Remembering Solingen: The fractious rise of extreme xenophobia in Western Europe

Remembering Solingen: The fractious rise of extreme xenophobia in Western Europe

In the early 1990s, resentment toward foreigners led to a number of physical assaults and arson attacks in Germany. Such attacks took place in the cities Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Hoyerswerda, Frankfurt an der Oder, Magdeburg, Mölln, and Solingen.

The 1993 Solingen arson attack is considered one of the most severe instances of xenophobic violence in modern Germany. On the night of May 28-29, four young men belonging to a far-right group with neo-Nazi ties firebombed the house of a Turkish family in Solingen, resulting in the death of three children and two adults. Fourteen other family members, including several children were severely injured.

This attack led to protests by Turks in several German cities. Such crimes, which reminded Germans of the Nazi persecutions of the past, triggered nationwide protests. Vast crowds of Germans took a public stance against neo-Nazism and xenophobic violence. Thousands of Solingen residents condemned the attack and gathered to bid farewell to their murdered neighbors. In his speech to the crowd at the gathering, Solingen Mayor Gerd Kraimer say they were deeply “horrified and ashamed” and asked for forgiveness.

The chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, declined to appear at the memorial services. He also rejected appeals to attend the burial of the five victims in Turkey. Both in Solingen and at a larger demonstration in Cologne, demonstrators carried signs and shouted slogans aimed at Kohl such as: “Mr. Kohl, Shame on You.” In Cologne, Turkish youth hoisted a sign demanding: “Helmut, Do Something! We Don’t Want Another 1940.”

Unlike Kohl, many dignitaries were present in Cologne for memorial services after the attack. Among them were then German President Richard von Weizsacker, the president of the parliament, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the foreign, interior and labor ministers. Von Weizsacker stated that right-wing terrorism in Germany was politically motivated and aimed at weakening German democracy. He referred to the firebombing in Solingen and a similar attack six months before that had killed three Turks in Mölln, saying “the murders in Mölln and Solingen [were] not unrelated or isolated atrocities, but the result of a climate created by the extreme right.” Three of the assailants were sentenced to 10 years in jail and the other assailant was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

May 29 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Solingen tragedy. On this occasion, we have to ask a crucial question: What has changed in Western Europe since then? Nowadays in Austria, a far-right party, having garnered 25 percent of the votes, is part of the coalition government. In Germany, for the first time in decades, a far-right party has entered parliament after receiving nearly 13 percent of the votes in the general elections. Taking into account undecided voters who might contemplate voting for the far-right, support for far-right parties in Austria and Germany may easily rise respectively to one-third or one-fifth of the voters.

It is not possible to underestimate these numbers in any Western democracy. Moreover, in countries such as Belgium, Sweden and France, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia are on the rise. Xenophobia involving aggression and violence has now reached extreme levels and has taken the place of old-style racism. Racist forms of discrimination have metamorphosed into publicly-accepted extreme xenophobia.

Back in 1991 historian Eric Hobsbawn stated that “xenophobia looks like becoming the mass ideology of the 20th century fin de siècle.” Indeed, extreme xenophobia is becoming a mass ideology of the first quarter of the 21st century in Western Europe. Unfortunately, the ugly past of Europe has become its present.

* Teoman Ertuğrul Tulun is analyst at the Center for Eurasian Studies (AVİM).