Category Archives: Politics

Protests in Berlin

Berliners have been demonstrating today against the conditions at a registration point for refugees in their city. Tim Lüddeman (@timluedde) tweeted this composite image and a link to photos of the demonstration for non-commercial purposes with the hashtag #EsReicht (Enough!) that was the slogan of the demonstration, along with #LeGeSo, the German abbreviation for Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (Provincial Office for Health and Social Concerns, much like the DHHS in the US).

The LaGeSo offices have been criticized for long wait times, ineptitude and the development of a black market around the selling of paper numbers designed to create order in serving those waiting. On October 6, 2015 ZDF broadcast alarming images of mass stampedes outside the office, with hundreds of young men in hoodies and jeans pushing each other to try and get access to the building in the darkness of early morning.


On October 8, 2015, Michel Friedman investigated LaGeSo on his television program on n-24, the German CNN-style 24-hour news channel. Die Welt has posted what seems to be an excerpt of this report on their website with commentary (Trigger warning for this video: Footage of near attempted suicide as protest). According to this article in Die Welt, over 18,000 refugees have arrived in Berlin since the beginning of September, when Merkel declared open borders. Homeless, without financial support, and understandably frustrated and angry, the young men featured in this video are spending their evenings sleeping in parks; their days standing in line for their numbers to flash on a large screen. From the hats and coats in the photographs of the demonstration, it is visibly cold. Winter is coming – and yet, their numbers don’t appear. Jaafar’s VLOG presents a calmer journalistic take on the conditions.

Four days ago, 20 refugees started a lawsuit against the LaGeSo. According to updates posted by rbb (Radio Berlin-Brandenburg), that number has climbed to 50. These refugees do not have lawyers, but are being supported by the initiative known as “Moabit Helps!” Moabit, the district where LaGeSo is located, hosted several anti-PEGIDA demonstrations this past summer – demos which took place in the Turmstraße, where a large park served as a gathering place. Protestors are frustrated with the incompetence of Mario Czaja, a CDU politician who serves as the Sozialsenator (Senator for Social Affairs and Health). Czaja previously faced controversy in 2006 when Spiegel Online noticed that his purported degree in economics actually came from a university known as a degree mill. He was required to step down from – yes – his post on the Research and Science committee. Protesters today began to chant “Mario Czaja, Enough is Enough!”:

As a continuation of the protest, a 30km long candlelight vigil was planned for this evening. Some reports are stating 7-8,000 people have shown up. Critics point to the holes in the chain; PEGIDA’s recent demonstrations have supposedly gathered 10,000.  Still: the images are haunting, like this one from the far eastern suburb of Kaulsdorf:

Germany’s refugee crisis is producing two distinct political struggles: first there are the refugees, whose struggle in this humanitarian crisis for humane treatment seems endlessly traumatizing and often remains elusive. Last night at midnight, for instance, Hungary succeeded in sealing its border to Croatia to hinder refugees from entering their country; tonight, despite the protest, I suspect that refugees will still be sleeping in the cold in the park. The second struggle is an internal political struggle creating wide rifts not just between Right and Left, but also between the Right and the Far Right.  The Greens recently helped pass a change in asylum law with which they are uneasy.  PEGIDA-Chemnitz continues its two-week long protest against the construction of a new asylum home. In Cologne today, Henriette Reker, candidate for leading mayor supported by a broad coalition (CDU, Green, FDP, Freie Wähler) was stabbed by a right-wing extremist. Darkness and light are not static – they alternate as surely as night and day. During certain times of the year, however, especially in northern Europe, either one or the other predominates. Winter is coming.



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.

The Naivete of Evil

Bernd Ulrich, the main editor for Die Zeit‘s political pages, has written a beautiful essay in the October 7th edition of the paper. Despite my frequent blog posts and twitter and facebook accounts, I am an open Luddite who makes her students hand-write assignments and who has a paper subscription to Die Zeit. I also have an erratic mail carrier, which means that the arrival of my paper can arrive anywhere from three days to three weeks late. Despite seeing the click bait for this essay on twitter, I’m glad to have read this one on paper. The graphic design is quite strong, featuring a long length of barbed wire which ropes its way through the article, dividing the manifesto-like text from other columns and advertisements:

