'As Welcome as Satan in Heaven' German Xenophobia as Our Readers See It

A SPIEGEL ONLINE opinion piece on xenophobia in Germany has elicited strong reactions among foreigners living here. Although some say racism is not a problem, many have experienced xenophobia in their daily lives.

Immigration has -- once again -- become a hot political topic in Germany after Hesse Governor Roland Koch called for a crackdown on "criminal young foreigners" as part of his campaign for re-election. Immigrant groups have criticized his rhetoric  for being xenophobic, but Koch's populist stance did strike a chord with many voters.

There have been happier times for German flag waving -- like at the World Cup in the summer of 2006.

There have been happier times for German flag waving -- like at the World Cup in the summer of 2006.

Foto: AFP

In a recent opinion piece , SPIEGEL ONLINE editor David Crossland wrote that Germany is doing a bad job of integrating its immigrants. "Maybe it's the Germans' romantic yearning for purity and cleanliness, for a 'Heile Welt,' a 'Perfect World,' that renders them prone to a collective xenophobia," he wrote. "This nation of dog lovers goes for pure breeds."

SPIEGEL ONLINE International invited readers who have experience of living in Germany as a foreigner to write in to share their views. Here is a selection of their letters on being an Ausländer in Germany.

Dear Spiegel Online,

I am an Asian scientist working in Munich. I lived in China and Singapore before I moved to Germany. I was offered a pre-doctorate position in Singapore from a private research institution with full pay before I came to Germany. But I still decided to look for a position in Germany, because I wanted to live in Europe. The major motives for such a move were firstly, the freedom of expression that European countries offer; secondly, the superior infrastructure of the German research system; and thirdly, the European values of tolerance and integration.

I was not disappointed at all when it comes to freedom of expression and the infrastructure in Germany. But I was utterly shocked when it comes to integration and tolerance. I never suffered explicit racist attacks like those which happened in eastern Germany. But I was exposed to a subtle yet stubborn kind of racism on a daily basis. This mostly takes the form of social exclusion -- I always felt that I am not and will never be allowed to become a normal member of society, despite holding a promising academic record and decent linguistic skills.

In the beginning, I regarded social rejection as a result of linguistic insufficiency. Therefore I spent a large amount of time improving my German. At the moment my spoken German is close to fluency. But I was completely disappointed about the results of my effort. Instead of feeling more integrated in the society, I actually discovered even more xenophobia around me, because now I understand what is written in newspapers and on street placards. Also, I became aware that people throw me angry looks when I mispronounce German, or give me suspicious looks on the U-Bahn. It is a constant battle on my side to handle such things. I am determined to move to another country once I finish my studies. It is hard to leave such a good working environment behind, but I see no hope for real integration here.

I have spoken with other colleagues of mine, who are either foreigners or have a foreign background. Many of them suffer the same kind of social rejection. There are very few things we can do except opting to leave the country when we finish our training. But it is detrimental to the intellectual progress and economic growth of Germany when even people of higher education fail to integrate into the society.

I am not saying that there should be any kind of favoritism towards intellectual foreigners, or that there should be immediate and absolute equality among Germans and foreigners. What I hope to see is more cultural sensitivity and inter-cultural communication. People should start to understand that foreigners are assets, not threats. And the only ones who can push for cultural sensitivity and exchange on a large scale are the mass media and the government.

-- Name withheld

'Germany Is not Where I Want my Kids to Grow Up'

Dear Spiegel Online,

As an Asian, I felt so much discrimination in all aspects of life, especially in school. I came to Germany at age 16 and was hoping to go to university. Almost all the high schools we went to rejected me solely for the fact that my German wasn't good enough. German relatives kept telling me that I should do an apprenticeship instead because attending a Gymnasium (university-track high school -- Ed.) is hard and that I might not be able to handle it.

People thought I was dumb just because my German was elementary. I never got encouragement from anyone because it was always made clear to me that either my German was not good enough or I was not good enough, without even knowing that I graduated in the top percent of my class. Due to my own and my family's persistence I went to an all-girl Gymnasium in Freiburg and eventually attended university in Tübingen.

Everyday I am reminded to my face that I am an Ausländer. No matter how I try to explain to people that I have nothing left in my home country and my new life is here, they always treat me as if I am exotic and that everything in German life is still new and novel to me. I have a German name, I have a German passport, but I look Asian, and therefore am a foreigner.

I immigrated to the US now and am attending university here. Here, I am not treated as a foreigner but as a person and my skin color doesn't matter as much as in Germany. I have a lot of opportunities that weren't possible in Germany as a foreigner.

I have lived in three different continents. For all the historical charm and romance of Germany, it is for me now only a place I will regularly visit but not a place where I want my kids to grow up in.

-- Veronica

'Your Article Is an Example of Prejudice'

Dear Spiegel Online,

I have lived in Germany as a foreigner for 23 years. I also stayed for a year in Massachusetts, two of my daughters studied in Great Britain and France.

Compared to these other three countries, Germany showed by far the greatest tolerance for foreigners. Do you know the number of hate crimes per 1,000 inhabitants in Massachusetts, not to mention the American South? Do you know the number of immigrant children killed in Great Britain? Have you ever counted the number of TV series in Britain containing blunt prejudice against foreigners (especially Germans)? Have you ever seen films about the riots in French suburbs, in Birmingham or Los Angeles? Did you ever experience the large number of no-go zones in American or British cities?

Your article itself is an excellent example of prejudice.

-- Peter Meusburger

Dear Spiegel Online,

I lived in Germany for six years, from 2000 to 2006. As a white American with a German last name, I had no bad experiences. I had lots of German friends, and no problems finding a job or an apartment. I loved living in Germany, but I have to say the experiences of my non-white foreign friends were not as nice.

I had a good friend from Ghana, a talented businesswomen who wanted to move her successful beauty salon to a nicer part of Hamburg. No one would rent her a space until she had the idea to bring her very German husband along. She had great credit, and no debt, but her husband still had to co-sign for the new premises.

Another friend was born in Germany to a black American father and a white German mother. She was a German citizen, with German as her first language, and very German culturally, yet new acquaintances never failed to ask her how her German got so good -- the idea being that since her skin was darker, she couldn't possibly be German.

One more issue that I feel is a barrier to any kind of integration is the fact that almost no Germans that I knew had friends of a different culture or skin color -- the exception being North Americans, North Europeans and Australians, etc. Even so-called liberal, "tolerant" people simply did not have foreigners in their circles of acquaintance. Friendships and relationships are essential to any type of integration, and as long as the Germans keep immigrants at arm's length, the immigrants will never feel like they belong. I know I would start to feel resentful if that happened to me.

As much as I love Germany, I do feel that it is a prejudiced place. It saddens me to think that, as much as Germans seem to love the idea of Barack Obama as US president, he would only be seen as a second-class citizen if he had grown up in Germany.

-- Yvonne Jacoby
Dublin, Ireland

'Life for a Foreigner Is Like Satan in Heaven'

Dear Spiegel Online,

I am an Indian, living in Germany for more than three years now. I've completed my Master studies and seeking a job. I am not afraid of the skinheads, actually -- I never had a bad experience with them. What I am afraid of is the racial intolerance of people who are in responsible positions, people in suits.

I was shocked by the way Chancellor Merkel reacted towards Mr. Koch's arrogance. This raises serious questions like: What's going on the minds of those who are so amicable in their appearance and behavior?

I have come across some of the finest individuals in Germany, and the opposite too. It's extremely hard for a foreigner to find out whether a German likes him/her or not. As we know, the student community is considered relatively more open-minded, but as far as I have seen, integration even at this level leaves a lot to be desired.

As a matter of fact, after coming to Germany I have gained many friends from various countries, but it's a terrible pity that I don't even have a single German friend. I hope most of the foreigners would agree if I say life for a foreigner is like that of Satan in heaven -- you have been admitted into the country but not actually into the society.

-- Madhu Balan

Dear Spiegel Online,

I am American and I have been living in the Heidelberg area for 15 years as a software engineer. I have southern European features so to most people here I am obviously not German.

One particular experience I had (which I find humorous now) was at a newsstand. As I waited patiently in line, the woman in front of me was complaining to the owner of the newsstand about the terrible Turkish people living next door to her. Apparently, they were either slaughtering animals in the kitchen or making too much noise -- I can't remember which.

