The Problem is Racism – Back Then and Today

The Problem is Racism – Back Then and Today

  • Posted by Jan Oltmanns
  • On December 2, 2015
  • Comments

Germany has two faces these days: There are countless volunteers, who help the countless refugees. And there are – on the other hand – more and more people marching the streets and demonstrating against the refugees. This racism has it’s origin not only in the far rightwing extremism, but in the middle of society. 

By Patrick Gensing

Since reunification there have been hundreds of racist attacks and assaults in Germany. The pogrom that took place at Rostock-Lichtenhagen and the excesses of Hoyerswerda in 1991 are exemplary of the racist violence that swept Germany at the beginning of the 1990s. And it wasn’t only in the former GDR. One incident took place in Mannheim-Schönau in May 1992 when right-wing extremists and local residents laid siege to a refugee shelter.

There are however differences between East and West. In the old West, neo-Nazis mainly hit their targets under cover of night. They carried out arson attacks on houses in Mölln and Solingen, burning children in their beds. In the East, on the other hand, they were more open about it: mobs attacked migrants, hounded them through towns and beat them to death. On the part of perpetrators and those standing around applauding however, the motive in both East and West was the same: racism. Many right-wing extremist strategists consider the former GDR to be a “better Germany” because there was almost no immigration. Even today, only a small percentage of the eastern German population has migrant roots, whereas western German cities have become colourful and multicultural societies.

Neo-Nazi veterans still speak enthusiastically about the post-reunification period, when neo-Nazi thugs styled themselves as enforcers of the people’s will. They felt justified in their actions by the aggressive anti-refugee language used by politicians. The most well-known example for this lack of responsibility was Edmund Stoiber, at that time State Premier of Bavaria, who spoke of a “racially impure” society. Another example was Rudolf Seiters, at the time Minister of the Interior, who, during a press conference while the attacks in Lichtenhagen were taking place and people were in danger of being burnt, could think of nothing better than to complain about the alleged abuse of the right of asylum. During the campaign to abolish the right of asylum, parts of the press joined in the chorus by publishing horror stories about “asylum seeker fraud” and using apocalyptic expressions such as “tidal waves of refugees” or using expressions such as “the boat is full.” Today there are also anxious reports on the rapidly growing numbers of refugees but the tone of voice has changed decidedly. One important change is that the refugees’ own viewpoint is now given a much clearer voice. Even the “Bild” tabloid newspaper, one of the agitators of the 1990s, now calls on people to help refugees.

Little sympathy for victims

We still haven’t overcome right-wing extremism in Germany. On the one hand, we have a multicultural, colourful society in western Germany, but in eastern Germany there are very few people with a multicultural background. Of the 16.5 million inhabitants that have a migrant background according to the German Federal Office of Statistics for the year 2013, only 3.4 percent live in the eastern part of the country whereas 96.6 percent live in western Germany and Berlin.

Lack of interest and sympathy for the victims legitimises violence. This was evident in Rostock-Lichtenhagen at the time of the attacks. More recently a study carried out by the University of Rostock shows that this lack of empathy is still in evidence today. In the immediate aftermath of the pogrom, the refugees themselves were held responsible for the attacks. At the time of the attacks, in September 1992, the Interior Minister of the State of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, Lothar Kupfer, wrote to the Chairman of the Central Council of Sinti and Roma: “Frequently people belonging to this ethnic group steal from shops. When I consider our very generous asylum law […] we can’t expect the population to keep tolerating the behaviour of these people. I would be grateful if you could communicate this to your compatriots.”

According to unofficial figures, over 180 people have been killed by right-wing extremists in Germany since 1990. Hardly anyone knows the names of the victims. In the town of Eberswalde, to name but one example, local initiatives have been fighting to the present day to have a street named after Amadeu Antonio. In 1990 Antonio was hounded through the town and beaten to death by a racist horde of Germans – because he was black. Today, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation supports victims of right-wing extremist violence. In one of its brochure the foundation sums up an experience common to victim support groups and counselling services: they all agree that when right-wing extremist violence has taken place, there is a systematic reversal of perpetrator and victim roles.

Why are victims turned into accomplices? How is it that the officers investigating a series of murders of migrants fail to see the racist motive? Why is there so little empathy for the victims? Why does the current discussion about refugees in Germany revolve almost entirely around questions of accommodation costs, problems and the “concerns of the population”.

The radicalised mainstream of society

In Rostock-Lichtenhagen and currently in Heidenau widely held prejudices and resentment found their expression in violence. But racism and xenophobia don’t begin with an attack – violence is just the final element of a long chain. Right-wing extremists are a product of society in this country – people are not born with xenophobic attitudes, but they are passed on to children and young adults. The problem is racism, in both the past and the present.

Today it is not neo-Nazis who communicate their ideas successfully to the mainstream of society. On the contrary, it is the self-titled mainstream that is becoming more and more radical. Parts of Middle Germany are all too prepared to throw overboard civilisation’s achievements. Hate speech directed at the poor, at foreigners, migrants and other minorities, as well as at Israel have become fashionable. The Internet is where hate speech is at its most virulent: racist rants and threats have become a regular feature in social networks and commentary columns.

“Frequently it is not just a case of hate speech – words are actually the precursors to actions,” said Heiko Maas, Federal Minister of Justice on this development. “The increase of attacks on refugee housing is a sign that ‘intellectual violence’ is all too often an incitement to real violence.” It is a fact that in 2014 and the first few months of 2015 the number of attacks on refugees and their housing went up dramatically.

The time immediately after members of the NSU right-wing terrorist group revealed their identities would have been an ideal opportunity to have a genuine public debate about this radicalisation, about German forms of integration and about national identity. This opportunity was lost.

Double standards

If you believe the large-scale public debates on the subject, racism is the preserve of neo-Nazis. When the extreme right-wing NPD party have election posters that show racist caricatures of migrants, the public is outraged. But when migrants were depicted as criminal monkeys in a Bavarian police calendar, the CSU (Bavarian ruling party) and the police declared the calendar to not be racist because it wasn’t meant in a racist way. If the NPD were to refer to horse breeds within the context of European education systems, we would say it is revealing its true self. But when bestseller writer Thilo Sarrazin does just that, thousands of ordinary citizens cheer him on at readings.

Racism and anti-Semitism are considered as exotic in Germany and projected onto the neo-Nazis – only the NPD is racist and anti-Semitic – even though all surveys on the subject show the contrary. The mainstream of society absolves itself of all guilt.

Cultural racism

But the boundaries are blurring as we speak. At PEGIDA demonstrations ordinary citizens walk side by side with right-wing extremist hooligans. Taking Islamism as the “new enemy” they have found common ideological ground: Muslims, or people taken to be Muslims, are not discriminated against or held in contempt based on their looks or origins any more. Rather, negative characteristics are attributed to them because they belong to a certain culture.

This cultural racism is a lot more effective than its outlawed cousin, classical racism. Thanks to Islamism being styled as the new enemy, even reactionary armchair racists can claim to be progressive, after all, German women are allowed to cook without wearing a veil. Ironically, from an ideological point of view Islamists and right-wing extremists have many things in common: they are authoritarian, anti-Semitic and have no respect for universal human rights.

When we hear cries of “We are the people” at PEGIDA demonstrations, this carries the message “And you are not one of us”! It refers to refugees, Muslims, Blacks. Anyone who is different to the white majority. German racism has metamorphosed and modernised itself, but at its core it is still as inhuman as always.

Patrick Gensing, journalist, is renowned in Germany for his work on right-wing extremism and racism. He is the author of a number of books on these subjects as well as writing about political issues in his blog His work has received numerous awards.




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