What happened last week at the Midnight hookah bar – a modest lounge in the German town of Hanau, where a largely Turkish clientele often goes to relax in the evenings – should really be enough to change the debate in Germany. The debate about racism and intolerance, about violence, hate and terrorism, and about the ways that all these things have been fuelled by the nation’s political climate.
It should have been enough for Germany’s leading politicians to consider the life and death of Gökhan Gültekin, the 37-year-old who worked at that bar in the Heumarkt, a neighborhood dotted with Turkish businesses. He had been busy this winter with preparations for his engagement party. Twice a week, he had taken his father for chemotherapy in the nearby city of Frankfurt. The media reported these facts about him because, on Wednesday night, a German man named Tobias Rathjen, 43, entered the Midnight bar and fired his SIG Sauer at the Turkish diners at a table, killing six. Gökhan was among the first victims.
Three more died minutes later at the nearby Arena Bar, where Rathjen continued his rampage before going home to kill his elderly mother and, finally, himself. His massacre, and the raving and paranoid “manifesto” he left behind, has emblazoned in bullets one of Germany’s deepest problems, and one that has long been debated: What is behind the rise in racist terrorism here in the heart of Europe?
The phenomenon itself is undeniable. In the 24-page screed that Rathjen left behind, he called for the extermination of the peoples of Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Syria, and the complete Arabian Peninsula. A video shot in his room addressed Americans: “Your country is under control of invisible secret societies… Wake up!” In his lonely life, he appears to have been part of a virtual community of hate, one linked to a series of recent attacks and arrests in European cities.
The Federal Criminal Police Office, Germany’s equivalent of the FBI, has reported a five-fold increase in the number of ‘dangerous’ far-right extremists in the country since 2012. One such murder (which many Germans called a wake-up call) took place last summer, when Walter Lübcke, President of the Kassel District, was shot in the head at home by a right-wing extremist. Investigators later said he was targeted because of his support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy toward migrants and refugees.
Then came another supposed wake-up call – an anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue and the adjacent Jewish cemetery in the town of Halle, resulting in the deaths of two people on 10 October 2019. A week before the latest killing spree in Hanau, German police rounded up 12 far-right extremists in a dragnet that swept across six states. The suspects were allegedly preparing an attack on a mosque.
But even after the Hanau massacre, it’s hard to see much evidence of Germany waking up to the deeper threat of white supremacism and racist violence. The nation has, of course, mourned the victims of the latest attack. The Berlinale Film Festival opened with a moment of silence last week. Over ten thousand people took part in a march against terror and Islamophobia in Hanau. Representatives of the town’s Islamic community marched alongside clergy from the churches and synagogues. At least on one level, the Hanau massacre helped bring about what the perpetrator’s bloody act was trying to prevent: Many Germans and Turks did get together against racism.
But this unity will not be easy to sustain once all the funerals are over. Many of Germany’s two million migrants from Turkey live on tenterhooks. They feel intimidated by the attacks of the far-right, who use the Nazi salute, who carry forbidden swastikas and even sing the Horst Wessel Song, an anthem of the Third Reich.
This is nothing new for the Turkish community, which arrived by the millions in Germany in the 1960s and 70s, mostly under a government program that allowed them to come as “guest workers.”
But as famous writer Max Frisch stated: “They called for workers, and humans came.”
The natives, and their government, were slow to accept the fact that many Turks were not to be treated as temporary guests. Their reaction has taken different forms over the decades since. Back in the 1990s, xenophobes in Germany would taunt Turkish immigrants at sports stadiums by waving plastic bags in the air, the flimsy type from inexpensive malls where immigrant families did their shopping. Many still remember those small humiliations, which were followed by growing acts of vandalism against migrants’ homes, shops, mosques.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, racism unexpectedly thrived in the vacuum left by the collapse of the regime in East Germany. Millions of Germans experienced that transition to capitalism through the loss of their jobs, homes and social security. It’s not surprising that some turned their frustrations against foreigners, especially those who prospered in the newly unified Germany or relied on the support of its welfare system in hard times.
These frustrations never really went away. Even in Berlin, arguably the country’s most liberal city, applications for housing or a job are routinely turned down when made in a foreign name – and accepted if signed by a German one. And despite the openness toward refugees that Merkel’s government has shown, racism is still growing on the street, and in the political arena.
During regional elections held last year, the far-right party known as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) won nearly a quarter of the seats in the regional parliament of three German regions, becoming the second biggest party across most of the formerly communist East.
Björn Höcke, the party boss in the region of Thuringia, declared that the AfD would continue on its march toward power in Germany. Those who doubted him were taught a lesson in February, when the AfD played a decisive role in choosing the regional leader in Thuringia.
Germans were horrified to realize that racist politics, which had devastated Europe under the Nazis, and which they believed to have been buried too deep to ever rise again, were, in fact, beginning to stir.
The generation of people who remember the woes of World War II are, for the most part, no longer around to tell their stories. The country that was once seen as a ‘land of migrants’ faces the risk of turning into an anti-migrant land. So far, any political strategy to prevent this growing threat seems well beyond the horizon.
The generation of people who remember the woes of World War II are, for the most part, no longer around to tell their stories. The country that was once seen as a ‘land of migrants’ faces the risk of turning into an anti-migrant land.
Germans who have foreign roots make up more than a quarter of the country’s population, yet all too often they do not feel truly at home in Germany. The fact that some of the victims’ coffins (including that of Gökhan Gültekin) were taken to Turkey for burial might well be a symptom of that alienation. During the funeral, the Turkish Ambassador to Germany said, ‘Racist Nazis! No matter what you do, the Turkish community in Germany is here to stay.’
But under what conditions?
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