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A Host of Problems: the New Racism Controversy in Germany

Germany has every reason to be sensitive about its image in the outside world. Perhaps that is why the World Cup beginning June 9 was seized upon as an occasion to demonstrate German “friendliness” to the estimated 1 million guests who will arrive. In that regard, Germany seems to be scoring an own goal even before the tournament has begun.

Giyasettin Sayan, German-Turkish politician of the Left party who was injured in a racist attack in Berlin-Lichtenberg on May 20, 2006

Giyasettin Sayan, German-Turkish politician of the Left party who was injured in a racist attack in Berlin-Lichtenberg on May 20, 2006

“Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden“, roughly translatable as ‘The World as Guest in the House of Friends’, which is the German motto for the entire advertising campaign for the World Cup, might have been a little injudicious. Friendliness is something that one demonstrates in deed and not in words. For a country which is organizing an event of this size, hospitality and friendliness should be natural and obvious – not a matter of proclamation. One might go so far as to say that the motto itself belied a certain nervousness regarding the true state of affairs.

A question of image

But what is that true state of affairs, with the World Cup just a fortnight away?

Is Germany really a country full of neo-Nazis and violent xenophobes where a visiting coloured person is best advised to check his city road map for “no-go” areas before he sets foot anywhere?

Is this especially true of eastern states such as Brandenburg or Saxony?

What has happened? Why is there a racism debate raging in Germany so shortly before the World Cup? Or is it raging because of the World Cup? How much of it is hysteria, and how much of it is serious concern? How much of it is merely the attempt to gain a platform for the one or the other grievance, a point of view, a political idea or ideology?

A question of identity

A series of incidents followed by a deluge of statements in the already heated atmosphere of an ongoing debate regarding the “integration” of “foreigners”, by which are meant immigrants, whether of the first or of the third generation; Germany’s demographic sorrows and fears for the future of their pension and health insurance systems; the poor showing of German school children in the OECD “PISA” studies; the everyday, mostly virtual “clash of civilizations” since 9/11; ultimately, the latent and unanswered question of the German identity, of Germany’s identity since the upheavals of the Nazi era and then the great and good caesura of the German reunification.

Even the eastwards expansion of the European Union is capable of making a certain class and category of Germans feel threatened in their economic prosperity and the security of their social system.

Germans were the biggest “euro sceptics” at the time of the introduction of the euro currency.

Winning side

What is overlooked is that the Germans have surmounted all these practical and emotional obstacles to go forward and to make the impossible possible. “Solidarity” with the eastern states is a seven percent surcharge on the payable income tax here in Germany, and that seventeen years after the reunification.

Nobody in the world really doubts the capacity of the Germans to organize a World Cup and to guarantee the security of participants and visitors alike, irrespective of colour, creed and nationality.

Germany itself is not a no-go area to anybody in the world, with or without the World Cup.

Incidents

A German-Ethiopian boy gets brutally beaten up in the village of Pömmelte, near Magdeburg in eastern Germany. It was very clearly a racially motivated attack which took place on January 9 of this year. And now four German youths have been sentenced for that crime.

An Ethiopian-German was attacked on Easter Sunday in the eastern city of Potsdam. It nearly killed the man, but also caused a political tussle of unheard-of proportions involving Kay Nehm, Germany’s chief federal prosecutor, Jörg Schönbohm, interior minister of the state of Brandenburg and Wolfgang Schäuble, the federal interior minister.

Giyasettin Sayan, a German-Turkish politician was injured in a racist attack in the Lichtenberg ward – which lies in the eastern part of Berlin – as recently as May 20.

To call these “isolated incidents” is sheer tautology, since such incidents can only be isolated by nature. Nor do they need to have a certain statistical weight to be taken seriously.

A real problem

They all point to the fact that Germany has a real problem with right-wing extremists and neo-Nazi groups – even if the latest report from the Office for Protection of the Constitution, released May 22, shows that their numbers have not risen significantly.

But when former government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye set the ball rolling last week with a newspaper interview in which he claimed that there were certain no-go areas for foreigners – with the wrong skin colour – in Brandenburg and elsewhere, he had merely raised the right subject at the wrong point of time – or so it would seem.

In effect, the public hue and cry will put the whole nation on its alert and like-as-not take the wind out of the sails of those who might have been tempted to use the World Cup for their kind of platform.

In any case, one would advise them to look elsewhere. The Germans are a football-mad nation. And they may not take kindly to such disturbances when Germany is about to enter the semi-finals!

  • Date 23.05.2006
  • Author DW staff (asc)
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  • Date 23.05.2006
  • Author DW staff (asc)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsVF