Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

GERMANY: Racist Attack Fuels Fear of Far Right

Jess Smee

BERLIN, Apr 24 2006 (IPS) - A brutal attack on a black German has left the victim fighting for his life and has reactivated fears about right-wing extremism in Germany.

Ermyas M, a 37-year-old engineer of Ethiopian descent, was attacked early on Easter morning while waiting at a tram stop in Potsdam in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. His assailants called him a “nigger”, attacked him with a bottle and beat him to the ground.

The German citizen, who is married with two small children, was so badly injured he is in a coma in hospital.

Spurring headlines, political debate and protests by hundreds of Potsdam residents, the attack is a reminder of an unrelenting problem in Germany. Since reunification in 1990, more than 100 people have been killed in racist violence. Across German towns and cities, neo-Nazi groups routinely protest against foreigners.

In Potsdam, insecurity and anger prevail. “Until now we had an atmosphere here where residents, including black or coloured people, could go out at night without fear,” mayor Jann Jakobs told the national daily SüddeutscheZeitung. “Now that has changed.”

Two men aged 29 and 30 have been arrested in relation to the attack but it is not clear if they have links to any right-wing extremist organisation.

Anetta Kahane, chairperson of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Berlin – an organisation named after an Angolan man murdered in 1990 by skinheads in Brandenburg – says the assault in Potsdam is the tip of the iceberg.

“For foreigners living in Germany this problem is permanent,” she told IPS. “After the latest attack, potential victims are more fearful but there is also relief because all the discussions mean they are no longer so alone with their angst.”

Last December there were 818 registered right-wing extremist criminal acts in Germany, of which 57 were violent crimes, according to senior Left Party member Petra Pau. Meanwhile, in its last annual report, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said 10,000 right-wing extremists are now prepared to engage in violence in Germany.

Racist violence intensified in Germany in the years following reunification in 1990. Among the worst incidents, an asylum-seekers’ hostel was firebombed in the eastern port of Rostock in 1992, prompting cheers from onlookers as the inhabitants tried to escape. A year later, five members of a Turkish family were killed after an arson attack on their home in Solingen, western Germany.

These crimes were followed by widespread outrage, police clampdowns and government information campaigns to promote tolerance, but racist violence continues, especially in the east of the country.

Within Germany racist and anti-Jewish attacks are most common in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Berlin, official statistics show. Rampant unemployment and economic and social unease following reunification is widely blamed for this violence.

Today, many black and coloured people avoid travelling to the east and, for those that live there, everyday life is often constrained by racism.

Richard Agyepong, a 29-year-old from Ghana who studies in the eastern city of Potsdam, explained to Berlin’s TAZ newspaper the lengths he goes to in order to avoid trouble. He never goes out alone at night, never responds to insults or jibes and makes sure he never loses his way.

Millions are exposed to racist danger. About eight percent of the population holds a foreign passport, a total of 6.7 million people.

Over the past few weeks, the political debate on social integration of immigrants has flared up, spurred by the high-profile court case of Turkish brothers accused of murdering their sister because she lived a “German” lifestyle. Numerous politicians have urged immigrants to do more to adjust to German society.

But, as the country reacts to the attack in Potsdam, it is increasingly clear that Germans have to become more tolerant too. A recent study by Bielefeld University suggests that xenophobia is rising. Its research showed that 61 percent of Germans think that there are “too many foreigners living in Germany”, up from 55 percent in 2002.

Among political ranks, opinion is divided following the racist attack. Making the front pages, two leading right-wing politicians have controversially suggested the latest incident was not necessarily racially motivated even though the attackers were recorded on an answer machine calling their victim “nigger” and “pig”.

Interior minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, echoing comments from Brandenburg’s interior minister, warned against jumping to conclusions, saying that all that was clear at present was that the person had suffered a violent assault.

“Blond, blue-eyed people are also the victims of attacks, sometimes by attackers who might not even have German citizenship,” Schaeuble said in a radio interview. “That’s not any better.”

Among those angered by his comments, Claudia Roth, the Green party leader, said the conservative party member’s comments on the incident were unworthy of an interior minister.

“To relativise such a racist attack by comparing it with attacks on ‘blond, blue-eyed people’ is cynical and abhorrent,” she said.

Anetta Kahane of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation welcomed the media and political attention focused on this issue, but urged everyone to do more to counter racist violence. She said this was not just a political issue, and that ordinary Germans must wake up to the problem.

“In the west, people blame the east. In the east, people blame the west. Everyone’s talking about this latest tragic attack but no one is questioning themselves, their own attitudes or taking responsibility,” she said. “It is time to take this problem seriously.”

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