AfD Party Meeting in Stuttgart

Last weekend, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD/Alternative for Germany) party met in Stuttgart for their first national party meeting. This meeting was the focus of much attention for several reasons. First, the AfD is a new party, so what they decide at this meeting will shape both the party platform and the party’s ambitions. These ambitions are now clearly focused on national, rather than merely provincial, representation. Second, the party currently has two factions: the neoliberal-conservative group around Frauke Petry, and the nationalist-conservative group around Alexander Gauland, one of the founders of the party as a Euro-sceptic party. How the party will cope with dissent within its ranks is one of the questions political scientist Cas Mudde (UGA) tweeted the day before the meeting began. Given the warm welcome to racist-extremist Björn Höcke, it seems like the AfD will continue moving towards the right.

Finally, the party meeting itself was a controversial event, which inspired intense protest from left-autonomous groups and the preliminary arrests of 400-500 people. The Twitter feed from the German Association of Investigative Journalists posted a press release about crackdowns by police on the freedom of the press on May 2nd, when four photojournalists were arrested for participating in a sitting protest along the highway A8 and blocking traffic. Other charges included threatening behavior (Nötigung) and disturbing the peace. The press release details humiliation by police officers and that two of the journalists needed medical attention. It’s difficult to discern from the video below how extensive the protest was, but newspaper reports describe both protests near the convention center as well as a more peaceful protest in downtown Stuttgart.

 

My favorite use of technology as protest, however, was started by the satirical news broadcast extra-3 (the broadcast responsible for the recent Erdogan jokes). Deciding that the hashtag #AfD should really stand for “Aufmerksamkeit für Dackel” or “Attention to Dachshunds,” Twitter users started using the hashtag to tweet images of Dachshunds, making fun of the party and its approach to power.

The party meeting seems to have been largely symbolic – with a party program almost 80 pages long, the party meeting was hampered by organizational specifics and began late due to the protests. Of the more than 1,500 points to discuss, the party broached merely four. The “Islam Debate” was one of those four, and has caused the most uproar, with the Central Board of Jews in Germany and Green politician Volker Beck loudly condemning the AfD’s decision to include the statement that “Islam does not belong to Germany” in their program. (“Islam belongs to Germany” was a famous statement made by then-Federal President Christian Wulff in response to a racist polemic against Muslims published by Thilo Sarrazin in 2010, which monopolized the German newswaves for months.)

The best recap of the party meeting was by Lenz Jacobsen of Zeit Online, who summarized several important points:

  • Björn Höcke, the radical new right leader from Thüringen, who is infamous for making racist statements especially about Muslims, was the real star of the party. He showed up hours late, said nothing, but was greeted with so much applause that the person leading the meeting was clearly irritated and forced to stop the proceedings.
  • Albrecht Glaser is their candidate for federal president (a largely symbolic office), and was frequently addressed as “Mr. President-Elect.”
  • The provincial arm of the AfD in Saarland has been disbanded from the national AfD for working together with the NPD (Neonazi Party). Federal arbitrators are now the responsible party for the dispute.
  • Jacobsen rightly also points to the contradiction of the AfD and other groups like PEGIDA for hating foreigners who are Muslim, but praising white foreigners – like special guest Vaclav Klaus, former president of Czechia – who share their nationalistic approach. Indeed, for me, this transnational flow of right-wing ideas and collaboration across right-wing nationalistic parties is one of the most fascinating aspects of contemporary European nationalist-populism.

Finally, although the AfD has mostly been receiving press attention for their racist ideas towards Muslims and declarations by Beatrix von Storch that she would have border guards shoot refugees trying to enter Germany, queer.de published an important commentary on the heteronormative family biopolitics of the AfD called “Homophobia for Everyone!” The written goals of the AfD include elements of political struggles common to US audiences in the context of “culture wars”: no abortion, children should have two, opposite sex, traditional parents; Gender Studies should be abolished as a discipline; school curricula should not include mentions of homosexual behavior or transgendered folk; the German Christian heritage should be preserved. The ways in which this backlash would affect queer minorities can be intuited; what is important to remember is that backlash against queers extend negative effects to women and girls, single parents, divorced parents, step-families, infertile couples and single adults.

In reading through the program published by the AfD in advance of the meeting last weekend, what struck me is how the AfD party program reads like a textbook of the goals of the new right. There is an emphasis on promoting ethno-nationalist goals for Germany in order to strengthen the nation, all the while hoping to revert to some kind of mythical distant past in which there is no political union amongst European nations and no immigration. Immigrants are explicitly marked as criminal at several points in the program. Despite the prevalence of women at the top ranks of the party (Frauke Petry, Beatrix von Storch and Alice Weidel – who is romantically partnered with a woman), the platform is misogynist and homophobic – which are all part of the more basic repression in extremist movements to “close down the marketplace of ideas” (Lipset & Raab, 1970) and refuse to accept pluralism.

