The World From Berlin Germans Ask, 'Could It Happen Here?'

As the riots on English streets subside, the country has begun a painful discussion about the root causes of the chaos. In Germany, too, observers have warned that violence could even flare up here. On Thursday, most newspaper commentators dismissed such talk as scaremongering.

A May Day riot in Berlin's Kreuzberg district in 2003: Could Germany be threatened with the kind of violence witnessed in Britain this week?

A May Day riot in Berlin's Kreuzberg district in 2003: Could Germany be threatened with the kind of violence witnessed in Britain this week?

The streets of Britain were mostly quiet on Thursday following days of riots and looting in London and other large cities. The situation had simmered down overnight after a massive show of force by police, some 16,000 of whom were deployed in the British capital city alone.

Overnight London courthouses managed to charge some 371 alleged rioters out of about 900 arrested in the street clashes that began on Saturday. More than 1,200 suspects have already been arrested nationwide. London police also began raiding the homes of more suspected rioters.

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Photo Gallery: Cleanup Begins in Britain
Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to return the country to order by any means required and called an emergency parliamentary debate for Thursday on the causes of the riots. While some have pointed to social inequality and a lack of opportunity for the disadvantaged, others have questioned Cameron's planned austerity measures.

His Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pushed those concerns aside, saying that now was no time for a "sociological debate."

"Right now it's important that people are reassured that their streets are made safe, their homes are made safe and society is allowed to move on," he told BBC radio.

Observing the chaos from afar has sparked a similar debate in Germany, where media, politicians, police and social welfare advocates have all commented on the risk of sparking similar events on their own soil.

Could Germany Be Next?

On Wednesday, the mass-circulation tabloid Bild asked: "Could it also happen in Germany?" In an interview with the paper Rainer Wendt, head of DPoIG, the country's second-largest police union, warned that the "highly explosive mix" of criminal energy and social alienation also exists in Germany.

"Police and politicians in Germany would be just as overwhelmed in the early days if it came to massive riots like those in Great Britain," he told the paper, calling for better resources.

But German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich rejected such parallels, telling the daily Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung: "Fortunately we don't have social tensions such as those in England and other European nations."

On Thursday, the country's largest police union, the GdP, called the collective speculation about such violence in Germany "pure populism and fearmongering" that could spark copycat riots.

"Those who make a crude, knee-jerk comparison between the situations in England and Germany are only encouraging violent criminals," GdP leader Bernhard Witthaut said in a statement. While there are isolated incidents of riots such as the "ritualized" May 1 clashes between leftist anarchists and police in Berlin, or hooligan activity at football matches, the risk of widespread violence is minimal, he added.

Some German commentators continued the discussion on Thursday over the potential causes of the riots in England, while others criticized the tendency to compare the two countries as self-indulgent navelgazing.


"Twenty-four years ago, on May 1, 1987, a completely overwhelmed police force watched helplessly as a raging mob looted stores in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. Dozens of cars were set on fire and the neighborhood was ravaged. A burned-out supermarket became a symbol of the worst night of rioting Berlin had seen since the war. The current image coming out of England might evoke memories of that night for some. Indeed, the Bild tabloid asked on its front page on Tuesday: 'Could something like that happen here?' To that, the answer can only be no."

"Even if the police union is warning of a similarly 'highly explosive mix' here and 'British conditions' in major German cities, they are really just using it as a call to get additional staffing. It's a call that goes out every year -- both before and after May 1."

"But Germany's socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods can't be compared with those in Britain. Anyone who has been to Berlin's Wedding or Neukölln districts, which are home to large immigrant communities, knows that they are relatively well-functioning parts of the city. Despite all the budget cuts of the past years, social workers still look after the disadvantaged and those pushed to the margins of society, the neighborhoods are decently governed, police have the areas under control and no-go areas do not exist."

