Reading the Anglophone liberal press over the last months, one could gain the impression that Germany is a beacon of hope for all the refugees to whom the rest of Europe is to an ever-increasing degree becoming a hostile fortress.
Indeed, compared to the situation in most European states Germany has let in a large number of refugees and the images of applauding volunteers welcoming them at various train stations seemed to redeem the fears of the return of the ugly chauvinist German that had emerged at the height of the negotiations with Greece in the summer. But there is a nasty flipside to the German “welcome culture” that has received decidedly less media coverage internationally.
This year, there have been more than 700 attacks on refugee shelters — 300 percent more than the whole previous year — as well as countless assaults on individuals. Particularly common have been arson attacks on as yet unoccupied buildings that are earmarked as refugee shelters, and there have also been attacks on places where people already live.
According to the Federal Criminal Police Office, the majority of perpetrators arrested are from the immediate neighbourhood and more than 65 percent have no previous record of right-wing activities. Yet arrests have been made in only five percent of these attacks and there have been as yet no convictions. This growing hostility towards refugees echoes the atmosphere in the early 90s when there were, on top of the “ordinary” levels of violence in the streets, the pogroms of Hoyerswerda and Rostock-Lichtenhagen and a number of arson attacks that killed several people.
While the attacks are happening all over the country, Saxony in the east has become a focal point with the highest number of attacks per capita. Its capital, Dresden — by the way the economic success story of east Germany, which contradicts simplifying explanations of racist violence as the domain of those who have lost out economically — is the heart of the right-wing populist Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of the West) movement.
Pegida has spread to various mostly east German cities. Commentators have stressed that the increasingly aggressive rhetoric of Pegida and its other regional branches — speakers droning on about a Muslim invasion and the impending loss of German identity — is directly feeding into rising levels of racist violence.
The movement has existed for more than a year now and has, especially in its early days, been very successful at presenting itself as “concerned citizens”. An academic survey of the people attending the weekly demonstrations has contributed to this perception by stressing the large proportion of middle class people with degrees among the movement.
The interpretation is the result of a “theory of extremism” that is popular among conservative German social scientists. The premise is that there is a middle of society that is largely identical with the sociological middle class and is demarcated from “extremist” fringes on the left and on the right, with the latter generally presumed to be poor and uneducated. In this world-view, racist attitudes can by definition only come from the margins of society. Therefore a movement like Pegida cannot be racist but must have legitimate concerns.
Because of Germany’s past, accusing someone of racism is a serious matter. Paradoxically, this results in racism largely being considered the domain of baseball bat-wielding neo Nazis. That racism is a structural issue and can have a “friendly” middle-class face is inconceivable to many. This is why authorities often operate with terms like “xenophobia”, suggesting a regrettable but common human sentiment instead. Racist violence is often trivialised.
This was overt in connection with the right-wing terrorist network NSU (National Socialist Underground) that exposed itself in 2011 when two of its members committed suicide after a failed bank robbery. Over the course of a decade, they had killed nine people with a Turkish/Greek background and a German police woman. At the time the press wrote about “the döner killers”. Even though these murders were partly linked by the weapon that had been used, police refused to seriously consider the possibility of a racist motivation, suspected the families of the victims and focused on non-existent links to organised crime.
In the aftermath of the uncovering of the network, branches of Germany’s internal secret services destroyed numerous files but were still unable to suppress the fact that most of the collaborators of the three main suspects had been paid informers of various services who, in turn, had obstructed police investigations because they were afraid of losing their sources. The true extent of the network and their racist crimes is unclear as of yet, a second parliamentary commission has just taken up an enquiry and there are separate enquiry commissions in a number of federal states.
This structural racism among the authorities, the unwillingness to recognise racist acts for what they are, is also to be found today. In a number of cases when arrests were made after an arson attack, police announced that there had been no racist background, but that people had acted out of fear or personal frustration. Unless there is a pamphlet left behind or a swastika daubed on a wall, there is a fair chance that a racist attack will be classified as “mere hooliganism”. This has allowed many municipalities to downplay the extent to which neo-Nazi activities are a serious problem in their region.
This trivializing of racism has also underpinned the official reactions to Pegida and the recent wave of racist violence.
Politicians from the social-democratic SPD to the conservative CDU/CSU and even individuals from the supposedly socialist Die Linke voiced empathy with the concerned citizens and were eager to stress their willingness to engage in a dialogue with those who feel overburdened by the number of refugees in Germany (while, of course, making clear that violence is no solution). Since gallows bearing the names of Merkel and deputy chancellor Gabriel (SPD) were carried around at Pegida marches, this enthusiasm for dialogue on part of the established parties has largely subsided. Those parties are now regularly being addressed in Nazi jargon as “traitors to the people”.
Nonetheless mainstream politicians are still eager not to lose any more votes to the new right-wing populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) that has benefitted from the upsurge in anti-refugee sentiment, and presents itself as the parliamentary wing of Pegida. Politicians from all major parties have voiced concerns over the “tidal wave” of refugees coming to Germany and conjured up a scenario of strained local authorities that can no longer deal with the logistical challenges of housing so many people. But apart from a few places, such as Berlin where inflexible bureaucrats have indeed created a humanitarian nightmare, with families camping out in the cold for weeks, there has been no logistical chaos. This is mostly due to the work of countless volunteers.
Nevertheless, these statements have contributed to sentiments that refugees are a burden and a threat, so that the right-wing attackers feel that they are executing the will of the people.
As in 1992 when the relatively generous right to asylum of the Federal Republic was replaced with a considerably stricter one, the actions of the right-wing mob have had legal consequences for the refugees.
In the last few years, autonomous refugee protests had led to a loosening of some of the harshest aspects of asylum law, such as non-cash benefits or compulsory residence that forbade asylum seekers to leave the administrative district where their application was being processed. Those restrictions have now been re-introduced, along with a number of other measures that are supposed to make Germany a less attractive destination and affect the refugees’ legal security.
Back in the 90s, the introduction of the harsh new laws led to a gradual petering out of arson attacks, but the new draconian measures of the last few months have had no similar effect. Also, the phenomenon is too widespread to be met with organised resistance. Attacks often happen in rural areas where there are few anti-fascists.
Since 1990, NGOs have counted at least 180 murders committed by neo-Nazis. Racist violence has become a continuous but under-reported background noise of normal German life. Unfortunately everything suggests that there will be more to come.