Zeit image

The essay by Ulrich is titled “The Naivete of Evil,” which is a play on Hannah Arendt’s famous subtitle for her book detailing the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in the 1960s. Written in numbered, thematic sections, Ulrich’s article lays out a comprehensive understanding of the global forces which have led to the refugee crisis in Europe. The conditions of depravity in the Middle East, he asserts, are twenty years in the making – they did not happen overnight. (Americans might also do well to remember that the War on Terror is now almost fifteen years old).   Furthermore, Ulrich identifies a transition amongst Germans on what Demetrios G. Papademetriou, President Emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute, called “the day after” on WEBZ earlier this week. Suddenly, Germans are feeling overwhelmed – and for good reason, given that there are simply not enough doctors, lawyers, teachers and social workers to reach the refugees who need them. Not just traumatized refugees, but also their caregivers, are in shock that events far, far away from them have led to “physical, mental and financial” realities on German soil. The inability to foresee the problem – even though it has been obvious that something like this was brewing – has created a political vacuum. And a vacuum must be filled: in this case, by Horst Seehofer scapegoating the Chancellor and clinging to the dream that a change in course will stop the tide.

Like the Chancellor, Ulrich asserts that this is a fantasy – one among many. Fantasies of fences (which can only function if aggressively enforced); fantasies of military might (Europe, America and now Russia will only inflict damage); and fantasies of being overrun (hold up, says Ulrich, you can’t declare a state of emergency with these numbers) are ever present in the national imagination.  Ulrich even engages with the rich propaganda found at PEGIDA rallies and in Lachmann’s article I analyzed yesterday. “Of course the West is in Danger” reads the title of section 8 – but not because of the refugees. Because of Europeans:

“This, the aggressive nationalism, the exclusion and internal de-liberalization are the tangible threats against the West. Because all of that, unfortunately, is actually present in European genes.”

Ulrich is not actually advancing a genetic argument – that last bit is a metaphor which reads better in German than in my poor translation here. What he’s saying is that nationalism has a European precedent – and it is this nationalism that threatens to undo us.

As for the Middle East, Ulrich says, it would probably be better for all of us if we admitted that our imperial and militaristic strategies have failed. Knowing our limits is the first step towards moving beyond them (Ulrich citing here a quote by Baruch de Spinoza he freely adapted).

Admitting that there are limits seems like a particularly difficult pill for politics to swallow. Fortification is not a way to acknowledge limits – it is rather a desire to construct those limits on terms that are self-directed and seen as politically beneficial. If we follow Ulrich’s line of reasoning, however, limits are given to us by the situation itself rather than by our own imagination, which is why attempts to defend the Vaterland through nationalistic means or to stop the flow of refugees simply because we feel overwhelmed misses the mark.

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.




How do you solve a problem like Angela?

On Sunday, the Day of German Unity, the German radio station Deutschlandfunk (similar to NPR) broadcast an interview with Chancellor Angela Merkel in which she stated that she would reject the changes proposed by the CSU which hoped to reform asylum law. This statement, although coded, made headlines in the FAZ , on n-tv, in the SZ, and in video form at the tagesschau , and it was often portrayed as a direct retort to Markus Söder’s desire to change the German Basic Law to limit those seeking asylum.

This interview with Stephan Detjen runs a remarkable twenty-five minutes, has the flavor of a fireside chat, and outlines Merkel’s position (Haltung) towards the question of refugee politics, for which she has come under fire, especially from members of her own party (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party (CSU).  After opening the border on September 4, 2015, Merkel was criticized  – especially from CDU party leader Horst Seehofer – as having made a grave mistake that will have long-lasting effects. Merkel retorted that the basic right to asylum “does not have an upper limit” (kennt keine Obergrenze). 

In terms of European politics, Merkel’s role during the Greek financial crisis as the taskmaster of German austerity contrasts starkly alongside her newfound position as a suddenly liberal proponent of refugee politics (which, only a few months ago seemed impossible as she was being criticized for telling a teenage Palestinian girl, Reem, at a town-hall-style meeting that Germany could not accept every refugee). (Reem’s story had what the Germans call a Happy-End, since her residency application was later accepted.) Germans seem to be struggling to understand their Chancellor – Die Zeit from a couple weeks ago (9/17/2015) featured a long-form portrait of Merkel’s role in the refugee process with the front-page headline, “Does she know what she’s doing?” Over the next week I will take a closer look at the German chancellor and her current role as a critic within her own party.

