Just a few stories from Berlin in the past few weeks…
September 10: Racist attack in the U-Bahn at Alexanderplatz
September 9: Black man insulted with Hitler salute in Neukölln
September 8: A 10th grader in Steglitz presses charges against her teacher for calling her “nigger” in the classroom
September 5: Four Jewish schoolgirls subjected to anti-Semitic verbal abuse on the street in Charlottenburg
August 28: 53-year-old rabbi brutally assaulted in Friedenau
August 22: Woman sprays pepper spray into the face of a six-year-old boy waiting with his Lebanese mother at S-Bhf Neukölln while shouting xenophobic insults
These stories from Berlin – the oh-so-cosmopolitan capital of Germany – are surely the tip of the iceberg. Racist and anti-Semitic attacks in the rest of the country – from a pig’s head being placed outside of a kosher restaurant to desecration of Jewish graves to just plain old beating and murder – are too frequent to list here.
Let’s not forget the revelations to emerge over the past year about the brutal racist murders of the so-called National Socialist Underground. And a scary figure: there have been 180 racist killings in Germany since reunification in 1990.
Germany has a serious racism problem. Sure, the circumstances for each case are different. The victims are as diverse as the perpetrators, but that only tells us one thing – that xenophobia has a broad footing in Germany. The African and afrodeutsch Berliners we interviewed for our current Africa in Berlin issue said racist insults are a daily occurrence. And immigrant Berliners are regularly singled out by police for ID checks. The whole insane debate about circumcision shows how uncomfortable Germany still is with minority cultures in its midst. And the new poster campaign by the Interior Ministry which portrays young Middle-Eastern-looking people as “missing” is nothing less than a scandal.
And let’s not forget: since its publication two years ago, millions of Germans have bought Thilo Sarrazin’s anti-immigration book Deutschland schafft sich ab – the bestselling non-fiction book since Mein Kampf – unveiling a disturbing level of latent xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism among “mainstream” Germans.
So what’s being done? President Joachim Gauck – speaking at the 20th anniversary of the mob arson attack on an asylum home in Rostock as thousands of ordinary citizens cheered the attackers on – said “We mustn’t give in to the extreme right.” But Gauck, who called Sarrazin “courageous” for writing his book, missed the point: the undercurrents of racism inside each “normal” person are far more dangerous than some externalised “right-wing extremist” enemy. And if attitudes don’t change they will simply be transferred to the next generation.
German leaders – led by Angela Merkel – should step up the plate and launch a broad anti-racist offensive. Schools, universities, companies, the police, institutions on all levels should be instructed to make zero tolerance of racist behaviour or speech of any kind and teaching and promotion of tolerance a top priority.
When Willy Brandt fell to his knees in 1970 in honour of those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto, he sent a surprising signal to the world that Germany was serious about taking responsibility for its crimes. It was a singular act of greatness that changed the course of the country and Europe forever.
We can’t expect that sort of greatness from the likes of Merkel and Gauck. They’re fine with Germany the way it is. After all, the occasional racist murder is nothing compared to the oppression they both experienced in East Germany, right? Both have spent their careers uniting “the Germans” – ignoring the fact that millions of other people also live here.