As the Green Party posted after the close of the party meeting:  “AFD: POLITICS FROM A DIFFERENT TIME. – Back to atomic energy, out of Europe, women in the kitchen . . . the program of the AfD is reactionary.”

 

Yesterday’s Protest in Idomeni

Yesterday, in response to a flyer circulated in Arabic amongst the 12,000 people stranded in the Idomeni camp on the Greek/Macedonian border, hundreds of refugees attempted to storm the border fence erected on the Macedonian border. They were pushed back by tear gas and rubber bullets. According to Doctors without Borders, more than 260 were injured in the action, including children (tagesschau.de). RUPTLY is an online alternative to press agencies like the AP or DPA and provides raw footage through social media in real time. They’ve posted this link to footage of the protest on Twitter and have a 3 minute video up on YouTube including an interview with refugees in English. The man interviewed states: “But the problem is, that we cannot control 10,000 people. We are the same, we are refugees like them. We hope there is a solution for that.”

What is the solution to being a refugee? Effective and efficient resettlement. But Europe’s border closures have made the movement towards resettlement increasingly difficult.

The New York Times also covered the story and has video footage posted. Their article, however, provides a different slant than in the German articles on tagesschau.de or Spiegel Online. The NYTimes emphasizes the role of the Golden Dawn, a Greek nationalist party, in the protests:

“The clashes in Idomeni, which follow several confrontations there in the last month, came as members of the Greek far-right party Golden Dawn have begun marching in several areas around Greece where migrants are camped or massed at informal gathering points.

The group, whose main leaders were arrested in 2013 on charges of leading a criminal organization, had been largely silent since the migrant crisis took hold. Yet in recent days its leaders, who had since been released from custody, said the party was planning numerous protests around the country against what they warn is the “Islamization of Greece” by Muslim asylum seekers coming mainly from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.”

 

I don’t know enough about Greece to know if this refugee protest is the direct result of nationalist organizing or if that connection is merely a false correlation. The NYTimes article doesn’t make that connection clear. The real issue is that people are being denied the right to claim asylum in the place they desire, whether or not Dublin Regulations are the law of the land.

The push to the right is also the focus of German commentator Oliver Trenkamp,  who published an article late last night on SpiegelOnline which criticized statements by Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Alexander Gauland (AfD) made about the protest:

“Desperate parents, crying children, tear gas cartridges fired by soldiers in the middle of Europe near the border fence of Idomeni: politicians like Thomas de Maiziere and Alexander Gauland have tried to harden us against the impulse to scream and cry in fury at such pictures. ‘We have to tolerate hard images,’ the Interior Minister says. ‘We can’t let ourselves be extorted by [pictures of] puppydog eyes,’ the Vice-Chairman of the AfD.

They want to turn off our empathy or at least temper it. Bernd Ulrich from Die Zeit calls (the politics Puppydog-Eyes-Gauland and Order-to-Shoot Petry have been waging for months) a ‘campaign of political coarsening.’ And after almost a year of debates about refugees, after the closure of the Balkan Route and the EU-Turkey deal taking effect, you have to agree: they have at least partially succeeded in sharpening the tone of the refugee debates, and pushing the discourse to the right.”

The consequences of this coarsening are not just numbing our capacity for empathy or the success of right-wing parties. The aftermath of the EU/Turkey Deal and the closure of the border between Greece and Macedonia presents multiple opportunities for radicalization. The right-wing nationalist parties of Europe have been successful, as we saw in the recent German provincial elections, at gathering popular support and political power. According to the NYTimes, this is also happening in Greece partly due to the release of Golden Dawn organizers from custody. But what isn’t quite being formulated so bluntly in the media is that a different kind of radicalism has great potential to develop among those refugees being prevented from reaching the locations from which they hope to claim asylum.

The real consequence of a lack of empathy? Potentially more terrorism on European soil. Violence is a product of hopelessness. What we’re observing is the systematic dismantling of hope in places like Idomeni and Piraeus, where thousands of people are trapped and suffering. Trenkamp ends his article with a call to empathy, and the hope that Germany will take on more refugees from Idomeni. What gives him hope, he says, is that many portions of German society have not yet heeded the call to coarsen their politics:

“Doctors and nurses are still working voluntarily in reception centers; teachers, instructors, and students are collecting donations; lawyers are helping with asylum applications; church groups, roommates, and families are taking Syrians in;  students are bringing refugees in car trunks into the country [Germany]; activists are marrying foreigners to make permanent residency possible. Many Germans are further along in their minds and their hearts than elected officials and those who fill newspaper columns.”

