Germany is a deeply racist country―stop pretending otherwise

While Germany has been lauded for agreeing to take in 1,700 refugees from refugee camp Moria that recently burned to the ground, the country has been cited as a role model for its rational, yet humane stance toward refugees ever since it took in more than one million people in a single year during Europe’s so-called ‘refugee crisis’. However, within the country a different type of crisis is brewing—one characterized by deep structural and societal racism. Only if Germany and international observers shake the deceptive perception of the country as ‘welcoming’, change can finally happen, writes Josephine Valeske.

Antirassismus Demo Berlin
Anti-racism demonstration in Berlin, September 2018. The banner reads 'Refugees welcome! Against racism and right-wing violence'. Credit: Uwe Hiksch on Flickr

Two weeks ago, only days after a ring of right-wing extremists was discovered in the German police force in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the police in what can be seen as a PR campaign asked Twitter users to use the hashtag #dankepolizei (‘thank you, police’) to tweet why they are grateful to the German police. The campaign backfired spectacularly. Within hours, there were hundreds of tweets using the hashtag to recount horrific instances of police violence, racial profiling, and verbal and physical abuse, many of them with an explicit focus on racism.

These instances are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Since the Black Lives Matter movement has put racism and police brutality on the public agenda in the USA, police violence has become a hotly debated topic also in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Left-leaning voices argue that racism in the German police force consists not, as leading police officials and politicians insist, of ‘Einzelfälle’ ―individual cases, exceptions to the rule―but that it is a structural problem. Despite mounting pressure on the ministry for interior affairs to gauge the extent and urgency of the problem, the German home minister, seen as one of the most right-leaning figures in Merkel’s cabinet, has repeatedly refused to conduct a study enabling a better understanding.

Meanwhile, the ‘Einzelfälle’ keep piling up. As far back as 2011, it became known that a right-wing group calling itself ‘NSU’ (National Socialist Underground) had murdered 10 people between 2000 and 2007, nine of them with Turkish roots. The crimes had been covered up for years by regional police forces and German secret services, partially by blaming the murders on the victims’ families while making use of racist stereotypes. The extent of the state’s involvement in the NSU and the cover up is yet unknown. Last year saw at least 1,664 attacks on refugees or refugee shelters in Germany, as visualised on this map. And on 20 February this year, a right-wing extremist gunman murdered nine people with a migration background and his mother in the town of Hanau.

This is just one form of direct violence driven by racism. Several less visible forms of racism plague Germany society. The question then arises: How come such multi-dimensional racism that has persisted throughout Germany has not been in the spotlight until now?

In White Innocence, Gloria Wekker in a fascinating dissection of racism in the Netherlands argues that the Dutch self-perception as an open, tolerant culture has led to many Dutch people ignoring racism even if it is staring them in the face. In a societal equivalent of “I have a black friend, so I cannot be racist”, instances of day-to-day racism are written off by referring to the Netherlands’ multicultural society. Although Germany’s culture and history are quite different, this observation struck a chord with me. Germany is often praised for how it remembers and deals with the crimes committed under Nazi rule, and a large share of the population likes to believe that it is anti-fascist. We all spent at least a year in high school studying and condemning the Holocaust, reading Anne Frank’s diary, and visiting former concentration camps―so we are obviously enlightened and anti-racist Germans!

This self-perception is wrong and incredibly dangerous. It takes the knowledge about a historical period and its atrocities as proof of a general ‘immunity’ to racist thought and behaviour. Because we know very well what happened in the past, we surely won’t repeat this, this logic goes. But while German education and commemorative culture emphasizes this historical period, others are completely erased. Perhaps only a few German students are aware of Germany’s colonial past and the genocide of the Herero and Nama in what was once German South West Africa (today’s Namibia), for example. This intentional forgetting has been labelled ‘colonial amnesia’. The German government has yet to answer to Namibia’s call for an official apology and reparations. The point is that Germany is selectively anti-racist and that racism in fact pervades everyday life, rooted in a ‘colonial amnesia’ and denial of structural racism and islamophobia that has persisted, albeit less visibly, after the Second World War.

When it comes to Germany’s supposedly humane refugee policy, Merkel is either lauded or hated for temporarily suspending the Dublin Agreement in 2015 and granting around one million refugees the possibility to apply for asylum in Germany. Whether her decision was indeed fuelled by humanitarian motives or simply a calculated move to combat Germany’s skilled worker shortage, we will never know. The Guardian recently called this Merkel’s “great migrant gamble”, as if the lives of a million people were no more than stakes in a game that could yield positive returns.

