Letter From Berlin: Xenophobia at the Heart of German Politics

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A German state governor has won applause from fellow conservatives for demanding a crackdown on "criminal young foreigners." Immigrant groups and political rivals say he is playing with fire in a debate that reveals the widespread xenophobia obstructing integration in Germany.

An assault by two foreign youths on a German pensioner has triggered conservative calls for a crackdown on "criminal young foreigners" and exposed deeply entrenched xenophobia that casts doubt on this country's ability ever to fully integrate its 15 million inhabitants with an immigrant background.

Koch has made fighting "criminal young foreigners" a mainstay in his campaign for re-election.
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Koch has made fighting "criminal young foreigners" a mainstay in his campaign for re-election.

The 76-year-old pensioner suffered a fractured skull when he was beaten by a 20-year-old Turkish man born in Germany and a 17-year-old immigrant from Greece on December 20 after he asked them to stop smoking on a subway train in Munich, where smoking is forbidden.

The pensioner recovered after a spell in hospital and recalls how they spat at him and called him a "Shit German" before kicking him in the head. Police arrested the attackers shortly afterwards and the case could have been closed as a cowardly assault by two violent criminals who both have long police records.

But a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, Hesse state premier Roland Koch, seized on the fact that the attackers weren't German and decided to launch a debate about foreign criminals.

"How much are we prepared to take from a small proportion of violent youths, who frequently have a foreign background?" Koch, who is struggling in his campaign to win a third term in a state election on January 27, told mass circulation Bild Zeitung in an interview published last Friday.

"We have spent too long showing a strange sociological understanding for groups that consciously commit violence as ethnic minorities," he went on.

How to Behave in a Civilized Country

"People who live in Germany must behave properly and refrain from using their fists. That's how one behaves in a civilized country," said Koch, apparently implying that your average immigrant isn't from a country as civilized as Germany, which has seen a series of vicious assaults by neo-Nazis on ethnic minorities in recent years.

Koch added that Germany wasn't a classic country of immigration such as Canada or Australia. "In our country we don't get many cultures meeting to form a new one. Germany has had a Christian-Occidental culture for centuries. Foreigners who don't stick to our rules don't belong here."

His quote "We have too many criminal young foreigners" made a banner front-page headline in Bild on Friday. The paper praised him in an editorial on Wednesday, writing: "At last our politicians are quarrelling about the really important issues -- the safety of our citizens! Fear of crime and violence by foreign criminals has been accompanying us on bus and subway journeys for a long time."

Koch's comments fuelled conservative calls for "foreign" criminals to be expelled from Germany and were echoed by Volker Kauder, head of the conservative parliamentary group in the federal parliament and a close ally of Merkel.

Kauder told Bild am Sonntag that crime by foreigners had "been a taboo in Germany" for too long. "We need education camps for hard cases, closed institutions with an overall concept for therapy. Foreigners aren't our enemies, but criminals are -- and we can no longer afford to accept their mocking laughter."

Born in Germany But Foreigners for Life

Representatives from ethnic minorities say Koch's comments reveal a key obstacle to integration in Germany. People living here are still widely labelled "foreigners" even if they were born in Germany, even if they have German passports, and especially if they are dark-skinned.

Conservative politicians have been citing police statistics showing that a high proportion of young offenders are from immigrant backgrounds. Rather than discuss the causes of crime, they have been calling for such offenders to be expelled from the country.

Kenan Kolat, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, a group campaigning for immigrant rights, said Koch was committing "political arson."

"He is threatening social peace and is acting against the national interest of Germany by obstructing the future of this country," Kolat told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's a fundamental problem that people born in this country are still regarded as foreigners, and this situation is being abused by politicians.

"People who commit crimes here are products of this society and we have to deal with these problems here. As long as we keep distinguishing people by their origin we expose them to stigmatization," he continued.

"Some 40 percent of people under 25 will be of non-German ethnic origin in 30 years. If these young people come to the conclusion that they don't really belong here and may be expelled, they won't develop any bonds with this country."

DITIB, an umbrella group representing Turks and Muslims in Germany, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "The majority of 'foreign youth' is just as peaceful or violent as young German people. The small percentage difference can be attributed to the lack of equal opportunities. Our concept for integration is equal opportunities in education and the workplace."

Winning Votes By Attacking Immigration

Criticizing immigration can be a vote-winner in Germany. Koch has successfully tapped the issue before, winning a 1999 state election after he launched a petition against government plans to introduce dual citizenship for foreign citizens living in Germany.

The current conservative premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Jürgen Rüttgers, launched a campaign in 2000 against proposed 'green cards' for Indian software engineers. The slogan of his campaign to give precedence to homegrown talent over skilled foreign workers was "Kinder Statt Inder" -- "Children Instead of Indians." In many other Western countries, a slogan like that from a mainstream politician would have killed off his career. Yet Rüttgers now runs Germany's most populous state.

Merkel herself suggested in a party conference speech last month that mosque minarets should be no higher than church steeples, following local resistance in several German cities to the construction of new mosques.

Half a century ago, Germany invited hundreds of thousands of foreign "guest workers" from Turkey and Italy. They helped rebuild the country after the war. Many of them stayed. People with an immigrant background make up just under 20 percent of the population. Yet immigrants are conspicuous by their absence from civil service jobs, the police force, corporate management. With a few exceptions, they are not present in broadcast news and the media.

In eastern Germany, the anti-immigrant National Democrat Party has won enough votes to enter the state assembly in two of five states. Anti-far right campaigners have warned that large parts of the former communist east are effectively no-go areas for anyone who doesn't look German.

"Especially in light of growing right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism and growing hostility to Islam in Germany and elsewhere it's high time to work towards equality for all citizens in Germany," said DITIB. "We are worried about recent political statements and believe this won't do anything to weaken the extremists."

Social Democrats Slam "Brutal Populism"

The center-left Social Democrats have attacked Koch's remarks, with Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier accusing him "of the most brutal populism." Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, a member of the SPD, said existing laws to combat youth crime were tough enough.

Yet Merkel has refrained from criticizing Koch, mindful of opinion polls showing that he may lose Hesse on January 27. Instead, her spokesman Ullrich Wilhelm declared that she wants a debate on tougher punishment for young offenders.

"We had hoped Merkel would intervene," said Kolat. "No one should be allowed to endanger social peace in this way and we don't need this populism." By saying that Germany is not a country of immigration, Koch is simply ignoring the facts, said Kolat.

As the debate about "foreign criminals" rages on, calls for tough action to stop assaults by far-right youths on immigrants have abated following some widely reported attacks by neo-Nazis last year.

Little attention was given in the press to an assault by 15 far-right youths on an Afghan family of five in the Berlin district of Lichtenberg on New Year's Eve. The Afghans were setting off fireworks when the gang attacked them with sticks, but managed to escape into their apartment to ring in a happy New Year in Germany.

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