How an accident became an East German hate crime

Manuel Diogo died near Dessau in an accident in 1986. The case was always handled by East German authorities as an accident but a West German historian claimed 30 years later it was murder.

Manuel Diogo (l.) with colleagues Francisco Nhabongo and Bento Nhamuave.
Manuel Diogo (l.) with colleagues Francisco Nhabongo and Bento Nhamuave.Photo: Lucas Nzango

Sunday 29 June 1986 was the last day of Manueal Diogo's life.

In Saxony-Anhalt, a group of Mozambican contract workers from the village of Jeber-Bergfrieden had gone to Dessau to watch the German national team play Argentina on a pub TV. The Argentinean squad, including Diego Maradona, won 3:2.

Afterward, the Mozambicans at 10.01pm boarded a train in Dessau toward Belzig to return to Jeber-Bergfrieden, but one of them never arrived. Manuel Diogo, then 23 years old, a woodworker in a sawmill in Jeber-Bergfrieden, was found dead at 0.45am on the tracks between Bad Belzig and Wiesenburg.

Transport and criminal police investigated. Witnesses were questioned. And his death was quickly ruled an accident. Manuel Diogo was drunk, fell asleep on the train, missed his stop and jumped off the train between stations. As he walked back toward the Jeber-Bergfrieden station, he was hit by an oncoming freight train. His friends didn't notice he was missing on their way from the station to where they were staying.

The case files are extensive, and there's no sign of tampering. But, 30 years after his death was ruled an accident, a completely different version of the case emerged. In this new version, Manuel Diogo never went to Dessau. Instead, he visited a friend in Berlin. The friend dropped him off at Ostbahnhof for the return trip to Dessau.

An eminently political book based on a historic case.

Jury for the German Crime Book prize

Neo-Nazis then boarded the train, beat him up and tied him up by his feet and legs. They hung his body on a rope from the train – his skull was crushed and his dismembered body was found in pieces on the tracks.

A brutal, racist murder, swept under the carpet by East German authorities and the Stasi. The perpetrators have yet to be tried.

Harry Waibel unveiled this version of the murder in his 2014 book Der gescheiterte Antifaschismus – Rassismus in der DDR (Failed anti-fascism – racism in East Germany). Waibel is a 74-year-old historian from Baden-Württemburg who calls himself an anti-fascist. He lives in the Berlin borough of Schöneberg and hunts through archives in search of racist incidents in East Germany.

He says he stumbled upon the murder of Manuel Diogo in the Stasi records office. He never says "death". Just "murder". He also says: "All of the Nazism, antisemitism was covered up in East Germany."

At almost the same time, a former contract worker and boxer named Ibraimo Alberto wrote his own autobiography: Ich wollte leben wie die Götter. Was in Deutschland aus meinen afrikanischen Träumen wurde (I wanted to live like the gods. What became of my African dreams in Germany). The book was also published in 2014.

The contract workers shortly after arrival. Manuel Diogo is second-from-right in the fourth row.
The contract workers shortly after arrival. Manuel Diogo is second-from-right in the fourth row.Personal

Alberto describes in the book how he trained for a foreign assignment together with a friend in Mozambique and how they landed together at Berlin-Schönefeld Airport in 1981. His friend visited him in Berlin five years later and was murdered by neo-Nazis that same night.

The friend's name is Manuel Diogo. 

In 2017, Alberto traveled to Africa with a delegation that included German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and was awarded the Ambassador for Democracy and Tolerance prize by the former German interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble.

That same year, three years after the publication of his book, Alberto was interviewed as a witness in a news report by MDR, a regional public broadcaster. The piece used actors to reenact the murder and, at the end, the MDR team stood in front of a hut in Mozambique. They surprised Diogo's ageing mother with the news of his murder at the hands of neo-Nazis.

The woman burst into tears.

Suddenly 25 people were standing there in sandals without a wintercoat, undershirt and most of them with little schooling past grade six.

