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Examining the State of the German Soul

Social researchers in Germany present a portrait of a nation consumed by fear and insecurity and a population harbouring significant racist tendencies.


The study results are alarming for Germany's large foreign community

Politicians around the world commonly address national concerns in a state-of-the-union speech. But looking at the state of their nation's soul is another matter.

German researchers in the city of Bielefeld have attempted just that. In a study, which involved interviewing 3,000 Germans this summer, they found a a nation plagued by fear and insecurity and these factors in turn leading to xenophobia.

"The individual results, for example on racism, show that some 16 percent of the population believes that whites rightfully lead the world," researcher Wilhelm Heitmeyer of the University of Bielefeld's Interdisciplinary Institute for Conflict- and Violence Research, who headed the study, told DW-Radio.

"And 14 percent say that there are groups within the community that have less worth than others."

Criticizing the 'other'

The results held across gender lines (in some cases, xenophobic attitudes were slightly stronger among women) and in both east and west Germany. Whether the 'other' was someone from another country, Muslim, Jewish, gay or homeless, the study participants loudly criticized or rejected them.

Twenty-two percent believe that foreigners should marry someone from their own country; and 20 percent say they would consider it unpleasant to have a foreigner as a neighbor.

Forty-nine percent would have a problem with moving to a neighborhood where many Muslims live. The less secure respondents felt about their own lives, the more drastic their criticism.

"Whoever isn't taken seriously in this society is nothing," said Heitmeyer.

'Mentality of hate'

This loss of meaning "leads to a mentality of hate," the President of the German Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse told DW-Radio. "The 'other' is always to blame."

Twenty-eight percent of Germans say that foreigners should be sent back home if jobs get scarce. And at least every second German believes that there are too many foreigners living in Germany.

Twenty-two percent believe that Jews have too much influence in Germany. And nearly 17 percent say that Jews are responsible for their own persecution because of their behavior. Sixty-eight percent said, however, that they consider it good that there are an increasing number of Jews living in Germany.

Gays are also targets of hate, with 33 percent saying they find it disgusting when they see a homosexual pair kissing and 40 percent saying they don't support gay marriage.

Politicians urged to take note

Thierse said the results belong in the center of the country's political debate.

"We have to work to establish social relationships and human values that aren't possible to realize in the economic realm," Thierse said. "We must work for these things because if we don't, our society will become less human and the problems will grow larger."

Heitmeyer referred to the growing xenophobia as "vagabond authoritarianism" and said the root of the problem is economic insecurity: 66 percent of Germans consider the economy bad; 81 percent said they find it difficult to find a good job; 86 percent believe that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. And at the same time, 74 percent said that social relationships are growing weaker.

"Even though we don't currently have an organized right-wing populist movement in Germany, there is a significant potential for that," Heitmeyer said. "This must concern us."

The researchers plan to continue the study for the next decade.

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