Finally, the owner recognized my presence and the woman turned around, looked at me and said: "Oh, entschuldigen Sie!" ("Excuse me!") as if I were a poor Turkish person and was insulted by her diatribe. At first, I felt my face flush and visions of nasty words filled my head. But fortunately, the cooler senses won out and I simply replied: "Ich bin kein Ausländer, meine Dame, ich bin Amerikaner." ("I am not a foreigner, I am an American.") This promptly shut her up and she went on her way. The owner of the newsstand couldn't help laughing as soon as she was out of earshot and was kind enough to let me know that the woman was a stupid cow anyway.

However, not all encounters turn out as well. Recently, I was walking my dog (a very friendly one-year-old Labrador) in the fields near my house. I am a regular in these fields and I often see many other dog owners and everyone is quite friendly and cordial to one another, except one old curmudgeon who apparently reprimands friendly dogs off the leash with a whack on the nose. Again, I tried my best to be polite and ask that old fellow not to hit my dog as he is still young and learning and only wants to sniff and play. His response was that stupid foreigners should know better than to let a dog off the leash. This time I had no choice but to let him (verbally) have it.

I asked him if he would like to send me in a train car to the east. I then told him that I am American, like my father and my grandfather, and that my grandfather gave his life in World War II to free Germany and that he should be glad that he isn't speaking Russian right now.

I don't like saying things like that and it makes me feel terrible, but why is it these old conservative people forget so quickly? Perhaps Roland Koch needs to be reminded as well.

Having said all this, I do have German friends and a German wife and a lot of Germans are kind and nice people. But I never feel like I belong to this place because of my skin color. And even the nicest Germans will often ask, when I say I am American: "But what are you really?" I can only answer them that I am American like my father and my grandfather.

-- Name withheld

'People Are So Helpful'

Dear Spiegel Online,

I am a 22-year-old Egyptian student. I have been to Germany for a language course, internship and graduation project at two German companies. I have to say that the Germans were so generous and kind, firstly by offering me an internship and graduation project at two companies despite being a non-German.

During my six-month stay in Germany, everyone was so helpful at work, street, shops and even at the foreigners' office. People helped me a lot when I asked about directions even though I spoke in English most of the time. People even sometimes offered to help without me asking them, just when they noticed me looking at a map.

As for xenophobia, to be honest I never encountered any problems with that issue at all. Neither did I see any foreigner facing problems with that in Germany, which is why I was quite surprised to read about attacks on foreigners in Germany.

Personally, I like Germany a lot and I would like to work and live there but the last thing I want is to live somewhere where people would attack me just for not being German. If I like the country, I am paying taxes, I am learning German, and I abide by the rules, then what's your problem with me living in Germany?

-- Name withheld

Dear Spiegel Online,

I am an American of Spanish background and I have been living in Germany for the last two years. Tapping into fear of immigrants for political gain is not a uniquely German issue. You can find intolerance of new arrivals just about anywhere in the world. The problem with it happening here is that it is quickly seen within the framework of German history in the 20th century.

Whether someone gives me a dirty look when I speak English on the train, or becomes dismissive when I speak my broken German at a government office, is not something that bothers me too terribly. What is a problem is that I always expected it in the first place.

When I first arrived, a fellow expat told me that as an American I was a "first-class" Ausländer in this country. Her comment was not far from the truth. I often feel I get treated better than the Turkish or Polish fellows in front of me at those government offices.

But I do see the intolerance in some people of anything foreign here. Germany has a rich and wonderful culture that it has a right to preserve. But the government has to do a better job of convincing Germans that immigrants are not a threat to their values but people that can potentially enrich them. That won't happen with leaders like Koch but it can eventually happen as younger leaders fill the stage.

The failure of the post-war generation was to think that their "guest workers" would simply leave once they were no longer needed. The challenge for new generations is to learn from that failure and let everyone living here and playing by the rules to participate fully in German society.

-- W. Martin

'There Were Times When I Feared for my Life'

Dear Spiegel Online,

I am an ex-British soldier, my wife is German and I have lived in Germany for over 20 years. I am a truck driver in a big German firm. About 80 percent of the drivers are German-Russian, the rest are German and British. I am sick to death of hearing how the Russians should go home and how they are all criminals.

I don't care where people come from, there is good and bad in every race. I myself suffer name calling and intolerance. I have lost count of the times I have been called an "island monkey" (German slang for British people -- Ed.) and told I should go home. There were a couple of times in eastern Germany when I feared for my life -- and I don't scare easily.

