An Interview with Cologne's Mayor 'I Have Been Subjected to a Ton of Ridicule and Criticism'

In an interview, Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, 59, discusses the sexual attacks that rocked Germany's fourth-largest city on New Year's Eve and her controversial suggestion that women keep foreign men at arm's length.
Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker: Police "did not fulfill their duty."

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker: Police "did not fulfill their duty."

Foto: Theodor Barth/ DER SPIEGEL

SPIEGEL: Ms. Reker, where did you celebrate New Year's Eve?

Reker: At home.

SPIEGEL: And when did you first learn about the events that took place at Cologne's central train station?

Reker: I read about them in the newspaper on Jan. 2. There was a small article stating that the stairs to the cathedral had been cleared, but nothing very dramatic appeared to have happened. That was the situation as I understood it last Saturday morning. Then, late in the afternoon, the police informed me. It wasn't until Tuesday that we had a comprehensive overview .

SPIEGEL: Can you explain why it took so long before the scope of the drama became clear?

Reker: No. The police have said that the criminal complaints only came in little by little. On the actual day, there had only been three emergency calls. And, as far as I know, 19 criminal complaints were registered with the federal police inside the train station.

SPIEGEL: How could it be that the police spoke of a "festive mood" in a statement released on the morning of New Year's Day?

Reker: That is impossible for me to understand.

SPIEGEL: Was this a failure of the Cologne police as German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has suggested?

Reker: In any case, they did not fulfill their duty in this situation.

SPIEGEL: What was the reason? Have people lost sight of crime on the street out of fear of terrorist attacks?

Reker: I'm not a police officer, but when groups of people flock together and women have to run the gauntlet between the central station and the cathedral (which is located adjacent to it), then it should be noticed. Back in October 2014, a major protest by Hogesa  (Hooligans against Salafists) likewise got out of control in front of the train station. The square is like a central nervous system, and it's not just a place where people party. On a day like New Year's, you have to pay attention to what is happening there.


Photo Gallery: Germany's Night of Horror

Foto: Markus Boehm/ dpa

SPIEGEL: The chancellor even contacted you with uncharacteristic haste. How do you view the rebuke from Berlin?

Reker: There was no rebuke. I thought it was good that Chancellor Merkel sought to find out what happened here. She obviously quickly registered that the incidents in Cologne were not a local problem, but rather something that could become a challenge for all of us.

SPIEGEL: Now the chancellor, the interior minister, the justice minister and many others are demanding that the culprits be tracked down as quickly as possible and that the full force of the law be applied.

Reker: Obviously, of course.

SPIEGEL: But is that even realistic?

Reker: I think it will be very difficult. The police say it will be hard for the victims to identify the perpetrators.

SPIEGEL: The German police officers' union has even stated that it is highly uncertain whether even a single perpetrator will be brought to justice. Isn't it an odd situation when the head of a government is calling for the full force of the law to be applied and, at the end of the day, nothing may come of it?

Reker: It's unsatisfactory. It shows our society's helplessness when it comes to this issue. What is important now is that we prevent events like this from happening in the future.

SPIEGEL: Cologne has been known for years for its criminal scene involving pickpockets and drug dealers. The methods used by attackers against their victims are well-known, as are the places on the cathedral square where drugs are hidden. Why didn't the city move long ago to take tougher action?

Reker: During the summer, I had an office located right across the street from the cathedral, which allowed me to follow events there. The people are always carrying small amounts of drugs, which makes it difficult to arrest them.

SPIEGEL: So the situation is simply allowed to remain the same?

Reker: No. We need more police and we need to deploy more video surveillance that enables officials to see what is happening and to take immediate action.

SPIEGEL: The newspapers are reporting that a "sex mob" attacked women in Cologne. What's your analysis?

Reker: Women were sexually harassed in a massive way. I always thought these were the kinds of dangers people faced in very distant countries. It's not something I could have imagined in Germany. We cannot accept it. It threatens the balance in our country.

Hundreds of people can be seen here celebrating the New Year on the square located between Cologne's central station and the city's world-famous cathedral. Dozens of women reported they had been attacked or sexually harrassed at the site.

Hundreds of people can be seen here celebrating the New Year on the square located between Cologne's central station and the city's world-famous cathedral. Dozens of women reported they had been attacked or sexually harrassed at the site.

Foto: Markus Boehm/ dpa

SPIEGEL: The equality minister in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (where Cologne is located) has spoken of the "tip of a very dire iceberg." What does this iceberg look like?

Reker: I haven't seen it yet. I clearly live -- at least when it comes to this -- in a protected environment. These days it's no longer even obvious what it is that you need to protect yourself against. That applies here in Cologne as well. But until now, I had been of the belief that the generation of advanced men rejected such inhuman practices.

SPIEGEL: Please excuse us. What is it that you mean by "advanced men"?

Reker: I'm not fond of referring to enlightened men. I'm referring to new generations of men who consider equality to be self-evident.

SPIEGEL: What role does the ethnicity of the perpetrators play?

Reker: You can only surmise in that regard. I've heard speculation that alcohol played a major role. It appears that the men come from a cultural environment in which alcohol cannot be consumed very often in public. But that's no reason for us to impose a ban on drinking alcohol for North African men. That's nonsense. It's imperative that we ensure safety in such squares and in the entire city during the Carnival festivities (in February) and throughout the entire year.

SPIEGEL: Does Germany have a refugee problem?

Reker: We are facing the challenge of integrating the people who are coming here into our society. That also includes drawing them closer to our culture.

SPIEGEL: Leading German feminist Alice Schwarzer claims: "These young men are the sad product of failed integration."

Reker: What is she proposing? I mean, it doesn't mean much for a person to have a North African or Arab appearance. How long have these men been here? Have we already had the opportunity to integrate them or not? I have no idea. We don't know the group of perpetrators. But we do need to start thinking about how we can reach the people who are coming here more quickly. And also about how we can familiarize them with the cultural traditions that we have.

SPIEGEL: Is the frustration of young men palpable to you when you visit accommodations for refugees in Cologne?

Reker: Of course. I have always said that we need to offer more of the federal government's integration courses and faster so that the people can lead self-determined lives. And we can't complain about people not speaking Germany as long as we aren't moving quickly enough to offer them lessons. The people who are coming to us want to change their lives -- otherwise they wouldn't come. We need to take decisive action to help them.

SPIEGEL: There was also a terror warning in Munich on New Year's Eve and a large police deployment. This also meant increased fears in Cologne that overstrained police there. Is there a connection? Are we looking at two sides of the same coin?

Reker: That's difficult to say. For me, terrorist warnings have a different quality because terror is more consciously directed at the general public. But in the final analysis, the crimes that took place here in Cologne were also an attack on our liberal social order. The only question is whether there were any political motivations behind them. There I have my doubts.

SPIEGEL: In what kind of society do we want to live in the future?

Reker: We cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and we cannot subordinate our way of life to this fear. But we also have to pay attention. Among the next steps we need to take is to develop a safety plan for Carnival celebrations in Cologne. Even though the event includes many groups and participants, we as a city do consider ourselves to be the organizer. In the run-up, we need to consider what could happen and what we can do to address it.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean in concrete terms? Will the police deployment be doubled or tripled?

Reker: You'll have to ask the state interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia. I am only able to inform myself and ask questions: What are the people involved doing, and how are they thinking about addressing this? I might also nudge them a bit because that appears to be needed. Ultimately, however, I am not the person who can take responsibility for policing duties.

SPIEGEL: We've read that you want to better explain our Mardi Gras tradition to people from other cultures. What are you planning?

Reker: There are already pictograms for refugees explaining public life in Germany about how to act in this society. We are considering applying the same thing to Carnival.

SPIEGEL: It may be more difficult to explain Carnival traditions than German society in general.

Reker: That's true.

SPIEGEL: How, for example, are you supposed to explain the difference to immigrants -- from North Africa, for example -- between an innocent Carnival peck on the cheek and sexual violence?

Reker: We are going to have to come up with something quickly now with the help of language mediators from this area who can advise us. I don't know if it will help, but we need to do everything we can to keep things from getting out of control. And in Cologne, people get wild when they celebrate Carnival.

SPIEGEL: Will that be the same this year?

Reker: Yes, it will be like it is every year. The only difference is that my costume won't be as spectacular as it usually is this year.

SPIEGEL: What did you dress up as last year?

Reker: Some won't find this to be politically correct, but I dressed up as a Chinese woman last year. Usually, though, I am so well disguised that it is hard to recognize me. I always love that. I will be recognizable this year, but I don't know what I am going to wear yet. I always go through costumes and decide a week before.

SPIEGEL: You have advised women to keep at least an arm's distance from men at major events.

Reker: And I have been subjected to a ton of ridicule and criticism for it.

SPIEGEL: On social media, your advice has been illustrated with a Heil Hitler salute. The New York Times  even reported prominently about it.

Reker: During a one and a half hour press conference, I was asked what preventative advice includes. I then gave this example in one sentence. Perhaps it was a bit helpless, but it also shows how helpless our society is when it comes to dealing with such incidents. Ultimately, it depends on the police doing their work and keeping such occurrences from happening in the first place. Of course, that is entirely lost in this debate. It doesn't matter what you do -- many people appear to just be incapable of taking things in the way they are said.

