The Features of German Racism

Against the Current, No. 43, March/April 1993

Gerd-Rainer Horn

THREE RECENT WAVES of racist attacks on refugees in Germany have once again catapulted the newly-unified nation onto the front pages of newspapers around the world. Within the international media—and within portions of the German left—these outbursts of anti-foreign violence have led to thinly veiled speculations regarding the existence of ominous parallels between the new, united Germany and the Germany of sixty years ago.

What is the substance of these accusations? What is the character and nature of the racist attacks in Germany? How does Germany compare to other European states in view of this renaissance of far-right violence?

In theory, Germany has one of the most liberal asylum policies of any country in the world. Any foreigner who reaches the German border may petition for political asylum and cannot be removed from German soil prior to a legal hearing. In practice, however, currently only between 5-10% of refugees eventually receive official refugee status, significantly restricting the meaning of the constitutionally guaranteed “unqualified’ right to asylum.

But the average length of time for cases to be processed is thirteen months, and it oftentimes takes considerably longer for all legal avenues to be exhausted. In the meantime, asylum seekers are housed in designated living quarters; they are not allowed to work but they receive welfare benefits from the German state.

The number of asylum seekers has dramatically increased in the most recent past. In 1991 250,000 refugees arrived in Germany, a significant increase over previous years. In 1992 alone, almost 440,000 new asylum seekers sought refuge in Germany. All told, in late September 1992, a total of 14 million foreign refugees resided within the borders of Germany.

To get a sense of the comparative dimensions of this phenomenon, it is useful to compare the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany in the course of 1991-256,112, to be exact—with comparable figures for neighboring Western European states. In all of 1991, only 57,710 refugees were able to file for asylum in Great Britain, with France permitting applications by only 54,813. And the gulf grew even wider during 1992.

Racist Terror, Official Pandering

The first major wave of attacks on foreign refugees in Germany was triggered by a week-long rampage in Hoyerswerda, a town of 70,000 inhabitants roughly one hundred miles southeast of Berlin and forty miles northeast of Dresden For several days in late September 1991, neo-Nazi skinheads, armed with Molotov cocktails and other makeshift weaponry, launched continuous assaults on a hostel for asylum seekers in Hoyerswerda.

The few police in sight remained inactive, and the situation ended in a complete victory for the radical right when the 270 asylum seekers were finally removed and dispersed to other locations. In the ensuing weeks, German neo-fascists, flushed with success, carried out a series of additional attacks on foreigners throughout Germany.

While the number of attacks on foreigners levelled off after early October 1991, a dramatic resurgence in racist violence occurred in the wake of another major orchestrated attack on a hostel for asylum seekers, the late August 1992 arson attack in Rostock-Lichtenhagen on the Baltic coast Again, the police refused to step in to protect the terrified refugees who were forced to flee the scene of the right-wing pogrom on their own.

Once more, similar to the catalytic effect of the Hoyerswerda outrage eleven months earlier, the concrete victory of neo-Nazi groups in Lichtenhagen emboldened their co-thinkers elsewhere in Germany to carry out a renewed wave of attacks on foreigners. Most frequently these took the form of random attacks on isolated individuals or anonymous arson attacks, rather than public displays of mob violence as had occurred in Hoyerswerda and Lichtenhagen.

In 1991, nine people died as a result of such exactions; in the first ten months of 1992 alone, ten victims of right-wing violence were murdered in cold blood. Then, shortly after midnight on November 23, 1992, a neo-Nazi arson attack killed a Turkish woman and two girls in the northern town of Mölln near Hamburg in the former West Germany. By the end of 1992, seventeen people had fallen victim to the largely unchecked violence by the resurgent radical right.

Perhaps even more ominous than these terrifying statistics has been the attitude of the major political parties regarding these occurrences. Rather than taking a firm stand in opposition to such vicious attacks, leading politicians ranging from the ruling Christian Democratic Party to the opposition Soda! Democrats have most frequently used such occasions not to primarily speak out against the racist violence and to condemn the attackers, but to pander to latent and overt racist tendencies in the population.

Adopting part of the argument of the radical right rather than unconditionally defending the right to asylum, spokespersons for the major parties have come to focus on the purported “flood of foreign refugee” that supposedly threatens to inundate the country and to thus strain the already overextended social safety net beyond capacity.

Slamming Shut the Borders

In early December 1992, representatives of the main political parties, including the social democracy, agreed to the most far-reaching changes in the history of the West German asylum law. The effect is to dismantle the major features and undercut the intent and purpose of this basic law, which had been enacted soon after the establishment of the Fed-end Republic, fresh with the memory of countless German refugees searching for political asylum between 1933 to 1945.

The key provision of the new asylum clause states that those asylum seekers entering Germany through third countries, i.e. by some overland route, may only file for asylum in Germany if no other country they traversed on their tortuous path to Germany can be deemed a temporary safe haven in which potential asylum seekers could apply for asylum and await the results.

At the same time the top negotiators of this proviso resolved to proclaim all countries bordering on Germany such temporary safe havens. In plain language, therefore, this change means that asylum seekers travelling overland to Germany from their respective countries of origin will automatically be denied the right to file for asylum in Germany. Roughly 90% of asylum seekers enter Germany by land!

In wise omniscience, the drafters of this asylum “reform” legislation added additional barriers for the few remaining refugees who may still slip through the existing cracks in the tightening wall around the new Germany. Parliament is to draw up a list of countries deemed sufficiently democratic, thus automatically excluding their citizens from consideration as political refugees.

Welfare payments to asylum seekers in Germany will be sharply reduced, and a new category of “war” or “civil war refugee will be created, who may stay in Germany for the duration of the conflict only and who may no longer apply for permanent asylum. In sum, the established German parties have responded to the right-wing campaign of intimidation and murder by adopting some of the political goals of the racists as their own and translating them into legal practice.

In addition, the conspicuous passivity of the forces of law and order in the German state reinforces the image of a Germany where right-wing forces can, on occasion, run amok. The selective myopia of the German police can be gauged by their incomparably more massive presence when called upon to confront demonstrations by the anti-fascist left, often in the very same locations that witnessed virtually unhindered right-wing violence days earlier.

When 3500 supporters of refugees rights gathered in Hoyerswerda on September 29, 1991, four hundred members of the “federal frontier protective force’ blocked off the agreed-upon route and denied access to the refugee hostel as if the anti-fascist activists had gathered to intimidate or harm the asylum seekers In previous days, no such massive police presence prevented the onslaught of the radical right.

Similarly, when 20,000 anti-fascists demonstrated in Rostock on August29, 1992, the previously inactive state police and the suddenly energized “federal frontier protective force” erected roadblocks on most access roads to Rostock to harass and intimidate potential demonstrators and to minimize the open expression of solidarity with the beleaguered foreigners in Lichtenhagen and elsewhere.

Not Only Germany!

While the incidents of right-wing vigilante attacks have reached an acute point of crisis and have become a focal point of actions by progressive activists in Germany, recent international media attention to this phenomenon has been more concerned with pointing out the supposed singularity and danger of German racist attacks than with a sober assessment of the international dimension of increasing anti-foreigner violence in Europe and elsewhere.

The German events are only one particularly conspicuous manifestation of this ugly trend. While it is far from my intention to smooth over the wave of racism sweeping through both parts of the newly reunified Germany, I suggest that it is precisely the disproportionate focus on Germany which belittles the international significance and real danger of the most recent resurgence of neo-fascist racism and violence.

It is nearly impossible to adequately compare the level of anti-foreign violence in Germany with similar exactions elsewhere. The criteria for the statistical collection of officially registered incidents are unclear, and, at any rate, official figures for “racial incidents” are vastly outnumbered by unreported altercations.

The unreliability of official data emerges from a simple comparison of government figures for “racially motivated attacks” in Germany and Britain. British government figures for 1990 were roughly twenty times higher than comparable German statistics, a discrepancy out of all proportions to what common sense would suggest. (Or consider the recent revelation that, in 1991, the year of the Rodney King beating, according to official statistics, only five (!I racial incidents occurred in all of California.)

Thus, in attempting to compare racist violence between European states, I will limit myself to pointing out some incidents which may suggest that the German level of violence—reprehensible as it certainly is—is not entirely out of proportion with current European trends.

Prim and proper Switzerland, for instance, despite its smaller size and population, witnessed seven racially motivated murders between 1989 and 1991. Neo-fascist violence has long been on the order of the day in France, and right-wing killings of foreigners and/or left-wing activists supporting beleaguered immigrants and refugees have even occurred in comparatively “civilized” states, such as Denmark and Sweden.

The specific targets of attacks often vary from country to country. Whereas Italian racists focus on the presence of Africans, Spanish right wingers target Gypsies and Africans, French and Belgian vigilantes terrorize Arab immigrants, the British focus on the Black and Asian presence, and German neo-Nazis zero in on the wave of refugees whose country of origin varies from year to year, with Rumanians and former Yugoslays currently the largest contingent.

Yet physical assaults are only the most visible and repugnant manifestations of far right sentiment Perhaps the most readily accessible measure of comparison of far right proclivities within the population at large are the results of recent elections in many European states, which witnessed major advances by various parties of the radical right.

The figures speak for themselves. In the Dutch-speaking Flemish part of Belgium, the far right Vlaams Blok gained 10.4% of the popular vote in November 1991. In the late 1991 municipal elections in Vienna, the Austrian equivalent garnered an astounding 22.5% in what has traditionally been regarded as “Red Vienna.” And the combined vote for the far right regional “Leagues” in northern Italy reached 9.9% of the national vote in the April 1992 Italian elections.

Taking into account that another 5.4% opted for the traditional party of the fascist right, the MSI, 15.3% of the Italian electorate openly supported the radical right This victory for the forces of right-wing extremism topped even the March 1992 election results achieved by the strongest and best-organized party of the radical right anywhere in Europe at this time, the 14% obtained by Le Pens National Front in France.

The outcome of the most recent real elections in the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein prove that Germany is not far behind in this avalanche of support for right-wing politics, but that it is certainly not the sole leading edge. In Baden-Württemberg the combined vote for far right parties reached 124% of the vote, and in Schleswig-Holstein 7.9% of the electorate voted for the radical right.

Whereas far right parties in Germany received up to 185% (Pforzheim) of the vote in some mid-sized cities, the undisputed frontrunners in the Europe-wide shift towards the radical right, however, must be located in the major metropolitan areas of Italy, Belgium and France. Here Marseille, Milan and Antwerp have taken the lead. In each of these major European cities the vote for far right parties topped 25% of the popular vote.

There are significant differences between the various parties of the radical right, comparable to the nuances of opinion separating Pat Buchanan from David Duke. Yet, whatever the personal and political life histories of the specific organizations and their spokespersons, for the first time since the end of World War II, neo-fascist ideology has gained significant support in a number of important European states simultaneously and on a fairly massive scale, and there is no end in sight to their recent string of successes.

Realities of German Racism

Returning to the German scene, it is important to challenge three additional myths which have taken root in the minds of many foreign observers appalled or frightened by the most recent events. One is the popular assumption that German racism is primarily an East German phenomenon; the second concerns the role of unification in bringing about the current climate of racial tensions; the third pertains to the absence of a well-defined immigration law as a contributing factor to the current malaise.

The legacy of East Germany as scapegoat for the radical right’s successes was and remains a powerful ideological tool by Western (but not only West German) politicians and journalists alike. The scenario was nearly perfect: After the disintegration of communism as we knew it, all the evils of the evil empire were now bursting forth and retarding the wished-for smooth integration of East Germany into the civilized nations of the free world. One such open sore was the festering wound of racial hatred, supposedly kept underground by the communist state, but now finally working its way to the surface.

No one will deny that the former East Germany has been deeply affected by the language and the actions of the radical right The worst pogroms of the most recent—the Hoyerswerda and Lichtenhagen incidents—occurred in the East. Less attention, however, has been focused on the subversive role of West German money, propaganda and personal attention, emanating from organizations of the West German radical right, directed towards their Eastern neighbors virtually from the very moment of the collapse of the Wall.

The most recent firebombing in MöIIn has done its own fair share to draw the attention of shocked observers to the racist terror operating in the West But even before the incident in MöIln, up to the end of September 1992, only 37%483 out of 12% acts—of right-wing terror registered by the German political police in the course of that year had been committed in the former East.

The result of the most recent comparable elections, the Spring 1992 municipal elections in both parts of Berlin, showed once again the greater resonance of neo-fascist ideology amongst Western voters. Whereas “only” 5.5% of East Berliners voted for the Republican slate (the dominant electoral force in radical right politics in Berlin and man y other parts of Germany), 9.9% of West Berliners made the same move.

Second, regarding unification, popular opinion now considers the costs of shoring up the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of foreign refugees inconceivable in view of the heavy financial burden of unification. Clearly, the wholesale takeover of East Germany and the simultaneous destruction of its social and industrial infrastructure necessitates massive readjustments in the workings of the German welfare state.

But the willingness to sacrifice “for others” is undiminished when it comes to admitting the stream of German ethnics from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The same “compromise agreement’ among the four major parties, which slammed shut the door to foreign refugees, also resolved to keep the inflow of “returning Germans” at the same level as before, 200,000 per year.

Furthermore the actual net financial drain to the former East Germany is subject to dispute and statistical manipulation. When the German Treasury Secretary declares that more than 92 billion D-Mark per year are needed to finance reconstruction in the East, this may sound like a lot of money. Even the conservative, Christian Democratic governor of Saxony, Kurt Biedenkopf, however, feels compelled to point out on this occasion that significant amounts of money will flow back into the coffers of the fed-end state, mostly in the form of taxes.

Biedenkopf asserts that in all of 1993, the net inflow of money into the former East will actually be lower than the German contribution to the budget of the European Community.

Third, Germany indeed operates without an immigration law. Up to now it has been next to impossible for any non-citizen to become a German national even after decades of residing in the German state. This situation may, however, change as a result of the December corn-promise between the four parties. They resolved to ease restrictions on the naturalization of foreign residents.

But whether the potential lifting of such restrictions will ease the burden of foreigners in Germany maybe seriously doubted. Few racists bother to demand identification from their victims before they attack. And the experience of other European countries, e.g. Britain where citizenship can be more easily acquired, belies such well-intentioned hopes.

Mobilizing Against Terror

Hope, if there is any, lies instead in another most recent development in Germany: the emergence of a powerful reaction to the exactions of the right. Starting with a somewhat hypocritical call to demonstrate for “tolerance” on November8 in Berlin, issued by most major parties, a series of anti-racist actions occurred throughout the German state.

The popular response to the call to demonstrate far surpassed all expectations, as 350,000 marchers expressed their solidarity with the victim of the racist attacks. And the demands written on many banners and signs carried by the crowd clearly went beyond the pious wishes of the official organizers of the event. Then, on November 14, 100,000 people assembled in Bonn to openly press for retention of the present, liberal asylum law.

Finally, after the MöIln killings, a widespread move got underway to openly express the popular revulsion against the rightist terror. In the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, most German cities and towns witnessed massive demonstrations of tens and sometimes even hundreds of thousands.
Where this will all lead is difficult to predict. But what is certain is that Germany is, thus far, neither unusually racist nor lacking in a positive response. The real danger looms in the larger, continental leanings towards the radical right.

March-April 1993, ATC 43