To begin, we might let the Chancellor herself have the floor, by quoting a choice tidbit from the interview by Deutschlandfunk.

Detjen: Have you already answered to criticisms that have been formulated most strongly from Bavaria by Horst Seehofer, who, with reference to your decision to open the border to Hungary on Sept. 4th of this year, said, that this was a mistake which will occupy us for a long time?

Merkel: I think, when you look at the development, then we have seen for a considerable time – first across the Mediterranean, now along the path from Turkey to Greece – that we have an ever-increasing number of refugees. I see what Bavaria has accomplished and think it’s outstanding. On the other hand, I have to say: I don’t believe that fences help – that is futile. We saw that in Hungary, where with much effort a fence was built – the refugees come anyway and seek out other pathways. We will not solve the problem with fences. And therefore I believe that we have to solve it in the way I’ve sketched out: accept the national task, but protect the outer borders much better, to develop a fair distribution throughout Europe and to concern ourselves with the reasons for flight. And that means to also bring diplomatic processes forward, to bring political negotiations forward, and where it is necessary – like here in the Federal Republic of Germany, though supporting the Peshmerga in Iraq – to also help militarily.

You can read or listen to the whole interview (in German) here.

Update: Political Beauty Float Anchored

The team from the Center for Political Beauty has posted pictures to their Facebook site showing a successfully installed rescue platform in the Mediterranean.


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.

Center for Political Beauty

The Zentrum für Politische Schönheit is, by far, one of the most visible groups doing performance work with high media impact. This summer, as a tribute to those who die crossing the Mediterranean hoping to reach Europe, they dug up the grass on the lawn in front of the Bundeskanzleramt (the Office of the Federal Chancellor) into 100 graves. The Queen of England was about to make her regular visit to give “The Queen’s Lecture” at the Technical University of Berlin, and Germany was enjoying a summer of rainy, British weather to boot. As the German newspaper Bild noted, the lawn was quickly green again. I went to look a few days later, having missed the demonstration, and indeed – the grass had already sprouted. A metaphor for the short memories of the German elite, or a tribute to the ethereal nature of political performance?

The Zentrum has continued to make headlines for its next project: setting up floating rescue stations in the Mediterranean for refugees who find themselves stranded. First articulated as a project to build a fictional bridge from North Africa to the Mediterranean, the ZPS produced this glossy video in the spirit of campaign advertisements:


According to an article in Der Tagesspiegelthe ZPS is also soliciting money to install at least one rescue platform by October 1st.  Getty Images has posted a before shot of the preparations taking place off the coast of Sicily, which you can see here.

The name “Political Beauty” is certainly accurate – the images and glossy video of the ZPS’s projects have a sophisticated aesthetic composed of satire and privileged resistance. But it raises the question in the context of an ongoing humanitarian crisis: what kind of a weapon can art be? Are these kinds of projects the brief blips of a group of young, bright, performance artists, who may turn their attention randomly to a variety of causes as it strikes their fancy? That modernist German poet Rilke, so much a favorite of the artistic adolescent, said, a century or more ago, that “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism.” But if we focus on the “political,” our critical tools might become far more adept: what is the political reach of a glossy video about an industrialized superhighway when the practical reality of this Aktion is merely one float on the edge of Sicily?

That question is by no means merely rhetorical; it is an open one. In the face of this kind of humanitarian crisis, where images of suffering are now our daily bread, any attempt to understand efficacy will need an understanding of both the political and the aesthetic.

Lutz Bachmann charged with Volksverhetzung

Lutz Bachmann, after a delay of several months, has finally been charged by Dresden prosecutors for inciting hatred. After last Monday’s PEGIDA demonstration, an individual also filed a complaint for the same charge. Volksverhetzung and the legal paragraphs defining it include a paragraph against justifying the foundations and actions of Nazi totalitarianism, which is apparently seen by some as the only way to establish a post-Nazi republic that maintains protections for free speech. (Thanks, Wikipedia). Bachmann posted a particularly controversial post this summer urging his followers to take to the streets in front of a home for asylum seekers in Freital in July, where police and protestors came to clashes several times.