The dramatic scenes of streets ablaze to the sound of gunfire from blank-firing pistols as fireworks, stones and bottles were hurled at the police and emergency service workers shocked many.
For two years the sale of fireworks had been banned in an attempt to prevent large gatherings and curb the spread of the coronavirus. This year's New Year's Eve celebrations have again reignited the debate about a potential ban on the sale of fireworks.
Eyewitnesses among police and firefighters spoke of unprecedented violence against them, calling for better protection.
That the multi-national, ethnically diverse district of Neukölln in Berlin was one of the main hotspots for the violence — local police described the intensity of the violence there as far worse than in previous years — was quickly seized upon by politicians and commentators.
"[It's] more about unregulated migration, failed integration and a lack of respect for the state than fireworks," the former-Health Minister Jens Spahn of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) said one day after the events.
On the same day, the disgraced former editor of the mass-market tabloid Bild, Julian Reichelt, posted a video on YouTube with the headline "Young, male, lawless: Migrants rampage through our cities on New Year's Eve — the state capitulates."
The conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), part of the largest opposition bloc in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, called for a new security concept and tougher policies to limit and control immigration.
Several representatives of the center-left federal government were quick to urge a tough response on perpetrators but objected to stoking xenophobic sentiment.
"We must show violent people who refuse to integrate into our cities the limits: with a firm hand and clear language. But without stirring up racist resentment. Those who exploit the necessary debate in order to exclude do not solve the problem, but rather intensify it," tweeted Interior Minister Nancy Faeser of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Police data on the perpetrators
On Tuesday, January 3, the Berlin Police Department said that of 145 people arrested in connection with the violence, 139 were male, two-thirds were under the age of 25, and 27 were minors. They have all been released.
On Monday, January 9, the Berlin Police Department released more detailed information about the suspects arrested on New Year’s Eve. Only 38 people were arrested specifically in connection with attacks on the police and emergency services staff. Of those, two-thirds were German nationals and the majority were under the age of 21.
The initial figure of 145 arrests relates to the total number of arrests across the city, including for arson, offenses under the Explosives Act, and breach of the peace. *
Of the 145 arrested, 45 were reported to be German nationals, 27 Afghan, and 21 Syrian.
In Germany, one-quarter of the population has a so-called "migration background," meaning that they themselves or at least one of their parents was not born in with German citizenship. Among people under the age of 25, this number is higher. And in some urban areas such as Berlin's Neukölln district, around 40% of the population has such a "migration background".
The figures released by the Berlin police do not show whether the group of people who were arrested are actually representative of the group of people who took part in the violence — or whether specific groups were targeted for arrest.
"Whenever we have arrest data like this, we need to see that this data first and foremost reflects what the police did and who they arrested, not necessarily who the perpetrators were," Niklas Harder, the co-head of the Integration Department at the German Center for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM) and an associate member of the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University told DW.
Countering racist statements
Many were quick to warn against blaming the New Year's Eve violence on people with migrant backgrounds.
"Yes, many of [those arrested] did have a migrant background, but they are not a homogeneous group. There is no homogeneous group of immigrants in Germany — and as you can see from the numbers this was a very diverse group of people," said Frank Asbrock, a professor of social psychology at the Chemnitz University of Technology who specializes in group violence and juvenile offenders.
This year's violence has triggered memories of events on New Year's Eve in 2015/16 in Cologne where hundreds of women were sexually assaulted by groups of men. Of the 153 suspects, 103 were from Morocco or Algeria, 68 were asylum-seekers and 18 were suspected of illegally being in the country.
Initial media reports in 2016 did not refer to the nationality or ethnicity of the suspects and both the police and the journalists were accused of a cover-up.
The non-binding German Press Code — to which DW also adheres — states that when reporting on criminal acts, as a rule, religious, ethnic, or national affiliation should not be mentioned unless there is a well-founded public interest. It also states that particular attention should be paid to the fact that mentioning it could fuel prejudice against minorities.
"What it does is mostly stir up emotions, and it satisfies those people who say that the perpetrators, the people who did this, are all foreigners, all migrants," psychologist Frank Asbrock told DW.
Indeed, the federal coalition government’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Ferda Ataman warned that there was no justification for what she described as the "racist reactions" to the New Year’s Eve violence.
"Anyone who listens to emergency forces knows that these acts cannot be ethnicized," she said. "We don't have a problem that can be deported. It's about developments in OUR society that need to be taken seriously."
In an interview with Der Spiegel news magazine, Güner Balci, Neukölln's integration officer — herself born and raised in Neukölln — said the violence was carried out by a small group of socially disadvantaged people, some of whom are known to her, and that she was certain that drugs also played a role.
"It's the hopelessly left-behind, to put it bluntly: absolute losers. It is, by the way, the same young people and sometimes children, who behave this way throughout the year, cause trouble, and make life difficult for the entire neighborhood," Balci said.
"In general, I think it's unrealistic to think of a singular explanation, because in every demographic or group we mention, whether it be men, young men, young urban men, migrants, or socially disadvantaged youth: the majority of each group that is mentioned in the debate did not participate in these riots," according to Niklas Harder of the German Center for Integration and Migration Research.
Berlin government taking action
With Berlin facing a (re)election on February 12, the city's governing mayor, Franziska Giffey (SPD), has been keen to show initiative and has announced plans for a summit to tackle youth violence.
But Tahera Ameer, program director at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an NGO that monitors racism in Germany, was one of many to warn against politicians' knee-jerk reactions.
She rejected the immediate suggestion of failed integration.
"It's frustrating that the people in positions of power who are able to shape this discourse, like Interior Minister Faeser, that the first thing they talk about is being tough on 'people who refuse to integrate' and 'we have to acknowledge the fears' or 'failed migration policy,'" Tahera Ameer told DW.
She believes that the release of information regarding the nationality of those arrested points to a broader problem within German society that is hostile to immigration.
"These figures are a form of segregation into the "we" and the "them" and the "we" is always the white, non-immigrant German society. There may be unique meanings behind certain behaviors by certain groups, but group violence is not unique to some milieus and not others," Ameer said.
"I'm not willing to accept that that's normal — that we release the numbers relating to the nationality of these people and that we don't talk about toxic masculinity or gender cliches or the people disconnected from society," she said.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
*This article was updated with the latest figures issued by the Berlin police on January 9 and later to correct the definition of "immigrant background"
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