SPIEGEL: So you are sticking with your recommendation?

Reker: I'm sorry that some women have understood this to mean that I am holding them responsible for the violence. But I don't have to apologize for stating an example that is officially referred to by the City of Cologne. Besides, as you may have noticed, nobody is offering any constructive suggestions. I haven't read anyone writing anywhere that the arm's length proposals is nonsense, instead this or that would be better. The federal justice minister and the justice authorities all have considerable expertise in danger prevention. But all we are getting from them at the moment are accusations and little in the way of constructive proposals.

SPIEGEL: Have you landed in the midst of a major gender debate?

Reker: I believe so. And it is one that is completely foreign to me given that I come from an era in which women fought for their equality. I have always had a problem with young women who have given up the opportunities that I helped to fight for.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Reker, you were attacked two months ago during the election. The perpetrator's motive was xenophobic and he wanted to kill you. How is your health today?

Reker: Oh, I'm doing well. People always ask me what it's like having a knife stuck through your throat. In your head, you realize you are being stabbed in public, and it is incredibly demeaning. It's a feeling that may be like rape. I don't know. Thank God I haven't experienced that. But you do get the feeling that you are no longer safe.

SPIEGEL: When you entered into office in December, you weren't yet able to wear the livery collar worn by a lord mayor. It was too heavy. Are you able to now?

Reker: No. My thoracic vertebra was split. It has since grown back together and I hope that I will soon be able to wear it rather than just hold it in my hand.

The site where then mayoral candidate Henriette Reker was attacked and nearly killed prior to her election two months ago.

The site where then mayoral candidate Henriette Reker was attacked and nearly killed prior to her election two months ago.


Federico Gambarini/ dpa

SPIEGEL: Did the attack change you?

Reker: I have not become a different person. It may have strengthened a few characteristics, including an even stronger feeling of independence. That may be why it is easier for me to deal with the ridicule over the arm's length debate. At the end of the day, what's important is creating a safe situation. This isn't about me. I'm completely in the background on this. That's how I feel about it and that's why I'm not getting worked up.

SPIEGEL: What is it like for you when you go out into a crowd?

Reker: Entirely unproblematic. No one has ever been the victim of a second assassination attempt and, in that sense, it hasn't made me timid and I can do it well.

SPIEGEL: Recently, while you were shopping, a total stranger hugged you and said he was happy you are doing so well. That didn't frighten you?

Reker: No, but I am always amazed by the amount of compassion, which is sometimes expressed physically. I know the intentions are all good, but I still wonder sometimes if there has ever been a female mayor who has been kissed or squeezed as much.

SPIEGEL: It is said that German politician Oskar Lafontaine (a former government minister) grew more fearful after an attempt on his life and that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who survived an assassination attempt, was hardened by it.

Reker: In any case, I have not become more fearful. To the contrary, I have become more decisive.

SPIEGEL: First, you yourself were the victim of a violent act, and now many women have become the victims of sexual attacks …

Reker: … yes, there are some bizarre parallels, ties that I am still not entirely clear about.

SPIEGEL: The attempt on your life was also an attack against all of society. There was a xenophobic background and it appeared to be directed against your refugee policies. Despite the attack, voter turnout the next day was very low.

Reker: Regardless of the attack, we need to be concerned about democracy. Voter participation of 40 percent is not spectacular. I cannot say that residents of Cologne voted for me. Nor do I say that. Only the largest share of voters chose me. I would have preferred to come into office with greater support.

SPIEGEL: One would have thought that more people would have voted after the attack.

Reker: You might have thought. On my first day at work, the author Herta Müller said she wished me a good recovery -- and democracy too. I thought that was perfectly fitting. At the same time, it relieves me of the suspicion that I achieved victory as a result of pity. The result only diverged from the opinion polls by 1 percent.

SPIEGEL: You didn't experience the election itself because you were in an artificially induced coma. Can you remember what it was like when you reawakened?

Reker: Yes. My husband told me at some point I had won but it wasn't the first thing he said. It also wasn't so important to me at that moment. Some felt that I should have immediately reflected on it and thanked the voters and supporters. But I first had to get my body working again.

SPIEGEL: If you look back at the past year, Germany has been divided in a way not seen in a long time. You were forced to physically endure that division. What are your expectations for the New Year?

Reker: I think many people haven't yet truly registered the globalization process that we are experiencing. That has long been evident to me at my own events. But I have always said that the refugees will come regardless of whether I am leading the city or somebody else. We need to get away from this German naval gazing. We need to find something that connects people. And we have to realize that our society is a graying one and that immigrants represent a major opportunity.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Reker, we thank you for this interview.

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