Germany Conflicted: The Struggle Between Xenophobia and Tolerance


Anti-immigrant graffiti in apartment building stairwell (AP photo)

Germany is at a tipping point as it heads into important national elections in 2017. Hate crimes, particularly those associated with xenophobia, have increased drastically—from 5,858 cases in 2014 to 10,373 in 2015. From 2014 to 2015 crimes against asylum refugee shelters, including violent attacks, more than quintupled. Police reported three hundred crimes against asylum shelters in the first quarter of 2016, exceeding the total number in 2014 and on par with the elevated levels of 2015.

Germany has been a leader within Europe on the refugee crisis, maintaining a welcoming policy toward those fleeing violence and persecution. However, the uneven implementation of this policy has exacerbated existing social divides. Because the German government failed in important ways to adequately prepare the country to receive refugees, many in Germany perceive that the situation has spiraled out of control.

New far-right parties and movements such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) have emerged in the past few years by capitalizing on Euroskepticism and xenophobic fear. Supporters of these groups’ ideologies are primarily responsible for a surge in hate crimes. In 2015 the Ministry of the Interior reported that right-wing extremists committed 90 percent of all hate crimes—including 96 percent of xenophobic hate crimes—91 percent of antisemitic hate crimes, and 98 percent of racist hate crimes.While hate crimes committed by left-wing extremists increased from 94 in 2014 to 96 in 2015, hate crimes committed by right-wing extremists increased from 4,983 to 9,426.Those on the far-right were also responsible for 90 percent of the offenses against asylum shelters.

As support for far-right movements grow along with expressions of hatred, Germans’ acceptance of inclusive, liberal democracy is perhaps counterintuitively becoming more widespread. Several factors explain this complicated and seemingly contradictory state. Germany’s post-World War II history continues to inform and give shape to current trends. The connective power and relative anonymity of the Internet has proved a powerful force for degrading Germany’s longstanding postwar taboo against publicly espousing xenophobic, ultra-nationalist, and racist views. AfD, PEGIDA, and likeminded groups have both benefitted from and contributed to evolving social mores, resulting in a climate in which Germans who nurture intolerant views in private are now more willing to express them publicly.  Thus, while surveys do not show a greater portion of Germans evincing intolerant views, those who do hold such views are becoming more connected, public, politically active, tech-savvy, and accepting of violence. Institutional discrimination, a persistent problem, also gives a green light to hatred, catalyzing violence.

While Germany’s history makes it unique, its struggle against xenophobia-fueled illiberalism is increasingly representative of trends buffeting Europe and the United States. Across the Atlantic —in societies roiled by social change, globalization, and terrorism—demagogic leaders and far-right movements are magnifying and leveraging hatred toward ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. Evidence of this trend can be seen in France where Marine LePen’s anti-Islam, anti-refugee, and anti-European Union (E.U.) positions have contributed to a cycle of violence there, and in the recent U.S. presidential race that fueled hatred, helping lead to a surprising victory for President Donald Trump.

Related Blogs:

In this four-part blog series, Human Rights First will examine the crimes and trial of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist cell whose crimes were left unsolved for over a decade. It will also preview our upcoming report on rising antisemitism, xenophobia, and intolerance in Germany, a trend underscored by structural racism and the inadequacy of state responses to hate crimes.

The NSU Trial: A Case Study in Structural Racism in Germany (Part 1)
The NSU Trial: A Victim-Sensitive Approach to Hate Crime Investigations (Part 2)
The NSU Trial: Responding to Institutional Racism in Law Enforcement (Part 3)
The NSU Trial: The Golden Dawn and Beyond (Part 4)


Published on February 6, 2017


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