Following the murder of two people in a kebab shop and outside a synagogue in Halle last week, Musa Okwonga examines why a country which has done well to hold a mirror up to its past horrors is turning away from this when it is most necessary.
It is a horrific irony that, for many people to finally acknowledge the threat of violent far-right extremism in Germany, it would take the targeting of a Jewish site.
A gunman attacked a synagogue in Halle, a city two hours’ drive south-west of Berlin, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and, after failing to enter, went on to kill a bystander. The other person murdered, during an assault filmed by the gunman, was shot in a kebab shop, which the attacker seems to have chosen for the likelihood that it would contain a member of an ethnic minority. “Doener. That’ll do,” he said, before stopping there and firing.
Who could have seen this coming?
In short, anyone who has been paying attention and who knows that the violent far-right will attack anyone who looks or seems different to them. While many Germans professed shock, Horst Seehofer, the country’s Interior Minister, seemed grateful that, at last, the penny might drop for them.
“We unfortunately have to face the truth, which – for some time already – is that the threat of anti-Semitism, right-wing extremism, and right-wing terrorism is very high,” he said. If only Seehofer had been so self-aware when it came to some of his previous pronouncements, which would not have been out of place in far-right online forums. It was Seehofer, after all, who commented in March last year that “Islam does not belong to Germany”. It was also Seehofer who, in July that year, noted that 69 Afghan immigrants had been deported on his 69th birthday, joking that this may as well have been a present to him. One of those immigrants died days later in temporary accommodation, prompting a call for his resignation.
To paraphrase the fateful words of Mission Control, Berlin, we have a problem; and the problem is that, when it comes to the far-right, Germany’s leading politicians and other public servants too often look away or find themselves too slow to react.
In the capital alone, more than 400 far-right criminal acts have been reported since 2016 in the district of Neukölln, but – as of early August this year – no arrests had been made.
The far-right has thrived in an environment which is still too often hostile to refugees, as seen with the recent disappearance and murder of Rita Awour Ojunge. It has thrived thanks to officials like Hans-Georg Maaßen, the country’s former chief of domestic intelligence, who has dismissed footage of non-white people being chased down and beaten in the street as fake news.
Why, in a country famed for dealing so successfully with the demons within its history – specifically, the Holocaust – are the authorities so sluggish when it comes to dealing with its new ones?
There are perhaps two main reasons.
The first one may be a sense of shame. The truth is that Germany did a huge amount of work to deal with its past and there may be despair that, despite all of that, it is not yet done. For many Germans, the concept of national pride is a fairly new one. For decades after the war, it was common to associate anyone who flew a German flag from their house or car with far-right extremism. It was only with relatively recent cultural moments such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the emergence of the national football team – a multiracial side which both celebrated its differences and came together as world champions – that Germany could forge a progressive identity. That identity, so recently assumed, is now in danger and there are many who are afraid, and therefore cannot accept, that more than a hint of the bad old days may be back again.
Fascism is an infectious disease, never truly eradicated from the body of society; it lies dormant, waiting for the right conditions for a fresh outbreak.
The second reason is somewhat more grim. Though the power of those old demons was substantially diminished by the Second World War, the hatred of the ‘other’ that they inspired still thrived in far too many homes. When Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted around a million Syrian refugees into Germany in 2015, much of the public discourse was framed in very xenophobic terms. It is no accident that Germany’s anti-fascists are some of the most committed and organised of their type in Europe; it is because they acutely understand the nature and the scale of the threat. It is estimated that there are almost 13,000 violent right-wing extremists living in the country. Last year, journalists at the German publication Taz reported the existence of a far-right cell embedded within the army, the intention of which, when the day came, was to take control of the country through a series of targeted assassinations.
A few weeks ago, one of the country’s most prominent far-right politicians, Björn Höcke, of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was interviewed by the state broadcaster ZDF. As part of the interview, some quotes from Höcke’s speeches were shared with members of his party. To Hocke’s evident discomfort, several of his peers were unable to distinguish his words from those of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Contrary to stereotype, the far-right is also represented in mainstream and middle-class academic life, with Markus Egg, a professor of linguistics at one of Germany’s most prestigious universities, an active member of the AfD.
The events in Halle will be of no surprise to many non-white people living in Germany. They will have noted the murder of Walter Lübcke, a popular politician assassinated by a neo-Nazi for his support of refugees, and the UN’s findings of widespread institutional racism in German society. They will remember the attacks against the accommodation of refugees and other immigrants, which peaked in 2016 at almost three per day. Jerome Boateng, the first black man to captain Germany’s national football team, has said that there are several areas of Berlin itself where he would not allow his own daughters to set foot.
What is to be done?
Well, many people in Germany must pay renewed attention to two key lessons from the Holocaust.
The first is that the oppression of people from ethnic and religious minorities is the early warning sign of history. Anti-Semitic violence must be viewed as part of the wider context of xenophobic crime against those who are not seen – due to their appearance, heritage or faith – to be truly German. That, after all, is how the perpetrators themselves see such violence.
The second lesson is that the price of a progressive society is constant vigilance. Fascism is an infectious disease, never truly eradicated from the body of society; it lies dormant, waiting for the right conditions for a fresh outbreak. To prevent or remove those conditions, Germany’s citizens must support those civil society organisations, such as Women in Exile and the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which are at the very forefront of the resistance. They must also confront anti-Semitic discrimination and other forms of racism wherever they find them: in the street, in the office, at the lakeside, at the dinner table, in the boardroom.
It may be very tempting, faced with such a challenge, to look away. But, at these times, it is vital to remember the words of James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”