It is heartening that there are so many individual acts of resistance. But there are limits to the effects individual acts of resistance can have. Intelligent policy choices can reach many more people and do so much faster than uncoordinated individuals. Yet, the response from the top seems to be to turn a deaf ear to the ways politicians’ own policies threaten their eventual undoing. The hopelessness that policies like detention and deportation have caused can lead directly to the radicalization of refugees, especially those held in detention or deported to large-scale camps without a path towards citizenship and work. A hopeless generation will merely add to the political destabilization of Europe and the Middle East – hardening refugees and producing images even harder for the EU to tolerate.

 

 

 

EU-Turkey Deal

On March 7, 2016, the EU Heads of State or Government met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss the deal reached with Turkey about ten days later.  The EU Council has published an English press release of the plan here. The initial paragraphs of this plan are already disappointing, and illustrate how shortsighted the plan is. In this document, which – if enacted – may change the European landscape in very radical ways, there is no mention of the causes of flight:

The Heads of State or Government agreed that bold moves were needed to close down people smuggling routes, to break up the business model of the smugglers, to protect our external borders and to end the migration crisis in Europe.  We need to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe.

It’s as if the flow of refugees were invisible until rubber boats materialized in a magical, wavy mirage on the Turkish coast.

There have been a lot of good articles which explain the details of this deal, so I won’t repeat that here.  The Guardian has a Q&A page that explains the agreement, and Matthias Krupa’s piece at ZEIT ONLINE does a good job of pragmatically assessing the consequences in German politics here. The criticism of this deal has also proliferated: see the remarks of the UN Human Rights Chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in English and in German.

UN Human Rights Chief Hussein has been speaking out against inhuman treatment of refugees throughout the crisis. Back in February 2016, he expressed serious concern about the shifts in policing taking place in Austria, Croatia, Macedonia, Servia and Slovenia as these countries tried to limit entry to refugees crossing through their territory. He also accused these countries of “exacerbating ‘the chaos and misery all down the line’ and especially in Greece.”  What is a consistent argument against the plan is that this deal could break with the Geneva Convention and international human rights law – supposedly the bedrock of the European Union and protection against repeating the genocide of the Second World War. Günter Burkhardt, leader of ProAsyl (a German working group) wrote a strongly worded critique for the Frankfurter Rundschau pointing out that this deal also creates a heirarchy amongst those seeking refuge – placing Syrians above all other nationalities rather than hearing individual reasons for flight. ProAsyl is supporting refugees in Greece who want to press charges in court to have their cases heard.

While Greece – rightly so – figures prominently in the EU Heads of State plan, there is no discussion of the bloodshed and chaos causing people to flee. Furthermore, Turkey is – step-by-step, with each suicide bomber or crackdown on the freedom of the press – becoming more and more instable and autocratic. Even Horst Seehofer, right wing politician of the CSU, rejects the deal because of the concessions it makes to Turkey.

Back in November 2015, Thomas Assheuer wrote a visionary op-ed for Die Zeit called Our Culture of Welcoming (Unsere Wilkommenskultur).

What will be written in the history books about these days in October? Maybe “Europe’s Failure”? Temperatures are falling to freezing, and in Europe, thousands of refugees are sleeping outside, in the mud and cold, among them infants and children.

As spring comes, not much has changed.  In this essay, Assheuer recognizes that the flow of refugees appears as an “apocalyptic metaphor” of our present moment, which is built upon a modernity in which politics has collapsed because nation-states have become irrelevant in the face of the neoliberal global market:

The refugee is what remains after the destruction of political spaces: he is life laid bare in flight [das nackte Leben auf der Flucht].

Without the cover of deals, aid packages and political rhetoric, the essence of the refugee crisis has indeed been laid frighteningly bare: you are in need, but we will not help you. Assheuer continues:

You don’t need a lot of imagination to sketch out what happens when the flow of reguees doesn’t end, when cities and communities capitulate to the number of those seeking protection and the EU makes a solvable problem into an unsolveable one.

What will happen – as the recent successes of the AfD show – is that the political spectrum will jump to the right and Merkel (center right) “will suddenly stand there as a left-liberal European.” Assheuer predicts the return of authoritarian states 25 years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall: and the special forces soldiers from back then, he jokes, are still available for employment.

The Turkey-EU deal is evidence of Europe making a “solveable problem into an unsolveable one.” If member states had agreed to a distribution plan earlier, the pressure on Greece and other large receiving countries – like Germany and Sweden – would be less. One by one, European heads of state – the Faymanns and the Orbans – have clung to nationalist fantasies and left Merkel isolated as the only humanitarian. That position, Malte Lehming commented in Der Tagesspiegel – is one Merkel is slowly giving up. She has been pulled to the right, and perhaps supports the deal with Turkey not just because it was her idea, but because in this political climate, it may be the only alternative.

