Racist burning puts a village on trial

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IN THE fat annals recording racist attacks in eastern Germany since reunification, Dolgenbrodt merits but a footnote: On 1 November 1992, two days before the arrival of some 80 African asylum-seekers, the former pioneer resort that was to house them burnt down.

Nobody was hurt. A neo-Nazi youth was caught, put on trial and eventually convicted for arson. Case closed.

Yet six years after the long-forgotten event - a barely visible spark in the chain of fire that swept through refugee hostels of the east in those days - Dolgenbrodt is to get a chapter of its own, under the heading "Collective Guilt".

Today a florist, an electrician, a heating engineer and a building worker are scheduled to go on trial for plotting the demolition job, hiring the skinhead and supplying him with the petrol bomb. With them will stand in the dock - though in spirit only - all 304 of the village's inhabitants.

Prosecutors will try to establish who knew and what they knew of the conspiracy, the whip-round to raise the arsonist's fee - even neo-Nazis must make a living - and the subsequent cover-up. The villagers are keeping mum."One doesn't speak about such things," says Dolgenbrodt's mayor, Karl Pfannenschwarz.

The only witness is the arsonist, Silvio Jaskowski, who has turned state's evidence in order to stay out of jail. The skinhead's account must be corroborated with the florist's confession, who cracked after many denials last year, revealing the outlines of the plot.

The florist, Thomas Oste, has pointed the finger at four others in the community.

He himself had planned the attack, hired Jaskowski, and paid him off. The job of Hans-Jurgen Schmidt, the heating engineer, was - appropriately - to supply the Molotov cocktails' main ingredient. Mr Schmidt's step- son Marco drove the arsonist to the pick-up point. Jaskowski had a helper named Renato Paschke from the nearby town of Konigs Wusterhausen. The electrician, Gerd Graefen, who was allegedly worried about the effect of refugees on property prices, put up part of the money.

The project cost the people of Dolgenbrodt DM14,000 altogether; the initial DM2,000 fee and DM12,000 more extorted by Jaskowski during his trial. He still sang like a canary, though the villagers denied all.

There is no disputing, however, how Dolgenbrodt felt about its uninvited guests. When they heard about plans to dump refugees in their midst, the locals put up fierce resistance. Petitions were organised, a resolution passed at the district council, but all to no avail. "The opinions of the population were ignored," says the mayor.

"The people were afraid," he continues. "At first we heard we were going to get gypsies from Romania. Only later did we find out that they would have been black Africans. People were worried about gypsies coming here, because it's known all over the world that gypsies break into houses."

It was this angst, the mayor explains, that motivated the arsonists. "There was no xenophobia here, only fear. If it had been refugees from Bosnia - women and children, for instance - then we would have done everything to support the asylum-seekers." No one was more afraid than Mr Oste, the florist who was destined by some bureaucratic quirk to become the neighbour of 80 gypsies/Africans. Mr Oste is a man given to worrying. His simple two-storey house is set in the back of an acre of acacias and neat lawn. The gate is fastened with two chains. Between his house and the trellis fence separating him from that unspeakable place next door, a 30-yard wide strip of thickets bars intruders. There is no bell on the gate There is little sign of life inside, either, until three youths on bikes emerge. "Get lost," is one of the more polite greetings offered by a lad of about 18, Mr Oste's son.

They seem like nice people, says the neighbour on the other side. Not that he knows them that well. A "Guten Tag", that's all. The neighbour, Dieter Schnitzker, has only lived in Dolgenbrodt for three years, but finds the locals very friendly. He can vouch for Dolgenbrodt: "It's no more racist than any other village." Why, he has heard there is even a foreigner living here - a Dutchman.

Unlike in many of the towns nearby, this backwater, an hour's drive from Berlin, is free of skinheads and their hate-filled graffiti. Nestling in a ring of forests overlooking three lakes, most of the houses are modest but cheerful. Dolgenbrodt is the sort of place where lower middle-class people move to bring up their children. In the summer and at weekends the tiny cottages fill up with holiday-makers, the population swells to 1,000, and the little marina becomes animated with anglers.

In this community of decent people, Mr Oste and his fellow conspirators are respected citizens. Everybody is happy to show directions to their houses, though no one is prepared to admit any close relationship, or of having been at home on the night in question.

The plot adjacent to Mr Oste's tranquil dominion is silent and empty. The gate is wide open, part of the fence has fallen down, but there is no other trace of human presence among the weeds that have consumed the foundations. It has become a caterpillars' paradise. The sign of the children's summer camp has been left to rust in peace. On one side lies a pile of timber, untouched by the inferno.

All that is left of the mainly timber building is a small chunk of masonry tossed in front of the gate, as if by way of warning. No one ever comes here, and nothing will ever be built here. No foreigner will ever seek refuge in Dolgenbrodt.

The mayor, a retired lawyer who did not live in the village in 1992, thinks that is where the matter should rest.

"It is all very regrettable what happened, but it happened," he says. "Nothing can be changed. We must get on with our lives in this beautiful place."