Posted on January 29, 2008

Ethnic Tension Surfaces in Germany

Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2008

A retired school principal is attacked by two young toughs, an awful beating captured on surveillance cameras and aired on television for days in what has become Germany’s equivalent of the Rodney King tape.

But in a country that has seen all too many neo-Nazi racist attacks against immigrants over the years, this video turned ethnic violence on its head: It was a young German-born Turk and a Greek attacking a 76-year-old ethnic German who had advised them to stop smoking on the Munich subway.

They threw him to the ground and kicked him, cracking his skull, excoriating him all the while, calling him a “pig” and a “German” with a particularly nasty adjective attached.


Now, the issue of immigrant crime has become the center of elections scheduled for today here in the state of Hesse. Gov. Roland Koch, long seen as an heir apparent to Chancellor Angela Merkel, has played the anti-immigration card with vigor in his bid for reelection, and stirred up a backlash among many voters who see uncomfortable echoes of Germany’s Nazi past.

Not far into the campaign, Koch called for deporting non-Germans convicted of serious crimes, even those who may have been born in Germany. He also called for a code of public conduct that would include “German” values such as good manners, punctuality, respect for the elderly and speaking German.


That stance has bolstered Koch’s popularity among the conservative Christian Democratic Union’s older followers. But it has turned off many younger Germans deeply uncomfortable with the quasi-racist rhetoric, and has dragged Koch from a substantial lead to running neck-and-neck with his opponent, Andrea Ypsilanti of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party.


Yet the topic is becoming unavoidable in cities such as Frankfurt, the financial heart of the European continent, where a stunning 66% of children younger than 5 come from an immigrant family.

The first waves of migrants from Italy and Turkey who came to rebuild the country after World War II were referred to as “guest workers,” and it was assumed they would one day go home. Many didn’t, and today millions of immigrants, mainly Turks, Russians and Poles, live in Germany and have the right to apply for citizenship, but their children are not automatically entitled to it.


Elderly Germans often say they are afraid to take the subway after dark, fearful of a run-in with gangs of hoodlums, sometimes German, but often Turks or other minorities.

Although immigrants’ share of crime is actually decreasing, it still is higher than their proportion of the population in many areas. In Hesse, about 27% of those arrested come from migrant backgrounds. But this reflects in part the fact that police often are quicker to arrest immigrant youths.


“I was actually not surprised about the campaign of Koch. What has surprised me is the intensity of humiliation that is brought on those who look different,” said Fessum Ghirmazion, a 27-year old doctoral student in political science at Marburg’s Philipps University, who sat listening quietly at a recent rally for the Social Democratic Party. “When I enter a room, people just look at me. It makes you feel like somebody who does not belong here.”


A fifth of all migrant students drop out before earning their diplomas; the unemployment rate among migrants is double that of ethnic Germans.


At Thursday night’s rally, more than 3,000 of Koch’s supporters filled the square outside Frankfurt’s ornate old opera house as a Dixieland band played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” There were also at least 500 protesters, most of them young ethnic Germans, carrying banners reading “Anti-Fascist Action” and shouting “Nazis out!”

Koch, seemingly undeterred by his plunge in the polls, stayed on message.

“You yelling youths without any manners, you are not the majority here!” he proclaimed.

“We have to deal with the issues of integration and internal security, especially here in Frankfurt, where 66% of the children born have a migration background—we have to talk about that,” he said. “And when we see the problem of the violence, and when we see that immigrants are perpetrators of half the crimes, then we have to discuss these problems.”

On stage with Koch was Merkel. The election is a litmus test for her awkward grand coalition in Berlin, which includes the Social Democrats. The chancellor opposes Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union, and won applause at a recent party conference for saying that mosques should not be taller than churches.


“It doesn’t make sense to have a good public transport system if people don’t want to use it after dark,” she said at the rally. “Integration is a key issue for the future of this country. And at the same time, we have to talk about how to punish crimes like what happened in Munich.”