Klaus Nitze, former dorm director

In 2019, yet another book was written on the case. Max Annas released Morduntersuchungskomission (Murder Investigation Commission), which followed an East German commissioner investigating the death of a contract worker.

After he uncovers the racist crime, authorities demand that he make an accident out of it. The book, promoted by publisher Rowohlt as "the first major crime novel set in East Germany" and praised by German papers as a true story, was published in July 2019 and won the German Crime Novel Prize in December 2019. "An eminently political book based on a historical case," the jury said.

Readings. Talk show appearances. A café in the Brandenburg city of Belzig, not far from where the body was found, even launched an anti-racism initiative. In Leipzig, an exhibition commemorated Diogo.

When African-American George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement spilled over to Germany, Andrea Johlige, a leftwing parliamentarian, made a parliamentary enquiry with the tagline: The death of Diogo.

She urged the public prosecutor's office to initiate a new investigation. The media response was massive. And, on 29 June 2020, prosecutors in Potsdam announced that the case would be reopened. A detective was assigned to review the old investigation and re-interview witnesses.

He was eager to learn and not someone to grab the limelight.

Former sawmill manager Günter Geyer

And so, 34 years later, everything started anew. The Berliner Zeitung started its own investigation – almost simultaneously with the detective. Journalists travelled to Saxony-Anhalt. Phoned former contract workers in Mozambique. Talked to the dorm and plant manager from the sawmill, to residents, historians, the leftwing politician. Contacted the book author and MDR journalists. The question: Was it a murder or an accident?

And – during the 30th year of German unification – how and by whom is East German history re-written?

Manuel Diogo was 18 years old when he landed at Schönefeld. Two years earlier, in February 1979, the East German government and that of the People's Republic of Mozambique had signed an agreement to temporarily employ Mozambican labourers.

It was 21 October 1981 and cold. The contract workers were divided among various East German companies: Motorradwerk Zschopau, Bahnmeisterei Erfurt, Elektroglas Ilmenau, Getränkekombinat Leipzig. Manuel Diogo was part of the smallest group: 25 men who were assigned to Holzindustrie Oranienbaum, a sawmill, according to East German labour ministry documents.

It was a long journey from Mozambique first to East Germany and then to Jeber-Bergfrieden, where, apart from the largest East German sawmill, there was only a supermarket and a restaurant. It made the journey seem even longer. Not a single foreigner lived there then. The city's residents had only seen Black people on television.

Klaus Nitze picked up Diogo and the others by bus from Schönefeld. He was their dorm manager and took them to their accommodation right next to the plant: two men per room, two beds, two tables, two cupboards. Nitze had spent six months learning Portuguese in preparation for the trip, but soon realised that the language was the least of his problems.

"All of a sudden there were 25 people standing there in sandals without winter coats, without a vest and most of them with little schooling past grade six. We told them we didn't have any clothes, but the bus was warm," he says.

Plates with cheese sandwiches and sausage rolls were waiting in the dorms but no one touched the food. "They didn't know what it was," he says.

The next day, Nitze, his wife and the group went to Dessau to shop: shoes, boots, parkas, long and short underwear. After three months of intensive German classes, work began. Hard work. Splitting, cutting, storing logs in three shifts, often with extra shifts on weekends. Manuel Diogo volunteered for the extra shifts, for which there were extra bonuses.

"He was the calmest and most industrious of all," says Nitze. "Always striving to make money, not to make a bad impression, and the only one who made it to forklift driver after a short time."

Klaus Nitze ran the dorm where the Mozambican workers lived. The dorms still have remnants of the original wallpaper.
Klaus Nitze ran the dorm where the Mozambican workers lived. The dorms still have remnants of the original wallpaper.Berliner Zeitung/Anja Reich

His colleagues often had female visitors. They drank alcohol and went to area nightclubs. Manuel Diogo also had a girlfriend – Susanne from Dessau. He once took plant manager Günter Geyer to Susanne's home to introduce his boss to her parents, like a father. Manuel, who was considered a loner, was closest to Geyer, investigators discovered after his death.

