The Hanau terror attack shows the need for honesty about racism in Germany

Mourners attend a memorial service for victims of the racist terror attack in Hanau, Germany, 28 February 2020. Photograph: Armando Babani/EPA
Mourners attend a memorial service for victims of the racist terror attack in Hanau, Germany, 28 February 2020. Photograph: Armando Babani/EPA

I have to admit that when I heard the news my first thought was: “I hope the perpetrator wasn’t a migrant.” The press would surely go at us hammer and tongs again, warning about the danger posed by immigration in general and Muslims in particular. There would be endless articles and talk shows discussing the threat. My second thought was: “Thank God it is a white guy.”

On 19 February, Tobias Rathjen went into two shisha bars in the town of Hanau, near Frankfurt, shooting people he described as “foreign”. In his “manifesto”, if you can call such a rambling text a manifesto, he stated he wanted to cleanse Germany from … us. Two weeks on from the carnage in Hanau, I wonder how I could have felt relieved.

The general public in Germany seemed surprised. Shocked, I would have understood, but surprised? Hanau was the latest in a series of far-right terror attacks in Germany. Yet in our collective minds terror is brown. And I don’t mean that politically.

So unused are we to seeing media images of victims who aren’t white that we have no language for them. The TV news (Die Tagesschau) called the crime “fremdenfeindlich”, which translates as “hostility towards foreigners”. But the people who were murdered in Hanau weren’t foreigners. Most of them were second- or third-generation Germans. How long do we have to live in Germany before we stop being foreigners?

What got me most was the video of a young survivor talking from his hospital bed. When the gunman started shooting, he had fallen on top of another young man, and his friends threw themselves on top of him. They were a ball of human beings and the one lying underneath said: “Brother, I can’t feel my tongue. I can’t breathe.” He had been shot in the throat.

He sounded so much like my teenage son when he talks to his friend: “Brother, I kiss your eyes.” But when I emailed a friend whose children were the same age and asked her how she felt after Hanau, she replied: “Hanau?” Of course she had been outraged by the crime. It just wasn’t foremost in her mind.

It’s the same with rightwing propaganda. The journalist Yassin Musharbash explains: “When certain politicians say certain things, most Germans see their statements as indecent, but the migrant part of the population sees them as threats.”

Just a few days before the Hanau shootings the far-right political party AfD had published a colouring book for children. One of the pictures showed a convoy of cars bearing Turkish flags, the drivers brandishing weapons. Likewise, the Hanau killer had ranted in his manifesto about “crimes committed by non-white immigrants”. So crimes by white immigrants seemed fine. Another picture invited children to happily colour in black men with bones in their curly hair groping white women in a swimming pool. (To be honest, most books in my childhood had racist images like that, but I thought we’d progressed.)

Yet another picture showed women in burqas with loads of children in front of a clocktower showing five minutes to 12, which is the German metaphor for “act now before it’s too late”. And yes, that was the other dominant strand in the Hanau manifesto: “inferior” races outbreeding Germans or tainting their blood by interbreeding. (Incidentally, a journalist tried to find out just how many women wore burqas in Germany and found two ... worn by white women in an S&M studio. There are practically no burqas worn in German streets. Still, the AfD ran its 2017 election campaign with “bikinis instead of burqas” on its posters.)

The common reflex is to think that everything is worse now than it used to be. That’s neither true nor fair. A lot has changed. Angela Merkel will attend a memorial service for the Hanau victims. The then chancellor, Helmut Kohl, didn’t think it was important to show his respects when neo-Nazis set fire to a house in Solingen in 1993 and killed five people of Turkish descent. He had “more important appointments” and didn’t go in for “condolence tourism”.

It could just be that Merkel is a nicer human being than Kohl, and she probably is. But it is also a new era. When the neo-Nazi terrorist group National Socialist Underground (NSU) killed at least nine people of Turkish descent in the 2000s, the equation went: Turkish people have been killed so the killers must be Turkish, too, and they must all be gang members. The police preferred to listen to a clairvoyant than to suggestions the crimes could be racially motivated. The media called the murders the “doner killings”, turning the victims from human beings into fast food. The NSU files will be kept from public view for 30 years.

This time Angela Merkel made it clear Hanau was a racist crime. Just her using the word “racist” was a quantum leap. And I trust her when she says she will do everything to prevent this from happening again. But I don’t trust Friedrich Merz, who wants to be her successor as CDU leader. Six days after Hanau he proposed to fight rightwing terror by targeting foreign “clan criminality” and implementing stricter border controls. When a colleague from Der Spiegel asked if he’d really said that, Merz replied: “The answer is yes.”

“Clan criminality” is also the pet hate of North Rhine-Westphalia’s CDU interior minister, Herbert Reul. He has ordered more than 1,000 raids on shisha bars in his state in the last 18 months alone. Even though there is no clear definition of what “clan criminality” is supposed to be, and clan liability has been outlawed in Germany since 1945. No wonder the Hanau killer had the impression that shisha bars were hotbeds of crime. A study conducted by Macromedia University Hamburg showed that while migrants commit far fewer crimes than white Germans – after all there are fewer of them – in TV reports on crime they outnumber white Germans by eight times and in newspapers 14 times. Worse, if the media talks about migrants, in 34.7% of all cases it is only as criminals.

Make no mistake, the terrorist and he alone is responsible for his actions. But we – and by this I mean our politicians and media – are all guilty of creating a climate of fear and mistrust. But that also means we can change it. What we need most at the moment is civic trust. Oh, and the release of those NSU files.

Mithu Sanyal is an author, academic and broadcaster based in Dusseldorf.

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