Right-wing terror forces German society to take stance against racism

Right-wing terror forces German society to take stance against racism

Defne Kadıoğlu Polat
On Oct. 17, Germany was shocked by a violent attack against independent politician Henriette Reker who was then running for office as mayor of Cologne. The assassin, who injured Reker severely with a knife one day before the local elections, turned out to be a right-wing extremist who acted out against Reker’s pro-refugee stance. Reker won the elections that were held the next day with an absolute majority; however, this incident once again confirms that German society urgently needs to address right-wing extremism. 

Cologne has a new mayor: independent candidate Henriette Reker, who was supported by the Green Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats. Reker won with an absolute majority against six other competitors on Oct. 18. However, the first woman to be elected mayor of Cologne tragically spent the day of her win in the emergency room. One day earlier, she had become the victim of an attempted assassination by a right-wing radical who felt bothered by her pro-refugee and anti-racist position.

The attack on Reker was just the high point of what has been a tendency in Germany for quite a while. One year has passed since Germany’s infamous anti-Islam movement stepped on the scene mobilizing thousands with populist right-wing slogans such as “Stop Europe’s Islamization.” The movement has been particularly successful in the east of the country, where -which is quite telling- very few Muslim immigrants actually reside. When the right wing atmosphere started to spread in late 2014, politicians were still careful to not alienate Pegida supporters – probably given that they could also be potential voters. So did Minister of Interior Thomas de Mazière in December 2014, during an interview with ARD daily news, when he stated that despite “problematic developments” among the initiators, the concerns of Pegida supporters “have to be taken seriously.” One year later, this last week, however, De Mazière revised his initial opinion on ARD daily news, calling out Pegida leaders as “hard right-wing extremists.” 

Part of the reason why politicians did not position themselves more clearly against Pegida and its followers, beyond electoral concerns, is particularly because the prefix to the term “extremism” in Germany has been “Islamic” since the tragic events of 9/11. In fact, Germany’s public debate on politically motivated violence still continues to focus on Muslims and religious fundamentalism while racist ideologies and people’s willingness to act upon these ideologies seem to come as a surprise. Telling in this respect is, of course, the recent Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) Affair. The NSU, a far-right terrorist group that formed in East Germany, between 2000 and 2006 went on to kill nine immigrants and a policewoman without being uncovered. Since most victims were Turkish, the police suspected the involvement of the Turkish drug milieu.

Only in late 2011 were the crimes attributed to the NSU. The failure of authorities to suspect and investigate racist motives behind the murders led to much critical reflection and debate among the German public.

Nevertheless, while the NSU Affair should have been a tipping point, the incident was rather seen as an extraordinary event and not as a general problem Germany might have with racism and right-wing extremism. Not surprisingly, fear of Islamic fundamentalism is much more widespread than of racist violence, though the latter has clearly caused more injuries and deaths over the past years. In fact, according to numbers of the German Ministry of Interior, 130 racially motivated violent crimes alone have been committed throughout the country in 2014. 

Fortunately, the German people have been much more progressive in their stance against racism, compared to the inaction of the political elite. Many more people than Pegida could probably ever recruit have so far protested against the movement. Furthermore, the recent refugee crisis and the rise of anti-refugee sentiment, which has particularly found its voice on social media, have brought together different groups in German society to demonstrate solidarity with refugees. And this sort of activism is urgently needed, since, as the latest attack against Cologne’s newly elected mayor clearly shows, the threat of racism and right-wing violence in Germany is once again very real. 

*Defne Kadıoğlu Polat is 2015/2016 Mercator-IPC Fellow at Sabancı University.