.

In public discussions and debate, racist motivated violence by radical right activists was and is not really perceived as a phenomenon before 1990. However, racist violence from the neo-Nazi scene already has its roots in the 1980s. By dehistoricising this phenomenon, we risk forgetting the lessons of the past – both as to the drivers and methods of interdicting such forms of political violence.

Dr Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Researcher at Faculty of Social Science and Cultural Studies, University of Applied Sciences, Düsseldorf. See her profile here.

© Barbara Manthe. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).