In Vienna yesterday, there were protests against the deal.

 

Refugees defy limits at Greek/Macedonian Border

There are three events that are of massive importance right now in the interaction between right-wing populism, irregular migration and refugee rights.

First, the EU and Turkey are proposing a “one-in-one-out” deal that will involve a bizarre rearrangement of refugees being returned to Turkey as those in Turkish camps then get passage to Europe. The UN has called this deal illegal and in violation of European refugee law and rights.

Second, the state (provincial) elections in Germany on Super Sunday led the AfD to a huge win in three states: Baden-Württemburg, Sachsen-Anhalt and Rheinland-Pfalz. Sachsen-Anhalt saw the AfD win almost 25% of the vote. The AfD is quickly on its way to becoming a party of hate, with party positions formally against Muslims and LGBT people. The AfD and Donald Trump share rhetorical strategies.

Third, a thousand refugees – among many thousands trapped for days in Greece at the Macedonian border – have defied the border crossing and begun to reach Macedonia. There is amazing footage posted on YouTube from the town of Chamilo as people attempt to cross the river. It’s cold; three people have died trying to cross the river. It’s being called the #marchofhope. Macedonia is not a member of the EU. I am not sure of the legal ramifications for crossing from the EU (i.e., Greece) into a non-member state. *UPDATE 3/16/2016: It seems as if this crossing was primarily motivated by activists distributing leaflets in Arabic trying to convince people to risk their lives for a political statement. The Macedonian police simply held and then deported those who crossed.

Chaos breeds chaos; anxiety produces more anxiety. Where is the leadership whose values are rooted in common sense and a sense of humanitarian urgency?

Clausnitz

There’s a German idiom that may also be similar in British English, but it’s one I’ve never heard Americanized:

“Ich glaub’, ich bin im falschen Film.” Literally this means: I think I’m in the wrong movie. Figuratively, it means that something is out of place. Something went wrong, and you ended up on someone else’s movie set. You’re thinking to yourself, this can’t be happening. This is surreal.

Refugees arrived in the Saxon town of Clausnitz last Thursday, February 18th, late at night. Saxony is the province where PEGIDA was founded, and Clausnitz is right near the border to the Czech Republic. PEGIDA and their Czech counterparts (right-wing populists) have marched together during events held in Sebnitz, about an hour and a half away.

On Thursday, this video was posted to YouTube, which shows terrified refugees sobbing as they exit the bus to chants of “Wir sind das Volk! We are the people!” As Stefan Kuzmany wrote in Der Spiegel on Friday: these demonstrators are not das Volk:

You’re not the people. […]

You’re grown men who make children cry.

I post this video with reservation: the camera is focused on the refugees, but I really wish it were aimed at the demonstrators. They should not be allowed to remain anonymous; a faceless mob. That imbues them with power, and objectifies the refugees who are already nameless and faceless and invisible as individuals. According to the BBC, the state Interior Minister, Markus Ulbig, described [the situation] as “deeply shameful.” All the more reason to shame the perpetrators through identification – rather than the victims.

As this story has developed, some troubling events have come to light. As the SZ reported, the manager of the asylum home is a man aptly named Thomas Hetze, a member of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party. He holds what they call “a questionable worldview.” I’ll say. Hetze has publicly hetzte (incited) citizens at events where he’s spoken out against “asylchaos” or “refugee chaos.” Despite his political attitudes, the government office responsible for staffing his position says he can stay:

“As long as he doesn’t break the law, there’s no problem,” says Diester Steiner from the government office of the county (Asylstab). That Hetze applied for this job despite his political convictions shows that he has a good attitude.” (SZ)

This comment itself is surreal. Hetze, with his political ties, seems to have informed others about the arrival and created this PR and humanitarian disaster. According to the MDR, Hetze’s brother was part of the group organizing the mob. I’ve seen tweets implying that Hetze himself was one of only a few people who knew the refugees would be coming. Nighttime arrivals seem to be common practice, perhaps to avoid precisely this kind of politicization. With right-wing violence high in this area, and asylum homes being burned down with impunity as a method of protest, political orientations matter because some of them in this day and age are violent. Humans are social creatures. Our networks may not predict, but they surely influence, our actions.

Even more embarrassing are the comments of the President of the Chemnitz Police, Uwe Reißmann, who defended the actions of the police on that evening and declared at a press conference that refugees would be charged with provocation for filming. One ten year old boy  gave protestors the middle finger as he was dragged crying off the bus, and through the mob into the building designated for housing. That, apparently, was a provocation. Being verbally assaulted by an angry mob? That was a situation that was “unpredictable” and “impossible to contain.” The federal minister of the interior, Thomas de Maziere, defended Reißmann’s actions on Sunday evening on the ARD network:  “I can’t think of any criticism of this police engagement.”