The plant manager considered Diogo a friend. He visited him at home after work, drank beer with him and talked to him. He was eager to learn and not someone to steal the limelight.

Günter Geyer teared up as he remembered him.

Manuel Diogo, the contract worker, the neo-Nazi victim, was a young African in search of happiness, even of himself, says an anonymous source from Jeber-Bergfrieden who was 14 at the time and now lives in San Francisco. He talks during a phone interview about visits to Diogo's room and the moped rides they took together.

Men, women, alcohol

There is the former colleague who raves about how nice the "young man" was – a womanizer, yes, but more than that: "Manuel was interested in men, too." Once, she says, she saw him in women's clothes at the train station. His roommate at the time said Manuel had prostituted himself, which is why he always had money.

"Nonsense! The ladies all came voluntarily," Nitze says.

The people in Jeber-Bergfrieden referred to the Mozambicans workers as "our Mozis" or sometimes as "Chocolates" or "Negroes". That's what people used to say in the past, says Nitze.

Sometimes there was trouble with local men, fights in discos. It was over women and there was a lot of drinking. Even Manuel, who was said to be a teetotaler, started to drink. In 1985, the Mozambican government decided to withhold 60 per cent of the contract workers' wages and pay them out only after their return. Around the same time, Manuel Diogo flew home for the first time.

He took home "valuables worth 25,000 marks," the file says, including a MZ, a motorcycle. After his return to East Germany, his family sold everything. He only found out later, a former neighbour in the dorm says.

Engineer Michel Markward found the corpse and is convinced it was an accident.
Engineer Michel Markward found the corpse and is convinced it was an accident.Berliner Zeitung/ Carsten Koall

Manuel Diogo's dreams seemed to shatter. He didn't say anything and just continued working "without reproach". In the official files it says: "At this time, an increase in alcohol consumption is noted, frequently and in larger quantities than before."

And the evening of 29 June 1986, the evening of the World Cup final, was no different. Diogo watched TV with his colleagues in the Dessau pub, say four of the Mozambicans that were there.

He was very unlucky.

Michel Markward

Roland Hohberg founded the Adecoma returnee association in Mozambique in 1991 together with former East German contract workers. He interviewed them for the Berliner Zeitung. They say they were in a good mood and drank – quite a lot, in fact. According to the autopsy, Manuel Diogo had almost 1.4 permille in his blood and 1.8 permille in his urine. There was even a "distinct odour of alcohol from the internal organs".

The Mozambicans only remember an empty train to Belzig. No trace of neo-Nazis. Manuel sat down a little to the side and fell asleep. He went to the toilet. The Mozambicans got off but without him – they were too drunk to look out for him, they say today. According to the files, the train conductor was the last person to see Manuel Diogo alive: He was asleep in the corridor.

30 June 1986, around 1am. Engineer Markward Michel, then 42 years old, heard the radio crackle: A lifeless body was seen lying in the tracks near Borne. Michel should go look for it. He headed off, very slowly, first too far, then back again, and then he saw him in the headlights: Manuel Diogo was on his stomach, between the tracks, his shirt up.

He was wearing grey jeans, sandals on his feet. Michel got out and knew immediately that there had been an accident.

In his house in Grubo, Brandenburg, he picked up a pen and paper and recorded how he imagined the accident to have happened: When Diogo jumped out of the train, he got caught between two cars, got stuck on a hook, was dragged a few metres, collapsed and was run over: "There is no other way. He was very unlucky."

Identifying the body

Michel told the transport police, who informed the dorm director. Klaus Nitze said it was 3am or 3.30am when the doorbell rang. He and his wife were awake – they had just come from a birthday party in nearby Roßlau. He was asked to go with them to the pathology department in Belzig and identify Manuel.

