Violence and Xenophobia in Germany
"Violence and Xenophobia in Germany"
By: Joachim Krautz
Date: October 1993
Source: "Violence and Xenophobia in Germany," written by Joachim Krautzand published in Contemporary Review.
About the Author: Krautz studied at the universities of Tübingen, Stuttgart and Massachusetts and holds a master's degree in literature and linguistics. He taught for several years in the German and Philosophy Departments of University College, Cork.
Nationalism, or pride in one's own country, is one of the more common sentiments expressed around the world. In many cases, specific slogans have summed up citizens' pride in their own nation. When Great Britain was at its zenith in the nineteenth century, its citizens boasted, "The sun never sets on the British Empire." As the United States rose to world power during the early twentieth century, some of its citizens summed up their feelings of manifest destiny (the term coined to describe the settlement of the West) with the slogan, "America, right or wrong."
Following Germany's humiliating defeat in World War I (1914–1918), nationalism became a powerful tool for the rising Nazi movement. As it took power in 1933, the Nazi party proclaimed the physical and intellectual superiority of white, Christian Germans. The Nazis passed discriminatory laws against Jews, Gypsies, and other groups, many of whom were German citizens. This era of persecution culminated in the murder of over six million Jews, Gypsies, political prisoners, Poles, and others during the Holocaust.
These historical roots underlie the German nationalistic slogan: "Germany for Germans." This extreme form of nationalism was largely purged with Germany's defeat in World War II (1939–1945) and the passage of strict laws against such forms of racism.
The arsonists came at night. Fully aware of the likelihood that people might be in their bedrooms they set fire to the apartment house, in which—according to the nameplates near the doorbells—a couple of Turkish families lived. The fact that Turks were the sole inhabitants of the house had been the precise reason for the murderer's choice of target. In the night from Saturday to Witsunday five people—all of them women and girls—became victims of this treacherous crime which took place in Solingen, a small, until then very ordinary town in the West of Germany. It was the climax of a whole series of violent attacks against foreigners since the reunification of Germany. A deadly series which claimed 49 lives so far. All these assaults had in common that the perpetrators were led by racist or right-extremist motives. Pictures went around the world showing young men with tattooed arms and closely shorn haircuts, instigated by beer and rock music with explicitly fascist texts, hurling petrol bombs at houses while honest citizens stood by and watched. And the politicians, apparently, are not able or—as terrified foreigners in Germany claim—not willing to halt this development. Chancellor Helmut Khol did not even think it appropriate to be present at the memorial ceremonies. What is happening in Germany at the moment? Has Nazism risen from its grave? Or will Germany turn once more into the scourge of Europe?
The current events make up a very complex issue. Over the past few years facts and statistics with regard to foreigners, aggressors and right-extremism in Germany have been perpetually blurred and distorted—both at home and abroad—to serve various interest groups. Right-extremism, nationalism, and the ugly face of racism are by no means confined to Germany. But because of her historical peculiarity these phenomena have always been ascribed a specific significance in a country which made Auschwitz happen . . .
For the majority of young Germans who grew up in the sixties, seventies, and early eighties nationalism was out. And so were all its symbols like the national flag or the national anthem. It would have been unthinkable to sing the latter in school or play it in cinemas after the performance as is custom in some other countries. Intoxicated fans bawled the national anthem and waived the country's flag in football stadiums. But young (West) Germans who wanted to be politically fashionable defined their politics by the absence of patriotism and their national pride consisted of criticism of their country—if they were proud of it at all.
The situation in the other German state was different from the start. There the Communist government by definition had seen themselves as not having any links with the brown-shirted 'Nazi' past. As a result there had never been any attempt in dealing with the past as there had been in the West.
Consequently, the notion of the nation had retained its positive connotation for the people in the former German Democratic Republic. National pride for socialist achievements was not only condoned, but even encouraged by the government. After all, one lived in the better part of the two Germaines. The general public, however, saw it differently. After having been fed—or rather brainwashed—with West German advertisements and TV commercials for decades they, indeed, imagined paradise, the land of milk and honey, as the epitome of German ingeniousness—but on the other side of the Wall. Whether identifying themselves with or rebelling against the system and embracing the world view of the class enemy—none of the generations in East Germany ever felt obligated to suppress the sentiment of patriotism . . .
