Twenty years ago, two women of Turkish descent and three young girls were killed in their home during a far-right arson attack in Solingen, North-Rhine Westphalia. Three days earlier, on May 26th 1993, Germany’s asylum laws were drastically tightened. It appeared at the time as a bleak triumph for xenophobes especially given earlier pogroms and racist attacks in places such as Hoyerswerda, Rostock and Mölln.
Those crimes left a macabre trail that has continued to the present day, climaxing in the ten murders carried out by the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground (NSU) group. Most of their victims were also people of Turkish origin.
It is no coincidence that on the 20th anniversary of the Solingen attacks, the “Genc Prize for Peace and Harmony” will be awarded to Sebastian Edathy, member of parliament and chairman of the NSU investigation committee, and Ismail Yozgat, the father of one of the NSU victims. The award is named after the Turkish family whose house in Solingen was targeted by neo-Nazis.
Survivors of the family, some of whom have German citizenship today, are firmly championing reconciliation and understanding, awareness and integration.
Since 2006, the German government has held an official “integration summit”, which met on Tuesday in the chancellory. The summit is used by Chancellor Angela Merkel to push for a dialogue between different cultures and religions, to raise education and German language levels among migrants and urge Germans to be more welcoming.
It is not just an attempt to be nice, but also regarding the lack of skilled workers in Germany and a demographic development that has prompted the country to look for more qualified immigrants. “Children, not Indians,” a 2000 populist campaign slogan of the Christian Democratic Party in response to plans to invite foreign IT workers, is unthinkable today.
Germany has long been a land of immigration. Still, the word “migrant” is used in politics and the media to describe people who have lived here for decades because it sounds softer, temporary and casual. But in reality, much has changed on the cultural, political and factual level since the Solingen attack. But a lot doesn’t mean everything.
In Germany, just like in most other European nations, racism, xenophobia and right-wing extremism continue to exist, with surveys showing that around 25 percent of the population in European nations are wary of foreigners and outsiders.
The foreigner traditionally serves as a scapegoat especially in times of economic crisis when governments try to divert attention from their own problems. For instance, Angela Merkel is the most prominent foreigner being symbolically sacrificed as the scapegoat in populist political debates in Italy and Greece. But when the victim lives in the vicinity and is unprotected, the symbolic can easily turn deadly serious. Today, Sinti and Roma in southeastern Europe are experiencing exactly that, as a people who are still persecuted and ostracised.
This is different from a few unspeakable racist comments emanating from the dregs of the debate surrounding Thilo Sarazzin, a controversial banker turned author. But that doesn’t mean every blabbering idiot who airs his opinion online is going to turn into a thug or a murderer. And not every opinion poll is cause for alarm. Those who ask overly simple questions such as “Are you in favour of hiring foreign workers in the face of three million jobless in Germany?” shouldn’t be surprised by the answers.
Reality is much more complex than politically correct theories. Every abused asylum-seeker, who is often held in deplorable conditions for years, every person with a foreign-sounding surname being dismissed without a reason while looking for a job or an apartment – that’s just one too many. Not to mention victims of explicit violence at railway stations, at bus stops and in other public places. Or even the scandalous no-go areas, especially for black foreigners, in eastern Germany.
And yet, the majority of the predominant group in society has transformed. Whether during calm or turbulent times in a globalised world, migration is normal. It means a burden, a challenge as well as an enrichment.
Twenty years ago, then Chancellor Helmut Kohl did not visit Solingen after the attacks. Today that would be unthinkable, because a colourful, diverse Germany is a reality not confined to the ranks of its successful national football team.