Nitze will never forget that trip nor the last time he saw Manuel. He was lying in a kind of aluminum tray, one as long and wide as the living room table. His body was covered with a white cloth and one foot was visible, "upside down". And the face.

"I saw right away, that it was Manuel." Forensic experts determined the cause of death to be an open skull fracture with crushing of the skull base and other serious internal injuries. The conclusion: "All of the discovered injuries indicate a fall, followed by a collision while lying down, being dragged and partially being run over by a Reichsbahn vehicle."

A few hours later Manuel's co-workers gathered in the office of the manager of the sawmill dorm. He doesn't remember anyone showing any grief. Perhaps they were in shock. No one spoke of murder. The police questioned witnesses, colleagues, Diogo's girlfriend, the train driver, the plant manager.

The Mozambicans can't remember 34 years later but their records are in the investigation files, excerpts of which are in the archives of the Stasi records office and the Brandenburg State Archive. There is no mention of neo-Nazis. No evidence of a concealed murder.

They asked leading questions. They just wanted a story that fit well into the political environment.

Roland Hohberg

And yet, more than 30 years later, it feels as if Harry Waibel's theory as become accepted fact. The more often it's told, the more true it becomes. And the more angry another historian becomes. Ulrich van der Heyden, a 66-year-old historian who lives in Berlin-Mitte but was born in Ueckermünde, is an Africa expert and author of the book Mozambican Contract Workers in the East German Economy.

He came across the files 10 or 12 years ago, van der Heyden says in his office in a courtyard at Humboldt University. He never doubted that it was an accident: "There was nobody else on the train except the conductor. The buddies got off beforehand. They were all drunk."

That had happened before, he says, including missing where to get off. "They weren't used to drinking."

He pointed out the inconsistencies in the reporting on Diogo to publishers and the broadcaster MDR a year ago. He even invited MDR journalist Christian Bergmann to his office, showed him the files and asked for a correction. When nothing happened, he lodged a formal complaint with the German Rundfunkrat (Broadcasting Council) and the head of MDR.

The response? A cease-and-desist order. Van der Heyden hired a lawyer and continued his protest. He speaks of fake news, comparing it to the Spiegel scandal with disgraced journalist Claas Relotius. Van der Heyden writes fast, talks fast and gets upset fast – about how the facts in the Diogo case got twisted but also about the fact that people like Harry Waibel, who never lived in East Germany, seem to care so much about life there, including his.

Battle of the historians

"Lügen-Harry" (lying Harry) is what van der Heyden calls the historian from the west, leaning on the Nazi-era Lügenpresse epithet used against the media.

Waibel counters: "Van der Heyden is lying to himself." He sits in his Schöneberg apartment, the same files in front of him on the table."A Reichsbahn employee saw the body parts and informed the transport police," he says. The cover-up began with the investigation: "When forensic doctors determined that he had 0.14 per cent alcohol in his blood, it was announced that he was drunk and fell off the train. That was the Stasi's story."


"Because the Stasi covered up everything that didn't fit into the party line!"

But wouldn't the Stasi have noted the cover-up in the files?

Ignoring the truth

"It was a military organisation. Anyone opposed to the ruling line would have had to expect unpleasant consequences."

It has nothing to do with knowledge or facts. Just opinions, convictions, attitudes – similar to what happened in East Germany. And perhaps that's why the East Germans, of all the people familiar with the case, are so united in their indignation: Klaus Nitze, the dorm manager, was in a hotel on a business trip when he saw the MDR report. It has now appeared in differing versions and with other titles on broadcasters 3Sat, Arte and a programme about East German crimes.

"Everything's mixed up," Nitze thought. Roland Hohberg from the Adecoma returnee association was stunned at how the workers he knew had been manipulated by MDR. He had arranged interviews for the station. He knew that the journalists let them believe that the neo-Nazi murder was proven.