The damage right-wing extremism has done to Germany's image abroad is tremendous. Big business has long since realized that the current development runs against their interest. The tourist trade fears losses, export figures plummeted already, and Japanese investments fell off to a record low in 1992. And they reacted swiftly: companies started to fire employees who molested foreign workmates in word or deed (measures which the women's rights movement has been fighting for years.) It was mainly their initiative which brought about the large turnout of concerned citizens protesting the xenophobia at the nationwide candle light vigils last December. All this reminded one of the 'public breast-beating contests,' as Max Horkheimer used to call the mass abjurations after World War II. And while honest middle-class citizens—in accordance with the government—call the perpetrators 'a few demented criminals,' the Left, in accordance with the press abroad, is busy conjuring the scare of reviving Nazism. Who is right?
Frustration and disappointment prevail with unemployment soaring in a country whose citizens had not known anything but full employment for 40 years and whose self-respect had always been based upon work. Only anti-social elements, who refused to work, used to be without a job. Furthermore, despite the snooper activities of the 'Stasi' (the East German Secret Service) there had been a sense of solidarity among the citizens against the bigwigs and the party bosses of the ruling SED. Now with jobs scarce and uncertainty everywhere mistrust and envy govern people's minds. Young people are deprived of any perspective for the future. Besides, now that the euphoria about the reunification has long since abated and its true costs are presented by an only too evasive government, East Germans feel more and more excluded as second-class citizens by West Germans. They in their turn exclude those whom they deem even further down the social scale. And so they fall back on the only identity which they think they can be sure of, i.e., their national identity: Germany for the Germans!
The incident described in this magazine article was not an isolated incident. Figures compiled by the German Interior Ministry included more than 10,000 right-wing offenses during 2002, including 725 separate acts of violence. Given the stigma associated with such acts, there is likely a reluctance to report them, and the actual figure may well be much higher. Geographically, the incidents are concentrated in the East, though they occur throughout Germany.
A 2004 study of German attitudes toward various groups produced some unsettling findings. Germany's population includes about 6 percent foreigners (vs. 11 percent in the U.S.), yet a majority of Germans describe their country as "too foreign." With the Muslim population in Germany rapidly growing, more than two-thirds of Germans say the Muslims (mainly Turks) do not fit into German society. Some analysts attribute these attitudes to high unemployment, which leads unemployed workers to engage in immigrant-bashing.
German right-wing groups have adopted a variety of techniques to spread their message. In 2004 and again in 2005, neo-Nazis used the widely distributed Sober computer worm to email millions of nationalist German messages to computers around the world. The messages, which blamed immigrants, prisoners, and welfare recipients for Germany's problems, were the first known example of a political organization using Spam to distribute propaganda.
In 2004, the German state of Baden-Württemberg banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves by school teachers, calling them a "political" symbol in order to bypass Germany's legal guarantee of religious freedom. Backers of the ban were stunned when a German federal court ruled in October of 2004 that the ban must also be applied to Catholic nuns, requiring them to remove their habits before entering the classroom.
While far-right parties continue to gain some momentum, especially in the former East Germany, most Germans are beginning to take notice and voice their displeasure. In June 2005, right-wing marches were planned in two separate cities. In the town of Braunschweig, 280 neo-Nazi marchers gathered, but were met by more than 1500 protesters. And in the village of Halbe about 100 right-wing marchers were countered by more than 800 opposition protestors.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is not only directed against Germany's Turkish and Muslim populations, but also against the growing number of immigrants from Eastern European nations. Nor are such feelings limited to Germany. Many other European nations have also witnessed an increase in anti-immigrant activity from extremist groups.
Despite opposition to the influx, immigrants may prove to be an aid to the German economy. Germany's falling birth rates mean that it may soon be less-able to support its growing elderly population. Nevertheless, the persistence of unemployment and limited economic growth in Germany may continue to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment.
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