German government officials have time and time again emphasised they want to “fight the causes of flight”, leading to dubious development assistance deals that typically benefit the German economy more than the receiving countries – and to the death of thousands. In March 2016, Germany was the driving force behind a deal with Turkey in which the latter country gets paid to keep refugees out of Europe, after which the number of refugees entering Germany decreased considerably. Several such deals have since been made with North African countries like Libya even after full awareness that refugees are being tortured in Libyan detention camps financed with German and EU money. Germany is also a major contributor to Frontex, the European border ‘protection’ and coast guard agency that forces refugees to rely on ever-harder routes to Europe and has reportedly pushed back refugees, which makes it indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people every year in the Mediterranean Sea.

Ironically, if Germany was serious about “fighting the causes of flight”, it should probably shut down its ministry of foreign affairs and its many weapons manufacturing companies first. Looking at the number of persons driven from their homes by wars in which the US and its allies, including Germany, are involved, and at the havoc Germany’s economic policies are wreaking in the Global South, the handful of refugees Germany has ‘accepted’ from Moria seem to be no more than a tool to keep up the country’s appearance as humanitarian and welcoming. Finally, it must be acknowledged that Germany is profiting from and supporting the global division of labour that is at the root cause of systemic poverty and thus causes many forms of migration in the first place.

The first step we can take as Germans is to stop pretending that we’re doing enough and that we’re doing it well, and to critically look at and address the myriad forms of racism originating in the country. We are failing spectacularly at making Germany a safe haven for those who need safety most―and we have the moral obligation to change that.

Josephine Valeske
About the author:

Josephine Valeske holds a MA degree in Development Studies from the ISS and a BA degree in Philosophy and Economics. She currently works for the Transnational Institute and is the manager of the ISS Blog Bliss. She can be found on Twitter @josephine_on_tw.

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11 Comments
  • Josephine
    September 26, 2021

    Dear Marcus,

    Apologies for replying to your comment so late; there seems to be a problem with wordpress notifications about new comments. I hope you will be able to see my reply! I highly appreciate the time you took to share your thoughts and your (partner’s) experiences. And I am so very sorry to hear what she has to put up with, although unfortunately it does not come as a surprise. Incidentally, my partner, who is a POC from outside Europe as well, and I moved to the Netherlands not too long ago and have had similar experiences here. While me being a foreigner is not perceived as a problem, he has to endure both structural and personalised racism. But then again, just like the UK the Netherlands have a higher share of racialised people living here, and English is generally much more accepted as a common language than it is in Germany.

    I wonder whether your partner and you had the feeling that anything has changed during the last year? I felt that some debates were kicked off at least after the BLM discussion reached Europe, and the taboo of calling anything German “racist” was lifted a little, but I wonder whether it has actually yielded any changes for those affected. Either way, the battle is far from over.

    Thank you again for letting me know what you think, and I wish you and your partner all the best.

  • Marcus
    June 24, 2021

    Why is nobody saying more about the appalling racism ingrained in German culture? My partner and I moved to Germany from England many years ago. I a Brit and she a POC who grew up outside of Europe. Our experiences could not be more different. While I occasionally put up with distasteful jokes about island monkeys, coming from a privileged culture it’s no sweat for me, she has faced numerous cases of discrimination, stereotyping and unapologetic bigotry on a regular basis. As a POC speaking German with a marked accent, she is constantly assumed to be an ignorant, uneducated crisis escapee despite holding multiple higher degrees including an MSc.

    Discrimination comes in all forms. From being accosted on the bus by strangers for speaking another language (never happens with English remarkably), to having to see her culture mocked in carnival costumes, having her culture explained to her by white German men, being openly mocked by government officials when trying to deal with bureaucratic issues (she was even told not to read the German laws herself because she wouldn’t understand them by a government employee with Beamter status), being praised for being a “gute Ausländerin”, to having her educational qualifications (attained a world top 100 ranked institution) dismissed purely because they were not from a German institution. Some of the companies she worked for were casually racist to the extreme, and didn’t seem to even sense that there was anything wrong with it. As she said, “Racism is just part of life in Germany”.

    While she faced racism in the UK too, her experience was markedly better. People made more effort to be inclusive, nationality and ethnicity were not focused on as personal traits of importance, national stereotyping was more taboo, the number of POC with whom she worked was greater and thus there was less feeling of being an outsider. All in all the majority of the racism she faced there was ignorance based, but even then it was generally a self-aware ignorance, whereas in Germany she has the feeling that many Germans believe they know everything about her and her culture as soon as they meet her; a form of patronisation from the self-proclaimed worldly educated white German majority.

    Despite this being the case, she ceased being willing to relate this difference of experience to German people she doesn’t know well because of the reactions it has triggered in the past. Telling Germans that she faced less racism in the UK has caused people to immediately take a disliking to her, and some have even gone as far as to call her a liar. She feels constantly gaslighted by mainstream German culture, told that she “must hate Germany” or even that her time in England prejudiced her against Germany.

