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How Racist Trolls Led A German Star To Build A Refugee Home

Til Schweiger may be Germany's most popular actor-director, but right now he's flat in the middle of the real-life, hot-button political issue of the day: immigration.

Til Schweiger facing the media hubbub
Til Schweiger facing the media hubbub
Thomas Hahn and Marten Rolff

BERLIN It all started quite innocently: A 12-year-old girl asks a well-known actor/director to share an appeal for donations on his Facebook page. She asked, he delivered.

But because the campaign was for a polarizing subject, immigration, and the man in question is named Til Schweiger and has 1.3 million followers on Facebook, it didn't take long for things to escalate. A racist debate unfolded on Schweiger's Facebook page and the star was forced to "shoot down" the racist trolls with unambiguous responses such as: "piss off of my page" and "you shouldn't unload all that hatred and stupidity on my page."

Schweiger, best known outside Germany for roles in Tomb Raider and Inglourious Basterds, went even further in a interview with the newspaper Bild am Sonntag. "I don't understand why Germans are openly demonstrating against Islamization and radicalization but don't help the people who flee from such horrors," he said.

The actor-director also promised to put his money where his mouth is, saying that with the help of some friends, he would build an exemplary refugee home in old army barracks in Osterode in the Harz mountains of central Germany. The necessary contracts have already been signed. He also plans to establish a foundation for traumatized children.

Schweiger hasn't made any followup comments. Everything that can be said on that topic has been said, his office informed Süddeutsche Zeitung. People will just have to guess as to how his statements were meant to be taken and decide for themselves whether it's a good thing that someone like Schweiger is now taking part in the debate about asylum seekers.

This is a legitimate question given how we, as a society, respond when a celebrity decides to engage in socially delicate topics and shows true commitment to a cause. Sometimes it is seen as a call to arms, an impetus to change the world for the better. Sometimes it's dismissed as self-serving PR.

"Welcoming culture"

Klaus Becker, mayor of Osterode, the small town where Schweiger is planning his refugee center, may not, as a private individual, be a fan of the cinema star. But he agrees with the actor's actions. "It is a good thing that he has spoken out and voiced my own concerns," says Becker.

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Osterode's Kornmarkt — Photo: Kassandro/GFDL

He says that Schweiger came off a bit "gruff" but that he also "sounded honest." He also says it is important that celebrities contribute to the immigration debate, especially because so much seems to be going wrong.

Becker, 55, who has been mayor for 11 years, says he considers himself very much European and that Osterode is working hard to build up a "welcoming culture." He says there's no far-right extremist "scene" and that relations with the town's two mosques are excellent. The local bank Sparkasse organizes a fast-breaking (Id al-Fitr) festival and there is even a "godparent" program in place for the 250 asylum seekers that the town is already accommodating.

Given all that, it is hardly surprising that the mayor supported the initiative suggested by the Home Office of Lower Saxony to turn the former Erwin Rommel World War II barracks into a primary admission camp for up to 600 refugees. The impression that people may have gotten of Til Schweiger driving down to the Hartz Mountains with building materials and stew at the ready, is not, however, quite correct, says Becker.

Unanswered questions

Schweiger has signed a deal with the current owner of the facility, a company called "Princess of Finkenwerder," which specializes in converting former military property and acquired the property at the end of 2014. The idea is that once the renovations are completed, the running of the facility will be handled by a still-to-be-determined organization.

The managing director of "Princess of Finkenwerder," Wolfgang Koch — who is also "friendly" with Schweiger — says the media hubbub is perfectly justified since this is not just another accommodation project for newly arrived refugees but an "exemplary project to take care of refugees for humanitarian reasons that is unrivaled in Europe."

The project concept includes child care and sporting facilities as well as a tailoring and bike workshop. How much of this will be financed by Schweiger is unclear. But so far, the renovation of the former barracks is a multi-million-euro project.

Osterode is hoping that now, after the lofty announcements, there will be solid results. The difference between "acceptable accommodation" and an "exemplary facility" is noteworthy, says Mayor Becker. What exactly the project takes shape won't be apparent until the end of the year, when 200 refugees are supposed to move into the newly refurbished facilities. In that sense, the kudos that Schweiger earned of late are very much on loan. He'll still have to demonstrate that he has earned them. All that's left for us to do is to wish him well.

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Photo of women harvesting saffron in Kashmir

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