Unless we all learn to live together, I really do fear for the future of Germany. Even today when I speak German, I still sound British and, yes, people are funny in shops when they hear this. When I talk to a fellow Brit over the CB radio in my cab we are told to go home and that we are English pigs. Some even play Hitler tapes -- how sad is that? Still, this is a minority and I still love the country and I know some great Germans. Even so, in some parts of Germany I would not like to have dark skin -- sad, don't you think?

-- Name withheld

Dear Spiegel Online,

I lived off-and-on in Berlin for years and still have an apartment there. The vast majority of my experiences were positive (I am white, it should be noted). Berliners, east and west, were generally friendly, open, and the one or two times that my accent was imitated were more than compensated for by many compliments on my efforts to learn that ever-difficult language.

I encountered much more xenophobia in both Britain (indeed, I partially left because I didn’t want my half-German son growing up in such an anti-German and anti-European environment). Germany is not Canada, where I currently live, but at the same time the extent of racism and xenophobia in Germany is often exaggerated.

-- Randall Hansen

'I'm Sorry, Are You Black?'

Dear Spiegel Online,

I am a German, married to a Polish woman. We met in the USA about 10 years ago and have now lived in Germany for about 9 years.

We lived in Heidelberg and Frankfurt and have had many international friends over the years. During these years, a lot of things have happened that have made me see my fellow countrymen in a different light. First of all, my wife speaks fluent German, but since that wasn't the case when we met, we of course talked English to each other and it has remained that way until today. So over the years we had to defend our speaking English to each other many times, even to close friends. People said: "Why aren't you talking German to each other? You live in Germany, you should speak German!"

Just after we got married, my wife was in charge of finding us a new apartment. Imagine our surprise when my wife called realtors and found there were no places available, but when I called, we were able to look at three apartments in a day. In one case where we went to look at the apartment, the owners clearly didn't want us to move in there because of my wife's foreign accent. I was flabbergasted by this and I thought I must have misunderstood, but at the same time there was a Polish NATO soldier looking at one of the apartments and they didn't want him either. In his case, they used an excuse that they do not take soldiers since they move too much (with us, the excuse was that a "nice academic couple" had apparently called dibs on the apartment).

In a related case, I had a South African friend who spoke fluent German. In a telephone conversation with a possible landlord, it somehow came up that he was from South Africa. He was promptly asked the question: "I'm sorry but I was wondering and I really need to ask -- are you black?"

When I was a 16-year-old kid living in the United States, my friends around me were surprised to learn that I didn't consider myself American. Some of them were first-generation Americans as well, born to foreign parents, but they never considered themselves not to be Americans, although of course they would proudly say "I'm German, Irish, Greek..." or whatever when it came to their heritage.

In Germany, I have friends who were born, lived, went to school and worked in Germany. Still, one of my friends frequently starts a conversation with a sentence like "the village where I am from in Croatia" even though she was born here and lived here all her life. Another friend, born in Germany to Turkish parents, was seriously discussing with me that she wasn't even sure how and if living in Germany has had any impact on her in terms of giving her a German identity.

The only chance I see for success is the integration of our society into a European society as a whole where immigration, cross-border movements and "foreignness" are considered to be assets for a functioning society.

-- York Weyers

'Germany Should Remain German'

Dear Spiegel Online,

As a second-generation American of Dutch and German ancestry, who has lived in Bavaria on and off for the past 10 years, I have not encountered any of the problems Mr. Crossland spoke of in his opinion piece. My German language skills are passable, but it is clear to one and all that I am not a native speaker. I am a 64-year-old, blue-eyed, gray-haired, bearded, Anglo male.

When I say I have not encountered any prejudicial treatment by Germans, I mean in the community at large, not the tourist establishments who cater to foreigners. Certainly there is a problem with minorities; but I think much of this is a result of their own behavior. When I live in Germany, I accept and adapt to the status quo. I don't come there to change it into the way things are in America. If I wanted that, I would stay in America.

I think this is part of the problem with many immigrants. They want acceptance, but they do not want to accept the culture of the country they have adopted as their new home. Certainly they have a right to maintain their cultural beliefs and practices. But they should not expect, as they often do, to mold their adopted country into an image of the country they left.

