Nor was this an isolated incident. Last year in Germany there were 2,380 recorded crimes of violence against foreigners, including 338 fire-bomb attacks, 219 cases of bodily assault and 1,813 cases of damage to property. In proportion to population the incidence was much higher in former East Germany, although foreigners there had declined to about 150,000 by the end of the year. The problem is not simply a response to numbers.
Racial hatred is far from unique to Germany, but its manifestations under the Nazis were so appalling that any re-emergence is bound to carry echoes of the past. It helps to remember that until unification Rostock had not known democracy for 60 years. Its inhabitants have acquired no tradition of tolerance and little understanding of constitutional means of redressing grievances. The collapse of Communism has left them disoriented, humiliated and in large measure unemployed. Studies have also shown that the young have little trust in the older generation, whom they regard as responsible for Communism. They resent the money and attention devoted to refugees. Probably they would like to seek asylum from their own dismal lives.
Behind these feelings flickers an older xenophobia. Historically the Germans have defined themselves by reference to the tribe, not the state, because they lived for so long amid fragmented power. Their nation state, which never encompassed all Germans, lasted only from 1871 to 1945 and was a disaster. Where identity is bound up with ethnicity, outsiders pose a special threat.
Yet the Federal Republic, both before and since unification, has been so astonishingly hospitable that it deserves to be regarded as having exorcised the past. It has absorbed enormous numbers of immigrant workers, asylum-seekers, refugees and ethnic Germans, many of whom are foreigners in all but name. In the first half of this year there were 250,000 applications for asylum, many from Eastern Europe and most from people with no real claim. Last month alone there were 46,496. Britain, shamefully, has taken only 2,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia.
Germany's generosity is expressed in liberal asylum laws that allow every applicant to enter the country and appeal through the courts. Border guards have no power to turn people away. Only very recently have the Social Democrats, after losing votes to extremist parties, agreed to support changes designed to separate the genuinely persecuted from those in search of a better life.
So far there is no reason to regard the atavistic reflexes of the citizens of Rostock as more than a transitory response to stress. Germany is not about to turn its back on the advances of the past 40 years. But it would be risky not to regard the incident as a warning of what could happen if the stresses of the past few years are allowed to increase.