I think I’m in the wrong movie.

 

Update: 2/22/2016 8:45am EST: According to this article in Stern, Hetze has been removed from his post – for his own protection.

 

 

Beware the Alternatives

In the two-party governance system of the United States, graphs like these may seem confusing:

The state news channel ARD tweeted the results of an election poll yesterday with six viable parties, and another column in grey for all the rest. The Christian Democrats, Merkel’s party, lead with 35% of voters; followed by the moderate Social Democrats with 24%. Two left-wing parties, the Left and the Greens, have about 10% each. The neo-liberal Free Democratic Party is barely making the 5% threshold required to enter parliament. Then there’s the shocker: the far-right, nationalistic party called Alternative for Germany is pulling in a whopping 12%. According to the tweet under the image, it seems like AfD is mostly gaining voters who previously voted for the center-right Christian Democrats.

If you want to understand German politics right now, the AfD is probably the most prescient indicator of how the political mood in Germany is changing.

What’s also very important to understand is that this sea change has been gradual, and been in motion for much longer than the refugee crisis. AfD was founded in 2012 and first appeared in the 2013 federal elections, where they ran primarily on a platform of Euro-scepticism. The “Alternative” in their party name is understood as desiring a political alternative to the European Union and shared currency. They are doing well because Europe has started to teeter on the edge of political and economic collapse by being embroiled in two crises: one, the Greek economic crisis, and two, the refugee crisis. They are also doing well because they have managed, as a party, to oust all of their center-right founders. The far-right has taken control of the party.

Which brings me to the initial purpose of this post: the AfD has recently made some terrifying statements that can only be described as morally corrupt. Both the chairwoman of the party, Frauke Petry, and her representative, Beatrix von Storch, called for border guards to shoot refugees as a solution to the crisis in late January.  Von Storch was nothing less than clear in this FaceBook comments thread:

Hans Werner: That’s ridiculous. Are you going to limit access of women with children on the green meadows [border landscape] with armed force?

Beatrix von Storch: Yes.

Katharina König: Shoot at children? Beatrix von Storch, #AfD says “Yes” Does anyone else have questions about this party? #coldcountry

There has been a massive amount of press attention to these statements, as there well should be. Petry and von Storch are trying to distance themselves from their PR disaster, with little success. And yet – for those voters AfD continues to poach from moderate right parties – these statements clearly have appeal. The AfD is becoming the party PEGIDA is legally prevented from becoming. On the rest of the political spectrum – including the centrist and left-wing parties – there must be some serious scrambling going on to find alternatives to the Alternativ.

Cologne – The Facts We Have

A number of Americans have asked me about the events in Cologne this past week. A number of Germans who live in America are reporting that their communities are increasingly divided and agitated about what is happening. The events on News Year’s Eve at the Cologne central train station are a global event, and #koelnhbf is the next hashtag to follow #staddefrance – although the events are quite different in magnitude.

What is difficult about explaining the events in Cologne to a foreign audience is how murky the facts remain. As protests take place in front of the station today, including one by Pegida recently broken up by police, what is clear is that the events of New Year’s Eve have stoked resentments and exacerbated political tensions that have long been present. Reports of sexual violence are being instrumentalized to racialize Muslim populations and stoke xenophobic fears of “invasion.” At the same time, it has become clear that the police response to such a disturbance were ineffective – partly because of the style of criminal behavior. The Cologne Chief of Police has voluntarily entered early retirement – which means he effectively lost his job over his mishandling of the situation. Police initially reported a peaceful New Year’s Eve celebration – until tens of claims of theft and assault were filed, at which point the police created their own commission to handle the investigation.

The basic facts seem to be that a large number of drunk men were shooting off firecrackers in the crowded station, and were groping and encircling young women as a tactic to distract them from noticing that they were also being robbed. According to this article in Spiegel Online, this tactic is not new: they report that more than 11,000 people have been robbed using this tactic in the past three years. This kind of sexual harrassment is – I can well imagine – a successful diversionary tactic precisely because it is physically and emotionally violent.

A wide variety of sensationalist right-wing press attention has exaggerated these reports and attempted to create hysterical panic. Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann has posed in pictures wearing an offensive “rape-fugees not welcome” t-shirt. These stories often portray a violent mob of 1,000 migrants wantonly raping and attacking young women, like the narrative on the website Right Wing News. These reports are exaggerated, if not false. Numbers vary, but the number of rapes reported vacillates between 1 and 2; the number of men at the train station between 500 and 1,000. The state-run news media tagesschau emphasizes that we are not talking about 1,000 perpetrators; rather, the number represents the general size of the entire crowd.

