Many years ago, in Dresden, a young African international student dropped off his white, German girlfriend after a date. He then took the streetcar back to his dorm. He never made it that far. Neo Nazis beat him up and threw him off the streetcar, causing his death. I would like to think there was no one there to see it, because the other option is horrific. It horrifies me to think that someone did see it, and allowed it to happen.
I didn’t remember his name when I started writing this, but after some tenacious googling, I found a news story about him. His name was Jorge Gomondai. He was from Mozambique. He was 28 years old.¹ Jorge died over 20 years ago. I did not know him. We were not friends. I had barely started my language training, prior to heading off to university at Rostock. However, we were the same in several aspects. We were both international students; we both had received full scholarships from the former German Democratic Republic — by then fully incorporated into the Bundesrepublic –; and it is more than likely we both had learned that the Nazis were not the villains of some old WWII movie. The Nazis were real. They were around us. They were the disaffected young men of Eastern Germany, who were looking for someone to blame after the shock and confusion of the unification. We didn’t look like them, and we were easy targets for their hatred.
I learned very quickly that you had to be careful. The running joke among my group of friends was that you had to always be aware of when the Dynamo Dresden was playing in town. “Nazis love football” — someone told me — “and if the Dynamo loses, your local Nazis beat you up. If the Dynamo wins, the visiting Nazis beat you up, and if the Dynamo ties, then both groups beat you up.”
I thought that was a pretty funny joke, until the young African student was beaten and thrown out of a streetcar. How could something like that happen? Where there no decent people left?
It turns out that there were decent people. Lots of them. The decent people of Dresden organized a march and a memorial service. I attended, and so did many international students. I remember one of the German organizers asking us to stay in the middle of the pack of marchers. “That way, we will protect you. We’ll form a wall around you, in case there’s trouble.”
And so we marched, surrounded by Germans. Every so often, we would hear the yelling, the insults, the “foreigner go home” directed at us. Our german protectors shut that down quickly. People cheered, and chanted, and sang, and they drowned down all the Nazis.
I don’t remember the memorial service. My German wasn’t that good. Still, I remember the march, and I remember how good people stood up to the Nazis, without any violence erupting. This is a pattern that happened again, and again, throughout my three years in Germany. After I moved from Dresden to Rostock, the good people of Rostock marched against the Nazis that threw Molotov cocktails at an apartment building that housed refugees and Vietnamese contract workers in Lichtenhagen, a suburb of Rostock. They chanted, “Deutschland fuer Deutsche! Auslender Raus!” Germany for the Germans. Foreigners, OUT! as they did it.
After the Lichtenhagen riots, decent people all over Germany organized candlelight vigils and marched down the main streets of many cities. I attended the Rostock march, and I really thought that it was surreal to be marching against Nazis, in Germany, in 1992. Wasn’t that stuff all over?
I never imagined that I would be reliving the traumas of my youth. I was wrong, but sadly, I’m not surprised at all. I’ve always known about the undercurrent of racial hatred and nativism that runs parallel to the ideal of the melting pot. The United States is, after all, the same country that banned Chinese immigrants from citizenship until 1943. It is the same country that deported thousands of American citizens of Mexican descent, and euphemistically characterized the action as a repatriation. It is the country of Japanese internment camps. It is the same country where people elected Donald Trump in spite of his long history of racism and race baiting.
So here we are. The president, who has no qualms about complaining that a Mexican-American judge, born in Indiana, can’t be fair to him because the judge is A MEXICAN, cannot bring himself to clearly condemn Nazis. Instead, he gives an awkward display of Tu Quoque, the logical fallacy that he chooses to use to justify a Nazi rally, in the United States, in 2017, because “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”
Well, guess what? one of those groups is the Nazis.
Think about that.
¹ For an account of Jorge Gomondai’s murder and its aftermath, see: Ten Dyke, E. A. (2001). Ethnographic excursions: Two murders, two demonstration. In Dresden: Paradoxes of memory in history (pp. 58-65). London: Routledge.