Right-wing agitators are heating up the discussion about immigration in Germany and filling it with hate. Last week's resignation of national football player Mesut Özil over concerns about racism is spurring a necessary and emotional debate about social cohesion in the country.
Geisenhausen is a village in Bavaria, a bastion of support for the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party. It's also the place where retiree Karl Meyer boarded a train to Munich with anger in the pit of his stomach. He had painted a sign with a Bavarian swear word and a boat on which it said "Christian Social Inhumanity" with stick figures clinging to its sides.
Meyer, 67, a trained heating installer, wanted to protest in the state capital against "the nationalism that has brought so much calamity into the world" and against the representatives of the CSU, whom he feels no longer represent him. "I favor a different kind of country," says Meyer. His dialect betrays the fact that he lives in Bavaria, but he is trying to hide his origins. "I'm ashamed to be Bavarian," he says.
Just over a week has passed since the protest, and the country has quickly moved on to a different topic, with the resignation of Mesut Özil from the national football team dominating the headlines. But Karl Meyer can't forget the protest, attended by several tens of thousands of people, so quickly, because it was only the second in his life. He had only gone to a protest once before, against a nuclear power plant located near his village.
Now, he once again finds himself sitting in Geisenhausen and looking to Munich and Berlin with a mixture of astonishment and anger: He has read in his local newspaper that the economy grew by 2.2 percent in 2017 and that the unemployment figures in June are lower than at any other time since German reunification. And still all this hate. He doesn't understand where it's coming from.
At the moment, right-wing agitators are shaping the discourse in Germany. They want to "dispose of" fellow citizens in Anatolia or spur a "conservative revolution." But they are also being countered by members of the radical left, who, like a small number of the protestors on July 22 in Munich, believe that we are on the verge of seeing a "Fourth Reich" take power. The many people at the center of German society are having difficulty understanding the aggressive tones the debate is starting to take.
Among those at the center of society are people with and without immigrant backgrounds, third-generation immigrants who are self-evidently integrated but are now asking themselves if they are truly wanted in this country, people working to help refugees who have the feeling they need to justify their work, but also people who voted for conservative parties and dislike the polarization. And high-ranking government representatives who are worried about the country's social cohesion, like Andreas Vosskuhle, the president of the Federal Constitutional Court, who has complained of an "unacceptable" rhetoric being used by leading CSU politicians.
"Our skill within the Christian Democrats was always being able to hold together different directions. We failed to do this in the conflict during the last few weeks," says German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who is a member of the Christian Democratic Union, which shares power at the national level with the CSU, it's Bavarian sister party.
A sizeable majority of Germans are concerned. According to one poll, commissioned by DER SPIEGEL several days ago, over two-thirds of Germans decry the coarsening of the political debate. Just as many respondents are seeing a rightward tilt in German politics.
A Necessary Debate
The uncertainty can be felt everywhere in German society -- in families, where parents and children debate about refugee policy, in schools fighting against anti-Semitism and racism, and in Bavarian government offices, where the cross must now be affixed as a symbol of what state officials regard to be the "Leitkultur," or guiding culture. With the discussion surrounding Özil, the insecurity has once again grown a bit greater.
"I am a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose," the professional football player tweeted on July 22. Within just a few days, he became a personality upon whom people could project their feelings, with some viewing him as a spoiled millionaire and others as a victim of prejudice.
Most Germans now view Özil critically. According to a DER SPIEGEL poll, 58 percent of people do not believe the footballer was treated disrespectfully and in a racist manner, and only 27 percent regret his resignation from the national team.
But Özil's resignation is merely an opportunity for a necessary debate about marginalization and social cohesion.
Germany has been debating whether it is a country of immigration since the first guest workers arrived from Turkey and Italy during the 1950s and 1960s. With the reform of citizenship rights in 2000, which made it possible for children born here to foreign parents to receive a German passport, the question seemed to be answered with a "yes."
And now? The frustration and sense of being affronted described in Özil's statement of resignation are familiar to many people with an immigration background. The children of immigrants still feel that they are placed at a disadvantage when it comes to school, apartment hunts or the job market. And given the continuing battle over refugee policies, anti-migrant reflexes have grown stronger and not weaker.
There is a double alienation at work: Migrants are feeling alienated by Germany because parts of Germany are alienating themselves from migrants.
A Rightward Tilt?
Gerd Thomas has been involved with the FC Internationale Berlin football club for 15 years, first as a coach, and later as chairman of the board. There is no advertising on the team's jersey, just the slogan: "No racism." The club includes people with roots in more than 70 countries.