The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, a local Cologne paper, reported today that the number of reported crimes has risen from 170 to 379. About 40% of these offenses constitute sexualized crimes, like groping. The ethnicity of the perpetrators has been partially identified; an early police report erroneously called all of them “refugees.” According to the NYTimes:

The Interior Ministry identified the 31 suspects as nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, four Syrians, five Iranians, an Iraqi, a Serb, an American and two Germans. Most of the crimes they were accused of involved theft and violence, said a ministry spokesman, Tobias Plate, but at least three acts were considered sexual assaults.

According to WDR, a German state news station, the police had identified 32 suspects, with 29 “foreigners” in the group (the numbers are the same as the NYTimes, with the exception of having 3 Germans rather than 2). 22 of the suspects are supposely seeking asylum. Given the long duration of asylum proceedings, however, we have no information about how long any of these suspects have been in Germany.

According to criminologist Rita Steffens, the use of sexually-based tactics to commit theft is an emerging trend in criminal behavior that is not restricted to Cologne. The intensity and quantity of assaults are new.

In contrast to the attention being paid to determining what happened on New Year’s Eve, most of the press attention has started furiously circulating around questions of race, class, gender and integration. These debates are self-multiplying and prohibit the emergence of a reasoned response to the complex issues at hand. This press attention will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

Merkel’s Speech at the CDU Party Meeting

On December 14th, Angela Merkel gave an hour-long speech to members of her party the CDU. She’s been having quite a run, especially after being named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year, and the speech has been widely covered by English-language media.

The Washington Post published a piece with the title “Multiculturalism is a sham, says Merkel” on December 14th. There’s not much more to that piece than its title, with one reference to her 2010 speech where she declared that “Multiculturalism has failed.” This article by the Guardian is evidence of much more responsible reporting, including several direct quotations on many issues from Merkel’s almost 80 minute speech. The Guardian also includes the statement on multiculturalism and links it to Merkel’s 2010 speech, but tempers this statement with criticisms of aid organizations as well as Merkel’s attempt to position German politics on the landscape of European integration.

What is missing from this English-language reporting is an understanding of what multiculturalism means in a German context.

Germany has never had a state-sponsored program of multicultural rights. Canada is a much better model of multicultural policy. Germans thus mean something different when they speak of multiculturalism – it’s a mix of having a diverse population, accompanied by the notion that civic participation and assimilation will happen without policies that provide access to populations of color and without having to discuss racism or equal opportunity. Multiculturalism doesn’t mean multiculturalism at all in this idiom: it is German shorthand for a policy of neglect. True multiculturalism seeks to strike a balance between group and individual rights in a way that is legally protected and does not infringe too much on human rights (although the criticisms are prevalent). German Multikulti is as much of a misnomer as using the English word “handy” to describe a cell phone.

Merkel’s speech – as is to be expected – is a political utterance. Because of its length, it also has a political logic all its own.

The speech begins with a list of events, month by month, that affected Europe. Merkel seems to be doing this intentionally: she emphasizes the role of Germany in Europe rather than allowing the nationalism of the CSU to taint her own speech. The banner raised behind her on the stage reads “For Germany and Europe,” the bright orange letters standing out against the blue banner as a political slogan.

The list is overwhelming. January: Charlie Hebdo. February: Minsk negotiations for peace in Ukraine. March: the German Wings crash. April: a special meeting of European leaders in the face of hundreds of deaths in the Mediterranean. June and July: Greek negotiations, a test of strength for Europe that has not yet been passed. June: G7 summit about climate change and the recognition of climate refugees. August: Prognosis of asylum seekers for this year: 800,000. Sept. 4-5: Thousands of refugees were stranded in Budapest, and Germany and Austria’s decided to allow them free entry. Merkel calls this decision “a humanitarian imperative.”  October 4: 25 years of German Reunification. November 13: the attacks in Paris. November 15: Cancellation of the German soccer match in Hannover.

By twenty minutes in, Merkel begins her historical rallying cry. Germany survived the Cold War and rebuilt itself out of rubble after the Holocaust. It is a country which doesn’t hedge its bets. Citing several famous historical utterances, Merkel insists that Germany chose freedom, not *some* freedom. (Wir wählen die Freiheit, nicht *etwa* Freiheit.) The economic miracle which followed World War II brought affluence for everyone, not affluence for almost everyone (Wohlstand für alle, nicht Wohlstand für *fast* alle).

