Writing from overseas, German-born Australian, Nicholas Harrington, finds the Cologne attacks have emboldened opinions that once lay silent.
I was born in Augsburg, a small town about 30 minute’s drive from Munich, deep in the heart of Bavaria. My mother is German, so I’d like to offer a few words on how the recent events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have been received here in Germany.
The German Bundestag (Parliament) has been the shining light in Europe during a refugee crisis that has enveloped the continent ever since civil war broke out in Syria. This has been particularly the case over the past ten months since numbers swelled on news that Germany offered generous resettlement conditions to approved applicants.
As much of the western world looked in awe at the magnanimous and laudable Germans, some of their own harbored doubts.
You should know that Germany doesn’t have the same kind of immigration policy that Australia and the United States does. In fact, up until 2004, non-vocational immigration was illegal. Instead, they have opted for guest-worker programs and recognition of refugee status under the UNHCR.
So when Angela Merkel’s party (the Christian Democratic Union) promised to take in up to 800,000 refugees fleeing the war-torn Middle East, some people wondered how individuals from utterly different political, cultural and economic backgrounds were going to integrate into their landscape.
And there’s the rub.
Many Germans I speak to want to help people on general principle but have serious doubts that these Middle Easterners will assimilate properly. And they don’t believe the government has a meaningful plan to facilitate this integration.
But they don’t talk about it.
Well, you know why…it’s because of the past. You know…about 70 years ago. With that guy, and the trains, and the…yeah, you know what I mean.
So, as a result, Germans don’t say anything for fear of being labeled fascist.
Then Cologne happened. Over 100 women were allegedly assaulted when surrounded by large groups of men that the women claim were predominantly of Middle Eastern appearance. The police in Cologne have identified 32 assailants thus far, over half of whom are asylum seekers and 22 of whom are from the Middle East.
I’m not going to go into all the details of what took place – suffice to say that it must have been absolutely terrifying for the victims; an horrific assault on innocent people at a time when they should be feeling joy, not abject terror – the loosing of violence has done the same for German tongues.
The media apologized for not having reported the event sooner (the fourth estate is another victim of the historical-gagging psychosis). Social media in Germany is aflame with comment. More stories are emerging. It appears that over the past seven months there have been numerous similar incidents that occurred in places like Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt that went unreported or unacknowledged.
Equally important as what’s happening in the public sphere is whats taking place in private. Germans are talking about their concerns, friends and relatives are starting to express what had previously been repressed.
Last night in front of a Munich bar I talked to Basti and Maxl about asylum seekers in Germany. Maxl queried what plan was in place to prevent the development of ghetto-style communities that seem to be the instructive pattern of cities like Paris and London when large numbers of foreigners enter a country with language and cultural barriers. Basti was concerned about his country’s legal system. He mentioned that Germany does not have meaningful laws against sexual assault. He contrasted this sentiment with the notion that gender roles in his country are utterly different than in many parts of the Middle East.
None of this is groundbreaking. They are common-sense questions. I sipped my beer and watched two thirty-year-olds talk about things they’d long had on their minds but only recently their tongues. I wasn’t sure what was more refreshing, the conversation or the lager.
As it happens I messaged Basti in September last year when cheering crowds welcomed the refugees at the Munich train station. I asked if he’d seen it. ‘No’ was his reply. No more, no less, no emoji. Seemed like he wanted to change the subject.
I’d ask other friends over the past few months for their views on the German refugee policy. Mostly I’d hear: ‘its wonderful’, ‘we should help because we can’, ‘it’s the German spirit’ – Occasionally however I’d get: ‘yes. Let’s see’. When I’d ask what they meant they’d shrug their shoulders, which was strange. Germans are not known for holding their tongues. In fact, they pride themselves on being well informed and loquacious.
In writing this article I asked my girlfriend’s father why Germans didn’t talk about this issue. His response was simple.
They are worried about what people will think.
I believe that as shocking as the events of December 31 were for the young women of Cologne, at least as far as the realms of political discourse are concerned, there is a silver lining: now the Germans can have a rational and open discussion about a situation that is very real and immediate.
Bringing almost a million foreigners into a country in a fairly short period of time is a logistical, cultural and economic challenge. But it is a challenge that requires rational, transparent and pragmatic discourse. Not a one-sided dialogue where all the other interlocutors are rendered mute due to a long shadow cast by that guy that looked like Hynkel.