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Germany divided: 5 snapshots of discontent

Jefferson Chase | Charlotte Chelsom-Pill | Oliver Pieper | Bettina Stehkämper
June 25, 2018

Germany is a very affluent country. The average German earns €3,771 a month for full-time work and has a life expectancy of more than 80 years. So why is there so much quarreling? DW criss-crossed the nation for answers.

German flags on a balcony
Image: imago/Schöning

Cottbus: 'Our government doesn't act — it reacts'

You wouldn't guess from Cottbus' restored historic city center that at the start of this year this city of 100,000 declared a moratorium on migrants because residents felt overwhelmed. If anything, it feels somewhat underpopulated and empty.

But head to the outlying district of Sachsendorf, and you'll see evidence of the fact that the proportion of foreigners increased from 2.2 to 8.5 percent in Cottbus in only two years. Women wearing headscarves and young men speaking Arabic are no rarity in this lower-class neighborhood with its Communist-era pre-fab apartment blocks, small shopping centers and otherwise very European-looking populace.

The neighborhood of Sachsendorf in Cottbus
The big apartment blocks of Sachsendorf are typical of outlying districts in many eastern German citiesImage: DW/J. Chase

There have been several prominent instances of migrant violence. The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party holds up places like Sachsendorf as typical of a Germany being "flooded" by dangerous foreigners. That's the advertised theme of a podium discussion the AfD is hosting back in the city center. The 200-odd people in the audience are there to vent their anger at what they repeatedly call a "loss of control" over politics and society. And the person they vent it at is Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"The biggest problem is the government," Andreas Kalbitz, the AfD chairman in the eastern state of Brandenburg, says. "It doesn't act, it reacts. And the result is a colorful bouquet of political problems. The most important issues in our country, from the refugee question to social problems, don't get addressed."

Read moreCottbus grapples with violence between refugees and residents

For Kalbitz and his supporters the way forward is clear: Get rid of Merkel, deport nearly all of the people they say entered Germany illegally under the pretext of asylum and empower the people over the politicians. But which people? Parallel to the AfD event, another crowd of roughly 200 people gather for an event entitled "Integration by involving refugees in everyday life."

Sozialarbeiterin Julianne Meyer und Flüchtling Hassan
Hassan from Syria volunteers his time to help other refugeesImage: DW/J. Chase

In the audience is Juliana Meyer. She coordinates scores of volunteers from Cottbus who help migrants fit in. Meyer scoffs at the city's moratorium on refugees, saying that it has prevented "only around 30" people from moving there.

Many migrants also donate their time as a way of repaying German society for its generosity, she adds. As living proof, she's brought Hassan, a Syrian refugee who's well on his way toward learning German and who helps his fellow asylum-seekers by translating and filling out necessary state forms.

"The biggest problem is that people don't talk to one another enough and don't debate things properly with objective arguments and issues we all care about," Meyer tells DW. But when asked if she'd sit down with the AfD, she says no. For her the party, whose leaders flirt with taboo racist language, is too closely associated with "misanthropic and xenophobic" positions to be a legitimate discussion partner.

Both the social worker and the AfD politician agree that Germany is deeply divided. Perhaps more surprisingly, they both speak of social divisions, like disparities in wealth and unequal educational opportunities — and not only of the native-migrant distinction. But the chances of them exchanging views, to say nothing of reaching any common middle ground, are zero.

"It's a shame," says Hassan, when asked what he thinks about Germany's social divisions, although he too believes the far-right populists are racists.

Author: Jefferson Chase

The presence of so many foreigners represents a challenge to a small city like Cottbus, but what about Germany's cosmopolitan capital Berlin? To find out we went, not to a techno club, but to that most quintessentially German of locations: an allotment garden.

Allotment garden
Image: picture-alliance/Chromorange /E. Weingartner

Berlin: 'Germany is forgetting how to deal with diversity'

Most people know Berlin as a party town. To locals, garden colonies like Feldblume 1915 are just as reflective of life in the capital: There are young and old, unemployed and wealthy people, meat-eaters and vegans. Some of the gardens are tended down to the last blade of grass; others aren't. Now with the soccer World Cup going on, little German flags adorn many of the fences.

And naturally everyone here has an opinion on issue No. 1 in Germany: Migrants.

"Horst Seehofer is completely right in wanting proper rules for Germany," says Horst Wohlgemuth about Germany's hardline interior minister. For Wohlgemuth, whose garden is immaculate, migrants are the top issue dividing German society.

"Europe has to stick together on this," says the 71-year-old. "If it doesn't, the continent will fall apart for good."

Mustafa Teke, allotment gardener
Allotment gardener Mustafa Teke is one of many critics of Merkel's migrant policyImage: DW/Bettina Stehkämper

Sixty-one-year-old Mustafa Teke, who originally hails from Turkey and has worked in construction for 40 years, largely agrees.

"There's no end to the refugees coming here to get money," he says. "Germany doesn't have that sort of money anymore. It's no wonder they want to come here. Germany is the best country in Europe!"

That sort of talk makes Noelie Oguah-Kehrer roll her eyes. As a young woman she immigrated from Benin. Today she works in an office in Berlin and is married to a German man. The 58-year-old thinks it's a shame more people don't appreciate the diversity of their country.

"We increasingly reject and are forgetting how to deal with it," she says, pointing to her neighbor's garden and smiling. "But the diversity here is nice."

Author: Bettina Stehkämper

What to do when frustrations turn violent? You call the police. But what if the police themselves come under attack? That's increasingly the case even in relatively affluent cities in the Rhineland, which is usually known for Carnival and its easy-going lifestyle.

Carvenal in Cologne
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Cologne: 'The problem is society'

The young policewoman blinks and then is struck full force by a stone over her right eyebrow. Blood begins to flow, and shock at this unexpected attack spreads across her face. Fortunately, this scene isn't real. It's part of a public relations campaign with the title "Only Human" intended to show the sorts of dangers police face in Germany today. Violent crime in general is on the decline in Germany. But attacks on police are on the rise.

Twenty-six-year-old Maike Neumann from Cologne is the face of the campaign. She's hoping it will make a difference.

"Violence against us is on the rise, and the sort of things we experience are becoming worse and worse," says Neumann, who was herself bitten on the hand during one of her first days on the job. "We face attacks from teenagers and pensioners alike, from foreigners and refugees and from Germans, and from men and from women."

Maike Neumann in education vide
Police now feel they have to make education videos to encourage public respectImage: auchmensch.de

People throughout German society have less respect for police, Neumann complains, telling the story of one such attack to illustrate her point.

"It was at party with doctors, lawyers and people who worked for the city, people you'd think would abide by the law and know what is acceptable and what's not, even when they've been drinking."

Read moreGerman arrested for pushing policeman into streetcar

Three of these well-heeled partiers physically attacked police sent to rein in the festivities. So does the young policewoman enjoy keeping the peace?

"It's still an unbelievably great job," she says. "The problem is the society in which we have to work."

Author: Oliver Pieper

Contempt for figures of respect and state authority: Teachers in Berlin are also all too familiar with this phenomenon.

The word moral on a blackboard
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Back in Berlin: 'They all went home, while I went to the doctor'

Police aren't the only ones who tell of being attacked. Berlin schoolteacher Ulrich Clemens remembers an incident five years ago involving the father of a Lebanese pupil who stormed into his classroom with five of his children in tow.

"He cursed me out, slapped me in the face and pulled at my shirt," Clemens recalls.

The father believed that Clemens had hit one of his sons. The boy had lied, it turned out.

"The father just kept cursing me and hitting me on the shoulder, the upper arm and the chest," Clemens says. "I wasn't allowed to defend myself and fight back."

Ulrich Clemens
Berlin teacher Ulrich Clemens says he wasn't taken seriously enoughImage: Privat

In the end he had no recourse but to flee to the principal's office.

"She spoke with the group in my absence, and then they all went home, while I went to the doctor," Clemens remembers.

Read moreViolence against teachers affects 1 in 4 German schools

The physicians measured the teacher's systolic blood pressure at 200 — a response to the stress he was under.

Clemens has worked as a teacher in Berlin since 1979, usually in less affluent "problem districts" with high concentrations of foreigners. The incident deeply affected him. He has shared his story with newspapers and complains that his principal and the authorities at the time didn't take his case seriously. Eight months after the attack, the man who hit him was fined €800 ($933).

According to a teachers association poll of 1,200 school principals this spring, the past five years have seen attacks on teachers in 50 percent of Germany's schools. Schools have noted a general rise in the harassment of teachers, the study said, with violence most likely to occur in secondary schools.

With the arrival of large numbers of migrant children starting in 2015, German teachers faced a new challenge. Many schools in Berlin complain of being underequipped for their current tasks. Teachers say they need more classrooms, more fully trained colleagues and more educational materials. At present they're overwhelmed — and occasionally under attack.

"Before 2013, nothing of this kind happened to me," says Clemens.

Author: Charlotte Chelsom-Pill

Many people in Germany blame the decline of civility and increase in aggression on the weakening influence of religious values. But in Catholic Bavaria, which is Germany's largest state and accounts for one-fifth of the country's GDPthe main symbol of Christianity itself is at the center of some quarrels. So, too, are refugees and migrants, whose entry and integration in Germany is steered by a central office in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg.

St. Stephen's Cathedral  Passau Reportage
Image: DW/R. Staudenmaier

Nuremberg/Passau: 'The crucifix is also a symbol of tolerance'

Nuremberg Deputy Mayor Klemens Gsell has one of the best offices in Germany. It looks out onto the city's market place, which hosts the world-famous holiday Christkindlmarkt. When the weather is nice and the windows are open, sounds of merchants selling the last of their fresh cherries drift into Gsell's office. In this corner of Germany, all seems to be well.

"Nuremberg is flourishing economically in a way we've actually never before experienced," says Gsell.

In terms of population, birth rates, jobs and tax revenues, Nuremberg is booming. The main quarrels are over things like the price of bus fares. Otherwise, Nuremberg's center-right, center-left coalition, which has been in power since 2002, continues to run smoothly — something that cannot be said of Chancellor Merkel's coalition at the moment, where conservatives are at each others' throats. 

A visit to Nuremberg's Christmas market

Bavaria is currently the source of Germany's main political conflict. The Bavarian conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) wants a tougher line toward migrants, if necessary by Germany acting alone. But Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany's main conservative party, insists on an international approach. Facing a challenge from the far-right AfD party in upcoming regional elections, the CSU refuses to budge on the issue.

"It's not about who's foreign and who's not. It's about whether we're going to follow the rules or not." says Gsell.

Read moreNuremberg Christmas market beefs up security for opening

It doesn't help that the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), which has its main headquarters in Nuremberg, has been hit by scandals. Many people here have lost "trust or at least doubt that the rule of law and order is intact," according to Gsell.

All the way across Bavaria, in Passau on the Austrian border, people also have their doubts. As many as 7,000 migrants passed through this small city per day at the height of the "crisis" in 2015.

Father Manfred Ertl
Father Manfred Ertl says he wished that politicians would more closely follow Christian tenetsImage: DW/Maximiliane Koschyk

Overlooking Passau on one of its many hills is St. Stephen's Cathedral. Sunday services here are well attended, an uncommon scene in the rest of the country. Father Manfred Ertl is giving the sermon today, and it isn't long until he turns to the issue of migrants, calling upon his flock to show greater kindness and humanity.

"It would be good if some of the politicians from explicitly Christian parties would return to some of the things I was talking about today," Ertl says.

The days are long gone when Catholic priests in Bavaria tell their congregations how to vote. Still, Ertl feels that he has to "speak out critically" on certain issues.

Read moreReichsbürger trial: Man sentenced to life for murdering police officer

That includes not only migrants, but also a recent decision to hang crosses in Bavaria's public buildings again — something Ertl supports.

"The crucifix is also a symbol of tolerance," Ertl explains. "Take the message of the crucifix seriously, if it's hanging in your offices. And take stock of how far your decisions are from the message of Jesus."

Author: Maximiliane Koschyk

Why is there so much conflict in Germany right now? Five perspectives, of course, cannot tell the entire story — they can only give a bit of insight into the lives of people in Germany and what motivates them. So we'd love to hear from you. Please get in touch and tell us about conflicts you witness!

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.
Bettina Stehkämper
Bettina Stehkämper Reporter and editor