By MARIAM LAU
June 8, 2006
The Wall Street Journal
BERLIN — The history of global sporting events hosted by Germany brings up some dark memories. There were the Munich Olympic Games of 1972, at which a Palestinian terror squad killed 11 Israeli athletes. And of course there were the notorious Berlin Games of 1936, when the Nazis hosted the world. As organizer of this summer’s football World Cup, Germany seems set on improving its record with the motto “a time to make friends.”
With only one day to go until kickoff, though, many Germans are worried that the slogan may promise too much. A remark by former government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye has set off a debate about an ugly resurgence of racism in the former East Germany, in the form of prowling violent gangs.
“There are areas in Brandenburg and other parts of the East,” Mr. Heye said, “where dark-skinned foreigners might not make it out alive.” Just a couple of weeks ago, an Ethiopian-born engineer in Potsdam had his skull smashed at a bus stop when he got into a shouting match with two youngsters. The refugee organization Afrikarat, meanwhile, has promised to provide football fans from abroad with a map of “no-go areas.”
While Mr. Heye was at first shouted down by local politicians from all major parties for gross exaggeration, the annual criminal statistics published the very next day confirmed the basic trend: Violent hate crimes were up 24% in 2005 — to 1,034 from 832 — and continued to be most prevalent in the East. If you adjust for the lower number of immigrants in, say, rural Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a foreign-looking person is about 25 times as likely to be assaulted in the East as in the West, says University of Hannover criminologist Christian Pfeif[f]er.
“To me, ‘no-go’ is everywhere,” laments Moctar Kamara, head of Afrikarat. “In the seven minutes it takes me to walk from the refugee home to the station, I hear at least three racial slurs of the worst kind. I always look over my shoulder, in case someone sneaks up from behind. People spit at me even on the bus.”
Not everyone who disagrees with Mr. Heye’s big picture denies that extremism is present. Police spokesperson Berndt Fleischer from Cottbus in East Germany — also a place reportedly swarmed by hordes of neo-Nazis — acknowledges the problem, but thinks it is ridiculous to say that extremism is a mass phenomenon.
“These are isolated incidents, blown out of all proportion by sensationalist media,” he said. “This is not the Bronx, or South Central Los Angeles.” This is the stand taken by Chancellor Angela Merkel as well. Especially in Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg, the numbers are actually declining, not least because police no longer treat xenophobic hate crimes as a negligeable misdemeanor. In Strausberg, another small town deemed to be “no-go,” a tightly knit network of church groups, ex-communists, anarchists and other grass-roots organizations make sure that the boys from “Märkischer Heimatschutz,” a neo-Nazi-group, can’t even give the local kindergarten a paint job. “This is the neo-Nazis’ latest strategy,” explains social worker Günter Laurenzius. “They move in every niche that is vacated by the state.” Similar to Hamas in the Palestinian territories, they provide social services, report grievances to the authorities and give a sense of value and shared identity, especially to the children of the former communist elite, who have seen their parents become “superfluous,” without jobs or influence of any kind. Cars passing through Cottbus in the morning have to make room for young men on bikes so drunk they can’t ride straight.
Although these incidents are by no means restricted to former East Germany, the politics of the past nevertheless accounts for their high frequency. The communist German Democratic Republic was built on the premise that Nazism had lingered on in West Germany in the form of capitalism, and that anti-Semitism was merely a secondary aspect of a much larger system of exploiting workers. Meanwhile, racism has been very much present in East Germany. The Vietnamese workers living in the GDR were considered a “gift” by their governments, which in exchange received development aid. They had to sign contracts forbidding them to “mingle” with Germans.
Today, postreunification issues play a role in the East’s xenophobia. New unemployment benefits make it unrewarding for many youngsters to look for work, or even move out of their parents’ homes. Those lucky enough to find work tend to move far away from depressed eastern regions as quickly as possible, particularly if they are young professional women.
Strangely enough, the few big corporations with plants in the East do not seem to be affected by the problem. Jens Ullmann, of the Brandenburg Chamber of Commerce, feels that “it is certainly an image problem for Germany, with its past and all, but not necessarily a reason not to invest here. That is much more the case with the riots in France.” Silke Appel of the consultancy IIC, which advises foreign investors in Germany, feels that in the information technology sector, which employs many Asians, racism might be a problem for the individual worker.
“If you feel unwelcome, or even threatened, you might just try a job elsewhere,” she said. “We certainly have to do something about this, even though not many of our clients have brought it up.”
Under these circumstances, it was somewhat puzzling when Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of the Christian Democrats called Islamism the greatest challenge to his administration. While it is certainly true that Islamist organizations like Milli Görüs need
to be closely watched, they have not yet committed a single violent crime on German soil. At the same time, much of the support for antixenophobic initiatives granted under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been withdrawn. In fact, Germany may have to fight both battles with equal dedication.
[Lau is chief correspondent of the German daily Die Welt.]
— Courtesy: Ratbag