"Sports has an integrative power -- it brings people together and helps solve conflicts," Thomas says. At least, that's how it should be. But even in his milieu, he sees how things quietly change. How the language in everyday interactions has become rawer. "At all levels," he says. "What happens in the subway and the schoolyard, is also manifested in the sports clubs."
The right-wing is in the process of establishing ways of thinking and terms that were, until recently, still publicly unacceptable. On talk shows, Muslims are increasingly talked about as threats, with discussions of "asylum tourists" and a supposed "anti-deportation industry." When anti-immigrant Pegida protesters in Dresden shout, as they did recently, that refugees should be left to "drown," it hardly causes outrage anymore.
But voices from the center of society are also getting drowned out in the media discourse. Even agitators within the CSU party have since recognized the problem. They now claim they want to adopt more moderate language moving forward.
The buzz term "concerned citizens" once referred almost exclusively to people who harbor prejudice against foreigners and consequently want to seal the country's borders from outsiders. But there are also other types of concerned citizens who worry about values like solidarity and worldliness and the sometimes overly discredited "welcoming culture." The latter is a reference to the intially warm reception given by many Germans to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who came to the country in 2015 and 2016.
'It's Painful To See This Populism Take Hold'
Karl-Heinz Höflich, 62, sees himself with some justification as a man of the center, part of a group currently being discussed constantly in Berlin political circles. He's an office manager in a forestry office, a grandfather, a member of the Christian Democrats, a Catholic and the chairman of the parish council in Rückers, a village of 1,900 inhabitants near Fulda in the central state of Hesse. For some time now, he has had the feeling that many politicians no longer think of people like him when they refer to the middle class. He believes they are instead talking about other people: those who are much louder than him, or those who complain about the "asylum-seekers" on social networks. "It's painful to see this populism take hold," he says.
When asylum-seekers moved into the neighborhood in 2016, Höflich was immediately ready to help -- as a Christian, but also because he was curious about them as people. He listened to their stories and organized an aid group called Rückers Active together with other local residents. They invited refugees to the village festival and the locals to a meet-and-greet day where the asylum-seekers cooked dishes from their home countries.
Höflich says he has "lots of good memories" from that time. He helped a young Afghan man battle his way through the German bureaucracy, language courses and vocational training. In terms of grander scale politics in Berlin, however, he says the focus is no longer on making integration easier for new arrivals. "Instead, they talk amost exclusively about crime, abuse and keeping people out," says Höflich.
He blames the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party for ratcheting up the unpleasant rhetoric. But he also accuses his own party, the CDU, of too often allowing itself to be driven by the populists. And this, he says, is starting to rub off on broader segments of the population. He says that some people who provide assistance to refugees have been forced to justify themselves to acquaintances for supporting the asylum-seekers. "It's outrageous," Höflich says.
The help being provided for the refugees receded around the country after the first massive wave of refugees entered Germany during the summer of 2015. But that "welcoming culture," as it has been called by many, also hasn't disappeared as the debates of recent weeks might lead one to believe. According to a study conducted by pollster Allensbach for the German Family Ministry, one-fifth of Germans are still involved in helping the refugees. Some give donations, while others help, for example, by teaching German. Since 2015, a total of 55 percent of the population above the age of 16 has gotten involved in one form or another, according to Allensbach.
Companies Hope for Change
"I'm very concerned about the heated debates of recent weeks," says Antje von Dewitz. She says people are more focused on fears and no longer on the potential opportunities that immigration can provide for Germany.
Dewitz, 45, is the head of the outdoor outfitting company Vaude. Twelve refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Nigeria work for her company at Tettnang near Lake Constance in the southern state of Baden Württemberg. They make bicycle bags or sew tents in the repair workshop, and one is apprenticing as an industrial clerk.
At the peak of the refugee crisis, Dewitz says she acted out of a feeling of responsibility above all. Shortly afterward, the company was looking for employees for a new manufacturing site, and tailors and welders were especially hard to find. During an open house event at the company, around 100 refugees visited, all looking for jobs.
The company organized German lessons for the new employees, and helped them deal with bureaucracy and the search for apartments. Integration, says Dewitz, requires effort, and there were concerns among the employees. But now, she says, the new arrivals have become some of the company's most important employees.
There's just one hitch: Half of the 12 employees have had their asylum claims rejected and now face deportation. Dewitz views the development not only as a human drama but also as an economic fiasco. She says her company stands to lose as much as a quarter-million euros if it loses the workers.
