Opinion: A divided society | Opinion | DW | 19.10.2015
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Opinion: A divided society

The assailant who attacked mayoral candidate Henriette Reker claimed to be acting "on behalf of all of us and our children." The arrival of refugees has challenged Germany in an unexpected way, DW's Felix Steiner writes.

"We're sensing that the trek of refugees will change our country," German President Joachim Gauck said less than four weeks ago. It is horrifying how quickly, and in which direction, Germany is changing. Horrifying, but not really surprising. For the brutal knife attack on Henriette Reker - who has since been elected mayor of Cologne - is just a temporary culmination of the increasingly radicalized sentiments in our society.

For a number of weeks, hatred has been rearing its ugly head in user forums of the major news outlets, as well as on Facebook. People are spreading conspiracy theories and peddling rumors as facts. They are polemicizing and hurling abuse, which is directed primarily at Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Betrayer of the people" and "refugee whore" are just two of the labels she regularly receives. And this is no longer coming just from anonymous Internet users; it can be heard at public events, too.

And then there was the gallows held up last week during a PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden. It had two symbolic nooses attached to it: one "reserved" for Merkel, the other for Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. There are almost daily reports about arson attacks on refugee homes. It's a miracle that no one has been killed so far, though that almost happened Saturday with the stabbing of a Cologne mayoral candidate whose work in the city's social services department included providing accommodation for refugees.

Felix Steiner

DW's Felix Steiner

All of this has nothing to with "lapses" or legitimate resistance by "concerned citizens" into the German government's refugee policies. What we're seeing is terrorism. Not of the organized kind, but still carried out nationwide. Not one German state has been spared from the arson attacks.

And the attack on Reker, a high-ranking local politician, did not take place in Saxony's PEGIDA land; it was carried out in that big city that regards itself as Germany's open-minded metropolis. The perpetrators, at least those who have been identified so far, are mostly people who have never before come to the attention of the police.

As if all that were not alarming enough, it was back to business as usual even after Saturday's attack: Apart from a few prominent politicians, the people who formed a spontaneous candlelit chain in Cologne's city center after sunset were the ones who always attend such events. They belong to the same segment of society that, at the beginning of September, welcomed refugees at train stations across Germany, clapping their hands. They were the ones who make regular donations and who spontaneously lend a helping hand in refugee reception centers.

No looking inward after the stabbing

Internet forums, however, saw verbal abuse continuing after Reker's stabbing, as if this had not been a fundamental attack against our open, democratic society: It wasn't a big loss, she deserved it, and this was just the beginning, users argued. The deep (and insurmountable?) rift that divides German society today was never more obvious.

On Sunday, Reker was elected mayor of Germany's fourth-largest city while she was still in intensive care, having been put into an artificial coma after surgery. It wasn't that voters took pity on her; she received exactly the share of votes that had been predicted six weeks ago by an election research institute. It was important that the election went ahead despite the attack, Cologne's city officials declared, because terrorists and violent criminals should not be allowed to set the agenda. That is correct.

A voter turnout of 70 or 80 percent on Cologne's election day would have been an even more impressive signal. This would have been a mandate that could have strengthened democracy. As things stand, we have to acknowledge that 60 percent of Cologne's residents don't care at all about public affairs.

So far the majority of Germans do not seem to have understood the enormity of the challenge that society is facing this autumn. Not only do large crowds of people have to be accommodated and integrated - the basic values of our society have to be defended as well. First and foremost not against alleged radical Islamist migrants, who induce fear in all of us, but against the defiers of democracy and freedom in our own midst.

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