Germans grapple with racist politics

By Caitlin McVean | 1995-09-01 12:00:00

Since the reunification of Germany, national identity has once again become an issue, and Germany's immigrants and asylum seekers are increasingly seen as competitors in a market that cannot support full employment. Right-extremist groups attack Germany's foreign population and the government tries to curb immigration. This xenophobia among Germans stems from the economic situation and increased nationalism, the direct lies of right-wing parties, such as the Republikaner, and the government's lack of response to the violence and even its support for right-wing policies.

The Arrival Of Immigrants

Between the end of the war in 1945 and German unification in 1990, almost 15 million people immigrated to the Federal Republic. Three main groups of immigrants and asylum seekers have become especially important to the development of German society. First, in the mid-1950s, severe labor shortages prompted Germany to import foreign labor from countries such as Italy, Greece and Turkey, which were marked by surplus unskilled labor, shortages of capital and low technological standards. The German government did not intend for these workers to settle permanently, but rather to work as guests and then return home.

This labor recruitment ended in 1973, when the foreign worker population decreased briefly. The remaining workers tended to become permanent residents. By 1979, the immigration of their families had raised the foreign population above 1973 levels. Among this group, Turks have become the main target for racial attacks because their customs, language and religion are the most alien to the native German population. By no means does this prejudice imply that these groups do not make a distinct contribution to the German economy and society. Ironically, it is partly this alienation that leads many foreigners to persist against the odds.

The second group of foreigners in Germany today consists of asylum seekers from the Third World and Eastern Europe. They began entering Germany in the 1980s. To counteract its former racist policies, Germany had adopted after World War II the most liberal political asylum laws in Europe. Since 1993, however, these policies have been restricted, owing to native Germans' increasing resentment of foreigners. The most numerous immigrants recently have been ethnic Germans from Poland, Romania, the former Soviet Union, and from East Germany before and after unification. Nearly 1.5 million people of German descent arrived in 1989-1990 alone and have been widely accepted by native Germans.

After Reunification, Arson

Following reunification in 1990 this previously peaceful multicultural society erupted into racial attacks. The first victims were asylum seekers, whose shelters became targets for arson. Ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe also became early targets. In Saxon Hoyerswerda in September 1991, an apartment for foreigners was attacked; in Rostock-Lichenhagen in August 1992 similar attacks on asylum seekers were supported by a public riot and the withdrawal of police from the scene. This riot sparked further arson attacks in both the East and West. Since 1992, these attackers have increasingly targeted Turkish immigrants. In Molln in Schleswig-Holstein in November 1992, two houses occupied by Turks were set on fire. In Solingen in 1993 arsonists set fire to an apartment house occupied by two Turkish families. In total, 49 people have died in these attacks.

This violence is part of a larger shift towards right-wing politics that has been taking place throughout Germany. Among the most prominent of these political groups is the Republikaner party. Started by former members of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) in 1983, the Republikaner platform has promoted unification and opposed the influx of foreign immigrants. However, since unification in 1990, the Republikaners have viewed the growing foreign population as the primary threat to German prosperity. Immigrants and asylum seekers are unwanted competitors for scarce jobs, housing, and social services. The irony of this belief is that most of the jobs and housing that foreigners are competing for are often those that no "true German" would want.

Evidence of the growing Republikaner popularity came in 1989 when the party gained 7.5 percent of the vote in West Berlin and 7.1 percent of the popular vote in the European elections. Among Republikaner party supporters are unskilled or semi-skilled workers, medium and lower level employees and civil servants, and skilled workers from areas suffering from particularly high unemployment. As well, the Republikaner party has also gained substantial support among German youth.

German unification increased the economic stress on native Germans in an already unstable economy. Along with insecurity caused by unemployment, the West German population is taxed more heavily and its living standards have been reduced in order to rebuild East Germany. To this, add the $8 billion to $10 billion per year required to support the asylum applicants and adjudicate their claims, any country might resent the unrestricted entrance of foreigners. The government initially did nothing to change this situation, which largely explains the shift toward right-wing parties during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Centre-right politicians criticized Helmut Kohl's leftist stand on such issues as feminism and the idea of a "multicultural society." The Kohl government adopted a pro-immigrant stance precisely when most Germans were realizing the potential destabilizing effects of immigration. Furthermore, the average citizen was dissatisfied with the political process. In 1989, 81 percent of the population felt that most politicians didn't know what the average citizen wanted. In this situation, the vote for smaller parties such as the Republikaner is mainly a vote against the ruling parties.

