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Germany’s knowledge of its racist past has blinded it to its racist present

Getty Images / Friedemann Vogel
In Germany, there are outward attempts to combat racism, despite its virulent remains.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

I know of no other country that has dealt with its past of racial discrimination, hatred and genocide in such a groundbreaking, self-reflective and socially pervasive manner as Germany has done and still does. Countless memorials, museums, rituals of remembrance, state-or church-funded organizations and grassroots initiatives are a testament to the fact that this nation is deeply committed to making sure that the history of the Holocaust is not forgotten and that future generations continue to learn from it.

However, racism in contemporary Germany remains the country’s blind spot. If it’s not addressed with the same degree of care, sensitivity and reflection that is directed towards the past, Germany will continue marginalizing and alienating large parts of its own population to much social and economic detriment.

One of the most shocking recent examples of the social acceptability of racism in Germany is the treatment of a German citizen, who was manhandled and searched by two police officers on a train heading to Frankfurt. The police had asked to see his ID since he didn’t “look German” to them and he refused to comply.

The young man was forced to leave the train, held at the train police headquarters, yelled at in English, accused of stealing and, in his own words, treated “like an animal.” The concerned witnesses who tried to intervene were insulted and told in no uncertain terms that they had no rights.

The legal battle following this event led to the shameful und unfortunately still little known fact that racial profiling became a legal practice in contemporary Germany for about eight months last year. In March 2012, the superior administrative court in Koblenz ruled that the police officers were entitled to ask for identification from a person with “conspicuous skin color.” ID checks based on skin color, the court argued, represented only a minor encroachment of constitutional rights for the affected group.

Not only were the actions of these two police officers legal, but they were acceptable as a general practice if the police had sufficient cause to believe that a particular train route could be a conduit for illegal immigration and criminals.

Surprisingly, the court ruling was reported only in a few media outlets and there was no major discussion of the ramifications of this ruling beyond the political networks of people of color and human rights organizations.  To add insult to injury, the young man was convicted in a separate trial for libel for exclaiming that his treatment reminded him of the methods of Hitler’s SS.

It seems impossible to reconcile this account with Germany’s public discourse of awareness and sensitivity in regards to racism and anti-Semitism. Growing up in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, I experienced firsthand the positive effects of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) that the protest generation of 1968 had rightfully called for in reaction to the stony silence of the wartime generation. Part of this political engagement with the past was understandably also the rejection of any discussion relating to ideas of racial difference.

After all, National Socialist ideology had drawn from late 19th century racial science, eugenics and ethnology to justify genocide and war.  However, in postwar West Germany, the language of race was not negotiated and refuted—it was repressed. Jean-Paul Sartre’s dictum that the Jew existed only as a function of anti-Semitism became the unquestioned default view for the West German intelligentsia and the German word for race, “Rasse,” was usually only used in historical context.

In the wake of 1968, anything that could have remotely smacked of “race” (and in some heads still did) became discussed as a matter of “religion,” “class” or “culture” and maybe as a matter of “ethnicity” if applied to countries far, far away in National-Geographic–type narratives that had absolutely nothing to do with what was happening in front of one’s own doorstep.  (Imagine my utter confusion and shock, when I first encountered a US census form asking me to identify my race. Up to that point I was convinced that racial categorizations were something that only Nazis undertook.)

Far be it from me to challenge the idea that race is foremost a social construction. But living in the US, I have learned that one can simultaneously reject race as a fixed biological category, but still talk about it as a socially powerful reality.  In the West-German mindset I grew up with, the taboo of race went hand in hand with a complete obliviousness as to how race mattered.

This cluelessness could easily express itself as a completely unaware racism: I still cringe when I think about the public performance of the racist German children’s song “Ten little Negroes” at my Protestant kindergarten with the entire group of five-year-olds dancing in blackface. Granted, this was quite some time ago, but my sense is that even today the overwhelming majority of Germans see nothing wrong with putting on blackface, or, another popular pastime, dressing up as the noble Native American Rothaut (“red skin”) Winnetou.

In complicated ways, not talking about race enabled the continuation of the fiction that to be German meant to be white. Moreover, it deprived generations of non-white Germans of a language to describe their experiences of discrimination and marginalization. It is a bit hard to talk about racism if race is not supposed to exist.

There was no mainstream German equivalent to the empowering and liberating vocabulary of the American civil rights movement.  Up until today, as last year’s Koblenz ruling on the legitimacy of ID checks based on skin color shows, discussions involving race bring about an “us vs. them” mentality—people of color don’t belong.

Recent events in contemporary, unified Germany have highlighted the gap between how many Germans still perceive Germany (a nation of white Christian people) and the reality of Germany as a racially, religiously and linguistically diverse society with a sustained history of immigration and mixture. Every fourth child born in Germany today has what is called in bureaucrat-speak “a migration background,” which is really to say that he’s not white and/or Christian. The child is also not necessarily “German” given the citizenship laws, which are another expression of this gap.

The practice of obscuring racism in the terminology of “migration” or “education” or “class” is so pervasive in Germany, that it comes as a total shock when racism is openly articulated as based on, well, ideas of race. Two years ago, the Social Democratic politician Thilo Sarrazin rattled the German public with an unapologetically eugenic book on the impending downfall of Germany due to the uncontrolled mass immigration of uneducated and low-class “Muslims.”

His subsequent backpedaling and his defense by many high-profile intellectuals coaxed the openly racist language back into its closet of “problems of failed integration” of an entire “immigrant” population supposedly hostile to the opportunities of “German” education.  Even in this version, the problem is still framed as a problem of race and not the obvious one of racism: Why should someone invest in becoming “German,” when the overwhelming experience even for native speakers of German, who are not perceived as white, is one of being denied cultural “Germanness?”

Furthermore, the German state doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that it protects its inhabitants from racism even in its most violent forms. It took the German police many years to piece together the decade-long series of 10 murders committed by the National Socialist Underground (NSU), simply because racism was never seriously considered as a motive until, a year ago, material from this terrorist organization was found that unmistakably spelled it out. Disturbingly, another reason was the support for the NSU within the very government agency that is supposed to monitor Neo-Nazi activity in Germany.

As long as the German state doesn’t openly and proactively address veiled and open forms of racism and fails to establish and enforce clear legal parameters to explicitly protect its inhabitants from racial discrimination and violence, it will continue to foster a divided society where the rights of people with “conspicuous skin color” can be readily infringed upon.

While discrimination based on race is explicitly outlawed by the German constitution, there is clearly more to be done to bring German legislative and executive powers in line with existing UN and EU guidelines on fighting racial discrimination. Furthermore, the German public needs to come to terms with the fact that one doesn’t have to buy into fascist or eugenic theories of race in order to talk about the effects of perceived racial difference. Germany needs a new language for dealing with racism—one that advances the idea of a diverse Germany.

Fortunately, the shameful Koblenz court ruling was overturned a few weeks ago, and the federal police apologized to the young man, who, earlier this year, had already been cleared from his conviction for libel. There is a happy ending for now, but the damage done by those past eight months, when some Germans were more “German” than others, will have to be overcome.

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