Opinion A Turkish-German Tragedy

The tragic apartment building fire in Ludwigshafen brings back bad memories of a string of xenophobic attacks in Germany in the 1990s. German politicians should react with sensitivity, making their sympathy clear and making sure the incident is cleared up quickly and thoroughly.
Von Reinhard Mohr

We Germans and Turks have an odd relationship. We have lived together in this country for decades, in the same cities, on the same streets and sometimes also in the same buildings. In fact, we often speak the same language. Admittedly, it isn't always perfect, but at least we can understand each other. We see each other in shops, restaurants and at newsstands, in front of kebab stands in Duisburg and on the beach at Antalya.

Sometimes our encounters take place at the lowest levels of society, as German investigative journalist Günter Wallraff learned when he spent two years masquerading as a Turkish "guest worker" named Ali, working under difficult conditions for German companies as research for his bestselling 1985 book "Ganz Unten" ("Lowest of the Low"). And at the top, we might encounter someone like Vural Öger, a German politician of Turkish descent who built up a successful travel business by specializing in flights to Turkey for German tourists.

German comedian Kaya Yanar, who is of Arab and Turkish descent, has exploited the comic aspects of the German spoken by Turkish immigrants, in a way that both Germans and Turks find hilarious. Many Turkish immigrants acquired German citizenship long ago, and during the 2006 soccer World Cup, many Turkish shops and businesses proudly displayed Germany's black, red and gold flag.

But beyond these normal patterns of ordinary life, many problems exist between Germans and Turks across a wide range of issues, from family life to education, and from unemployment to street violence. But there is also a growing perception that these conflicts must be resolved here, in our shared society, and that stigmatization, segregation and deportation are not the answers. The spectacular failure  of incumbent Hesse Governor Roland Koch's recent election campaign, which many considered xenophobic, was a positive sign that things are finally moving in the right direction.

But it doesn't take long after a disaster like the deadly fire in a Ludwigshafen apartment building , which was inhabited exclusively by Turkish families, before the familiar Pavlovian responses of German-Turkish hang-ups manifest themselves once again.

When Kurt Beck, the premier of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, hurried to the site of the horrible accident, he immediately stated that arson could practically be ruled out. The investigations had hardly begun, and yet Beck was already that confident. His words were a clear sign of one thing: naked fear. For Beck, the best way to avoid the unthinkable is simply to deny it.

On the other side of the spectrum, Turkish newspapers have been quick to assume that neo-Nazis set the building on fire . "Is this another Solingen?" the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet asked. Other papers have faulted the local fire department for supposedly taking too long to arrive at the scene. The Turkish ambassador criticized Beck's rash denial of a political and criminal connection, and Ankara sent a team of its own investigators and a state minister to the site of the blaze in Ludwigshafen.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, for his part, said that he would like to teach the Turkish ambassador some manners and complained about Turkey's lack of trust in the German police.

Time to Abandon Our Hang-Ups

It's only too obvious that fears and prejudices bubbling up from the depths of the two collective psyches are being reinforced here. Most recently, the affair surrounding Marco Weiss, a German teenager who was accused of raping a young British woman, created a rift in German-Turkish relations. In that case, it was German qualms about the Turkish judicial system that politicized the conflict. The Turks, for their part, were offended and allowed the matter to linger, to the detriment of Weiss, who was detained in custody for months without being charged.

Naturally, the disastrous fire in Ludwigshafen reminds us of a period in the early 1990s when racist mobs committed arson, serious bodily injury and, in many cases, murder in the German cities of Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Mölln, Solingen and elsewhere. The perpetrators were skinheads and neo-Nazis, but the mobs also included ordinary middle-class people and gapers in tracksuits as they looked on, beer bottles in hand.

Despite public protests in the shape of candlelight marches and demonstrations, the German political leadership failed to provide any kind of clear signal condemning the attacks. At the time, then Chancellor Helmut Kohl didn't go to Solingen, Mölln or Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Instead, he went on television and constantly repeated his conviction that German was "not a xenophobic country."

But that wasn't the point. The point was to confront the reality of these racially motivated attacks right smack in the middle of Germany and to symbolically brand them -- at the scene of the crime and in full view of the public -- as a glaring violation of taboos that would be pursued with the severest of sanctions.

For both German and Turkish observers at the time, this staid beating about the bush seemed embarrassing and inappropriate, and political attempts to redefine the problem by blaming "leftist multicultural dreamers" only made matters worse. This created the impression, especially among many Germans of Turkish descent, but also in Turkey, that the matter was being dismissed with clichés, while the police and the courts were left to deal with the ugly realities -- business as usual.

Why Merkel Should Visit Ludwigshafen

Indeed, it is difficult to envision the magnitude of the public and political outcry -- and the size of the headlines in the tabloid Bild -- if German tourists had died in Turkey under similar circumstances.

Seen in this light, the acute sensitivity within the Turkish media is also a reaction to the offences against foreigners in the early 1990s. The unspoken message is that a dead Turk doesn't count for much -- or least for far less than a dead German. The fact that other insults -- especially in relation to Turkey's efforts to join the European Union -- are still smoldering beneath the surface only aggravates the complex and emotional situation between the two countries. Of course, the flip side of Turkish feelings of inferiority, an exaggerated Turkish nationalism, inevitably elicits a strong reaction from the German side.

There is only one remedy for all of this: to clear up the causes of the incident, as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. It won't bring the dead back to life, but it will help all of us. Absolutely no one -- except the possible perpetrators -- has anything to hide here.

A clear statement from Chancellor Angela Merkel, and perhaps even a visit to Ludwigshafen and a meeting with her Turkish counterpart, would be very helpful.

The lesson to be learned from this tragic incident should be: It's time to abandon our hang-ups and confront reality.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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