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Germany's Long Road to Multiculturalism

July 21, 2005

With possible federal polls in September, DW-WORLD spoke to Anetta Kahane, one of Germany's leading anti-racism activists, about the politically-loaded topic of immigration and racism.

Right-wing extremism is a nagging problem in eastern GermanyImage: AP

Anetta Kahane, 51, is one of Germany's best-known anti-racism campaigners. She is the chairwoman of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which was named after an Angolan beaten to death by skinheads near Berlin only after a month after reunification in 1990. Raised in eastern Germany, Kahane's work on fighting racism in the east has focused largely on promoting democratic values in youth clubs and workshops. She was named a few years ago as one of Time magazine's "People to Watch" as part of its Europe special issue.

Anetta Kahane
Anetta KahaneImage: dpa - Report

Kahane (photo) spoke to DW-WORLD about a recent increase in xenophobia in Germany, the nagging problem of right-wing extremism in the country's former communist east and the danger it poses to democracy and how politicians need to take serious note of a more racially-mixed Germany as federal elections loom.

DW-WORLD: According to a new study conducted by the University of Leipzig, every fourth German subscribes to xenophobic views. Does that surprise you?

Anetta Kahane: Not in the least. The results correspond to the perceptions and attitudes that we (anti-racism campaigners) come across in our daily work in Germany. In fact, I think the study is relatively modest since it only describes what can be really verified. But, if you're talking about latent racism or xenophobic ideologies, then those figures would actually be much higher.

How do you explain the increasingly negative attitude towards foreigners in Germany at a time when statistics show that the number of foreigners in the country has actually decreased -- from 7.3 million in 2003 to 6.7 million in 2004?

Firstly, racism doesn't need any concrete occasions. It's an ideology that discriminates against groups of people, and for that you don't really need those concrete groups. You can see that very well in the case of anti-Semitism -- there are hardly any Jews in Germany but there are a lot of anti-Semites.

Einwanderung Ausländer in Berlin Symbolbild
The Kreuzberg neighborhood of BerlinImage: AP

In the case of Germany, particularly in western Germany, policies towards foreigners were always based on the assumption that they would one day go back to where they came from -- it was more an attitude of "we have to integrate them, rather than we want to." It was all regarded as a 'problem' and Germany's permanent denial mode of "we aren't a country of immigrants" has led to the fact that the image of Germans is largely determined by stereotypes and physical characteristics.

Efforts have been made to break that pattern of thinking by reforming citizenship laws. (Editor's note: The laws are now based on place of birth rather than descent.) But, in principle, the view that someone who doesn't correspond to a stereotypical image of the Germans -- a Turkish man, for instance, with a German passport -- still largely dominates in society and stands in sharp contrast to countries such as Britain or France. The policies of the past decades, however, were programmed to backfire -- after all you can't follow them for so many years and play with prejudices and then expect people to suddenly give up racist attitudes.

Also, Germany has no concept of political correctness, unlike the Anglo-Saxon world. There's absolutely no understanding in Germany of the concept of integration and coexistence of different cultures. Though the Germans say they're rational and have laws for everything, when it comes to socio-political things like respect, tolerance, etc, there the Germans think having rules is wrong.

The reasons for a negative attitude towards foreigners are different in eastern Germany. There, foreigners still hardly make up even one percent of the population in certain regions and cities, as opposed to western states such as North-Rhine Westphalia or even Bavaria. The history of racism in eastern Germany, however, has its roots in the former communist dictatorship. There is simply no tradition of democratic culture and tolerance in the east, and unfortunately there was a very hesitant attempt to build one after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The annual report by Germany's federal office for the protection of the constitution shows that crimes and violent acts by right-wing extremists, particularly in eastern Germany, are on the rise. Just how serious is the situation?

