Germany: See No Evil, Say No Evil

Germany's official motto for this summer's football World Cup is "The World Hosted by Friends." And increasingly, some Germans fear it might promise more than they can deliver. As the country gears up to present its best face to more than a million foreign visitors, a string of recent attacks on black and Turkish immigrants in the formerly communist East has reminded the public of an ugly, festering problem.

In April, two attackers allegedly shouting racist epithets beat an Ethiopian-born professor into a coma in Potsdam. In May, assailants beat a Turkish-German parliamentarian in the face and head with a bottle in the eastern outskirts of Berlin. Last week, a new government report on extremism confirmed that these were no isolated cases: violent right-wing hate crimes were up 25 percent in 2005--from 832 the year before, to 1,034--and continued to be a particular scourge of the east. Rural Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg, surrounding Berlin, showed a per capita rate of xenophobic attacks 10 times as high as a western state like Hessia. Adjusting for the far lower number of immigrants in the east, a foreign-looking person is about 25 times as likely to get assaulted in the east as in the west, says University of Hanover criminologist Christian Pfeiffer.

Yet what's really got Germans riled up? Not so much these sad and (to Germany's credit) much-reported facts. Instead, what set off Germany's latest "racism debate" was a public remark by a former government official lamenting the fact that there were areas in Brandenburg and other parts of the east where dark-skinned foreigners "might not make it out alive." The same week, an association of African-Germans in Berlin announced it would put out a list of "no-go areas" in eastern Germany for World Cup visitors. Both the ex-official and the council were howled down by a chorus of eastern politicians and media commentators. Their offense: "stigmatizing" the east.

Strangely, Germany's debate over racism seems to be less about racism than about what one is (and isn't) allowed to say about it. German intellectuals and politicians have long been uncomfortable asking the obvious question: why is it, precisely, that east Germany seems so susceptible to the racist fringe? When one western politician in Brandenburg, Jörg Schönbohm, dared to suggest last year that there might be a relationship between the east's higher crime rate and the moral vacuum produced by communism, he was vilified. Klaus Schroeder, a specialist on east Germany at Berlin's Free University, says xenophobia and anti-Semitism were deeply ingrained in communist society long before unification. Today, the problem is compounded by a culture of collective victimhood and resentment toward outsiders from the "capitalist" west.

In this fertile breeding ground for extremism, communist and xenophobic right-wing parties have swept into city halls and parliaments across the east. In some smaller towns and villages, says Anetta Kahane, an anti-racism activist in Berlin, right-wing xenophobes and their apologists already dominate everything from the bowling club to the local PTA. One of these groups, the far-right National Democratic Party, has called for a mass rally on the day of the Iran-Angola game in Leipzig to show "solidarity" with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Israel-bashing and Holocaust-denying president of Iran.

Instead of confronting this extremist upsurge head-on, west Germans are largely ducking the issue. An intellectually lazy materialism dominates the debate. If the east weren't so economically depressed, the argument goes, crime and racism would disappear. Never mind that most skinheads have jobs and that societies with much, much worse troubles don't produce gangs of racists who hunt down foreigners. By linking unemployment and violence (even murder) in this manner, says Kahane, you essentially justify crime. What's needed, she adds, is an unequivocal public consensus that racism is not a natural consequence of economic malaise but an ingrained cultural phenomenon that must be stamped out with argument and education.

To be sure, Germany's crime rate remains one of the lowest in the world, the number of reported hate crimes is small, and major cities where the World Cup will be held are safe. That can't obscure the fact that east Germany remains deeply troubled. Shouting down people who talk about it, honestly and directly, is no solution.