Germany Isn't Turning Backward

I am a patriot. Being German, those words don’t come easily, particularly for a leftish, skeptical urbanite like myself. And particularly not now, just a few days before we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But yes, I love my country.

The reason I say it out loud, now, is that I feel I have to defend Germany against those on the streets of Dresden who also call themselves “patriots” — “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” to be precise, which is the name of a loose alliance that brings thousands to the streets every Monday. Since the terror attacks in Paris, the movement has grown: The police counted 25,000 demonstrators on Jan. 12, the Monday after the attacks, a 7,500 jump from the week before. (It canceled its Jan. 19 protest over security concerns.)

Germany Isn't Turning BackwardKnown by its German acronym, Pegida, the group has inflicted great harm on the country’s international reputation. Our neighbors and allies are asking whether Germany is stumbling back into the darkness of xenophobia, and rightfully so. Many Germans are asking the same question these days.

There are two ways to look at the situation. The optimistic take is to note that, for all the attention Pegida gets inside of Germany and abroad, Germany has never been as liberal, culturally diverse and open toward minorities as it is today.

Last year a biennial poll conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a foundation associated with the left-wing Social Democrats (and thus unlikely to underestimate the problem), found that anti-foreigner attitudes were at a historic low. While its 2012 poll found that about a quarter of Germans reported hostile views toward foreigners, only 7.5 percent did in 2014. And anti-Semitism, which is on the rise elsewhere in Europe, has dropped significantly, to 4.1 percent from 8.6.

Apart from the polls, there is quite a bit of evidence for a new openness. On Jan. 12, 100,000 people went to the streets nationwide in counterdemonstrations against Pegida, showing their solidarity with German Muslims. In Leipzig, 4,800 pro-Pegida protesters were met by 30,000 counterprotesters.

Meanwhile, all over Germany, private initiatives are popping up to help refugees. In Duisburg, a local politician has collected 100 bicycles for refugee children. In Zirndorf, doctors are providing refugees with free medication. Even in Dresden, Pegida’s stronghold, groups are helping refugees with the hard tasks of getting settled, like providing translation services at appointments with authorities.

Still, the enormous support for Pegida requires us to consider another, darker reading of the situation, as evidence of troubling developments within German society.

One is the failure of mainstream politics. There is a tendency among the major parties to move toward the center of the political spectrum, creating an ideological void at its far right and left ends. The far right in particular has lacked political representation in the past years, which helps explain why a new populist party, Alternative für Deutschland, had such enormous success in European and state elections last year. While leaders of the Alternative, as it’s called, claim to be primarily anti-European Union, many have also expressed support for Pegida.

Another change revolves around the Internet. In this view, the Pegida people are just the usual frustrated lot looming at the edges of society. Now, emboldened by the reinforcement they find in like-minded communities online, they’re taking to the streets.

And a third is the persistence of regional differences. Though Pegida has drawn support in western Germany, it is strongest in the former East Germany. In the East, xenophobic attitudes are still more common than in the West, for a complex mix of reasons, including higher unemployment rates, but also because of feelings of inferiority.

We also have to ask what Pegida says about Germany, whatever its causes. It certainly indicates that the relative social peace we are experiencing right now is fragile. But it also shows how the country, still new to the multiethnic game, is struggling with its identity. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the first waves of immigrants arrived, the “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) from Turkey and Italy who came to fill the labor gap in the country’s prospering postwar economy.

For decades, Germany was able to pretend that the guest workers were just that, guests. But the third generation of Turkish immigrants is now reaching adulthood. At the same time, immigration numbers are rising: Germany’s immigrant population grew by about 430,000 last year. Many came from the Southern European countries that still suffer from the euro crisis, but last year Germany also welcomed some 220,000 refugees, mostly from Syria, Eritrea, Serbia and Afghanistan.

The white face of German society is changing at a rapid pace. In this context, the Pegida protests are getting such attention because they act as a weekly checkup of German society. It’s as if every Monday, the news media are putting a trembling hand to the country’s forehead, checking its temperature, wondering whether our ugly, xenophobic past is taking over again. And we don’t have to look back to the 1930s to find that past; in the early 1990s, when the country last saw similar numbers of refugees, an irrational fear of foreigners taking the jobs of “real Germans” gripped the country, culminating in anti-immigrant riots in several cities, with several deaths, many wounded and thousands scared.

Last week, a 20-year-old refugee from Eritrea was found stabbed to death near his apartment in Dresden. Neighbors reported that swastikas had been painted onto the door of the apartment where he lived. Again, many Germans are holding their breath. Is this a neo-Nazi murder? Is there a connection to the Pegida rallies? We don’t trust ourselves. Why should our neighbors? Why should you?

However the investigation turns out, I am an optimist, believing that we will not see history repeated. Germany has come a long way since even the early ’90s. And rather than causing violence, Pegida has set off a public debate on Germany’s national identity. This is long overdue. Prominent conservative politicians like Peter Tauber, the secretary general of the Christian Democratic Party, have demanded a new, clearer framework for immigration. Last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that “Islam is part of Germany.” It was an assessment, rather than an ideological statement. It was the simple acknowledgment of a simple reality.

Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

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