Sunday and Monday night, I somehow managed to sit through the only two TV debates of this election campaign without falling asleep. On Sunday night it was Angela Merkel (CDU) versus her main challenger Peer Steinbrück (SPD). In Monday’s Dreikampf of the smaller parties, Gregor Gysi (Die Linke) battled Jürgen Trittin (Die Grünen) and Rainer Brüdele (FDP).
Unsurprisingly, the economy, the euro, taxes, social insurance were the hot topics, with a little NSA and Syria sprinkled on top.
After the first debate, Germany’s Tweeters seemed primarily obsessed by Merkel’s “black-red-gold Germany-necklace” – which even mysteriously started tweeting through its own account (@schlandkette) midway through the broadcast. Refreshing in the German debates is the complete absence of the private lives of politicians: no one brought up Brüderle’s pathetic sexual advances towards a young journalist last winter, sparking the famous #aufschrei anti-sexism tag on Twitter. Merkel was spared questions about an anecdote she shared with a school class in August about how in 1980s East Berlin she broke into and squatted an unoccupied flat to avoid homelessness.
One issue was completely absent: immigration.
Germany urgently needs more debate on immigration, integration, asylum and racism. Thanks to the civil war in Syria, the number of asylum applications has doubled. The asylum system is over-stretched and mismanaged. Last month in the eastern Berlin suburb of Hellersdorf, Syrian, Palestinian and Afghan refugees were welcomed to a new asylum home by a mob of locals and neo-Nazis giving the Hitler salute and displaying “Hellcome to Germany” t-shirts. The incident was quickly compared to the “pogroms” against refugees in eastern Germany during the early 1990s.
Besides the hate-filled reception asylum seekers get in some parts of the country, the conditions in which most of them live are inhumane. Refugees are required to live in depressing dormitories. They are banned from travelling outside of the county where they reside. And they are forbidden from working while their applications are processed. All things that prevent any kind of participation in German society. Is this what the government wants? Keep ’em isolated and miserable, and maybe not so many more of them will get the idea of heading to Germany?
Interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU) reacted to the Hellersdorf crisis with these words: “Germany is one of the world’s most liked countries. We can’t allow this positive image to be destroyed. Neo-Nazis damage our fatherland.” That’s one way of putting it.
But neo-Nazis don’t just damage Germany’s image, they kill people. It’s astounding that not a peep was uttered during the debates about the NSU scandal that broke in 2011. Despite the mobilisation of vast resources to monitor and infiltrate the violent far-right scene, authorities were unable to track down a terrorist cell responsible for the cold-blooded murders of nine immigrants. Why? Incompetence and institutionalised racism in the police.
The twin issues of immigration and racism are crucial to Germany’s ability to transform itself into a modern, open society and if they’re not debated and addressed publicly, we can expect more bad news from the likes of Hellersdorf.