This historical precedent also applies to the refugee crisis. After thanking the volunteers who are serving across the country to assist the processing of refugees, Merkel does the exact opposite of what her speech has set us up to expect. She hedges her bets. Germany can do it, but only if they reduce the number of refugees. According to Merkel, this is in no way contradictory and is in everyone’s best interest: Germany can only integrate so many refugees; Europe can only house so many refugees, and as for the refugees – well, no one leaves their homeland lightly, she says.

Germany can do it, but only with European help and partners like Greece and Turkey securing their borders. Refugees – at least some of them – have to be deported so that it becomes clear that legal protection is a status and laws have consequences.

And all of this takes time. Merkel undergoes a thought experiment about halfway through the speech. She asks her audience to imagine Germany in 2025. Later she will talk about imagining Germany 25 years from now. That repetition of 25, even though mathematically inconsistent, is important. 2015 is the 25th anniversary year of German reunification. It’s a symbolic gesture towards the unforeseeable changes Germany has already undergone since the Fall of the Iron Curtain, and an acknowledgement that just as many changes await them in the coming 25 years.

She uses this thought experiment to point out how young the refugee problem is. In ten years, she posits, Germans will look back on the actors of today and judge them for their lack of imagination. It’s only been four months! How impatient are we if we later look back and realize that we didn’t even allow ourselves the necessary time to arrive at a solution to a massive problem.

Some of her sustainable solutions to the refugee problem have ominous overtones: the establishment of a central database at all levels of civil society for refugees, as well as a two-year waiting period for family togetherness if subjects do not receive immediate refugee status. Merkel lauds Turkey, despite recent claims of humanitarian abuses by Amnesty International, as a primary partner in solving this global problem.  Rich countries are to be criticized for allowing aid organizations like UNHCR and the World Food Program to run out of funding, she says.

The part to her speech which is being picked up in these English language articles is actually a very small portion placed near the end. During this section, Merkel ponders the effects of cultural contact. After such an influx, what will remain of the Germany we know?

After stating her opposition to multiculturalism, she states: “The opposite of that [Multikulti] is integration. Integration that demands the openness to those who come to us, but as well as the readiness of those who come to us to adhere to our values and traditions. […] We will learn from our mistakes. […] Countries always profit from successful immigration, but that requires integration.”

She portrays the CDU as a people’s party; a party that creates bridges; a party that is neither a worker’s party nor a party of the elite, but which can cross borders and recognize individual dignity. The positioning is strategic – and pits the CDU against the SPD (traditionally blue-collar) and die Linke (a socialist party). More importantly, Merkel comes full circle and portrays the CDU as the party which developed the European vision and led directly to the integration of European countries into the EU.

This is, most likely, a simplification – but it is a strategic one.

English-language coverage of this speech misrepresents Merkel’s positioning by focusing on one line with a certain cultural connotation in Germany. Merkel agitates in this speech primarily for the German position within Europe – which, of course, requires an articulation of national identity and preservation of purportedly German values. But she is primarily pushing back against the anti-European sentiments of PEGIDA and the AfD party; she is cajoling her European partners to participate in solving the refugee problem together; and she is no more racist than any other central right party (and probably only moderately racist when compared to the rhetoric coming from the CSU, the AfD and PEGIDA). (It’s also ridiculous that I find myself in a position where I am quantifying levels of racism.) But it’s important to see the shades of intensity when comparing Merkel to some of the more populist elements of her party.

A better title? “Merkel insists on German Role in European Union and Stakes CDU’s Distance from German Far-Right.” But that’s not so catchy, is it?

I guess that’s why I’m not writing for the Washington Post. 

Digital Narratives

North German Radio (NDR – a subsidiary of ARD) has started a new long-form narrative storytelling series they are promoting with the hashtag #EinMomentDerBleibt  (A Moment Which Remains). In twenty to thirty minute videos, refugees to Germany – all shot standing or sitting next to a wooden chair against a white photostudio paper background – tell their stories about how they came to Germany.

Here is the story of Aeda and Bassam, from Syria. They tell their story in Arabic, and are dubbed in German in a way where viewers can still hear their own voices. They are from Damascus, and Bassam came along the sea route to Germany, where he watched another boat perish before his eyes. He himself developed heart problems from the journey. His wife often defers to him, and walks out of the frame at the beginning of the video as the story becomes too painful. The family patriarch standing on the sterile, white background looks lonely. The mood, in this story as well as some of the other videos available, bears a testament to the strengths of the traumatized. His wife walks off the stage, but he remains standing. She rejoins him and finds her voice. Bassam was the first to make it to Greece. After a long time, Aeda decided to take the children and join him, without his knowing, and with the help of a trafficker. There’s a steeliness to both of them. Aeda and the children were imprisoned twice, once on the Turkish coast and once in Greece. They travelled as a family from Greece to Macedonia by train, where they witnessed the death of a forty-year old man on the train. The man’s 15 year old son, who has some kind of mental disability, was taken along by his father on the trip, and was left alone after his death.