Dewitz and representatives of 100 other companies have founded an initiative that is calling for migrants to be permitted to stay in the country if they have employment contracts. She has even written a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel. During his visit to the company, Baden-Württemberg state Governor Winfried Kretschmann was told, "You can't deport our colleagues." The company head knows that refugee laws aren't meant to draw new members of the workforce into the country, and that not everyone who makes it to Germany can stay. But as long as there is no real immigration policy here, she says, a transitional regulation could also be implemented -- a pragmatic move. "Politics is currently dominated by fears and, as such, is no longer capable of shaping politics," Dewitz says. "These fears lead to the threat of stagnation."
Executives with large companies are also worried about the shift to the right. But only a few, like Siemens head Joe Kaeser, are willing to engage openly in the debate.
When Alice Weidel, the head of the AfD's parliamentary group, recently spoke in the federal parliament about "headscarf girls" and "knife men," Kaeser responded on Twitter. "We'd rather have 'headscarf girls' than a 'League of German girls'," he tweeted. "With her nationalism, Ms. Weidel is damaging the reputation of our country in the world, which is the main source of German prosperity."
Kaeser encouraged the heads of other firms listed on the DAX index of German blue chip companies to found an initiative against right-wing populism, but found few supporters, as he revealed in July at a reception held by a Munich association of business reporters. He recalled how the head of one car company told him he feared he would sell fewer vehicles if he positioned himself against the AfD. Kaeser was criticized mercilessly after his tweet, and he and his family received threats on social media. But that, he says, is no reason to stay quiet about racism.
In Munich, Kaeser drew comparisons to the Nazi period. Back then, he said, too many people remained silent. He even explained how his uncle had been murdered at the Dachau concentration camp for refusing to join the Hitler Youth. "Maybe it's time to once again nip things in the bud," he said. Kaeser is the chairman of Germany's largest multinational engineering company. If a man like him is drawing parallels between contemporary Germany and the Nazi period, then something must be going wrong.
A Different Possible Future
For years, Germany seemed to be on a different track. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder introduced an immigration law in 2005 that, for the first time, made integration the responsibility of the government. Under Chancellor Merkel, the German Conference on Islam was established, the hurdles for the immigration of skilled workers from non-EU countries were lowered and the door was opened for well-integrated youths and, later, for people with tolerated residence statuses, to remain in the country. "In the approximately one-and-a-half decades since the turn of the century, more things were done in the area of immigration and integration policy than in the four decades that preceded it," says immigration researcher Klaus Bade.
Groups like the DeuKische Generation, an organization of youths with Turkish roots, have helped people with immigrant backgrounds become more visible in the public sphere. In Mesut Özil, the grandson of a Turkish guest worker, who was born and grew up in Gelsenkirchen -- a national-team player, World Cup-winner -- diverse Germany had found a poster boy. In 2010, he even received a Bambi media award for "integration."
But this idea of a German inclusiveness is now being challenged by the right more than ever. Before the rise of refugee numbers in 2015, immigration policies were largely focused on attracting highly skilled workers to Germany. Now, suddenly, the country finds itself in the position of having to integrate 1 million new arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
For a while, it seemed as though Germany would pass the stress test ("We can do it," as Merkel famously said at a press conference in August of 2015). But the fact that Merkel never explained how, has made it easy for AfD to hijack the subject. The atmosphere has darkened as a result. And even though she won't openly admit it, Merkel has almost entirely reversed the liberal refugee policies she set in place during the summer of 2015.
The desire of many to seal the country off from migrants has contributed to the fact that Germany still hasn't passed an immigration law creating uniform rules for the entry of job-seeking migrants. It has also led to a situation in which the Europeans work with despots like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, in the medium-term, is himself causing people to flee, and with countries like Libya, where refugees are exposed to inhumane conditions.
More than before, immigrants today feel they need to justify their German identity. Sawsan Chebli, a senior official in the government of the city of Berlin and the daughter of Palestinian refugees, wrote on Twitter: "Will we ever belong? My doubts grow greater every day."
For enemies of democracy like Erdogan, these kinds of identity crises are opportunities to further drive a wedge through societies, even from afar. Since the resignation, Erdogan has called Özil and praised him for his "national and patriotic" position. "I kiss his eyes."
Of course, if Özil wanted to be taken more seriously as a leader in the fight against prejudice, he also could have made an additional statement at that point, at the latest, pointing to the democratic deficits in Turkey. But he hasn't.
In Germany, however, his resignation could ultimately represent a kind of therapeutic shock. If Özil sets off a sustainable debate about racism and social cohesion with his statement, then we will have done a bigger service to the nation than he did by scoring all of his goals as a member of the national team.
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