In A Changing Germany, Taboo Of Racism Is Broken

The murder of a local politician has put new attention on the kinds of verbal hate and periodic harassment that was largely repressed until recently.

"For several years statistics have seen increases in racist incidents,” the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency reports
Bernd Kastner

MUNICH — Halima Gutale met the elderly woman after an event. "Is it still possible to say n****r today?" the elderly woman asked. Gutale comes from Somalia and has been living in Germany for about two decades, in a small town in the state of Hesse. "No," Gutale respoded. "You can't do that anymore." But Gutale says she didn't resent the woman's question. "She didn't want to do anything wrong."

Hamado Dipama also has a story related to the "n-word." He recently heard it in Nuremberg, one evening in the street, and it did not come as a question. Dipama, who arrived from Burkina Faso in 2002 as a refugee, recounts how a young man got out of a car and swore at him for no reason. The man would have turned violent if his friends hadn't stopped him. Dipama called the police right away.

These two encounters are divided in time and space, yet they are part of a larger phenomenon. They give an idea of what people who look foreign to the majority experience. It starts with uncertainty, as with the old woman, and it crosses over into racism, insults, discrimination, even violence and murder.

The case of Walter Lübcke, a pro-migrant local politician who was shot dead on June 2, marks a precedent. A German politician was killed by an alleged right-wing extremist, who confessed to the murder, and as a result, politics will now deal more intensively with right-wing violence.

But for people who aren't prominent — who have long suffered from shifting attitues in Germany — none of this is new. "We note with concern a radicalization, especially of racist resentment, in large parts of society," the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency recently reported. "For several years statistics have seen increases in racist incidents."

Indeed, under the heading "hate crime," the Federal Ministry of the Interior reported an increase of almost 20% in xenophobic and anti-Semitic offenses in 2018 compared to the previous year.

Subtle jabs

Gutale founded an association for the integration of African refugees and she knows of many offensive encounters. She recalls one day, for example, when she was waiting to pick up her daugther from school. It was her daugther's second day of Gymnasium, a high school that usually leads to university education. A male teacher came by and told Gutale that the Hauptschule was a few yards away, referring to a different type of high school that teaches the same subjects as the Gymnasium, but at a slower pace, and usually leads to part-time enrollment in a vocational school and apprenticeship training.

Germans tend to treat "visible immigrants' like people they have to protect, and to whom they need to explain the world.

The teacher's unsolicited piece of came as a blow: The man could not believe that the child of a dark-skinned woman could attend a Gymnasium. And then there are those, says Gutale, who praise her for her good German. A compliment? For her it is rather hurtful. Especially when she knows she just made some mistakes. Why is she praised anyways? "Positive racism," Gutale calls it.

Germans tend to treat "visible immigrants' like people they have to protect, and to whom they need to explain the world, Gutale explains. That's her perception at least. She wonders if "we," the local society, are really as liberal and cosmopolitan as "we think." She also says that as a Somali German, the message she often perceives is: "Be happy that we've taken you in. Where is the gratitude?"

As the hashtag #MeTwo spread in the net last year, following the #MeToo debate, countless people described their experience of everyday racism. You can read up on it, or you can listen to those who are affected. Alphonse Kabore is from Burkina Faso and recalls a particuar bus ride in Munich. "Go away, you n****r," one passenger told him. "Blacks ruined Germany," the man continued.

"That hurts," says Kabore, adding that he tries to ignore such attacks. "Otherwise you have problems every day."

Abdoul (he wants us to use just his first name) is from Sierra Leone. His story involves a former neighbor who swore at him from his balcony because Abdoul, as a refugee, had the gall to also live in an apartment with a balcony. The man also wrote up his concerns in a letter and addressed it to Abdoul. It became so bad that Abdoul had to move.

"Pervaded by racism"

Christin Jänicke works in the east German city of Potsdam for Opferperspektive, the oldest counseling center for victims of right-wing violence in Germany, founded in 1998. She says it annoys her, in the wake of the Lübcke murder, to hear politicians speak of a "new dimension" of right-wing violence.

A mosque in Berlin — Photo: Thomas Scherer

"We've been seeing right-wing violence for 30 years. The NSU murders lose their importance if you speak of a "new dimension"," she adds, referring to a series of killing carried out between 2000 and 2007 by the National Socialist Underground (NSU) neo-Nazi cell.

In eastern Germany and Berlin alone, at least five people per day were victims of right-wing, racist and anti-Semitic attacks in 2018, according to statistics from the umbrella organization of the counseling centers. For West Germany, there are no reliable figures — because there are too few counseling centers.

Jochen Kramer works for the counseling center Leuchtlinie in Stuttgart, in southern Germany. He says there's a widespread "ideology of inequality." To illustrate his point, he describes what he says is an everyday occurrence: A German man is at a train station in the evening. When two young, dark-skinned men arrive, the German man feels uncomfortable, looks around to see if there is anyone else to help if necessary. The man in the scenario is Kramer himself.

"Our society is pervaded by racism," he says.

To the list of victims of racism and violence one must add politicians and volunteers who are being attacked for their political involvement. Those at risk include journalists and scientists, homeless people, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, refugees, migrants, Jews and Muslims — especially when they are "visible."

Language matters

Nina Mühe is German and Muslim. She converted in 2001, wears a headscarf and she works connecting organizations that fight against anti-Muslim racism. "The inhibition thresholds have been lowered," is her diagnosis. There have even been cases of Muslim children being attacked, and this affects the whole community, she says.

Be happy that we've taken you in. Where is the gratitude?

In Berlin, says Mühe, many Muslims think about those kinds of security issues, sadly, with regards to choosing where to live. "Is this an area where I can feel safe?" Kreuzberg is a good place because of its diversity. But there are also neighborhoods in which women wearing a headscarf might be threatened.

When Mühe talks of everyday life as a "visible Muslim," she soon refers to the breeding ground that politicians and the state prepare. Berlin, for example, still does not allow Muslim teachers to wear a headscarf in class. "I find that extremely discriminatory," says Mühe.

Indirectly, it affects all Muslims and gives an awful impression: It is okay to have something against headscarf wearers. Mühe also points to statements like those made by Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who said that Islam does not belong in Germany and that migration is the "mother of all problems." Poisonous words.

At the same time, it is noticeable that many Muslims do not pay much attention to discrimination. "It's something you almost think of as being normal," says Mühe. The job she and her colleagues set out for themsevles, therefore, is to remind people that "No, it's not normal." She also wants people to report every attack. Only if a racist incident is registered by police or a counseling center, does it turn into statistics. Without those numbers, politicians have no incentive to act.

Dipama, the refugee from Burkina Faso who was harrassed on the street in Nuremberg, did file a complaint. A few weeks later, the prosecutor stopped the proceedings. The accused denied using the offensive word in question. With no witnesses, it was a he-said, she-said situation. Such attitudes, says Dipama, are the reason many victims don't bother reporting an attack.

Dipama wants more involvement from the authorities. "They," says Dipama referring to the racists, "they dare to say a lot now, things they wouldn't have said five years ago." This disseminates fear, even among those migrants who are socially involved. Some do not dare walk in certain streets at night. "We need to recognize that this is a dramatic situation," he says.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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