Even as the violent unrest that has gripped several British cities since the weekend appears to be gradually easing, the riots continue to dominate the German news, leaving even the global financial turmoil a distant second.
Have there been occasional glimpses of self-satisfaction? Perhaps. Several commentators placed the riots into the wider context of a “sickness” in British society that could also be seen in politicians ripping off taxpayers, a feral tabloid newspaper culture and police corruption.
But attention quickly turned to whether Germany was at risk of similar outbreaks of anarchy and looting. Aside from the police union, the general consensus was, “No.” Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich felt confident that Germany doesn’t have the kind of social friction seen in Britain. But can Germany nevertheless learn from the riots, which have left at least four people dead and led to hundreds of arrests?
Certainly they have provided food for thought and some vigorous debate.
The centrist Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel scorned any suggestion that the riots had much political underpinning.
“The path of the youths led not to the seat of government but to the gratification of their consumer demands. The supposedly underprivileged plunderers took smartphones but left milk and bread.”
Yet the paper didn’t let the rest of British society off the hook either. In a broad swipe at the apparent corruption afflicting the society, Der Tagesspiegel wrote that the revelations last year that British MPs of all parties had been abusing allowances to pocket taxpayers’ money, as well as the tabloid phone hacking scandal coupled with the revelations that papers were bribing police officers – showed that teenagers making off with looted TVs were not the only “sickness.”
“And now police who helped plunder mobile phone mailboxes are supposed to stop mobile phone shops from being plundered. And politicians who have enriched themselves at the expense of the country are supposed to deal with teens who have shoplifted.
“That they cannot do that with real credibility shows how far Britain’s crisis extends beyond the violent riots in the major cities.”
The right-wing Die Welt published a blistering commentary that focussed heavily on immigration, and in particular on black communities. It agreed with Cameron’s description of a “sick society.”
The paper unapologetically singled out “coloured” – apparently meaning black African or Caribbean – communities, which it said were often hostile to other, more successfully integrated, immigrant communities. It noted that one tweet instructed rioters to target Turkish jewellers.
“The often vaunted British quality of sensitive handling of the ethnically mixed society has this week faced the crucial question: ‘What do you think of anarchy?’” the paper wrote.
Such a consensus for a soft approach worked only as long as everyone subscribed to the rules. The paper ridiculed the “political correctness” of the police approach to black offenders.
“The respect given to coloured offenders is today downright excessive,” the paper wrote, pointing to oversensitivity in the wake of the 1999 Macpherson Report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which found that the police were “institutionally racist.”
“This has inhibited the reflexes and also reflects the helpless reaction of law enforcement in the recent nights of burning – a too-tough approach to coloureds would only provoked the accusation of racism. Political correctness has seen to that.”
The centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung took a step back from the riots themselves and zoomed instead on the reaction of German commentators. And its assessment wasn’t positive.
Commentators here were too quick to turn negative world events into ammunition for their own agendas. And such facile debate was in danger of producing knee-jerk reactions.
“There is something akin to a German catastrophe vampirism. It takes misfortune, assassination and crime that happens elsewhere in the world and quickly exploits them for the political debate in Germany.”
For instance, the Norway massacre sparked debates about banning the far-right National Democratic Party or reviving mandatory electronic data retention laws — debates which came at the expense of genuine and measured compassion.
And now the riots in Britain had prompted a debate about whether something similar could happen in Berlin and Hamburg.
“The world view in Germany is self-centred. It is oriented towards a quick political commercialisation and it leads to a kind of expert astrology.”
The instant reaction, which the paper likened to packet soup, were a mixture of “genuine concern, an I-told-you-so’ attitude and a pleasurable thrill.”
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung had trouble buying Minister Friedrich’s assurances that nothing like this could happen in Germany. While it was true that Germany’s welfare system and less conspicuous wealth divide absorbed the worst of the social antagonism that had gripped Britain, there was a lesson that Germany must heed, the paper wrote.
“Sadly what the optimistic minister does not mention is that we have long been ignominiously catching up. Income and wealth disparities have grown and not shrunk, even in Germany,” it wrote.
Rather than taking the violent path of Britain’s rioters, however, Germans should look to the Spanish and Israelis who’ve taken to the streets peacefully to protest against the theft of their futures.
“They still have their pride, their hope and their belief in the effectiveness of peaceful argument,” it wrote of the Spanish and Israeli protesters. “The hoodies on England’s streets, it seems, are past that.
“Who can say for sure that Spanish, Israeli, even German youths are not on the same path, even if perhaps a generation later. There is still time to fight the growing divisions in Germany, rather than denying them like Minister Friedrich.”