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Fear of a White Riot

In Germany, policing and xenophobia go hand in hand
A German police officer stands guard at a neo-Nazi march. He holds back a German Shepherd by its collar.

As Aminata Touré, a Green Party member of the Schleswig-Holstein regional parliament, recently said, it is as if we are being told, “Be glad to be here. In the U.S.A., Black people are shot, but not here!” Germany has dealt with its past, unlike the United States.  This is what many white Germans—and many white Americans living in Berlin—tell me. They often argue that violent racism and police violence are uniquely American problems, something alien to mainstream German society. In this sense, the United States is a funhouse mirror that German society holds up in order to convince itself that all is well here: a comforting fiction that rests upon amnesia and ignorance, not only about Germany’s past, but its present.

Some of the same racial fictions have taken hold across the Atlantic, too, with Americans looking to Germany as a positive model for a country trying to deal with a horrific past. In her book Learning from the Germans, philosopher Susan Neiman paints a favorable portrait of Germany’s postwar project of commemorating the Holocaust, manifested most visibly in its erection of memorials for victims, of which there over four hundred in Berlin alone. As Neiman rightly notes, this culture of memory made physically present is incomparable to the ways in which slavery, Jim Crow, and racist violence are commemorated in America. The German “success” story has also been heralded by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in his seminal article “The Case for Reparations,” commented, “When West Germany began the process of making amends for the Holocaust, it did so under conditions that should be instructive to us.”

Memorials and material compensation for Holocaust victims are, and should be, part of the German state and society’s restitution for past crimes. However, it would be a mistake to believe that these actions have freed German society from bigotry, or that their effects extend to all people who suffer from discrimination in the country. Germany’s history of racism did not end in 1945. Whether they came from Turkey to West Germany, or from Mozambique or Vietnam to East Germany, postwar migrants suffered (and continue to suffer) discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and in German society at large. In the years immediately after the Berlin Wall fell, supposedly a moment of great triumph for forward-looking civic nationalism, the country was rocked by waves of neo-Nazi violence.

Skinheads clubbing migrants and expelling them from entire towns left an indelible and loud message—African and Asian people are not welcome here, and the German state will not protect them.

Over several days in September 1991, hundreds of residents of the small Saxon town of Hoyerswerda besieged the accommodation housing of more than two hundred African and Asian migrants, eventually expelling them from the town of seventy thousand. After this modern-day pogrom, the perpetrators boldly and proudly proclaimed their town “foreigner free.” The following year, hundreds of neo-Nazi skinheads from both East and West Germany attacked asylum-seekers in the East German city of Rostock, where they were cheered on by thousands of local residents. Hoyerswerda and Rostock were not exceptions: in 1991 alone, there were 2,386 racist and xenophobic attacks across Germany, according to the Commission of the European Communities. A Mozambican man was murdered in Dresden, and the same fate befell a Ghanaian man in Saarlouis, just a few miles from the French border.

This violence did not come out of thin air. For nearly a year leading up to the riots in Hoyerswerda, German police did very little to challenge an obvious rise in skinhead activity. As Roger Karapin opines in Protest Politics in Germany, “Skinheads gained visibility and public acceptance through vigilante activities that were tolerated by the police and welcomed by many Germans.” The neo-Nazi group Deutsche Alternative, which bares more than a titular resemblance to the current far-right nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), garnered the support of the local community in Hoyerswerda. On the first night of the riots there, the police did not intervene to stop the skinheads; occasionally, they even worked with them. Police waited until the fourth night of rioting to cordon off the workers’ housing that was under attack. Ultimately, the German police showed themselves uninterested in protecting foreigners. And rather than trying to decisively thwart this xenophobic violence, German politicians and police coordinated the forced evacuation of the majority of African and Asian people from Hoyerswerda, assuaging rising neo-Nazi sentiment and cementing their complicity in racist violence.

The organized racial violence of the early 1990s may have waned, but skinheads clubbing migrants and expelling them from entire towns left an indelible and loud message—African and Asian people are not welcome here, and the German state will not protect them. Unlike with the Holocaust, this outpouring of racist violence has been under-examined, and German society has never dealt with its effects or considered its significance.

The early nineties might seem like long ago, but the three years that I have lived in Germany have seen several new incidents of white German mobs terrorizing non-white people. In 2018, after a man was stabbed in a brawl in the East German town Chemnitz, residents organized rallies for several days against migrants or those who were perceived to be migrants. Several were attacked, there and elsewhere in the country. In February 2020, in the city of Hanau, a far right extremist went on a shooting spree, killing nine people (as well as his mother and himself) and injuring six. Though the gunman seems to have planned his attack alone, the violence was, as Ozgur Ozvatan wrote in Al Jazeera, a “direct result of German society’s growing acceptance of racist, discriminatory and exclusionist views.” The recent litany of white supremacist violence chronicles growing xenophobic sentiments in Germany, but these extreme acts are rooted in documented accounts of everyday discrimination and structural policies.

There are no lone wolves when packs of racists have entered government and law enforcement. Recent white supremacist violence has not occurred in isolation but alongside the rise of hate groups, increased discrimination, and the legitimization of the far-right, anti-immigrant nationalists of AfD, who in the 2017 general election became the third largest political party in federal parliament. Just as in the early 1990s, the German police are often part of the problem when it comes to contemporary racism and discrimination against people with migrant backgrounds. As Gouri Sharma has noted, racism and far-right politics are rampant in the police and other institutions; in recent cases, German police officers have been directly linked to neo-Nazi groups. Even some political officials, such as the Social Democrat Party chairperson Saskia Esken, have observed that there is latent racism in the country’s security forces.

At least 269 police shootings have occurred in Germany since 1990, and there have been 138 documented deaths in police custody since 1993. One of the most egregious cases was that of the Sierra Leonean asylum seeker Oury Jalloh, who burned to death in a jail cell in 2005. As of today, the police claim that the fire was set by Jalloh himself. But anti-racist activists in Germany are not convinced and continue to demand a transparent investigation.

There are no lone wolves when packs of racists have entered government and law enforcement.

Recent international protests to challenge structural racism have forced Germany to begin address its own police brutality, with activists pointing out the everyday profiling that people of color in Germany face. The city of Berlin has even gone as far as to pass a new anti-discrimination law which bars authorities, including the police, from discriminating people based on skin color and other identities. But it’s hard to believe that radical change will be forthcoming, considering the attitudes of some in high levels of the German government and the growth of excessive police force against demonstrators, such as during the 2017 Hamburg G20 protests, or June’s recent Black Lives Matter demonstration. In Germany, as in the United States, policing is a reflection of the principles of a society, one in which, as the Black American writer Joe von Hutch argues “anti-immigrant bias and support for racial profiling” reproduces existing inequalities.

To the people who continue to insist that racism is not as bad in Germany as it is in the United States, I ask: Who is this comparison supposed to reassure? Last year, Herbert Reul, the Minister of Interior for the North Rhine Westphalia Region and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, claimed that shisha bars are hotbeds of gang crime. This is a popular trope of German right-wing politics, one which may have influenced the Hanau attacker’s decision to target such venues back in February 2020. Last year, the European Commission reported that there were 7,913 hate crime cases in Germany in 2017. The Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD) suspects that the numbers are higher.

Germany “needs to end its strategy of denial and stop with its narrow understanding of structural racism,” Tahir Della, a leading member of ISD, recently told an interviewer. Della was echoed by the Berlin-based Black Austrian journalist Kemi Fatoba in her recent column “Schwarz mit großem S” (Black with a Capital B) for German Vogue: “It is more important than ever that white people don’t just look at racism in the United States, but deal with what is happening in Germany . . . [That] means voluntarily engaging with internalized racism and having tough, unpleasant conversations with work colleagues, friends, and family members.” With police violence in Germany underreported, and racial profiling seemingly gaining government approval despite what recent legislation might suggest, it is impossible to see the criminal justice system in Germany as free of bigotry. The racism of the German state, along with that of other European nations, also operates at arm’s length in the Mediterranean, where thousands of desperate migrants are allowed to drown every year.

None of this is not to claim that racism in Germany is identical to the United States, or that it manifests in exactly the same ways. Clearly, there are differences between the two countries. But, as Aminata Touré wrote, “We are not satisfied with not being shot. We demand the same respect and treatment that white people experience.” Ultimately, we need to move beyond the instinct to compare and rank countries against one another when it comes to racism and recognize instead how, in the case of Germany and the United States, they contribute to a shared, international project of white supremacy.


Read more about police violence around the world.