10 December, 2009
A recent documentary film made by one of Germany’s most renowned investigative reporters, Gunter Wallraff, has once again created a public debate about racism in Germany. Wallraff — known for his undercover exposes of social and political problems in Europe for the past four decades — disguised himself as a black person by painting his skin dark and donning a curly black wig. He then secretly filmed the responses of ordinary Germans to what should be straightforward actions like renting accommodation, purchasing things in shops and attending football games.
The responses, recorded in this riveting documentary, Black on White, ranged from patronising and mildly insulting to absolutely violent. He was almost beaten up by neo-Nazis after a football match in eastern Germany. Outside a small-town nightclub he was told by a skinhead: “Europe for whites, Africa for apes”. Perhaps even more disturbing are the quotidian acts of discrimination that he recorded: being told by a landlady that she could not possibly rent out her flat to a black person, or not being allowed to try on an expensive watch by a shop owner who willingly handed over the same watch to the next (white) customer.
Many non-white residents who live in Germany point out that such incidents are part of normal life for them. Last year in Berlin alone, the police registered 140 violent race attacks, and these are seen as only the tip of the iceberg. Many foreign students, especially but not exclusively in eastern parts of the country, have suffered violent attacks, while a much larger number have experienced subtle or open racial discrimination in different ways.
Of course, this is not a German problem alone, as Europe in general and western Europe in particular struggle to come to terms with becoming multi-racial societies. Past historical and economic trends as well as current demographic patterns have contributed to a process that is unlikely to be reversed, but it has been associated with social tensions that are also increasingly reflected in the greater popularity of very right-wing political forces.
The current economic downswing, with its attendant effects on employment and wages, has of course exacerbated such unfortunate tendencies across the region, as actual or perceived “outsiders” get targeted. This notion of the alien as scapegoat is a very old social tendency. We can find examples of it in India as well, in reprehensible and divisive forces like the ones displayed in demands for reservations of jobs for Marathi-speakers in Maharashtra, or attacks on other linguistic or ethnic groups in Northeast India, and so on.
But Germany is perhaps a unique and even extreme case, because of its complicated recent history of integration as well as its Nazi past. The issue of racism has been politically sensitive for some time: just two years ago, the Social Democratic former minister Uwe-Karsten Heye, who now leads an anti-racism organisation called “Show Your Colour”, was widely pilloried for suggesting that there were parts of the country where black people were not physically safe, even though many black supported his claim. The German government refused to attend the Durban Review UN Conference against Racism held in Geneva in April 2009, citing concerns that it would be used “as a platform for other interests”. In general the government’s response has been denial rather than proactive intervention to stop the problem.
What explains the apparent spread and occasionally virulent form of racism in Germany? A book by Sudeshna Chakravarti (German Racism: An old or new disease, K.P. Bagchi & Company, Kolkata 1998) provides a fascinating insight into this question. Chakravarti visited post-unification East Germany over extended periods in 1991 and 1992, and again in 1994, and had extended discussions with refugees, journalists, writers, members of political parties, film directors and common people. Her short book provides a thoughtful and illuminating account of the different forces that have contributed to the problem.
As she notes, Germany has a rich thread of racism in its history, from the colonial period to the Nazi images of Aryan racial supremacy. But even so the renewed wave of racism in Germany cannot be attributed to a single reason. “There are many complex and interwoven factors — the old colonial heritage; the memories of occupation by coloured troops (during the World War II); the racism of the Nazi era, which was even more virulent and deadly but whose targets and methods were somewhat different; the imperfect de-Nazification, under the cover of a socialist state in the German Democratic Republic; the all enveloping crisis following re-unification; the present recession, which has affected even the prosperous West Germany; the need to find scapegoats for the general misery; the psychological urge to unite the ‘natives’ of the two Germanies, at the expense of the aliens; the general rise of racism and fascism all over Europe”.
The analysis remains remarkably contemporary, pointing to the depressing conclusion that in this respect very little has changed 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, Chakravarti notes that “the fall of the Berlin Wall opened Hitler’s grave”, unleashing neo-Nazi tendencies that had been suppressed rather than eliminated in the years of Communism. Controlling this will require more active intervention from the non-racist mainstream of German society as well as the state.