• Germany edition
 
Neo-Nazi terror trial
'Racism is in society's wallpaper'
Photo: DPA

'Racism is in society's wallpaper'

Published: 06 May 2013 15:42 GMT+02:00
Updated: 06 May 2013 15:42 GMT+02:00

After a series of racially motivated crimes unique in Germany's post-war history, the justice system showed - by its assignment of the places to witness the trial, and the fact that there were far too few of those places - how much public interest is seen as appropriate.

No matter which valid, internal reasons there may have been, the refusal to hold the trial in a larger place even if one not situated in a justice building, sends a message: don't make such a fuss, this is business as normal. We're doing what we always do.

But it is so obvious that this is not a normal trial that one must ask oneself why so much effort was made ahead of time to demonstrate the opposite. Possibly because those who make decisions in Munich simply don't think any differently than those people in whose names they will deliver a verdict? The victims of the murder series were, apart from police officer Michéle Kiesewetter, migrants.

People like them now make up a fifth of the German population, but in public discussions they practically only ever appear as problem groups. When a Ghanaian engineer or a Turkish tailor with a decent income and well brought-up children is mentioned, they have the label "exception" either explicitly or implicitly attached.

Problems of mistrust, rejection and deadly hate

But the NSU murders dramatically showed that it is not they as a group who create problems, rather it is they who have problems as a group, independent of their academic qualifications, income and lifestyle - simply because their accent, darker skin or a non-European name make them part of "the other".

Their problems are prejudice, mistrust, rejection - or also deadly hate. The NSU is not alone - 152 people have been wiped out by far-right violence since German reunification - our Tagesspiegel colleague Frank Jansen has researched this for years.

Many of those whose right to life was negated by the killers were homeless people, punks, left-wingers but remarkably many were killed because they were not called Müller, Meier or Schmitt. And it speaks for itself how often the authorities, police and government closed their eyes to this racist background - not even half of the 152 have been officially recognized as victims of the far right.

The religion monitor project of the Bertelsmann Foundation has recently again shown how strong this rejection is - although a majority in Germany welcome diversity, 51 percent see Islam as a threat.

This marking out of people as Muslims, foreigners or Turks has become stronger over the last few years. At least partly to blame for this is, paradoxically, the integration debate that was as needed as the modernization process from which it came.

Muslim as a label

Just to name two examples - of course a democracy must reform its citizenship laws if the danger emerges that a growing part of its population is being shut out of the political process because they have no right to vote. And of course schools need to be reformed when the number of students shrinks and the children are increasingly without the basic abilities on which German education is built.

The constant public conversation about the diversity of society has continually also created groups which do not actually exist - we talk about "the Muslims", but what does that say about a person? They are also mothers, fathers or singles, unemployed or good earners, professors or tradesmen - and they are not even all religious. Does professional, familial and economic status have less influence than religion?

The label "Muslim" says little about the person it is stuck upon. Yet it can make the actual person, their character and abilities disappear and significantly reduce their chances in life - the chances of finding work and friends.

The United Nations, as it recently criticized Germany over its reaction to the Thilo Sarrazin case, said the country's institutions, for example the justice system, was not offering enough protection against racism and that racism here is too often reduced to anti-Semitism.

Structural, not personal racism is key

Racism is a word which provokes the strongest defence in Germany. That may be due to a sensitivity related to the National Socialist past and our pride in having engaged with it. But it is also connected to a lack of coolness - whoever hears "racism" feels personally attacked.

Yet rather than personal racism, it must be about structural racism - that is in authorities, laws and institutions, sitting in the wallpaper of a society.

That can be the lack of legal steps taken against a provocateur as criticized by the United Nations - but also too few migrants in police uniforms, behind the desks at authorities, and also in newspaper offices, because it signals to the citizens, readers and people who have been here for ages as well as those who have migrated here, that the state is not made by the "others".

The German Islam Conference which meets this week has paved the way for Islamic theology to be taught at state universities, accelerated agreements about religious education, as well as helping to a large degree, to establish representatives of German Islam as players in democratic public life.

It is possible to tear off the old wallpaper. The NSU trial would be a good opportunity to take a look around oneself. After the murders were discovered questions were not only asked about individual racists - the perpetrators - but also about structures.

Discrimination must go to the top of the agenda

Why did the investigation go so wrong? Why did the information and clues from the wives, sons, daughters and friends of the dead play practically no role, even though they kept on suspecting xenophobia as a motive and said so? And why did those who wrote the headlines about "Kebab murders", or read them - pretty much all of us - doubt the official version of criminal backgrounds, debts and red-light connections so little?

These are questions which the trial in Munich cannot answer, may not even ask. It has to determine individual guilt. It remains to be hoped that the work is not restricted to this trial - that the face of Beate Zschäpe is not reduced to a pictogram which makes one believe that everything has been done when she and her four alleged helpers receive their verdicts.

It is time that Germany starts to put discrimination right at the top of the agenda - and replace the stale debate about integration with one about racism. Not to pick out individuals, but to highlight everyday practices and routines that discriminate.

For those who get goosebumps when the R-word is mentioned - it is only about breathing life back into a document which this month turns 64. It is the Constitution of the German Republic - which says, "No-one may be disadvantaged or favoured due to their gender, ancestry, race, language, homeland or origin, their faith, religious or political beliefs."

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
JobTalk Germany
How to become an au pair in Germany
Photo: DPA

How to become an au pair in Germany

It’s not quite as romantic as the Nanny Diaries, nor is it as magical as Mary Poppins. But being an au pair in Germany can be fun, as Emma Anderson finds out. READ  

Merkel hails 'impressive' French reform plans
Merkel and Valls on Monday in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Merkel hails 'impressive' French reform plans

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday, hoping to gain Germany's blessing for his revised economic reform programme. READ  

German Fifa exec: 'Qatar won't host World Cup'
Theo Zwanziger and one of the planned stadiums in Qatar. Photo: DPA

German Fifa exec: 'Qatar won't host World Cup'

Germany's top Fifa official said on Monday Qatar will not host the 2022 World Cup as planned, due to climate conditions. Qatar's successful bid to host the tournament has been marred by corruption and human rights concerns. READ  

Germany plans air lifts to help fight Ebola
A Liberian man holds his daughter as they wait for treatment for suspected Ebola symptoms in Monrovia. Photo: DPA

Germany plans air lifts to help fight Ebola

Germany and France will send military transport planes to West Africa to help efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic, Chancellor Angela Merkel and military officials said on Friday. READ  

Amazon workers walk out again
Amazon workers striking in Graben, Bavaria, on Monday. Photo: DPA

Amazon workers walk out again

Four Amazon shipping centres in Germany were the target of fresh walkouts on Monday in a long-running wage dispute with the US online retail giant. READ  

Half of German navy helicopters grounded
A German navy Sea Lynx helicopter. Photo: DPA

Half of German navy helicopters grounded

Half of the German navy helicopter fleet has been grounded after engineers found large tears in the panelling of a British-made machine on deployment. READ  

Germans say 'bah humbug' to early Xmas
Photo: DPA

Germans say 'bah humbug' to early Xmas

Christmas treats have already hit the supermarket shelves, but Germans surveyed by YouGov say "too soon!", while a third of respondents are for the government taking action to name a release date for holiday wares. READ  

Hoeneß pays tax bill, takes day off prison
Photo: DPA

Hoeneß pays tax bill, takes day off prison

The disgraced former president of Bayern Munich FC, Uli Hoeneß has paid €30 million of his outstanding taxes, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on Monday, and has taken a day off prison. READ  

Oktoberfest 2014
Fights and a skinny dip kick off Oktoberfest
Photo: DPA

Fights and a skinny dip kick off Oktoberfest

UPDATE: Paramedics and police were kept busy at the opening weekend of Munich's Oktoberfest, treating hundreds of revellers and arresting dozens, though it was still considered a peaceful start. READ  

Child warriors, 13, leave Germany for jihad
A photograph from the jihadist affiliated group Albaraka News allegedly shows a fighter from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) tying up an Iraqi soldier Photo: DPA/EPA

Child warriors, 13, leave Germany for jihad

Children as young as 13 are travelling from Germany to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic jihadists, according to German intelligence agencies. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
DPA
Gallery
The best photos from Oktoberfest's opening weekend
Photo: DPA
Munich
Your guide to Munich Oktoberfest's food
Marks & Spencer
Sponsored Article
Marks and Spencer: Win €300 toward your new autumn wardrobe
Photo: Joanna Drath, University of Tübingen
Society
Europeans descended from three tribes
Photo: DPA
Culture
Your guide to Munich Oktoberfest's tents
Photo: DPA
Hamburg
Drunk teachers ruin school trip to Hamburg
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Oktoberfest 2014: The best and worst in dirndl fashion
Photo: Shutterstock
Gallery
Ten German words you'll never want to hear again
Photo: DPA
Education
German universities tumble in global rankings
Photo: Shutterstock
Business & Money
The three types of firms hiring foreigners
Photo: DPA
Berlin
Frisky couple shock Berlin commuters
Sponsored Article
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation at Phorms
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,328
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd