Most recent killing may push Germans to act on hate crime

New York Times/August 21, 2000
By Roger Cohen

Essau, Germany -- The German word for hatred is "Hass" and Angelika Adriano spits it out with hissing venom. Hatred, she says, is what she feels for her husband's killers. "Only hate."

Two of them were youngsters really, just 16 years old. They attacked her husband, Alberto Adriano, because he was black. Threw him down, kicked him in the head with force enough to dislodge his left eyeball, dragged his prone body into the city park, trampled on him. Finally, they removed his pants and hung them from a bush.

From the window of her shabby high-rise, Mrs. Adriano, 43, has a view of that park. Two months have gone by and the trial of the three rightist skinheads accused of the murder begins Tuesday. But her lips still tremble as she addresses Gabriel, the baby in her arms: "You have no father, no father any more."

So it goes in Dessau, once a center of a flowering of German culture -- home to the Bauhaus, to Klee, to Kandinsky, to Walter Gropius. But that was before two dictatorships -- the Third Reich and East German Communism -- bequeathed it the muddled minds and fallen factories where irrational rancor tends to stir.

And stir it has through the former East Germany, a slow poison in the area where German pain is writ most large.

A decade has gone by since unification; billions of dollars have been spent to usher the area from a troubled past. Yet anti-immigrant incidents ranging from verbal abuse to killings have become part of the fabric of life.

Now, it seems, a critical mass has been reached. It is not that anything fundamental has changed, but the fact that nothing has changed is becoming unacceptable. Last month, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said he had had enough of "beating orgies by rightist mobs."

Between the slaying of an Angolan, Amadeu Antonio, on Nov. 25, 1990, in the eastern town of Eberswalde and that of Mr. Adriano of Mozambique on June 11, the racist murder rate has been running at 2 a year by the most cautious government estimates. Human rights groups put the figure at more than 10 a year.

Bernd Ledermüller, the Dresden police chief, ventured this explanation: "We come from a Communist society where everything was laid out for you. Youth groups, work groups, no decisions to make. And now you have young people coming into a void with often embittered parents behind them and their disorientation turns to neo-Nazi violence."

It is one theory, no doubt part of the story. For some, SS insignia are simply chic. Behind the violence lies at least a part of fantasy about immigrants, since they are far scarcer in eastern Germany than in the west. The government recently spoke for the first time of possible "terrorist cells" among rightist groups.

So now every day, it seems, brings a new government measure: an announcement that $35 million is to be spent on an educational effort to combat racism, a push to ban the rightist National Democratic Party, a plan to send the chancellor on a late-summer tour of the east, a call for "civil courage." But a close look at what happened in Dessau suggests that all this bustle may do little to redress the fundamental problems. These appear rooted in the western takeover of East Germany, the dismantling of its society and industry, and the odd effect on this ravaged landscape of an immigrant asylum policy whose logic has become impenetrable.

Christian Richter, one of the assailants accused of battering Mr. Adriano to death, turned 16 on April 21. In the year he was born, 1984, a vast complex of five-story, prefabricated housing was completed, adorned with monuments to socialist heroism, just north of Wolfen, near Dessau.

The apartments were built largely to house workers for the nearby film factory that began life as Agfa in 1910 and for the sprawling chemical industry at Bitterfeld, which left some of the most intractable pollution in central Europe. Here lay the heartland of East German industry, grubby as the brown coal dragged from its soil.

After German unification, the industries were largely dismantled, with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Some west German companies arrived -- Bayer makes aspirin -- but the unemployment rate in the Dessau-Bitterfeld region climbed to its present 21.4 percent.

Here, surrounded by disused factories, in a maze of apartment blocks of advancing decrepitude, among adults often exasperated by idleness, Mr. Richter grew up, attending school until last year. His school performance was modest and his family struggled to get by as his father labored in the construction industry.

"What we have here is a normal, not very intelligent young man, a follower of others," said Manfred Schläfert, the lawyer who will defend Mr. Richter and has talked with him several times in prison.

"He knows nothing about German politics, the democratic principles of the republic, nothing. But nor, it seems, was he into the neo-Nazi scene himself. If his friends had been of the left, he might have gone in that direction."

But his friends included Frank Miethbauer, 16, another of the assailants, who lived in the apartment block opposite. Mr. Miethbauer's father is dead and his mother is hospitalized with mental illness. Their son, searching for direction, was drawn to the neo-Nazi movement.

A neighbor, Wolfgang Wibbing, 61, said he often saw the young man with Nazi flags and memorabilia; the police found such evidence when they raided his apartment after the Dessau killing.

Mr. Schläfert said he asked Mr. Richter why he had attacked Mr. Adriano. The reply suggested the influence of Mr. Miethbauer. Foreigners take our jobs away, his lawyer quoted Mr. Richter as saying. Foreigners take advantage of us.

To the lawyer, this was intriguing, for Mr. Richter has never looked for a job. Having left school last year, he entered a college offering a sort of general apprenticeship for the workplace. Whatever xenophobic convictions he had came from hearsay, the background noise of a bitter place.

