On Wednesday, April 3, Freya Klier, a German activist and documentary film-maker, discussed the recent series of murders committed in the former GDR by a trio of self-proclaimed Neo-Nazis.
From 2000 to 2011, two men and one woman committed a series of ten murders targeted at non-Germans in east Germany. After the two men committed suicide in 2011, the woman, Beate Zschäpe, circulated DVDs that explained the series of attacks and attributed them to the trio, who called themselves the Nationalist Socialist Underground. Zschäpe is now on trial for her implication in the attacks.
Klier sought to illuminate the social environment that enabled the attacks. As a satellite of the Soviet Union after 1948, the GDR remained a right-wing extremist state long after the West turned its back on its racist Nazi past. This xenophobia was especially clear in the GDR’s immigration policy. Forced to accept Vietnamese and Mozambique refugees because of a labor shortage, the East Germans prevented these immigrants from leaving the cities where they lived, did not allow them to learn German, and forced them to have abortions if they became pregnant. Even after the break-up of the GDR, East Germany attempted to deport thousands of legal Vietnamese immigrants. Events of racial violence such as the 1992 firebombing of a dormitory for UN contract laborers in Lichtenhagen were received not only with passiveness on the part of local Germans but even with applause.
Today, xenophobia is still much more widespread in East Germany than in West Germany, with a ratio of as much as eight incidents directed towards non-Germans in the East to one in the West. The trio that called themselves the National-Socialist Underground, therefore, formed only a small part of the social fabric of this racism, which remains largely unquestioned in the former GDR. Since 1990, Klier herself has fought to change these social attitudes, visiting schools to educate young people about xenophobia and to encourage them to be active bystanders. Yet too many east Germans remain willing to witness passively acts of blatant racism and even encourage them, and the educational process is slow and difficult, especially since most students do not trust her, as an outsider to their community and stranger to its needs.
The event was sponsored by the Departments of German and Russian, Political Science, History, and Jewish Studies, the Oakley Center, the Gaudino Fund, and the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures.