Category Archives: Germany

Data and Racists

In July 2015, PEGIDA posted a link to a GoogleMap. The map was littered with the red balloons GoogleMaps uses to denote location. Each balloon denoted the site of a home for refugees or asylum seekers.


Lutz Bachmann had already encouraged his followers to camp out in front of a home for asylum seekers in Freital, close to where he lives, in Saxony. According to the Independent (UK), up to 1200 people took part in protests in front of the home in Freital in early July, many of them drunk.


By the 17th of July, the Tagesspiegel reported that the original map – a creation of the right-wing extremist party known as “The Third Way” ( a pun on the Third Reich) – had been removed from the internet. But we all know that nothing ever gets removed from the internet: right-wing extremists had made hundreds of copies of the map, and the link posted by PEGIDA was still available on July 18th, when I posted this link to the Tagesspiegel article on FaceBook:



Every couple of days, there’s a new article in my social media feed counting the number of racist attacks on people and buildings that are motivated by the right-wing. 350. 400. 490. I have no doubt that the numbers will continue to rise, especially with maps like this floating around that include precise locations and number of residents living within the homes. You can crowd source an election, funding for a laser razor, or hate.

But data can also be used in the service of the good. In fact, it is collecting data about the bad that makes strategizing for good possible. The left-leaning (Green) Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany released a white paper today written in the form of a blog post by Steven Hummel and Ulrike La Gro. In it they document how words become deeds, counting both right-wing demonstrations and the attacks on foreigners or people whose appearances are seen as “different” (three presumably white rugby players with beards, for instance, were taken to be Salafites). They count these events in Dresden, the birthplace of PEGIDA. Direct causation is difficult to prove, however, the authors argue that:

Through the representation of racist positions and their mobilization, which are effective at generating public attention, the already reactionary discourse about asylum in Saxony  is being pushed farther towards the right. To that end, the social climate – among other things – is being influenced in a way that legitimizes violence (for instance against asylum-seekers, their homes and political opponents).

The second place they observed was Leipzig, where they also followed anti-racist activism in a neighborhood that had witnessed violence. What I find both alarming and unsurprising is this declaration by the authors:

In terms of content, the “arguments” of Neonazis and “normal citizens” were so similar that they could be mixed up. This shows, once again, very clearly that racist and misanthropic attitudes extend far beyond the group of Neonazis and are widespread in large parts of society. The permanent connections made between criminality and refugees is exemplary in this case.

All of these conclusions are based on lists of demonstrations and events, dated and categorized, to argue for correlation between political demonstrations, racist acts and the anti-racist activism (at least in Leipzig) which followed. This data is taken from a collection of documents they have titled “Dossier Flucht und Asyl in Sachsen” (Flight and Asylum Dossier in Sachsen), which is viewable here.

Right-wing movements are successful because their argumentation is banal. They don’t have to be visionaries; rather, they can repeat old platitudes and/or apply them to new victims. Their presence also is effective at shaping public space, just like any large citizen movement. And yet, the Böll Foundation at the end of this article offers suggestions for activists who wish to push back against this rightward movement in the public sphere. Their suggestions are also not visionary, but rather what the Germans would call fester Bestandteil of grassroots organizing: find allies, talk with – not just about – refugees; use the media to your advantage, prepare for the worst, and talk with your community. Use your data for good.

Angela Merkel appears on Anne Will

On October 7th, 34 (male) CDU politicians issued a public letter criticizing Angela Merkel for her refugee politics. This letter lists suggestions for handling the refugee crisis as well as articulates frustration with the Chancellor as a representative of their party who no longer seems to adhere to the political mission of the CDU nor to European laws such as the Dublin Agreement.  That only male CDU politicians signed this letter deserves a later post to itself.

On the same day, Chancellor Merkel appeared as a guest on the political talk show Anne Will. Sitting on beige, leather, Bauhaus-style chairs in front of a live studio audience, Merkel spoke with Anne Will about the criticism from her own party and Merkel’s “plan” for dealing with the refugee crisis.  Repeating over and over again, “We can do it,” Merkel committed to her approach to refugee policy.

Several reviews of the television broadcast, such as this one from Die Zeit, state that Merkel’s appearance was received positively by politicians. Sabine Rau, an ARD journalist, commented after the broadcast that this appearance was part of a broader offensive strategy to maintain control amid dissent, as the tagesschau reports.

Maintaining control was clearly the Chancellor’s focus during the broadcast: often talking over Frau Will and refusing to buckle under pressure, Merkel seemed confident about both her political decisions and her position as chancellor. Precisely this confidence has irritated many over the past several months, especially after Merkel proclaimed the German borders open to Syrian refugees on September 4th of this year. With that step, the Dublin Agreement, which states that refugees are supposed to be processed in the country within Europe where they first set foot, was essentially null and void. Other countries, like Greece and Hungary, who simply sent refugees who wanted to leave towards Germany, are, however, also at fault for facilitating the transfer of refugees across European borders and the breakdown of Schengen and Dublin – that does not fall solely to the Chancellor.

What I find fascinating about these two media events: one, the frustrated letter from CDU politicians, and two, the broadcast interview on Anne Will, is the lack of ideological difference between most of them. Merkel, for instance, emphasized in conversation many of the suggestions made by the CDU in their letter: strengthening Europe’s outer borders; providing Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Libanon with support for caring for refugees; speeding up refugee processing times. The ideological conflict seems to hinge on one point: can any action actually stop the flow of refugees into Germany?

The CDU/CSU wants to believe that some show of strength – a border fence or control, for instance – could help. Or even if the Chancellor would stop taking selfies with refugees. (As Merkel pointed out, the promise of a selfie with the German Chancellor is not what drives people to flee). But Merkel is much more honest when she says that this is impossible. With or without a policy of open German borders, people see Germany as a desirable destination. Irregular migration – across what the Chancellor acknowledges are porous inner-European borders – will persist with or without fences or border patrols. When asked by Anne Will if Germany should stop accepting refugees, the Chancellor replied: “How is that supposed to work? You can’t close the border. There is no stop to admission (Aufnahmestopp).

The last question of the Will broadcast is actually the most telling: Frau Will asked the Chancellor if the Germany we know today will persist in the face of such massive, sudden immigration. Chancellor Merkel was insistent: the values of Germany (values being a favorite phrase of right-wing politics across the globe) such as free speech, the social market economy, and freedom of religion will not change. She’s sure of it.

The political right, however, isn’t so sure Germany will persist – neither the Germany they know nor the Chancellor who has represented them for ten years. Oh, Ye of little faith.


It’s Not What it Looks Like


German news media have been having a rough week when it comes to images. Der Tagesspiegel printed a rather unfortunate front page with an image of Adolf Hitler (played by an actor for the upcoming film version of Timur Vermes’ novel Look who’s back) above a title about Merkel’s decision to make the head of the Kanzleramt (Altmaier) the coordinator for refugees. The insinuation: that the refugee crisis requires a dictator. They apologized with a sorry/notsorry-style tweet: “Oops, didn’t pay attention. Sorry! #wronglayout.”

Just a few days ago, on October 4th, the ARD television channel aired an episode of “Bericht aus Berlin,” their Sunday evening show about German politics. A discussion about refugees moderated by Rainald Becker took place against a backdrop of Angela Merkel wrapped in a black chador, posing in front of a Reichstag topped with minarets.

Merkel.BerichtausBerlin.4.Okt.2015ARD later issued a statement in which they stated that they hoped this “satirical” image would prompt discussion. Unfortunately, such images are all too common amongst the right-wing movement PEGIDA, which frequently defaces or photoshops images of the Chancellor, whom they would like to see resign. According to the ARD editors quoted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the ARD is not too concerned about the resonance of their state-sponsored, public television graphic with the right-wing:  “We are pleased about the numerous criticisms of our graphic, and regret very much that some people are not in agreement with our representation of the Chancellor or have completely misunderstood it.”

The imagery in both of these examples, however, hints at long-standing criticisms of the German government, especially from conservative positions: if we swing too far left, and welcome (Muslim) refugees into our country, we run the risk of losing our identity. The position of the Muslim woman as a trope in this rhetoric of identity loss has been present for many decades (see the work of Fatima El-Tayeb, Yasemin Yildiz, Rita Chin, and Beverly M. Weber in English).  The identity loss, in this image, would also be drastic – and therein lies the potential for satire (which has missed the mark). For a stoic, East German CDU politician, who holds a doctorate in physical chemistry, to be swayed by the simple polemics of Salafism is more than unlikely, it is incredible. Furthermore, this image plays on racist stereotypes about the supposed submissiveness of Muslim women, and is also a way to punish Merkel for being a strong woman who is not yielding to the criticisms of some of her more conservative male colleagues in her party. Caricature is the direct outgrowth of ideological disagreement. What is bizarre about this caricature on the ARD network, however, is that this station – channel 1 – is supposed to provide dispassionate, public television broadcasting, not stoke the ideological flames of right-wing movements literally setting homes for Muslim asylum-seekers on fire.




Day of German Unity

October 3rd is a national holiday in Germany celebrating the reunification between the Federal Republic (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East) in 1990. Today marks the 25th anniversary of reunification.

Germans celebrate today by watching documentaries about divided Germany, visiting concerts and listening to speeches held around the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. According to Berlin Police, there are so many people out to celebrate that the S-Bahn has stopped letting people out at the Brandenburger Tor stop. At the same time, there are also demonstrations taking place between right-wingers and anti-fascists around the Berlin central train station. The numbers, as reported by the Berliner Zeitung, are not large – a little over 200 right now.

As Germans celebrate the “silver wedding anniversary” (BZ) of their reunification, the country is embroiled in a political debate about refugees, distribution through a European quota system, and rapid legal changes to adjust to the nearly 800,000 refugees Germany expects to receive this year. Joachim Gauck made headlines today for stating that the refugee crisis is an even bigger challenge that reunification. The CDU finance minister, Markus Söder (Bavaria) has apparently stated an even more foundational change to German law: he questions, according to Der Tagesspiegel, whether Germany should continue to offer asylum as a basic right (Grundrecht) in its Basic Law. This basic right, lest we forget, was enshrined in the (initially West German) Basic Law because of the horrors of Nazi persecution and their irresponsible mass movement of people against their will.

There are two historical moments worthy of remembering in face of the two political conversations happening simultaneously today: the massive amount of displaced persons (Heimatvertriebene) who flooded into (a much smaller) Germany after World War II, and the constant stream of refugees fleeing East Germany before the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961.

The numbers are staggering: upwards of 14 Million people were displaced in Eastern Europe after World War II. 236,390 East Germans fled to West Germany in 1961 alone; another 388,396  fled in 1989.

Rather than reacting with alarm, as most of the CDU/CSU has done, Germany could see itself as a master of refugee incorporation. Close to every twenty years, another wave of refugees has sought safety on Germany territory and incorporated themselves into German social and political life (1945, 1961, 1989, 2015), and the republic still stands.