"Youths sit around and hear the grumbling of ruined fathers," Mr. Schläfert said. "How there was no crime before. How there were jobs before. How foreigners take our money. It's dumb table talk, but it can be potent in a teenager's mind."

Mr. Wibbing, the neighbor of the Richter and Miethbauer families, manifests some of the resentments prevalent in the Dessau area. Born into the Third Reich, then turned into a citizen of a Communist state, he now lives off the pension of the Western country that supposedly liberated him.

But his monthly pension is under $400, less than he would receive in the West; his 44-year-old wife, Ilona, has been jobless since 1993; and he finds freedom a risible concept in the absence of money. His bitterness grew when he saw Turks successfully opening take-home food outlets after his own failed.

His ideas, he said, are widely shared. A government should think first about its own people. There are no opportunities for German youth, so why should the arrival of foreigners be accepted?

But foreigners continue to arrive. Near a small stone memorial erected to Mr. Adriano in the Dessau city park, African youths hang out. They say they congregate here because they are less vulnerable in a group.

All of them are "asylum seekers" -- not necessarily because they came to Germany to seek asylum. Many simply came in search of a job, but that is how Germany categorizes them in the absence of any other legal avenue into the country for unskilled foreigners.

"If we were allowed to work, do a small job, we'd stop lounging around thinking about our problems," said Youssouf Coulibaly, 20, from the Ivory Coast. "It is as if Germany is inviting us to steal." Producing a knife from his bag, he added: "Around here, this is essential protection."

Many of these young Africans are housed in an asylum seekers' home in nearby Mohlau. A crumbling former Soviet barracks, it has no functioning telephones for the hundreds of immigrants -- the two it had broke three months ago.

Some of the fields surrounding the foreigners' "home" are still littered with mines from cold war days. To Africans who have fled war, it is bizarre to find themselves encircled by mines in the midst of Europe. That is not the only thing that puzzles them. Under German law, while their requests for asylum are reviewed -- a process that often takes over a year -- they have no right to work.

They are not allowed to move around the country, but must remain in the district of their asylum home. Those in Mohlau cannot go to Berlin, a 90-minute train ride away. Most of the foreigners here receive about $190 a month from the state, as well as their housing and health care.

So, on one side stand embittered German youths drawn to xenophobic movements because they are convinced foreigners are taking their jobs. On the other side stand foreigners living on handouts with no possibility of working.

Between them, in a hall of mirrors, hatred stirs. Amadou Camara, 27, from Sierra Leone, is one of the more than 1.5 million asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany since 1993. His father, Modo, was killed by rebels last year and "I was running" -- to Guinea, then, hidden in a cargo vessel, to Rotterdam, and from Rotterdam to Hanover.

After the German police picked him up, he applied for asylum and was deposited in Mohlau. He said he would work at anything -- cleaning toilets, doing garden work, helping on a farm.

"But the Germans just park us here like animals in a zoo and give us money," he mused. "It is more than crazy."

Many German officials agree that the country's immigration policy is skewed. Barbara John, the Berlin city official charged with policy toward foreigners, said "a corridor" is needed to give asylum seekers work permits. But wages would then decline and, she contends, German society is not ready for a less regimented labor market.

"We are in this mental prison," she said. "We think, if there are more of us, we all get less. People cannot see that immigration may be a yeast that makes the cake bigger." Surveys say most Germans feel that, with seven million foreigners here, the country has enough of them.

Certainly Dessau seems to abound in mental prisons. Suppose, it was suggested to Mr. Schläfert, the lawyer, that a young African like Mr. Camara ran into a youth like Mr. Richter after nightfall. Could it happen again?

Could a 16-year-old white German who has never looked for employment attack a black asylum seeker who has never had the opportunity to work because the German believes the African "is taking our jobs?"

"Absolutely," Mr. Schläfert said. "This is waiting to happen again at any moment."

John Greene, an American psychologist in Dessau, said, "There's confusion, low self-esteem, and some people here get an urge to declare they are not weak, not insecure, by kicking a black man in the head."

On June 11, that man happened to be Alberto Adriano. He had been in Germany for 12 years, having come under an exchange among then-socialist states for the old East Germany, and worked as a meat packer. He had married a German woman and had three children.

But that night in Dessau he was just a symbol, a specter, for Mr. Richter, Mr. Miethbauer and Enrico Hilprecht, 24. The three youths had met by chance in the station, had a drink and gone for a walk while they awaited their train. It was then that they stumbled on Mr. Adriano returning from a party.

"I hope they get the heaviest sentences, life imprisonment," said Mrs. Adriano as she rocked her child. In fact, only Mr. Hilprecht risks that. Both Mr. Richter and Mr. Miethbauer will be judged under Germany's juvenile laws, allowing a maximum 10-year sentence.

Mr. Schläfert believes his client may get rather less, perhaps seven years. "Mr. Richter told me he was not aware that he was killing Mr. Adriano," Mr. Schläfert said. "He went along with the others, as I think he always has."

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