The hero of this summer is Jürgen Opitz. For weeks now, the mayor of Heidenau, a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has been standing up to the right-wing mob that has been attacking the asylum-seeker facilities in his town.
The fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday finally saw fit to unequivocally denounce right-wing hatred – issuing a call for the basic human right to asylum and rejecting any excuse-making based on the possibly difficult biographies of the attackers – has much to do with Mr. Opitz.
It was Mr. Opitz who summoned Ms. Merkel to visit his city and has refused to be intimidated by the many threats made against him. Mr. Opitz has become an eastern German symbol for the next turbulent transformation that is currently testing Germany – 25 years after reunification.
A quarter of a century ago, then minister of the interior Wolfgang Schäuble, representing the Federal Republic of Germany, and Günther Krause representing German Democratic Republic, signed the Unification Treaty and confirmed the rules for GDR to be admitted into the German state and constitution, the Basic Constitutional Law.
Unfortunately, after the Day of Unity on October 3, 1990, the euphoria in the new German states about their new-found freedom quickly turned to ill-humor about economic decline and rising unemployment. On each succeeding anniversary, the country has focused almost exclusively on the topic of catching up economically.
It was only a quarter of a century later, with the anniversary of the fall of the Wall last November, that reunification finally established itself in the collective German consciousness as a positive historical event.
Back in 1992, 200,000 new citizens per year were said to be the absolute limit that Germany could handle. This year's estimate is 800,000 refugees.
A unified, economically-strengthened Germany had just begun to feel good about itself. It has been as solid as a rock amid the turbulence of the euro zone debt crisis. It has become respected, even loved around the world, 70 years after its liberation from National Socialism.
But it has quickly become apparent that this attractiveness has provoked the next upheaval. Suddenly, Germany is one of the most popular countries among refugees from the crisis areas around the external borders of the European Union. The increasing number of asylum seekers have raised the ghost of xenophobia again. And along with it, it has renewed the East-West debate that seemed to be a thing of the past.
Back in 1992, 200,000 new citizens per year were said to be the absolute limit that Germany could handle. This year’s estimate is 800,000 refugees. In any case, the chancellor’s defiantly-optimistic cry this week that “We’ll meet this challenge!” will only be successful if the fight against right-wing perpetrators of violence finally begins in the former East as well.
We need honesty from the state premiers from eastern Germany. Their collective complaint at the weekend that the East is not much more xenophobic than the West is pathetic. Yes, housing for asylum seekers has also been set on fire in the West, and each single case is one too many. But in the East, arson attacks are more frequent in relation to the number of inhabitants; in addition, there is a significantly higher number of violent attacks on people with a dark skin color.
Researchers have ascertained, for instance, that the fear of the unknown stranger is particularly extreme in places with few foreigners. Xenophobic attitudes are shared in the East by 32 percent of the population, and in the West by 23 percent. Then there’s the fact that competition for jobs in the abandoned reaches of the East is much tougher than in the West.
But from the perspective of those under attack, the crucial difference is that in the West, people are less likely to simply look away: the police arrive immediately, they arrest the perpetrators of violence, large numbers of citizens oppose right-wing demonstrators. In Saxony, the anti-Islamic group Pegida has been met with understanding; in Mecklenburg, Western Pomerania, the police only appear on the scene hours after attacks have occurred in remote villages that are known to be terrorized by supporters of the right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany. In Heidenau, Mr. Opitz had to deal with the police’s assertion that it couldn’t provide adequate protection at a recent welcome celebration for the refugees – which fortunately proceeded peacefully.
The state ministers must stop complaining, better equip their police and openly support the initiatives that exist, also in the East, against right-wing extremism. After reaching economic and political unity, Germany must still work to become unified as a civil society.
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