The family travelled by foot through Serbia and Hungary. Bassam reports that the Hungarian police were by far the most brutal, and had no empathy for the differences between children and adults making the journey, especially very small children.

According to the NDR schedule from last week, these short narrative films are airing late at night – after 11pm. There are ten portraits listed on the NDR website with refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, and other countries.

Given the escalating violence against homes for asylum seekers, refugee children in schools, and even the violence incurred by the policing of left-wing demonstrations to occupy buildings with the hopes of finding refugees housing, this kind of storytelling is imminently political and a laudable intervention to allow refugees to speak for themselves over a long period of time (rather than in soundbytes) or to merely be spoken about by politicians and journalists. I don’t know if these videos always air at night, but rather than filling airtime after most people have gone to bed, this series should be playing at prime time. Air them in the late afternoon, cut out a rereun of the odious Two and a Half Men, and then show another one after parents and adults get home from work. Cut the piano music that introduces the trailer and story; make the entry into the storytelling as steely as the narrative that follows. Find a way to market not to the volunteers who are already sympathetic, but to the tough brutes who think that the AfD and Pegida offer viable alternatives.

The lines between agitprop, propaganda and publicity are so porous. And in this age of populist Hetze – whether it’s Donald Trump, Horst Seehofer or Marine LePen – the only thing we might have going for the rest of us is spin. So spin this. Spin people’s stories and give them as much agency as possible (at least 30 minutes worth) for them to wind up and come back down.

 

Comparisons

There is rhetoric in the United States that keeps insisting on making the comparison between Nazis and ISIS/Daesh. And as an American Germanist/Auslandsgermanist, I feel compelled to articulate why this comparison falls short.

One of the most disturbing instances I have seen comes from a meme circulating on Facebook. Vice News notes that this image was tweeted by a US State Department Account:

This image has turned into a meme on Facebook. The meme text labels the two images: NAZIS and ISIS. The bottom of the meme reads: UNDERSTAND YET? (This is not the only image – do a GoogleSearch and you’ll come up with hundreds of similar comparisons, some of them German).

Like most slick comparisons, this one falls short – although it has political weight. As VICE reports:

In American political oratory, a Nazi or Hitler comparison is the ultimate in establishing an enemy in need of fighting. After all, who could turn a blind eye to the Nazis?

Both groups are responsible for war and terror, yes. Both have committed acts of ethnic cleansing. But the historical precendents are different. The Nazis were a political party that morphed into fascist dictatorship and relied on a cult of personality. Daesh are religious terrorists who believe the end times are near and are willing to court the apocalypse. The motivating factors for each group are different, as are the structures within their organizations. And as Natasha Lennard points out in her VICE article, comparing Daesh to the Nazis misses the mark because it does not acknowledge the power of Daesh in their own right. Constantly comparing America’s enemies to Hitler prevents us from acknowledging that Daesh (and any other potential enemy) is ruthless on its own terms. No comparison is necessary to understand the level of brutality Daesh is capable of enacting.

In a bizarre twist on this comparison, Donald Trump told Yahoo News today that he would not stop short of targeting American Muslims in ways that resemble the political persecution of the Jews:

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

If you’re looking for a comparison to Nazi Germany – and I want to be very clear, I don’t think we should be looking for such a comparison – then there’s one group I can think of which really does bear some resemblance to fascists: the wonky cast of characters currently seeking the Republican Party nomination for president. As frontrunner, Donald Trump is the most obvious example. Trump, whose campaign the Huffington Post will only cover in the Entertainment Section, has spouted racist rhetoric, developed a cult following, and quite literally, has just been prodded by a Yahoo News reporter into proposing a system of religous persecution that has a historical precedent as part of a fascist regime. Trump’s bombastic rhetoric is insane, yes, but it is also populist to the core, elevating the “people” above all other groups. All political slogans carry with them a hint of nationalism, but “Make America Great Again” is not shy about its narrative. This narrative is also prototypically fascist, calling for a rebirth of the nation after a period of decline (such as World War I or – in more moderate terms – the Great Recession). Trump’s obvious megalomania and large following begs to be described as a “cult of personality,” and his unwillingness to answer any questions that require him to acknowledge his own weaknesses point to the desire to consolidate power.

Comparisons require some level of similarity in order to be apt. Obvious violent acts are not specific enough to prompt comparison. A lot of groups use violence, but their motivations for doing so are almost always different.

But violence almost always starts with rhetoric. By that logic, the prevention of violence can start from rhetorical analysis.