Following the war, as punishment for its behavior, the German nation was stripped of its identity. Occupied and divided by the Allied victors, Germany's identity came to be determined by its history, which was nothing to be proud of. Politics in West Germany were consistently defined by an absence of patriotism and a critical view of the country. Only when the post-war generation came of age, youths who had not been part of Germany's war-time history, did this anti-nationalism come into question. The first sign of change was a push for reunification.

Then, after unification was achieved in 1990, nationalism increased further. The international recognition of the united state boosted German pride, which now could be expressed openly. Moreover, the East Germans had never been denied the sentiment of patriotism. The Communist government had denied any links to the brown-shirted past. As a result there had never been any attempt at dealing with the past as there had been in the West. Furthermore, right-wing parties were normal in East Germany. As a result, West German right-extremist groups gained more legitimacy among the German population.

Yet another factor that promoted nationalism following unification was the actual process of integrating East Germans into West German society. Unlike the majority of Germany's foreign population, the East Germans had been socialized by a totally alien society under communism, and consequently experienced an uneasy transition. Most Germans still feel that the government ought to promote ethnic German interests over those of foreigners and to protect the national culture from external influences.

The Republikaner party exploited these ethnocentric attitudes by distorting the actual severity of the situation. Right-extremist groups have resorted to frightening propaganda. In emotionally loaded language they reported that about 650,000 refugees applied for political asylum between 1989 and 1990 alone. This figure, however, is exaggerated because it includes the high numbers of applicants who were refused asylum. Initially less than 10 percent of asylum seekers were refused asylum. Initially less than 10 percent of asylum seekers were recognized, and even that percentage decreased. Currently, only about five percent of applicants are granted asylum. Also, closing the door to asylum, as right-extremist groups propose, would only increase the illegal Immigration.

Distinguishing between "genuine" political refugees and "economic migrants," right-extremist groups portrayed the latter as "scroungers" or "parasites." In fact, not all asylum seekers were political refugees; many were from war zones and, under the Geneva Convention, cannot be expelled. Furthermore, the rightists neglect to mention that in this same period 1.5 million foreigners left Germany for good. Theoretically the two million foreign workers could be replaced by unemployed Germans, but actually it is unlikely that Germans would seek employment in these predominantly stigmatized job areas.

Right-wing propaganda has had profound effects. A poll of the young intellectual elite of Munich showed that most of them believe that the proportion of asylum seekers in the population was 30 percent or more, when in fact it is less than 1 percent. By 1992 the issues of foreigners and asylum seekers were ranked first and third in importance in West and East Germany respectively.

The established parties have indirectly and sometimes directly supported right-extremist demands. The CSU was the first major party to do so, for fear of losing voters on their far-right wing. In 1990 the Christian Democrats (CDU) followed suit by stating that something had to be done about the problem of political asylum. Not one government representative has stood up and clarified the actual figures. Perhaps they prefer to blame Germany's economic downturn on a group outside of government. They approach the topic of political asylum in the context of high unemployment rates and welfare fraud.

When immigration became an emotional issue in the early 1980s, the government side-stepped the real issues by pushing for the repatriation of guest workers. Avoiding the questions of integration and citizenship for migrant workers, it reduced the issues to one of either "return" or "assimilation." By restricting the right to political asylum in the 1990s, they avoided the issues of immigration control and welfare distribution.

As well, the governing parties have not eliminated the restrictions placed on acquiring German citizenship. Since 1939 German citizenship has been based on descent ('ius sanguinis') or German culture. The right to citizenship is defined ethnically--in terms of language, customs, and ancestry, unlike the case in Canada, for example, where it is taken for granted that it is easy for anyone to become Canadian. However, efforts are under way to change the citizenship laws. Already, an amendment to the constitution allows immigrants to acquire citizenship before they reach the age of 23 if they have been educated for eight years in Germany. Adults who have lived 10 to 15 years in the country with no criminal record can also apply. However, if they are granted citizenship, they must give up their original nationality. (That is a condition that most immigrants dislike.) The Christian Democrats and Free Democrats have agreed to promote a bill that would entitle third-generation children of immigrants to become citizens before their eighteenth birthday. They too will lack any option of being dual citizens. For many foreigners this means that they would no longer be able to return to their home country. If German society offered them true acceptance, this would not be perceived as a threat. However, as it stands, very few foreigners have become German citizens, which contributes to the growing problem of ethnic relations. In any case, if the more open citizenship bill becomes law, some 50,000 children of the seven million immigrants will probably become German, and the legislation will begin to break down the traditional assumptions behind German racism.

