Germany Caught Between Violence of Migrants and Extreme Right-wing

'We have lost control over the flow of foreigners,' says German politician following sexual attacks on women in Cologne and violent right-wing response.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Right-wing demonstrators hold a sign "Rapefugees not welcome - !Stay away!" and a sign with a crossed out mosque as they march in Cologne, Germany, January 9, 2016.
Right-wing demonstrators hold a sign "Rapefugees not welcome - !Stay away!" and a sign with a crossed out mosque as they march in Cologne, Germany, January 9, 2016.Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On January 1, 2016, the police in Cologne, Germany, issued a routine statement to the effect that the New Year's Eve celebrations in the city had been peaceful and no unusual events had been reported.

"They even commended the police's preparedness in the area of the cathedral," said Peter Pauls, chief editor of the daily local newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, in a conversation with Haaretz.

The dramatic incidents that had occurred in the center of one of Europe's oldest and largest cities just hours before were not mentioned in the statement. The paper's website was the first to raise doubts about the police's version.

"We had received reports about a woman who was sexually molested but we did not yet have the full picture," Pauls said.

The report was the first crack in a dam that soon gave way to a torrent of complaints and reports about sexual harassment and theft during the New Year's Eve celebrations in the center of Cologne, blamed on migrants from North Africa.

In the two weeks since, the Cologne celebrations have been transformed from a regular, peaceful and victimless event to the focus of overall German attention. So far, 560 women have filed complaints with the police, alleging theft and sexual harassment by men, some of whom were from North Africa.

"They were surrounded by drunken, Arabic-speaking men, who robbed and sexually assaulted them," said Pauls. "It was a nightmare for them and an unprecedented event for Cologne,".

The New Year's Eve events, the extent and sequence of which have not yet been fully clarified, raises difficult questions, has let the genie out of the bottle and, primarily, has embarrassed Germany deeply.

Not only the ineffectiveness of the police and local authorities in dealing with the crimes and bringing the perpetrators to justice is being questioned. The public is troubled by more fundamental issues, such as Germany's immigration policy, the boundaries of political correctness and the violent reaction of the country's far-right.

Over a million migrants have entered Germany in the past year. Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under severe criticism, including from her own supporters, for her open-door policy.

"People entered Germany illegally and without being registered," Pauls said. "I, as a German, have to register with the authorities if I move to another city, but none of that is relevant, all of a sudden."

"We have lost control over the flow of foreigners," he added. "Many people in Syria and Africa feel as if they've been invited here by Merkel. It happened because of her lack of international experience. We're talking about people who weren't in any danger from war who decided to come here to improve their living conditions.

"I can understand them, of course, but the law establishes who can receive refugee status. Refugees should be given a chance, but those who are looking for economic improvement – no. We should not close off Germany and Europe, but we do need to check who's coming here."

The position stated by Pauls represents that of many in the political center in Germany. They were also expressed by Wolfgang Bosbach, a parliamentarian from the conservative Christian Democratic Union, who spoke of a "loss of control" in Germany since last summer during a parliamentary debate on Wednesday.

A more moderate position was stated by the philosopher and author Richard David Precht. "In 2015, we absorbed about a million migrants. A few individuals committed crimes on New Year's Eve. If we now begin to identify all of them with crime, we will be making a critical mistake," he was quoted as saying by the German media.

He advised investment in education and integration, in order to deal with the phenomenon, and not only increased policing in the streets.

"I'm not saying we need to accept everyone who comes here," he said. "Most of the Cologne attackers came from Morocco. After negotiations with the authorities in Rabat, I would return them very quickly to their place of birth."

Similar statements have been heard from German politicians and officials, who are examining the legal options available to the country. There have been calls to declare North African countries such as Morocco and Algeria as safe places, meaning that migrants who break German law can be repatriated to them.

A poll published on Wednesday indicated that a clear majority of the population – 83 percent – support changing the law to allow quicker expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers arrested on suspicion of criminal activities.

As the dialogue in Germany becomes more radical and more violent, a bright spot has been provided by Syrian refugees in the country, who launched a social media campaign identifying with the women who were attacked and denouncing their attackers. Photographs showing demonstrators holding signs such as "Syrians against Sexism" have been posted on Facebook.

There have also been "apologies" by the Syrians to the women who were attacked.

The campaign is spearheaded by a Facebook page called "Syrian refugees say 'No' to the attacks in Cologne," which was launched by Sakher al-Mohamed, a refugee from Homs who lives in Cologne.

"These criminal attackers are representing just themselves, regardless of their nationalities and religion, political affiliations. And they are not representing our values and culture which we were raised on," he wrote.

"And we wish from everyone to help the police to discover the identities of the criminals. And we are asking the German authorities to punish the attackers the hardest penalties. Furthermore we are asking the authorities to exclude them out of Germany, and we confirm that this criminal behaving are not expressing our mentality and culture."

In addition to the violence of the migrants, Germany also has to deal with serious violence from veteran Germans on the far-right. They are a tiny minority in the whole of Germany but the New Year's Eve events in Cologne have returned them and the threat they pose to the headlines.

According to them, the attacks on women, which occurred in several cities in addition to Cologne, prove the legitimacy of their positions. After all, they have been warning for years, in their own racist way, about the "danger" posed by foreigners in Germany. On Christmas, they called for a "White Germany," a play on words referring both to snow and their desire to expel foreigners.

The extreme right has been out in the streets in recent days in violent shows of strength. The most violent of the protests was in Leipzig, in the east of the country, where thousands of right-wingers rampaged through the streets, breaking windows and clashing with the residents.

 In another right-wing demonstration in Dresden, two Arab Israeli students were attacked by six right-wing activists. One told Israeli TV that they were attacked because they were speaking Arabic and Hebrew.

Until now, the right-wing attacks have been focused on Arab-looking migrants. German police records show 887 violent attacks on migrants in 2015, ranging from spray-painted swastikas on houses to arson attacks on shelters in which refugees were sleeping.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière recently warned yet again of the dangers posed by the radical right.

The fact that no lives have been lost as yet is meager comfort to the German authorities. The recent violence comes against the background of a trial involving the only surviving member of a neo-Nazi underground which is alleged to have killed none migrants and police officers. And, on Wednesday, charges were filed against four right-wing extremists who allegedly planned to attack a migrant shelter near Leipzig.

Caught in-between the violence of the migrants and the violence of the far-right, Germany has so far been powerless and devoid of both answers and planning.

"We won't allow criminals to destroy the peace of our country, irrespective of whether they're foreigners or German right-wing extremists," Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the Bundestag on Wednesday.

"The disruptions by the hooligans from the extreme right in Leipzig is as enraging as the incident in Cologne," Maas added.

He concluded by saying that Germany did not need to change its policies regarding more than a million refugees because of a few hundred criminals.  


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