The Diffusion of Anti-Immigrant Violence in Germany, 1990-1999


Theoretical background and objectives

The project continues research on the causal dynamics behind anti-immigrant violence in Germany during the 1990s. With a total of about a hundred deaths and many thousands of acts of violence over an extended period of time, this constitutes by far the most important outbreak of ethnic violence in post-war German or indeed West European history. In combination with the availability of a uniquely detailed event data set (see below) studying this wave of violence can make important contributions to our knowledge of the causal dynamics behind mobilisation processes generally, and ethnic mobilisation and violence in particular. Earlier research (e.g., Koopmans 2004; Koopmans and Olzak 2004) has shown that the violence was spurred by political opportunities in the form of highly mediatised controversies between government and opposition over immigration control. Although this connection is well-established, it is less clear, which social mechanisms linked opportunity structures to acts of anti-immigrant violence. The current project investigates two social mechanisms: spatial diffusion processes across localities and the role of bystander publics. The data on anti-immigrant violence display strong temporal clustering and a non-random geographical distribution, suggesting that diffusion processes have played an important role. We investigate whether violent events that were widely mediatised and that occurred during periods of intense immigration debates increased rates of violence in other localities; whether local opportunity structures affected variation in rates of violence across localities; and whether diffusion was more likely to occur between socially homophilous localities. We then investigate the role of bystander publics. On several occasions (e.g., Hoyerswerda, Rostock, but also less well-known instances) local bystander crowds were present when groups of right-wing youths attacked immigrant hostels. Sometimes these crowds "just" watched, at other times they signalled support by applauding or cheering, or signalled opposition by verbally or physically intervening in defence of immigrants. We investigate whether such bystander public reactions – which often received much media attention – contributed to the diffusion or containment of violence and acted as an intermediate mechanism between national political opportunities and local activism.

Research design, data and methodology

The data are drawn from content analyses of German newspapers, supplemented with violence statistics of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz and Reuters news agency data gathered by Ron Francisco. The newspaper data contain detailed information (including the exact timing and geographical location) on altogether around 12,000 events, including public statements on immigration control or the extreme right, political decisions on immigration issues, repression of the extreme right, as well as 700 violent attacks against immigrants, of which for 81 a bystander public reaction was registered. Data are analysed using event history analysis (diffusion across localities) and negative binomial regression (bystander effects).


Diffusion processes indeed played an important role in mediating between opportunity structures and anti-immigrant acts. Widely mediatised acts of violence, as well as those that occurred during periods of heightened immigration debate were more likely to lead to copycat events in other localities. Local opportunities also played a role: violence was less likely to occur where the moderate right (CDU or CSU), and even where extreme right parties were electorally strong. This goes against the common sense idea that strong right parties fuel anti-immigrant action, but fits political opportunity structure theories that state that extra-institutional mobilisation is more likely to occur when a constituency is less well represented in institutional politics (e.g., Kriesi et al. 1995). Further, we showed that the recurrent finding from diffusion studies that geographical distance matters can be made sociologically more meaningful when one substitutes – as Gabriel Tarde suggested long ago – geographical by social distance. We investigated three aspects of social homophily: socio-economic (% of the workforce in the agrarian sector), political (% CDU/CSU votes), and demographic (% immigrants). Diffusion was significantly more likely to occur across localities that were more similar along these dimensions and once this was taken into account geographical distance did not matter anymore. Regarding reactions of bystander publics, first results indicate that they were an extremely important mechanism. In particular bystander reactions that supported anti-immigrant activists had a strongly positive impact on the subsequent rate of violence. Bystander reactions that disapproved of the violence did not have a significant effect, probably because they inadvertently generated more media attention for the violence and its perpetrators. Importantly, once bystander public reactions are taken into account, effect sizes for the political opportunity variables become weaker and in some cases insignificant, suggesting that bystander public reactions were indeed important in signalling to activists the opening or closure of opportunities for successful mobilisation.

Main content

Ausgewählte Publikationen

Braun, Robert/Koopmans, Ruud (2014): "Watch the Crowd. Bystander Responses, Trickle-down Politics, and Xenophobic Mobilization". In: Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 47, No. 4, S. 631–658. (Vorab online publiziert 23. Mai 2013)
Braun, Robert/Koopmans, Ruud (2012): Bystander Responses and Xenophobic Mobilization. WZB Discussion Paper SP IV 2012-701. Berlin: WZB.
Braun, Robert/Koopmans, Ruud (2008): The Diffusion of Ethnic Violence in Germany. The Role of Social Similarity. WZB Discussion Paper SP IV 2008-702. Berlin: WZB.
Projektbezogene Veranstaltungen

Koopmans, Ruud, 17.08.2010: "Bystander responses, trickle-down politics and xenophobic mobilisation". Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, USA (with Robert Braun)