"They asked leading questions. They just wanted a story that fit well into the political environment," he says.

And what do the others say? The authors, the publishers, MDR, the jury of the German Crime Prize? Why have they never had any doubts about the murder theory? Why didn't they notice the contradictions?

No one will talk about it. Instead, they insist on written answers and MDR refuses to be quoted on its response to the accusation of leading questions. Or on any of the questions.

It is simply not true that we told anyone that Manuel Diogo was pushed off the train.

Ralph Strasbourg

The broadcaster's communications department refers to an interview with the former Mozambican ambassador as proof of the murder. In the interview, he says East German authorities told him that skinheads had killed Manuel Diogo.

The authorities, in this case were the State Ministry for Labour and Wages, where Ralf Strasbourg was responsible for the deployment of Mozambican contract workers. Strasbourg says that there was always talk of an accident: "It is simply not true that we told anyone that Manuel Diogo was pushed off the train," he says.

Max Annas, the crime writer, says he is deep into his new book and has no time for an interview. The jury from the German Crime Prize says Annas' book is a historical crime novel that is fictional but inspired by an actual case. Publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch says Ibraimo Alberto's editor has since retired and is "just hard to reach" in his Russian dacha.

Ibraimo Alberto himself e-mails to refer to interviews he's already given. He has nothing new to say. But if you watch the interviews or read his book, you wonder what the former contract worker even knows about the dispute over his colleague's death and what his role in it all – if any – is.

Ibraimo Albertos editor has since retired and he's 'difficult to reach' at his Russian dacha.

Kiepenheuer & Witsch

Alberto's book is an autobiograhy, and a young man named Manuel appears in it again and again. Alberto went to school with Manuel Diogo, went to a training camp with him, sat with him in a place. And landed with him at Schönefeld Airport on 16 June 1981.

Manuel and he wore grey work suits. And: "Mine was two sizes too small and Manuel's was much too big." Alberto describes in detail how neo-Nazis had tied up and tortured Manuel, almost as if he had been there.

Under a photo in his book it says: "My friend Manuel was one of the first murder victims of rightwing radicals in East Germany. The perpetrators got away with mild sentences."

The perpetrators were never investigated. There was never a trial. He even seems to get a bit confused with the name of his friend. Sometimes his name is Manuel, sometimes Manuel Antonio. And if one compares the arrival dates, it turns out that they could not have arrived together in Schönefeld: Manuel Diogo did not land in Berlin in June 1981 but in October.

Did they even know each other?

Diogo's former colleauges say they've never heard of Ibraimo Alberto. Manuel would also never have taken the train to Berlin alone. They always travelled in a group.

When confronted, Ibraimo responds with a sort of confession. Perhaps he remembers some things wrongly after all this time. Perhaps Manuel was on another plane after all. And yes, he was not an eyewitness to the crime, he only remembers a conversation at the Mozambican Embassy where he was told that a Mozambican had been murdered by skinheads in the train near Dessau.

"Why should I have doubted that statement?" he says.

But his story is out in the world. And so are the MDR images. The documentary has now become a reality for witnesses.

"That was cruel. It was shown on television. They wore those combat boots," says a former colleague of Manuel Diogo, who has two children with another former contract worker. "People thought he was drunk or opened the door the wrong way."

Manuel Diogo's mother died in Mozambique in 2017 thinking her son had been killed by neo-Nazis, which is also what Harry Waibel believes.

Regardless of what the Berliner Zeitung has revealed, regardless of what the Potsdam public prosecutor's office decides.

"Don't expect anything big there," he says. "Just think about the NSU murders."

He continues to research East Germany. He says he's found 150 names of foreigners in old files at the Foreign Ministry who died an "unnatural death". A few days ago he sent these 150 names to the Stasi records office.

They are now looking for the files.

Editorial note: Potsdam prosecutors in March said they had no reason to believe the case was anything but an accident.