The politics of foreignness

[Part 3 of the Interpretations series.]

This is not a good time to be foreign.” — The Economist, November 19th 2011

Earlier this month, xenophobia again grabbed the headlines in Germany. Investigations following the arrest of a woman, one of three members of the “National Socialist Underground” group, revealed that they had killed nine people between 2000 and 2006, and injured many more with a bomb in 2004; eight of the nine killed and most of those injured were of Turkish origin. Until this recent discovery, none of these hate crimes against foreigners were linked to the neo-Nazi group. (Suspicions were directed instead at the Turkish mafia.) The news caused the Germans embarrassment, shame, and regret, in that order. Media uproar followed, and the issue reached the parliament. Chancellor Angela Merkel called it a “Disgrace”. Politicians renewed their call for a ban on the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). On the 22nd, two weeks after the sensational discovery, the parliament issued a joint statement that began: ”We are deeply ashamed…”

News about attacks on foreigners are not infrequent in Germany. Since the country’s reunification in 1990, right-wing extremism in the former east has grown in the margins, and reports of violence against non-German ethnic groups in the east have appeared now and again. In 2007, following a brawl at a late-night street party, a mob of neo-Nazis chased and attacked some Indians in the town of Mügeln, injuring a few before they found refuge in a restaurant. Similar incidents, mostly random, have provoked media outbursts, followed by debates on the threat posed by far-right groups and by some actions in the local community. Larger measures, like banning the far-right NPD, have not been pushed enough, and the right-wing extremism issue has received noticeably less attention from the authorities than the threat from Islamist terrorists.

This time, however, the crisis is of a different proportion: xenophobia has not just “reared its ugly head”; media reports suggest that its entire monstrous body now stands exposed. The killings have been systematic, cold-blooded, and guided by a hatred of a specific ethnicity. A DVD created by the neo-Nazi group, highlighting the killings in a macabre fashion, leaves no room for doubt on their intent. Right-wing extremism, the Germans realize, is no longer a random phenomenon; it is well-organized, it can kill methodically and with precision.

At the heart of all this debate and reflection lies the matter of image. Germany’s image, its reputation, its place in the modern world: these concerns rank high in the consciousness of a nation still recovering from the spectre of history. After the attack on the Indians in 2007, Spiegel ran an article that summarized the main worries of German officials:

The attack has triggered fresh public debate about far-right extremism in the formerly communist east of Germany, which has seen a string of racist assaults since unification in 1990. Politicians and business leaders have expressed concern that the country’s reputation abroad may have been hurt and that foreign investors be deterred from coming to Germany.

Wolfgang Thierse, Social Democrat vice president of the Bundestag lower house of parliament, said: “The worse Germany’s reputation becomes, the fewer people who we need for our progress and prosperity will come here,” Thierse told Berliner Zeitung.

The emphasis on “foreign investors” hides a larger concern, one related to Germany’s past. To a nation preoccupied with getting rid of that stigma, such incidents serve only to remind the world of its most embarrassing moment. This partly explains the media’s sustained interest in right-wing extremism, its efforts to get the government to act seriously against the threat. Ironically, all that attention has the unintended effect of strengthening the stereotype that Germans either hate foreigners or fear them.

What emerges from the media is a skewed portrait of society. Positive stories, sketches of how well foreigners are accepted in society, do not make the news. Reading these one-sided reports on racist behaviour in Germany, with all the accompanying murmurs on shame and embarrassment, a visitor may be forgiven for believing that hatred towards foreigners is a peculiarly German trait. As for the average foreigner, the Turk, the Indian, or the African living here, the concerns of day-to-day living bear little relation to these extreme events. Media and politics, it would seem from such episodes, are far away from the reality confronting the majority.

(To be continued)

4 thoughts on “The politics of foreignness

  1. Thank you for this sound and pragmatic view point. It is surprising and heartening to read. I am what I would call a second generation German, i.e. my parents were teenagers at the end of WWII and my generation was taught/told next to nothing about the third reich (apart from Anne Frank) during my school years 1964-1976, we had to guess our way through rumours and interpretations/filters provided by our parents and teachers, many of them deeply affected by their war traumas. All that Aufarbeitung started in the 1980s when I had left this country in disgust never to return again (little did I know…). Anyway, I am back, I am here and my sense of deep shame has never left me ( and I know that many of us, the kids of third reich kids feel the same) and while I am no friend of Merkel or any of the present set of “politicians” the statement in parliament was a short relief but only that and I would like to believe that even if only for a moment this was they really felt.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, Sabine. So little is known about that post-war period in Germany that comments like these acquire the quality of a revelation.

      Your comment coincided with the news of German writer Christa Wolf’s death, and together they prompted me to order Wolf’s “Patterns of childhood” (Kindheitsmuster).

  2. my first thoughts – this can’t be true – a country where I feel soooo safe even walking around at midnight alone – this kind of expression of freedom – i don’t think i would find anywhere else in the world. But then there are always a set of misguided people and their validation – I wonder what.
    In some ways I wish you hadn’t brought this topic up – people like me who do not read newspapers – I don’t want to be influenced by the thoughts and anger of a few individuals but then I see the rationale behind you discussing this too – its important that people express their views openly – it makes us understand each other so much better. 🙂

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