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In wake of NYE attacks, collective fear grips Germany

Gabriel BorrudJanuary 21, 2016

The pressure on Angela Merkel, long thought virtually untouchable, may have more to do with her nation's collective fears than her refugee policy. And in a climate of fear, the mob often seeks the easy way out.

The chant 'Merkel must go' has grown louder recentlyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

According to the results of a Forsa poll released Wednesday, 44 percent of Germans would vote for Angela Merkel if an election were held right now. To put this in perspective, that number was 75 percent last April and 58 percent in December.

If you ask a political analyst as to the reasons for the downward arrow, you'll no doubt hear something about the government's refugee policy, and how the German people blame Merkel for its failings. If you ask a social psychologist, you'll no doubt hear something about the concept of fear - following the events that unfolded three weeks ago on New Year's Eve.

"Germany is in the grip of collective fear right now," said Ulrich Wagner, of Marburg University. "And when this happens, our brains look for ways to avoid or amend that feeling of fear. Some people decide to stay off the streets at night, for instance, while others call for the chancellor to step down."

The motivation for the current anti-Merkel sentiment, Wagner said, is both rational and irrational. On the one hand, she is the political figurehead and thus accountable for government policy; however, the reactionary way in which her public perception has changed suggests social psychological processes are at work.

"Human beings strive for simplicity - simple answers - in times of crisis where collective fear is rife. Instead of weighing the complexity of a situation, the answer most often found by the mob is that some entity - this can be a leader like Merkel or even a group of people like the refugees - is to blame, and as soon as the crowd is convinced of this guilt, that entity has to go."

Köln Pegida rechte Demonstranten
Image: Reuters/W.Rattay

Harkening back to the fear within

The peculiar aspect of the current situation is that the collective fear in question is vicarious. Nobody - apart from the men and women victimized on New Year's Eve - has any rational reason to fear migrants as a result of the attacks.

This is all the more proof, according to Steve Reicher, one of Europe's most prolific writers on social psychology, that these fears harken back to deep-seated fantasies regarding immigrants.

"What happened in Cologne has turned migrants into the quintessential Other," Reicher told DW. "If you look back to 19th century colonial views, in all cultures there were these really strong notions of the invasive, the dangerous, the rampantly sexual and lascivious migrant. And that is precisely the horrifying and extremely striking image invoked by what happened on NYE in Cologne."

Reicher, who teaches at St Andrews, juxtaposed the current atmosphere in the wake of the Cologne attacks with the way people reacted to the image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who washed up on a beach in Turkey, to show the extent to which collective views can vacillate.

"Back then, it wasn't that our opinion of migrants had suddenly changed. It was much rather that we saw people as migrants - or not. The migrant is by definition an outsider, the Other. But when we saw the image of Aylan Kurdi, we saw the little boy and not the migrant [...] Things have switched back now, and we are faced with a representation of the migrant as a profound danger, a faceless horde."

From the perspective of social psychology, Reicher concludes that the way such images are disseminated, i.e., the way events are reported, is really what shapes how people think - and even feel.

Everything has changed?

As the refugee crisis intensified over the past half year, the tone in the German media with regard to Merkel gradually became more critical, but after the NYE attacks, it changed fundamentally.

Rolf van Dick, head of Goethe University's social psychology department, stressed the integral importance of the media when it comes to how collective views and beliefs are formed.

"Sexual attacks happen every year at the Oktoberfest, but you won't read about them in the paper, because this is a positive environment," van Dick told DW, stressing that the atmosphere in Germany had fundamentally changed over the past months, in particular since the extent of the sexual assault came to light.

Deutschland Legida in Leipzig
Recent unrest in Leipzig recalled dark images from Germany's pastImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

"Public opinion with regard to immigrants and refugees right now is completely influenced by how the situation is reported: over the past few months, many people have changed their minds about refugees because when they read negative reports in the paper they begin to believe that the people around them feel this way too."

It must also be noted, van Dick said, that the magnitude of what happened in Cologne has been greatly exaggerated due to the media's coverage. "When people say that 'everything has changed after what happened in Cologne,' they are simply confined to the moment. And it isn't possible to make judgments with any relevance to reality - in the long term - during such transient moments of hysteria."

And that hysteria, according to Ulrich Wagner, has a very real potential for violence. "What's been going on recently is cause for great concern, especially against the backdrop of 20th century German history - with its mass rallies, its pogroms against minorities and war crimes.

In contrast to the recent developments in a number of other European countries, Germany appears to be quite resistant to fascist impulses. But again, our country's history means that the federal government faces a unique challenge here."