To me, the immigrant community leadership has to take a firm hand with those who cause these problems and embarrassments for them and not to find excuses to blame the radical right for their woes. Yes the radical right is a problem too, but when it comes to violence, the problem is with the immigrants who want to cast Germany in the image of Turkey, India, Morocco, Africa, etc. Germany should remain German as a nation, not a melting pot in which it loses its national identity. This applies to any other nation as well.

Maybe there wouldn't be the polarization between immigrants and the nationals if the immigrants tried a little harder to adapt and integrate in to society. And if that is something they do not want to do, then they should leave. Why are they there if they do not want to become German, Dutch, Belgian, French, etc?

-- Barry Karch

Dear Spiegel Online,

I read Mr. Crossland's opinion piece and I do agree that Germany needs to change its attitude towards foreigners.

I am a student from India currently pursuing my Master's here. I have been living in Germany for two years now -- 11 months in Cottbus, and the rest in Berlin. While it is true that I have met some wonderful human beings in my two years here, it is also true that by and large we, the foreigners, are regarded way too suspiciously.

Fortunately for me, despite my dark skin, I have not faced any pushed-into-a-corner kind of incidents that I keep hearing about. That may be because I take things in my stride, go out of my way not to offend people or simply because I choose to ignore things most of the time. But I experienced a couple of incidents when the ugly face of racism was bared to one and all. And every time I am shocked anew before a helpless rage takes over me, which I need to glaze over with indifference for my own survival here.

Once in Cottbus, during a hip-hop night at a student bar, which of course attracted the black students from our university, someone threw a stink bomb inside the bar forcing all of us to run towards the exit, eyes hurting and throats constricting due to the nauseous gas. While we were waiting outside for the smell to diffuse, a man with his hood up ran up the stairs, screamed "Ausländer raus!" ("Foreigners out!") and ran away before we could react.

And the other time, a club in Prenzalauer Berg, the happening district of Berlin, denied us entrance because there were three black people amongst us (well, four if you count me). We were just told that they have the right to deny anyone they want and that the club was filled to its capacity. The funny part is they did not even try to wait for us to get out of sight before they let others in.

It would be easy to handle if it is only a certain bunch of people -- say the neo-Nazis -- out to get you. What makes it difficult is the fact that the average people that you meet have so many prejudices against you that everything you do, even before you do it, is written on the debit side of the balance sheet. If my friend, who is white, crosses a street when the light is red, she is in a hurry. And if I do the same, someone is waiting to say "schwarze Schlampe" ("black slut") or something similar.

And you would think that in a university, things might be different. But oh no! It gets worse there. You have to start battling prejudices from the word go. If you come here from the developing world, you are here to squander the precious resources of Germany, while all along you want to stay on in the country by hook or crook.

Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to say I have nothing but bad experiences in Germany. I have had times when the unexpected generosity and helpfulness of strangers reduced me almost to tears. To be fair, perhaps, things are not so different anywhere else.

I came here with an open mind and I see what I see. Tomorrow I will leave because I can afford to. But I see around me a lot of people who will hang on, despite racism, despite prejudices, despite everything. And if something is not done right now, I am afraid it may be too late. History already showed us what could happen if we let malcontent grow.

-- Name withheld

'Germany Is not Perfect'

Dear Spiegel Online,

I am an Indian national. I lived until very recently in Germany for over three years in the state of North-Rhine Westfalia. I did my PhD at one of the universities there.

Before going to Germany, I did have some fear of going and living and studying there for such a long time. However, this fear was quickly laid to rest, by my colleagues, professors and everyone else surrounding me. There were not many Indians in the region, so I was pretty much always in contact with Germans. I did make a real attempt to learn the language as well. It was not always possible, but at the end, I could speak and understand some to most conversations in German.

As I spent more and more time here, my image about Germany changed into one of a very advanced state with brilliant minds and scientists. People were more professional than I experienced before in other countries. I must say, I spent some of my best years in Germany. I do not believe I could get something better from some other country.

To me, it seems people in Germany do not mind having foreigners next to them, they just expect that people should at least speak and understand their language and culture. This, in part, might come from the fact that their own English skills are not that good. Nevertheless, I did also obtain job offers from German companies, even though my language skills were not up to the mark.

In my opinion, Germany needs to do more to have the best brains from around the world. This is where the future lies.

-- Dr. Kiran R. Mahajan

Mehr lesen über Verwandte Artikel