Germany and the Hurricane of Change
Freimut Duve - A Bundering deputy from Hamburg whose constituency includes a large immigrant population, Fremiut Duve was the first federal politician to arrive in Moelln - 30 miles from his home and the scence of one of the worst assault against foreigners in modern Germany. A 51-year-old Turkish woman and two Turkish girls were killed there in an arson attack. The day after the attack, Duve spoke with NPQ Senior Editor Marilyn Berlin Snell about Germany's escalating political and social crisis - and the possibility of salvation through its multiethnic culture.
NPQ: Since unification, Germany has been caught in the throes of right-wing violence against immigrants and asylum-seekers - the most recent being the killing of three ethnic Turks in Moelln. What to you mind has been the catalyst for this violence toward Germany's "other" - particularly Turks and refugees - and why is it happening now?
FREIMUT DUVE: First, the violence did not start right after unification but in August 1980, when two Vietnamese refugees were killed. In fact, we have suffered since 1978 from what I would call the "Willie Horton" syndrome, in which a good number of people from Germany's political right use the "foreigner question" as a populist drug to tip local and regional elections.
SInce that time, we have seen a slow but steady rise in violence, which has escalated in the aftermath of German reunification.
During the Cold War, the world may have been the victim of global petrification but it also benfitted from imposed order. The breaking apart of this imposed order unleashed global poverty migration, and Germany, with the most liberal asylum law in all of Europe, was faced with a real political dilemma. Yet instead of taking action - cracking down on the perpetrators of the violence and bringing its asylum laws more in line with the rest of Europe - the political left and right gridlocked.
Now, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, those who have long made use of the populist drug during elections realize that we have a real problem. And on the left - and I include myself in this critique - those who have been preoccupied with inoculating their consitutiencies against this drug fialed to see the approaching immigration crisis. Both sides were trapped in the past.
In hindsight I can say that after the violence in Rostok last year the Bundestag should have suspended all debate on the asylum law until we had secured moral, political, adminstrative and police unity against these pogroms.
This said, I have argued, along with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, for an amendment to the asylum law in order to rescue the real meaning of those laws. But there is also another important reason to take action now: One could say that the peace with those who already here, and the once-strong sense of convivilaity between Germans and those more than 5 million people from non-German backgrounds who live among us, is now in jeopardy.
The attack in Moelln is a tragic example of what I am talking about. Those that were killed came from a long-established community of Turkish workers. They were not asylum-seekers.
The work ahead for German intellectuals and politicians entails separating the immigrant "avalanche" propaganda from the realities of migration. Germany must be able to separate fact from fiction so that it can determine an equitable immigration policy. We simply cna no longer allow mass unorganized immigration. The longer we fail to act, the more we jeopardize the conviviality, if not the safety, of those five million immigrants who now live more or less comfortably within what I call "the cultural web of the normal" in Germany.
NPQ: How culpable has the political class in Germany been for escalation of violence against foreigners and asylum seekers?
DUVE: The government failed to act early and swiftly - that is to say, immediately after the Hoyerswerdar assault last year.
Political leaders didn't take the initial violence seriously. They thought it had something to do with nervousness about unification and unemployment. They didn't take the organized criminal energy nearly as seirously as they took the left-wing extremists of the 1970s, for example - groups that were very few in number and very precise about their human targets.
NPQ: Why has the political reaction to right-wing extremists been so tentative?
DUVE: In our country's history, perhaps in the history of the U.S., too, the left has been seen as a movement inspired and driven from outside, whereas right-wing radicalism was seen to spring from deep within the nation itself. I've never heard that the Ku Klux Klan was accused of un-American activities, for example.
For Germany, the split appeared distinct, since the GDR really was being steered by Moscow. But I know my German history and I strongly disagree with those who see today's violence on some sort of Teutonic continuum. I have always mantained that German culture prior to Hitler was decentralized and mixed, populated by immigrants from all sides of Europe. We are the descendants of that migrant phenomenon. In my view, the right wing has been guilty not only of criminal and unprovoked violence but also of promoting the myth of a once-stable and homogeneous Germanic society now threatened by "outsiders."
NPQ: Do you believe that Germany has the necessary social and cultural infrastructure to support these increasing stresses on its liberal democratic institutions?
DUVE: I am positive that it has the infrastructure, particularly because we have so many different democratic shock absorbers - in the city councils, in the Länder, etc. But I also have to say that these structures were not used as they should have been: early and decisively. People are only now waking up to the severity of the problem. Little by little the press, for example, has changed gears. For months, almost everyday prior to this current crisis, the press ran inflammatory stories about "fraudulent asylum seekers," etc. In effect the press criminalized and enlarged the berrant case, thereby fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiments.
Now these newspapers are alarmed and have become much more cautious in their reportage, though th emove comes too late to reduce the ranks of the now well-organized extremist groups. We must no depend on the general prosecutor, the attorney general and the police. We must make certain that the judges and attorneys take the pogrom acts as seriuosly as they are meant.
The infrastructure to fight this extremism exists. It just fialed to reac until too many innocent people had died.
What is worse, because of htis failure to act, we now have another danger: In the terrible aftermath of the murders in Moelln, I addressed a meeting of the Turkish community in a little tea hall there. For the first time I was confronted with the notion that some of these young men no longer trust the German state to protect their families. Some now tlak about getting guns in order to protect themselves.
This is very dangerous. We are not accustomed to millions of people owning guns. The privatization of defense is not in our tradition. We have a radical notion of state monopoly on the means of exercising state power, and have historically believed that feuds should be brought to the court and not solved by the gun.
NPQ: You have talked about how the political class failed to stem the tide of violence against immigrants; you have talked about how local political structures failed to take the threats to civil order seriously and about how ethnic Turks have utterly lost faith in the state's ability to protect them. And you continue to have faith in the strength of Germany's social and cultural infrastructure?
DUVE: Yes. We may have failed in the initial stages of the crisis but I believe that civil society will prevail, especially if Germany's intellectuals on the left come swiftly to an understanding of how radically their world has changed - both domestically and internationally. One of the sharpest criticisms that can be leveled against our intellectuals is that their reactions to this crisis have been repetitions of arguments made 20 years ago. They will believe that they have one enemy: the conservative right. This mindset has alienated them not only from their constituents but from reality itself.
We must escape the right/left dichotomy of the Cold War. We must be able, without being accused of being right wing, to discuss restructuring the asylum law, for example. Ottherwise we diminish our political possibilities.
NPQ: To my mind - using the example of the changing asylum laws or the recent vote on troop deployment - it seems that Germany is in a process of a painful transition from a postwar politics of guilt and atonement to a kind of Realpolitik in a messy, multicultural international and domestic arena.
DUVE: You are right. My country is in the process of a painful and burning transformation, made all the more tortuous because the guilt of my country keeps it shackled to the past even as it witnesses radical transformations in the present - the disappearance of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, for example.
Reality is crowding in on our grand theories and good intentions. The challenge for Germany is to move its political policy toward responsibility and realism.
This change - from a politics of guilt to humanist Realpolitik - cannot be underestimated. It is not a wind of change but a hurrican of change, and in this process al political idea will make mistakes, will misinterpret reality. The world says that what is going on in Germany today is a repetition. I don't agree. I think it is the reaction of a country trying desperately to accomodate itself to the demands of a completely changed world.
NPQ: As you have said, Germany is now at a critical juncture: it is attempting to assimilate its history and memory into the Realpolitik struggles of the present. But this is no easy task, particularly for a nation so defined in the present by its actions in the past. German cultural figures, from the controversial filmmaker Hans Jürgen Syberberg to left-wing playwright Heiner Müller, continue to be obssessed with the past...
DUVE: ...Both of the men you mention are obsessed with the past, definitely. I am much less obsessed than they, though I am a product of the past: My father was a Jew, my mother was the daughter of Nazis. But I dislike this digging into the German soul.
NPQ: Well, is it posisble for the arts in Germany to escape this archaeological preoccupation and speak to the country's multicultural realities when the past - with its national, social and cultural dtereminisms and its mythology about the German essence - still holds such sway?
DUVE: That is the crucial question and I must admit that I can't really answer it. ARtists here continue to react to what is happening in the present by re-presenting the past - what I call the Weimar trap.
However, there are important exceptions. We hav ea lot of very good ethnic Turkish writers working in German - young women and men who write their stories not as a repetition of the past but as an exploration of the present and future. Indeed, it is the "other" - in terms of the arts - that is helping Germany loosen the grip of the past. It is the immigrant, the reviled foreigner, who is freeing Germany from its Volksgeist - what I refere to as one of GErmany's dangerous "mind products." The Volksgeist is a myth that has little basis in contemporary reality; it is tied to an inward urge for repetition, an urge that has little if any resonance in the German public today.
Germans don't really like foreigners, but they odn't hate foreigners either. They don't like to defened foreigners in public, but they also don't want to be associated with the fascist past. German you want to live like they think the FRench live. They don't want to show particular Germanic prowess, not at all. They just want to be free to "muddle through." In fact, if the GErman youth had one overriding desiter, I think it would be that Germany neither dominate nor supplicate but just be left alone to be one among all the other nations on this planet that are just muddling through.