"The statistics also show clear differences: According the OECD, there is no other country in the West in which wealth is distributed as unfairly as in Britain. Nowhere else are the opportunities for children to escape poverty as limited. One certainly can't say that Germany shines when it comes to social mobility, but it does stand in the middle of the rankings. Youth unemployment in Germany is about 9 percent, and only Austria and the Netherlands are in a better position. That rate may be higher in Berlin, but it is nowhere close to British conditions."

"Even if there is a residual risk, scaremongering is inappropriate. The events in Britain are no reason to up the climate for social unrest in Germany."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"There is something akin to a catastrophe vampirism in Germany. It exploits disasters, attacks and crimes that happen elsewhere in the world to challenge the political debate in Germany. That is not necessarily objectionable, but certainly egocentric."

"London is burning -- and in Germany the debate is flickering over whether and when such violence will arise in Berlin. The world outlook in Germany is very self-involved. It is oriented towards a quick political commercialization and leads to a sort of astrology by experts. Some of them declare that social tensions will soon escalate here, while others explain exactly why that won't happen."

"Such hasty reactions mix worry, dogmatism, a delight in disgust and perhaps a bit of a guilty conscience. They mainly show that almost anyone will co-opt events to fit their own favorite agenda. What else can you expect from such knee-jerk reactions? The events in London supposedly prove that what the politicians, experts and pundits have been saying all along is true -- that there are problems with integration in our society and our educational system."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Does the social crisis follow the financial crisis? That would be logical: The financial crisis forced countries to indebt themselves so that they capped their services, and the citizens affected by this take to the streets… Money problems alone don't explain it. They just make the issue that much more difficult. Even a well-to-do state can't offer much more than money. That is the woe of every welfare state: It is important, it is expensive, but powerless against the decay of society."

"How are things in Germany? Fortunately we have no riots like those in England or in Paris a few years ago. Still, there is social misery here, while there is also the view that it's not just money that plays a role. Income distribution has become more unequal, but the German state generously distributes income to achieve social balance. At the same time, the public discourse often creates the impression that we live in a republic full of impoverished welfare recipients and starving pensioners. Is it really about money?"

"In many cases the real missing element is something else: Acknowledgement. Some would call it respect. It's about self-confidence, which arises from the feeling and the knowledge that goes with being a valuable person."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The first reports are coming out of London of vigilante groups who have taken charge of protecting their property. That's depressing news. It means that the people have lost their faith in the state and security authorities. The police, at the same time, are overwhelmed, chronically understaffed and often don't act with the full force of the law, but rather like those who act mildly in order to avoid political conflict. That's not the only reason but an important one, paired with precarious socio-economic conditions and an underclass that is no longer participating in working life: This is why a (youth) culture of lawlessness has been able to spread in Britain."

"One would hope that it isn't just shock that is left after this outburst of criminal energy, but that consequences will also be drawn. That should start with the equipping, presence and tactics of the police, and should also apply to socio-education and immigration policies. Even the most liberal state cannot permit the existence of social enclaves that are lawless and free of any responsibility. If it does, at some point it will have to dispatch the fire trucks and the hearses."

"The need for repairs in Britain is immense -- and it gsoes well beyond re-establishing order. Cameron's government faces an enormous societal and political task: It must win back the trust of the people in public institutions and it also needs to take up the issues of every social milieu that has tendency towards violence. This must all happen despite budget consolidation measures."

The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"This violence didn't fall from the sky. Social workers on British streets have long warned of the explosive potential in disadvantaged districts."

"The current riots are a protest that stems from fear, and follow no social rules or norms. But these are not simple criminals at work -- it is a revolt by underprivileged youths. Nowhere else in Europe is the consumer culture more entrenched than in England, and nowhere else are more people cut off from this. The plundering is an expression of an abnormal battle for the right to take part in a society that has lost its morals."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"We are facing a 'failed society' in Britain on the lower end of the social scale, which could become a threat to the balance of the entire society. One year ahead of the Olympic Games in London, the British must confront the rage and anarchy in their midst. Coping with the ailment is more important than police operations with water cannons or rubber bullets. The way England deals with this question will decide the future of the United Kingdom -- and that of the Cameron government."

Kristen Allen, with wires


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