    This article really struck a chord because of what you mention about Germany’s self-image as a highly tolerant nation that has already solved the problem of social inequality. Much of this gaslighting from German culture seems to be premised on exactly that: the belief that Germany paid its dues for the holocaust and emerged a bastion of progressive freedom, no longer needing to adapt with the times. This self-image is maintained through symbolic gesture of attrition, but how much of the German populace is actually ready to look upon immigrants as no different from themselves? As such, it is falling behind many nations in this regard and has come to feel like stepping into the Europe of 20 or 30 years ago from the perspective of foreign POC.

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    • Josephine
      September 26, 2021

      Dear Marcus,

      Apologies for replying to your comment so late; there seems to be a problem with wordpress notifications about new comments. I hope you will be able to see my reply! I highly appreciate the time you took to share your thoughts and your (partner’s) experiences. And I am so very sorry to hear what she has to put up with, although unfortunately it does not come as a surprise. Incidentally, my partner, who is a POC from outside Europe as well, and I moved to the Netherlands not too long ago and have had similar experiences here. While me being a foreigner is not perceived as a problem, he has to endure both structural and personalised racism. But then again, just like the UK the Netherlands have a higher share of racialised people living here, and English is generally much more accepted as a common language than it is in Germany.

      I wonder whether your partner and you had the feeling that anything has changed during the last year? I felt that some debates were kicked off at least after the BLM discussion reached Europe, and the taboo of calling anything German “racist” was lifted a little, but I wonder whether it has actually yielded any changes for those affected. Either way, the battle is far from over.

      Thank you again for letting me know what you think, and I wish you and your partner all the best.

  • Marcus
    June 24, 2021

    Why is nobody saying more about the appalling racism ingrained in German culture? My partner and I moved to Germany from England many years ago. I a Brit and she a POC who grew up outside of Europe. Our experiences could not be more different. While I occasionally put up with distasteful jokes about island monkeys, coming from a privileged culture it’s no sweat for me, she has faced numerous cases of discrimination, stereotyping and unapologetic bigotry on a regular basis. As a POC speaking German with a marked accent, she is constantly assumed to be an ignorant, uneducated crisis escapee despite holding multiple higher degrees including an MSc.

    Discrimination comes in all forms. From being accosted on the bus by strangers for speaking another language (never happens with English remarkably), to having to see her culture mocked in carnival costumes, having her culture explained to her by white German men, being openly mocked by government officials when trying to deal with bureaucratic issues (she was even told not to read the German laws herself because she wouldn’t understand them by a government employee with Beamter status), being praised for being a “gute Ausländerin”, to having her educational qualifications (attained a world top 100 ranked institution) dismissed purely because they were not from a German institution. Some of the companies she worked for were casually racist to the extreme, and didn’t seem to even sense that there was anything wrong with it. As she said, “Racism is just part of life in Germany”.

    While she faced racism in the UK too, her experience was markedly better. People made more effort to be inclusive, nationality and ethnicity were not focused on as personal traits of importance, national stereotyping was more taboo, the number of POC with whom she worked was greater and thus there was less feeling of being an outsider. All in all the majority of the racism she faced there was ignorance based, but even then it was generally a self-aware ignorance, whereas in Germany she has the feeling that many Germans believe they know everything about her and her culture as soon as they meet her; a form of patronisation from the self-proclaimed worldly educated white German majority.

    Despite this being the case, she ceased being willing to relate this difference of experience to German people she doesn’t know well because of the reactions it has triggered in the past. Telling Germans that she faced less racism in the UK has caused people to immediately take a disliking to her, and some have even gone as far as to call her a liar. She feels constantly gaslighted by mainstream German culture, told that she “must hate Germany” or even that her time in England prejudiced her against Germany.

    This article really struck a chord because of what you mention about Germany’s self-image as a highly tolerant nation that has already solved the problem of social inequality. Much of this gaslighting from German culture seems to be premised on exactly that: the belief that Germany paid its dues for the holocaust and emerged a bastion of progressive freedom, no longer needing to adapt with the times. This self-image is maintained through symbolic gesture of attrition, but how much of the German populace is actually ready to look upon immigrants as no different from themselves? As such, it is falling behind many nations in this regard and has come to feel like stepping into the Europe of 20 or 30 years ago from the perspective of foreign POC.

  • Sasha
    June 22, 2021

    Excellent! Informative

    • Josephine
      September 26, 2021

      Thank you so much!

  • Anonymous Name
    February 13, 2021

    Wonderful post. Big mass media pretend to not see those issues.

    • Josephine
      September 26, 2021

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I am glad you liked the post.

  • James K. Muorwel
    October 1, 2020

    This is such a wonderful blogpost by Josephine that has packed a lot of important issues into one. Brilliant!

    • Josephine
      October 1, 2020

      Thank you so much, James! Very nice to hear that.

    • Somedude
      September 27, 2021

      Whites are racists, period. All the same. Will never change.