New Internationalist

Endpiece

Issue 246

new internationalist
issue 246 - August 1993

E N D P I E C E
Playing with fire
German politicians express horror at racist attacks against foreigners
in their country. But Yvonne Burgess detects how they – and other Europeans
– make political capital out of German racism.

When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, I heard about it in a Nairobi Youth Hostel on my way home after six years in Africa. It took me three more years back in Scotland to feel ready to visit the newly reunited Germany and the de-walled city I had lived in for a year and a half in the 1970s.

For 15 years I had hardly been to Germany. From the age of 16 to 22 I had been in love with the place and its culture, but then the passion had waned. Last Autumn was the first time since the late 1970s that Germany really touched me. It was also the first time I felt I understood again something of what was going on there.

Living in Africa had taught me not to trust newspapers for analysis. At home we get a lot of news snippets about right-wing violence and economic crisis in Germany – the slivers of reality our commentators trust themselves to notice and report, because they relate directly to our own feelings and fears about Germany.

I wanted to try and understand Germany again from the inside, the way I used to feel I did. To write an article specially on racism in Germany feels a little like a betrayal – like pandering to the porn market. But if I can explain why I feel this, perhaps my article will serve a different and better purpose.

While I was travelling through Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, racist attacks on non-Germans went on and on in East and West Germany. Germany’s many neighbours were very worried by the atmosphere – and Germans themselves (I would say most Germans) were also worried. If everyone in Germany were worried about the upsurge in racism, there would be less to worry about, but unfortunately some people are much more worried about other things.

Many ordinary Germans resent paying taxes for reunification, for refugees and would-be refugees at a time when they feel less economically secure than they have since the 1960s. Many politicians are afraid that the current insoluble economic problems of reunification and the world recession will topple them from power. As I hitched through West Germany I got lifts from a police officer and a young roofer, who told me their views of Turks (‘I hate that race’), refugees, and poor ‘exploited’ and ‘victimized’ Germany. They spoke with passion and disarming frankness – and they obviously represented millions of working West Germans.

But the politicians’ fear of losing power is probably even more dangerous than that of the racist police officer or the roofer. If this seems hard to believe, I can only say that at first I too found it very hard to believe what my friends were telling me about their leaders’ motivations and tactics in the present political situation. Gradually, however, I realized they were right – not least because the analysis is shared by such a wide range of Germans from both East and West.

To explain, let me return to the police officer. His bugbear is that Germany, ‘just because she lost the War’, is forced to keep open borders to everyone in the world who decides to call themselves a refugee. Would-be refugees – from former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Somalia or wherever – are accommodated in special hostels and paid full social security benefits until their applications for asylum have been processed. Here lies the rub: the procedure is taking up to two years and more.

‘If there’s one thing we Germans are good at, it’s bureaucracy,’ one friend pointed out. ‘Given the political will, all these applications could be processed in two months and the people moved out of the hostels. But it suits the Government to drag its heels, for the violence and rising feeling against asylum seekers distracts attention from its economic embarrassment – and strengthens the argument for changing the post-war constitution that forces Germany to keep its doors open.’ (Since then the German Government has succeeded in changing the constitution, making it easier to close the door on refuge-seekers.)

So it is said that in the aftermath of reunification German politicians are playing with racism. I do not want to be a scaremonger or to point a finger at Germans. I marched among one third of a million Germans who came together in Berlin to say ‘no’ to racism and their own hypocritical leaders. The main slogans were against ‘hostility to foreigners’ and called for ‘no change to the constitution’. I cannot imagine racist violence in Britain arousing such massive or heartfelt response, and I don’t believe that Nazis could retake Germany.

But the sense among many Germans that they are being unjustly humiliated and held up to the world view as an international scapegoat is a disturbing rerun of the kind of resentment that fuelled the Nazis’ rise to power.

It seems to me that the whole problem of racism in Europe revolves around projection: we project the things we see as negative onto others, so that we can point the finger at them and feel good ourselves. We all do it to those we oppress – and we Brits specifically do it to the Germans. Germany has been our scapegoat. For over 50 years we have enjoyed being the goodies to Hitler’s baddies. Our fear of foreigners is a loveable foible – theirs a dangerous disease. We exclude whom we please; but they can afford/deserve to take all-comers. We are still the anti-Nazi heroes: Germany’s the one you’ve got to watch.

But while we continue to peer self-righteously across the Channel at the fire-raisers in Rostock, Kohl and his henchmen are not the only ones playing with fire.

Yvonne Burgess is a freelance writer living in Fife, Scotland.

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