The Rhetoric Of Intolerance

The government has introduced emotional terminology into political discourse. Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists alike have incorporated terms such as, "overflooding," "overforeignization," "limits of endurance" and "the boat is full" into their public addresses. Furthermore, as early as 1982, Chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed his desire to reduce the foreign population by one million as his response to the growing "foreign problem." By supposedly placing foreigners in the position to integrate themselves, the government has removed itself from responsibility.

Government inaction has lent support to right-extremism. Only after the shocking incidents of violence in the fall of 1991 did immigration issues actually enter politics. Before then, Helmut Kohl had simply declared that the Federal Republic was not a country of immigration. Not until 1993 was there a discussion about immigration legislation. The move toward liberalization was led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

The CDU and CSU responded by restricting political asylum. Until 1993 the constitution declared: "Every politically persecuted individual has a right to asylum." Then new laws removed the right to asylum from those entering through a safe third country, coming from countries declared to be free of persecution, or whose application had already been denied by another country in the European Community. The German government also legalized fingerprinting to keep people from filing multiple applications. In implementing these reforms the CDU and CSU gave in to demands of the crowd that they had previously called "a few maniacs without any backing." Facing such inexcusable behavior on the part of right-extremist groups, the government gave in rather than punish the transgressors.

If we view the German situation from an historical perspective, it is hard not to label Germany as a racist society. This impression is not, however, entirely accurate.

While Germans typically do not go out of their way to be friendly to immigrants, they show little of the old Aryan super-race mentality that Westerners fear. In a recent survey, only 8 percent of respondents said yes and 69 percent said no to the question, "Are German children more intelligent than those of foreign workers?" As well, foreigner-friendly counter-movements have been emerging in German society. Following the violent attacks on foreigners in 1992, people formed human chains of candlelight to oppose racism. Groups such as the SPD are caring for refugees, providing illegal hiding places for asylum seekers facing extradition, and promoting foreigner interests.

The SPD has promoted a multicultural society since the late 1970s, emphasizing the integration of guest workers and combating discrimination in the workplace, schools, housing and social services. More recently, the Social Democrats have committed themselves to granting local voting rights to settled immigrants. Although they have had very little success as yet, the Social Democrats offer a much needed balance within German society and government.

Most right-extremist organizations range from a few hundred to a few thousand members nationwide. Even legal right-wing parties like the Republikaner have little more than 25,000 members each. Fearing another holocaust, the international community is highlighting negative tendencies, just as right-extremist groups also are exaggerating their own negative view of the situation. It should be the aim of both sides to base their actions or judgments on facts.

Right-wing groups have ignored the effect that their actions have on the economy. Big business is already starting to realize that racist development is bad for business. Japanese investments fell to an all time low in 1992, export figures are low and the tourist trade is suffering. This situation makes it all the more important for the German government to build a more positive attitude regarding issues of immigration and integration. Germany's ills are not going to be solved by ridding the country of foreigners. The issues go much deeper. The economic problems facing Germany are not unusual in comparison with other European countries; it is just that Germans have not been exposed to economic downturns in the post-war period. Ironically, the racist policies that have been taken to improve the situation have only served to chase away needed investments.

What It Means To Be "German"

Native Germans willingly accept ethnic Germans from the former Soviet states, without realizing that there is no single way to define a German. Some ethnic Germans, possessing the necessary ancestry, do not even speak German. In fact, most settled immigrants of other backgrounds in Germany are culturally more German than "German" immigrants. Right-extremist attacks on foreigners, in order to present their best argument, must accept the ethnic German population arriving from the former Soviet bloc. Are these individuals not taking jobs away from native Germans? Are they not costing the German state money for education and retraining? It is plain racism to underestimate the adjustment problems of ethnic Germans while punishing foreigners who have lived in Germany since the 1950s, contributing to the economy.

The nation now has an opportunity to show the world that there is no longer a need to fear Germany's Nazi past. However, all of these gains could be wiped away if right-wing politics are allowed to dominate in Germany. Already the economy is suffering. In order to survive as a respected nation, Germany must accept the fact that the immigrant population is not going anywhere and that the only long term solution is to work consistently at immigration. Germany is a multicultural society and it is high time that it started behaving like one.

Caitlin McVean is a graduate of political science and peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto. She is entering teaching college in Ottawa in the fall

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1995

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1995, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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