DUESSELDORF, Germany – German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Tuesday that right-wing populist rhetoric can lead to violent attacks, as she and Turkey's foreign minister marked the 25th anniversary of a firebombing by extremists that killed five Turks and shocked the country at the time.
The firebombing in Solingen, north of Cologne, on May 29, 1993, was the deadliest in a series of racist attacks that raised international concerns following German unification in 1990. Two Turkish women and three girls died when fire raged through their building, and more than a dozen other family members were severely injured.
Saying that Germany has a special responsibility to combat racism because of its Nazi past, Merkel suggested — without mentioning names — that inflammatory tweets and statements like those from the nationalist Alternative for Germany party and other right-wing populists could have grave consequences.
"Too often the limits of freedom of speech are being tested very calculatedly, and taboos are being broken and carelessly employed as political instruments," she said. "But this isn't just chit-chat. We're playing with fire — those who with their words sow the seeds of violence must at least be aware violence will come to harvest."
Germany let in more than 1 million migrants in 2015-16, which gave rise to fears from some about the country's ability to deal with the influx and helped the AfD win seats in parliament for the first time in the 2017 election.
Merkel was joined for the commemoration by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the state governor's office in Duesseldorf along with 75-year-old Mevlude Genc, who lost two daughters, two granddaughters and a niece in the blaze.
"The firebombing on your home in Solingen shocked our entire country ... it was not an isolated act, but the appalling low point in a long series of inhuman, far right crimes at the beginning of the 1990s," Merkel said.
Still today, she said, "people in our country are being demonized and attacked because they are asylum-seekers or refugees, or because they look like them because of their skin color and it doesn't matter how long they have lived here."
After the 1993 firebombing, fears ran high in the country's large Turkish community, and protesters, among them many German-Turkish youths, put up barricades and fought street battles with police in Solingen.
It was the victims' mother and grandmother, Mevlude Genc, who appealed to everyone in the country, Turks and Germans alike, to overcome the hatred and reach out to each other.
"The death of my family should open us up to be friends," she said during a memorial ceremony a few days later. "Let's live together hand in hand."
At Tuesday's commemoration in Duesseldorf, Genc said she was condemned to live a life in darkness after the killings and "I am praying that nobody else will have to suffer this pain."
Around 2.8 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany. They were initially brought as workers to help rebuild the country after World War II.
Relations between immigrants and ethnic Germans haven't always been easy and the 2015 influx of more than 1 million migrants from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has led to a nationalist backlash against all Muslims in Germany, both recent arrivals and longtime residents.
Cavusoglu condemned any kind of racism against Muslims and warned that "Solingen wasn't the first attack and it won't be the last one ... We need to deal with this together."
Kristen Grieshaber reported from Berlin. Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin.