The Independent was born in an era of great transformation, political, social, and technological. It came to life just as the postwar order was unraveling; three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and at a time when the old ideological politics were being unpicked, and the meaning of ‘right’ and ‘left’ being recast. It was born also at time of technological transformation, the birth of the Internet and of a new digital world, that would eventually undermine its viability.
Many tributes have rightly been paid to the Independent over the past week. I have a special fondness for the paper. It was in the Independent that I wrote my first op-ed for a national newspaper – in November 1992. And in the mid-1990s, I was regularly writing op-eds, until editorial changes meant that we went our different ways.
So, as my tribute, here is that first article, on the debate about racism and anti-immigration hostility in Germany. What is striking is both how much has changed over the past quarter of a century – and how little. The relationship between Britain and Germany, and the perception of Germany within Europe has transformed. Germany and German attitudes to immigration have changed, as have German nationality laws. Germany these days is likely to be seen as too liberal as too racist. British society, and racism, have changed, too. The question of Islam was not then the issue it is now. But going back quarter of a century, we can see that the current ‘migration crisis’ and hostility to migrants is nothing new. Indeed, in many ways, racist hostility was far sharper 25 years ago. What has changed is the political context of the debate. The unraveling of the postwar order, at the beginnings of which the Independent emerged, has now reset the faultlines of European politics.
What has also survived the past 25 years is ‘They are more racist than us’ attitude. The target now is no longer Germany, but Eastern Europe. ‘Is Eastern Europe really more racist than the West?’ was the headline of an essay I wrote for the New York Times last November. It concluded:
The treatment of migrants by East European nations has been reprehensible and needs challenging. But there is something equally nasty in the chorus of condemnation that East Europe has faced. Portraying Eastern Europeans as lacking ‘our’ values, and as particularly xenophobic and narrow-minded, serves only to disguise the role that west European nations have played in fostering hostility and intolerance. Demonizing East Europeans is no answer to the way that political leaders throughout Europe have helped demonize migrants.
Change ‘East Europe’ for ‘Germany’ and I could have written that 25 years ago.
Are they more racist than us?
Independent, 29 November 1992
Reading the British press last week after the murder of three Turks in Mölln, near Hamburg, you could have been forgiven for thinking that every German was a potential Nazi, and that every racist attack was carried out by a Sieg-Heiling skinhead wearing jackboots and swastikas.
Germany has become, in the popular mind, the very embodiment of racism, the ‘scarred skinhead’ its public face. But this is not the Germany I know. German streets are not full of marauding Nazis, nor is every racist bigot a scarred skinhead.
Virtually everyone, apart from the few who actually dress up in SS regalia, abhors Nazism. And in Britain, German Nazis make particularly easy targets. From Dennis Skinner to Nicholas Ridley, politicians have been insistently warning us of the march of German jackboots across Europe. Such anti-Nazi rhetoric comes easily in this culture, obsessed as it is by the Second World War – from the Dambusters to the ‘Don’t mention the war’ scene in Fawlty Towers.
There are certainly disturbing trends in the new Germany. There has been a growing number of attacks on asylum seekers – and, as the Mölln firebombing showed, on anyone deemed to be ‘foreign’. But there is nothing to suggest that racism in Germany is of a different dimension to that elsewhere.
Ruhulla Aramesh, Rohit Duggal, Padchadcharam Sahitharan, Aliah Miah, Mohammed Sarwar, Siddik Dada and Rolan Adams have all been murdered over the past 18 months – not on the streets of Berlin or Hamburg but on the streets of London and Manchester. There are some 70,000 racial incidents a year in Britain. Some are minor. Others are not. In July in Blackburn 12-year old Dildar Khan was badly burned after his house was firebombed. In September in Whitworth, Lancashire, Nasreem Akhtar Ali miscarried after being hit by bricks thrown through her bedroom window. In Hounslow there was a series of firebombings this summer of homes of Somali refugees. These attacks, unlike those in Germany, rarely make it past the local papers. Certainly none cause the Mail, Express, Mirror or Times to warn grimly about ‘pogroms’. Racism in Britain is no less intense than in Germany.
A constant theme in British reports of attack on German refugee hostels is that local people have supported the attacks. Last November a mob of fascists attacked two blocks of flats in Hoyerswerda in former east Germany, one containing asylum seekers, the other Vietnamese and African guestworkers. Armed with Molotov cocktails, baseball bats and bicycle chains, the assailants smashed windows, set fire to buildings, dragged passing motorists from cars and beat people up.
According to the British press reports, locals encouraged the mob and applauded every attack. When I visited the town shortly afterwards, however, I was told a different story. Certainly I found many resentful of refugees and happy to see them leave. But they adamantly denied that they had taken part in the attack or encouraged the fascist mob. ‘The story got blown up out of all proportion’, one told me.
The views of ordinary Germans are, unsurprisingly, complex. Many are strongly anti-Nazi, yet express racist views about foreigners. ‘Hitler was a real pig’, one Rostock schoolgirl told the magazine Stern. ‘He put Jews in an oven and turned on the gas.’ But she added that ‘if an immigrant gets killed, who cares?’
Hostility to immigrants is not new, and the ‘foreigner problem’ has long been an issue of debate in German politics. Foreign workers have long been treated not as ‘immigrants’ but as ‘guestworkers’. Politicians continually stress that there are no immigrants in Germany. ‘Our principle is that we are not an immigration country’, Rita Sussmuth, the former Christian Democratic president of the Bundestag, has said. Indeed, Germany has no immigration law, only a ‘foreigners’ law’ (Ausländergesetz).
Immigrants have been treated as outsiders whom it is not possible too assimilate into German society, and long before Nazis began attacking hostels, German officials were making life very uncomfortable for refugees. The idea that foreigners are a problem has been encouraged by Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democrats who for the past two years have campaigned under the slogan ‘the boat is full’ to restrict asylum rights.
When this climate of hostility towards foreigners spilled over into neo-Nazi attacks against hostels, the government was embarrassed. However, its response was not to stand firm but to make further concessions to the racist viewpoint. After the Hoyerswerda attack Rudolf Krause, the local interior minister, suggested that immigrants had provoked the attacks: ‘There are asylum-seekers who do not behave according to local customs or in a manner befitting our cultural level’. Helmut Kohl admitted that ‘foreigners contribute to the well-being of society but added that ‘that does not mean that we must helplessly watch the abuse of asylum rights’. In Hoyerswerda , the authorities pinned a notice on a black of flats from which asylum seekers had been driven, telling local people ‘These flats are being renovated for you’. The message was clear: now that Hoyerswerda was ausländerfrei (foreigner-free, locals would be better off.
The Nazi gangs in Germany are the product of the racial crisis, not its cause. British journalists who point the finger at German Nazis not only miss the point about the cause of German racism, but unwittingly fuel dangerous trends in this country, too, obscuring the extent of British racism and the strengthening the illusion that Britain is more civilized than its Continental neighbours.