The story, about a mob of Arab men rampaging through the well-heeled streets of Frankfurt and sexually assaulting German women as they went, must have been irresistible — so irresistible that Bild, a popular newspaper, published it early this month with little scrutiny.
The problem, as the local police soon found, was that it was “completely baseless.” There was no record of any assault. The article relied entirely on interviews with a restaurant owner and one woman, whose motives for inventing these allegations remain unclear.
Bild retracted the article last week. No matter: The damage had been done, the fictitious tale having found many believers, either eager or fearful, among the German public.
Bild’s editors were presumably hoping to break a story similar to one that emerged just over a year earlier, when several men, identified as appearing North African and Arab, attacked women at the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne. More than 100 complaints were filed by terrorized women.
This horrific event precipitated a sharply negative turn in the country’s attitudes toward men with nonwhite skin. According to the state prosecutor, the “overwhelming majority” of the suspected attackers were asylum seekers of some form, coming mostly from Morocco and Algeria; but it was the country’s million refugees who were held responsible. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which fights right-wing extremism, published a report on how the Cologne attacks had led to a reawakening of the old trope of the foreign sexual predator.
As a black man who has lived in Berlin for two and a half years, I have witnessed a distinct change in the racial temperature, a shift both statistical and visceral. In the former sense, there are the results of the recent local elections, in which the far-right party Alternative for Germany captured almost 14 percent of the vote; the party enjoys support not only from the white working class, as is the prevailing stereotype, but also from the more affluent. In the visceral sense, my nonwhite friends and I have experienced varying degrees of verbal intimidation and physical aggression.
One friend, fumbling for his change after a taxi ride, was beaten up in the street by his impatient driver; bystanders did nothing. A few minutes from my own doorstep, I was shoved and insulted by two women who told me proudly that they were racist. An elderly German woman pushed a friend of mine off her bike; a couple of afternoons after that, another friend was treated to a viewing of a man’s SS tattoos while she was on the subway. A month later, the biracial teenage son of a local teacher and activist was set upon by four neo-Nazi youths; they taunted him with references to Hitler and left him with a fractured skull. His attackers are still at large, and the investigation into their crime has been worryingly sluggish. Moreover, this violence took place in the quiet Prenzlauer Berg, one of Berlin’s safest neighborhoods.
Germany enjoys a reputation as one of the most welcoming nations in the Western world, and in several respects it is well deserved. Protests against racism, particularly in the capital, are often vigorous. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s admission of Syrian refugees, putting many of her peers to shame, was a courageous act. The Syrians were greeted with some of the most moving gestures I can remember, with many ordinary Germans volunteering weeks of their time to provide assistance with health care, legal advice and language classes. That is the Germany whose embrace I, as a vastly more privileged newcomer, have so often felt.
Yet there are other parts of this society with firmly folded arms, and it is to them that Bild was so shamefully playing. Some Germans seem to wish the problem of racism would simply go away. Though the country has a large Turkish population, people of color are not widely represented in the media, at the higher levels of public service or in the corporate world. The history of its black people, though stretching back hundreds of years, is often unacknowledged, leading to the frequent and unfair perception of them as outsiders. There have also been instances of radicalization of nonwhite German youth by the Islamic State, including two foiled attempts at bombings, which have understandably frightened the public.
As a result, many nonwhite people in Germany feel they are greeted by default with suspicion. Those perceptions can be overcome, but for refugees — many of whom are still living out of sight in temporary housing or edging their way through the state’s bewildering bureaucracy — it is significantly harder. Fake news like Bild’s article, which plays to Germans’ worst instincts, makes it infinitely more difficult.
Breitbart News, the favored website of many a white supremacist, is known to peddle similar falsehoods. Just last month, it published the lie that a gang of Muslim men had set fire to a church in the German city of Dortmund. It is now planning to establish an office in Germany after the national elections in September. I can only hope that its ambitions will not find fertile soil.
Musa Okwonga is a poet, musician and journalist whose work was most recently published in the essay collection The Good Immigrant.