The explosive situation in eastern Germany in the early 90s after the fall of the Berlin Wall did establish a kind of social movement against foreigners, one that's become deeply entrenched over time. Though the situation today in eastern Germany isn't so palpable, what we're seeing today is definitely a result of the actions of right-wing extremists in the early 90s. The fact remains that right-wing extremists are becoming stronger in eastern Germany today and foreigners aren't interested in moving there for fear of being hounded or even attacked.

Anhaenger der rechtsextremistischen Nationaldemokratischen Partei Deutschlands (NPD) demonstrieren am 8. Maerz 2003 in Greifswald
A demonstration by the far-right party, NPDImage: AP

Politicians refuse to see or understand just how dramatic the situation is and how it's endangering democracy. Most politicians -- whether they're in the federal parliament or in local governments -- don't perceive right-wing extremism in eastern Germany as a challenge, but rather as something complex. Unfortunately, the topic has been reduced to something of a political ping-pong game between the various parties and there's a tendency to play it down.

The core problem is that politicians in Germany find it hard to perceive right-wing extremism as a real danger because German culture doesn't at all have a socio-political basis.

In all likelihood, federal elections will take place in September. Most parties are already in the thick of election campaigns. Will immigration be a key issue?

Uncomfortable topics such as democratic values and the fight against right-wing extremism aren't popular election issues. Instead, politicians tend to go for populism and that's always dangerous. It's already happening. Oskar Lafontaine, with his new "Left Party," has set the ball rolling with his Nazi-tainted term "Fremdarbeiter" (foreign employees) in a speech on unemployment. The danger of populist attitudes is present throughout the political spectrum -- among left-wingers as well as the far-right. And it's clear that Lafontaine's new party, which enjoys support of some 30 percent in eastern Germany, also attracts right-wingers. The problem is thus that boundaries are blurring between the agendas of the left and the right.

So far, however, none of the party platforms unveiled have contained anything constructive as far as policies towards immigrants goes. I understand that those can't work as election topics, but I would expect at least a few points to be addressed on important issues.

Instead, if the conservatives do come to power -- which is widely believed to be the case -- there's a huge fear that several programs and initiatives against right-wing extremism financed by the federal government will simply be scrapped. The Christian Democratic Union has already indicated it plans to stop those programs. Again it's a political game. But, if the next government does really do that, it will be an awful blow for German democracy.

Continue reading to find out why Kahane thinks taking part in a counter demonstration against neo-Nazis isn't enough

Germany finally has an immigration law. What other legislation is essential for streamlining immigration and making integration of foreigners easier?

The immigration law that we have isn't the best, but it does make things simpler in some aspects. What's crucial, however, is for Germany to implement an anti-discrimination law according to European regulations -- though that may become tougher under a conservative government. Germany also needs to humanize its current policy on refugees, which unfortunately has become an EU standard now.

Also, very importantly, we need to offer illegal immigrants the chance to legalize themselves -- something that's even possible under Berlusconi in Italy. Talking about illegal persons in Germany is a huge taboo -- which just shows how loaded the issue is. We definitely need to improve on regulations for illegal immigrants as well as for refugees and asylum-seekers.

One of the enduring images broadcast around the world during the 60th anniversary of World War II was of a massive demonstration against a planned neo-Nazi march in downtown Berlin. Isn't it an encouraging sign that ordinary Germans take to the streets to counter neo-Nazis and send a signal against hate and racism?

An anti-attitude or just being against something isn't an answer. Counter demonstrations -- whether it's by the far-left or by the middle class in Germany -- seldom lead to a solution or a new stance of solidarity. It would be better if people were more considerate of others rather than taking to the streets with candles and slogans. Of course, sometimes you need them to show far-right groups that there are limits. And I don't think that there are counter demonstrations to neo-Nazis groups everywhere in Germany.

If one wants to really show solidarity with racial minorities then one has to treat them with respect and interest -- something that happens much too rarely in everyday life in Germany.

Sonia Phalnikar interviewed Anetta Kahane