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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2 Comments
  • 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.