Peter S.*, a now 52-year-old former neo-Nazi skinhead, has been found guilty of setting fire to a home for asylum-seekers in Saarlouis, a town of 35,000 inhabitants, on September 19, 1991.
The Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Rhineland-Palatinate, imposed a juvenile sentence of six years and 10 months on the perpetrator. According to the verdict, he sneaked into a home for asylum-seekers at night, poured gasoline on the wooden staircase and set it on fire at around 3:30 a.m.
The fire spread quickly through the former hotel. Living there at the time were people who had fled Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Sudan and the Balkans. Samuel Kofi Yeboah, 27, from Ghana was among them, and suffered an excruciating death.
Peter S. was part of the right-wing neo-Nazi skinhead scene in Saarlouis, a town of 35,000 inhabitants in the Saarland region in the far west of Germany.
This was a trial that also dealt with the wave of xenophobic attacks in Germany in the early 1990s, the networking of right-wing extremists at home and abroad and failures on the part of the police and politicians.
"The motive for the crime was hatred of foreigners," said senior prosecutor Malte Merz during the trial. The prosecution relied on interrogations of members of the neo-Nazi scene, the behavior of Peter S. after the crime and the testimony of the main witness, which triggered new investigations in 2019.
The defendant allegedly told the witness at a barbecue in 2007 about the arson attack: "That was me and they never caught me."
Victims take the stand
Eight survivors of the fire joined the trial as plaintiffs. Their attorneys thanked them for their courageous testimony, as well as the work of investigators and prosecutors since 2019.
The terrible events took place 32 years ago, Joe E.** told DW, and he had tried hard to forget them. "When I received the court summons, it all came to the surface again," he said. He was called to testify in the case, because there is no time limit for murder prosecutions in Germany.
Three loud explosions woke Joe E. that night — luckily, he said. "Otherwise perhaps I would also have died." He went to the stairwell: "Then I saw smoke and flames — the whole wall was completely in flames." Two young men from Nigeria suffered broken bones jumping out the window. A French woman who was a guest in the house cried as she described to the court how people were screaming.
Joe E. recalled how they suddenly heard calls for help from Samuel Yeboah, who lived on the top floor: "He called in his language, I'm dying, I'm dying." Yeboah was surrounded by flames, the others could not help him and eventually he fell silent. Firefighters rescued Yeboah with severe burns to his whole body, and he still tried to speak with them. He died three hours later in hospital.
Joe E. remembered Yeboah as a very lovable person, recalling that he boxed, played football and had many German friends.
Police investigation criticized
A month before the fire, there was an arson attack on another facility for refugees and migrants in Saarlouis. Joe E., who knew people there, said the inhabitants of both centers had received threatening letters reading: "Go back to your 'jungle' or you will all be killed."
And yet, a police officer who was investigating the case in 1991 told the Koblenz trial that there had been no "xenophobic attacks" in Saarlouis.
"You got the impression that the police treated it as if it were a childish prank. But a person lost his life, others have lifelong damage," said Heike Kleffner from the Association of Counseling Centers for Victims of Right-Wing, Racist and Antisemitic Violence in Germany.
"This lack of interest from the law enforcement authorities in the 1990s signaled to the victims, 'Your life is worth nothing from our perspective.' The perpetrators and their sympathizers got the message, 'You will get away with this'," she said.
The police began interrogating survivors on the night of the fire, investigating the possibility of drug dealing and organized crime. It took them days to question members of the neo-Nazi-skinhead scene in Saarlouis and they quickly closed this line of inquiry. In 1992, after almost a year, they closed the investigation.
The 1991 report from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, classified the deadly attack as an act of violence with a right-wing extremist background. It was one of many attacks involving arson or explosives in Saarland at the time, and those who lived through the attacks may still not feel safe in the state today.
The right-wing extremist scene networked at home and abroad via leaflets, telephone calls, concerts and marches. There are photos of Peter S. and others at a memorial march for Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess in the city of Worms in 1996. Members and supporters of the later right-wing terrorist NSU, or National Socialist Underground, from Thuringia were also there.
Ten days after the arson attack, British neo-Nazi band Skrewdriver held a concert in a forest in Saarland. A spokesman for the white supremiscist Ku Klux Klan in the United States is also said to have performed there. Members of Saarland's neo-Nazi scene were involved in organizations, some of which were later banned, such as the Hammerskins, who were banned in Germany only this year.
It was only after Peter S. was arrested in April 2022 that the Saarland police chief apologized for deficiencies in the police work.
'I am still suffering today'
"I am still suffering today because we did not receive any help," said Joe E., adding that he has been traumatized and lives with severe depression. "It has shaped my life."
For more than 30 years, Joe E. heard nothing from the Saarland authorities — apart from a deportation notice which he received shortly after the attack, as did at least one other survivor. It was only this year that he received a letter from Saarland's victim protection officer in which she offered support. Seven survivors could no longer be found.
In the years following German reunification, many accommodation facilities for refugees were targeted in arson attacks. The prosecution spoke of a "pogrom-like atmosphere" in light of the nationwide right-wing extremist riots against asylum-seekers. Police and domestic intelligence officials registered at least 1,250 right-wing arson attacks between 1990 and 1994, said Kleffner.
Criminologists estimate that only 20% of those cases have been resolved, at most.
It took until the 32-year anniversary for the city of Saarlouis to speak of a racist attack. Three organizations have kept the memory of Yeboah alive over the decades: The Saarland Refugee Council, Antifaschistische Aktion Saar (Antifascist Action Saar) and Aktion 3. Welt Saar (Action 3rd World Saar). They demanded that a memorial plaque for Yeboah be placed in a prominent location in the city.
Saarland takes political responsibility
In June 2023, Anke Rehlinger of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) was Saarland's first state premier to acknowledge the "racially motivated crime." Addressing the survivors, she said: "On behalf of the Saarland state government, I apologize to the victims and relatives of the arson attack in Saarlouis for the failures of that time."
Rehlinger announced a compensation fund for the victims of severe acts of violence. In October, the political investigation surrounding Yeboah's murder and other attacks is due to begin.
* Editor's note: DW follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names.
**Name changed to protect anonymity.
This article was originally written in German and published in September 2023. It was updated on October 9 to include the verdict handed down to Peter S.
While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.