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Latent Racism: Neo-Nazi Killings Expose Broad German Xenophobia

A Commentary by

The discovery of a neo-Nazi terror cell in Germany has many concerned about the country's reputation. With good reason. Racism and xenophobia have deep roots in German society -- and the vocabulary used to describe the right-wing extremist crime spree is telling.

The scene of a 2006 execution in Kassel. German police went looking for the usual suspects: foreigners. Zoom
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The scene of a 2006 execution in Kassel. German police went looking for the usual suspects: foreigners.

Germany was such a happy country! Easy-going, warm and open-minded toward people from all over the world. Their guests are supposed to feel as though they were "among friends." It was the summer of 2006 and Germany was hosting the World Cup. Finally, it seemed like the country had gotten past its reputation for being xenophobic. Indeed, for the first time since the end of World War II, Germans felt as if they could proudly wave their flags.

Two months before the games kicked off, Halit Y. was murdered in his Internet café in the central German city of Kassel, executed with two shots to the head. Nobody at the time -- neither investigators, nor politicians nor journalists -- wanted to view the crime as a possibly extreme expression of xenophobia.

Y.'s killing was the ninth in a series of murders across Germany between 2000 and 2006 that had left no trace of its culprits. All of the victims were shop owners, eight of them of Turkish descent and one of them Greek. They included a tailor, a kiosk owner, a key cutter, a grocer and a flower seller. Only two of the victims operated doner kebab shops -- but the German media, SPIEGEL ONLINE included, dubbed them the "doner killings." Many have continued to use the term.

Virtually Unfathomable

The phrase "doner killing" is a sad indication of the degree of latent racism permeating German society. By calling the murder spree "doner killings," the victims are condescendingly dehumanized, as if they had no names or occupations. Imagine if it had been a series of murders involving primarily Italian victims. Would we have then called them the "spaghetti murders"? And imagine the uproar you would hear among German politicians and journalists were there a series of murders of German citizens in Turkey and people there called them the "potato murders" or the "sauerkraut killings"? It's virtually unfathomable.

More than that, though, the term feeds stereotypes about foreigners being disproportionately responsible for crime. The police committee investigating the murder series was tellingly codenamed "Bosphorus." They long assumed, as did the media, that the murders were somehow connected to organized crime stemming from Turkey. It seemed only logical that these kinds of foreign-owned shops would be the scene of bloody confrontations over protection money or drugs. The victims were alleged to be somehow embroiled in shady intrigues. And the fact that no one could pin-point this shady network wasn't taken as a possible indication that it might not exist. Rather, it proved how good this imaginary network of dastardly criminal immigrants was at camouflaging itself.

Finally, the term "doner killings" represents a radical ostracization of immigrants. It provided distance, allowing Germans to sit comfortably and be creeped out by reports they read in the newspaper about the series of gruesome murders. It brings to mind the two citizens speaking in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Faust" about their favorite things to do on the weekend. In the 1961 translation of Walter Kaufmann, one says to the other: "When off in Turkey, far away/ One people beats the other one./ We stand at the window, drink a wine that is light,/ Watch the boats glide down the river, see the foam/ And cheerfully go back at night,/ Grateful that we have peace at home." Everything is so nicely far away.

This was, of course, immensely comforting for Germany's majority population. "So what if the Turks kill each other," they could think. "They don't belong among us anyways, so we don't need to worry about it." Or, as it says in "Faust": "Let them crack skulls, and wound, and maim/ Let all the world stand on its head;/ But here, at home, all should remain the same."

'Until the Very Last Cartridge'

When racism raises its ugly specter in Germany, the response has always been the same: block it out, look the other way, change the subject. No one says anything when a woman in a supermarket in Greifswald is spit on because she looks Asian. Same thing if a foreign-looking woman lines up at the wrong end of the deli counter in Berlin. All the other customers will simply nod in agreement when the lady behind the counter lectures her about standing in line as "we do here." And should a lady in Bavaria complain that her mail is late again because "a black man" has recently taken over the mail route, she is shocked if someone calls her racist -- and vehemently denies it.

According to a 2010 study by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a think tank with ties to Germany's center-left Social Democrats (SPD), more than a third of Germans believe that the country is in "serious danger of being overrun by foreigners." A similar number also believes that, when the labor market gets tight, "foreigners should be sent back to their home countries," and that they many immigrants only came to Germany "to take advantage of the social welfare system."

In discussing the murders on Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said it is a " disgrace" for Germany. And she's right. But it's also a disgrace that her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is in a governing coalition with the Christian Social Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party, whose leader Horst Seehofer exhorted his followers in March that: "We will defend ourselves against immigration into the German social system -- until the very last cartridge."

Language defines thought, and thought gives rise to deeds. That makes thoughtless words dangerous. We now know who killed the nine men with roots in Turkey and Greece: The murderers were Germans and they were driven by their hatred of foreigners. Let's call their deeds by the correct name.

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Jessp 11/18/2011
Thanks. Great article. It's only by saying what needs to be said, not just what people want to hear, that things may improve.
2. Totally agree!
badbeardxb 11/18/2011
It is also worth mentioning that the murderers were captured by CCTV when they placed the bomb in Cologne, looking clearly German. How is it possible that the dots were not conneted to the trio which had been known to be extremists, and had already been caught making bombs? The negligence is shocking, as is the lack of interest by the public in Germany when the killing spree was already known in 2006, and didn't get much attention or media coverage at all.
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