East Germany's gateway to the world closed by violence: John Eisenhammer reports on the racism that is ravaging the city of Rostock

THE PRIDE of the East has fallen. Once hailed by Communist leaders as East Germany's 'gateway to the world', the Baltic city of Rostock - the symbol of the country's internationalism and economic prowess - has become, after the past week's orgy of xenophobic violence, the ugly symbol of eastern Germany's collapse.

The last vestiges of dignity were consumed in the fires of a refugee hostel, wrecked by hundreds of baying youths and applauded by thousands of local onlookers.

The citizens of Rostock used to live in one of Communist Germany's most privileged cities. Rostock, along with East Berlin and Leipzig, was the recipient of extra funds from a bankrupt regime, desperate to maintain its handful of urban showcases for the outside world.

Now the city languishes in the poorest, most dismal region of reunited Germany - the state of Mecklenburg. In November 1990, despite being the largest city in the state - and therefore sure of its claim - Rostock was not chosen to be Mecklenburg's capital. That honour went to inland Schwerin. It was the final insult.

The vast housing estate of Lichtenhagen, stage for the racist outrages against the refugee hostel in its midst, is itself a product of that Communist pride and privilege. Built in the Seventies, these long rows of concrete barracks offered, by East German standards, above average accommodation to the favoured 20,000 inhabitants.

Just a few minutes to the east of Lichtenhagen stand the cavernous Warnow shipyards. They were part of the huge East German shipbuilding kombinat, centered on Rostock. Before reunification, 55,000 people used to work in the yards. Now just 5,000 are employed there. Moored alongside the Warnow yard are several newly completed vessels ordered by Moscow (the former Soviet Union used to account for 80 per cent of the industry's orders). Nobody appears to want them any more.

Clambering past the smashed, dripping water pipes and up the charred stairs to the 11th floor of the refugee hostel where 200 people, mainly Romanian gypsies, lived before they were driven away by the mob, you are met with a view that sweeps over the shipyards, across the mouth of the River Warnow to the port.

In the late Fifties, the then leader of the German Democratic Republic, Walter Ulbricht, called upon the families of Rostock to collect rocks for the construction of the country's deep-sea harbour. After the division of Germany, the Communist east suddenly found it had no port that could take quantities of ocean-going vessels. Hamburg and Bremen were on the western side.

Although Rostock had a long tradition of sea-faring and trading - it was a member of the medieval Hanseatic league, a powerful political and commercial grouping of Germanic towns - it was never an important port.

The Communist authorities poured scarce funds into their 'gateway to the world'. Through it went much of East Germany's trade with the Soviet Union and the far-flung reaches of the Socialist empire, Vietnam, Angola, Cuba. The shipyards were also largely created by the Communists, to build vessels for Moscow as part of war reparations.

In the Seventies, Erich Honecker poured further scarce funds into building the motorway linking Rostock to East Berlin and the southern industrial regions. By East German standards, Rostock was booming, benefiting from the state-planned concentration of the country's entire shipping and ocean-going industry around the city.

Now, the harbour cranes stand like giant skeletons in an industrial graveyard. Many have not moved for more than two years. Where once up to 30 ships a day would steam into the busy quays, with countless more waiting on the Baltic horizon for a berth, the port is lucky these days if more than a handful straggle in. Up to 25 million tons were handled a year in the late Eighties. This year the port hopes to achieve a tenth of that total. Weeds have grown up around the yellowed wheels of railway carriages that have nowhere to be shunted to.

Soon after reunification, the ports of Hamburg and Bremen sent smiling, blue-suited executives with offers of help for Rostock, while at the same time they cut their rates in a short, brutal campaign to destroy the potential competitor. Rostock never stood a chance. Just two days ago came news that the sale of the Warnow yards to the Norwegian company Kvaerner, due to take effect this week, had been postponed, with the purchaser seeking even tougher conditions.

Many workers have already left for western ports, now doing better than ever. Others, among the thousands laid off, are still in places like Lichtenhagen.

Real unemployment there is around 50 per cent. The total is also swelled by those laid off by the former fishing and processing kombinat, a little further down the coast. It used to have up to 50 vessels, trawling as far afield as southern Africa and Newfoundland. Now there are just six.

From boom to bust, Rostock has experienced just how brutal is the collapse of a virtually mono-industrial city. The surrounding countryside, totally dependent on agriculture, is an even worse scene of devastation. Unemployment in many villages reaches over 80 per cent. The high expectations placed on reunification have fragmented into bitterness, frustration and envy.

Last week, they were hurled, with unparalleled brutality, at the terrified residents of block 18, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, the refugee hostel.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most