Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Playing the immigration card, German-style

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Widely viewed as a sensible sort of conservative, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently came out in support of boot camps for young offenders. Indeed, as The Guardian is reporting, Merkel's party, the CDU, proposed last weekend "a swath of tougher laws to crack down on young criminals, including higher sentences and the swifter expulsion of immigrant offenders".

Conservatives everywhere, Germany included, tend to respond to the problem of crime, which they overhype in order to score political points, not by addressing its root causes but by expanding police powers and focusing on punishment. In this regard, Merkel's shift to the right is hardly surprising. She and her party are trying to score as many political points as possible in anticipation of a key upcoming state election and with her own hold on power exceedingly tenuous -- her government is a so-called "Grand Coalition" of the country's two main politial parties, the CDU (the Christian Democrats) and the SPD (the Social Democrats) -- and crime is a good place to start.

The problem, however, is that this isn't just about crime, or youth crime, or tougher punishment. Rather, it's also, and perhaps primarily, about the ongoing and deeply problematic issue of immigration and racism in Germany, a country that has long welcomed foreign workers without fully accepting them. It is easy to become Canadian or American, or even British or French, far less easy to become German. Ultimately, foreigners are foreigners, and remain so even after spending much of their lives in Germany. And while crime may indeed be a problem worthy of serious examination, what is troubling here is that foreigners are being scapegoated, and not just by Germans generally but by the Merkel and other conservative politicians specifically:

The issue was first seized upon several weeks ago by the CDU's Roland Koch, the state governor of the western state of Hesse and a major Merkel ally, who is fighting for re-election in just under three weeks' time and risks losing his absolute majority.

His campaign had seemed to lack direction until just before Christmas, when a pensioner was brutally beaten and called "shit German" on the Munich underground network by two youths -- one Greek and one Turkish -- whom he had asked to extinguish their cigarettes. The incident was captured on CCTV images which were subsequently broadcast across German television networks.

Koch's declaration that "we have too many criminal young foreigners", and that a "zero tolerance against violence" was key to foreign integration, were splashed across the media. He has subsequently threatened Germany's 15 million immigrants with "consequences" if they fail to "play the rules of the game" and adapt to a German way of life, criticising them for everything from
failing to learn German to their "strange attitudes" towards the country's strict waste disposal laws, as well as the "odd" way Muslims slaughter animals "in their kitchens".

And Merkel, for her part, is playing along:

In her statements made at the weekend, Merkel challenged the Social Democrats, her coalition partners, to address the issue of youth crime. "The SPD cannot close its eyes to the fact that 43% of all violent crimes in Germany are committed by people under 21 years of age, and that nearly half of these are by foreign youths," she said.

The debate has created the perception that immigrant crime is on the rise, despite the fact that Federal Crime Office statistics show that crime by non-Germans has been on the decline since 1999 and youth crime as a percentage of all crimes has remained stable at around 12% for 15 years.

In other words, Merkel and Koch are playing politics, much like Bush Sr. was playing politics in 1998 when he unfairly attacked Dukakis's record on crime as governor of Massachusetts. In a country like Germany, however, a country with a historically appalling record with respect to its treatment of ethnic and other minorities (and of non-"pure" Germans generally), to put it nicely, this sort of xenophobic brand of politics is unsettling, to say the least.

As in the past, if not quite so viciously, when the going gets tough politically, many German politicians -- and notably, and noxiously, its conservatives, including its conservative leaders -- play to the country's deepest and most disturbing prejudices, levying blame on the Other, the outsider, the non-German, the foreigner. And they are not alone. American conservatives do it, too, of course, and so do British conservatives, and conservatives elsewhere, and so do many others across the political spectrum throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world -- for such bigotry is hardly restricted to any one ideological segment -- and it is often much worse than what bubbles up in Germany.

Still, it is clear what Merkel and her party, Germany's governing party, are doing, and it is, not to put too fine a word on it, reprehensible. The fact that they are doing it in a country with Germany's past, a fairly recent past at that, only makes it worse.

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  • Michael, I understand your concern about the “blond beast” rearing its ugly head again, but I am not sure I would paint the immigration situation in Germany, or across Europe for that matter, in such terms.

    I lived in Paris in the 1990s, during a wave of Algerian terrorist bombings. It started when a terrorist bomb exploded at St Michel station. What followed was a rash of nail bombs placed in trash receptacles around the city. In short order, the RER station at Musée D'Orsay and the metro station at Denfer-Rochereau were bombed resulting in terrible loss of life. In a sense, 9/11 started when terrorists diverted an Air France jet intended for use as a bomb to destroy Le Tour Eiffel. Al Qaida merely borrowed from the Algerian concept.

    Consider the experience of France, the bombings in London and Madrid, the Van Gogh assassination in Amsterdam, and the break up of terrorist cells in Belgium, Germany, and Italy. My point: Europe is far more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than the U.S.

    I am not making excuses for Germany’s Gast Arbeiter program (as you point out, welcoming workers without fully accepting them), but Germany has one of the more liberal refugee policies in Europe, a form of compensation, no doubt, for their bloody history. Over the years, Germany had accepted the lion’s share of refugees from the former Soviet Bloc and Yugoslavia. Recently, Germany has accepted more than 100 Iraqi refugees for every one accepted by the U.S.

    My friends in France used to tell me: “We have no prejudices with respect to race, religion, or country of origin as long as you become French.”

    Therein resides a uniquely European problem: Muslim populations do not assimilate as readily into European society as they do in the U.S. They tend to remain insular resulting in high unemployment among Muslim youth. America has a mythos of immigration and assimilation. Europeans do not have our traditions.

    I would not put Angela Merkel in the same league as Jean-Marie Le Pen or Jörg Haidar. The European experience is a genuine problem that goes far beyond merely opportunistic politics.

    By Blogger Swampcracker, at 12:24 AM  

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