Saturday 18th October 2015, Henriette Reker – a mayor-candidate of Cologne – was stabbed several times during a pre-election party. Reker was not only an independent – yet very promising – candidate but she also used to be in charge of the local accommodation of refugees in Cologne. Even though she and four other persons got severely injured, she won the election the next day.
So what’s the story behind the attack? The offender claims Reker’s refugee policy to be the cause: “By killing her, I wanted to do Germany a favor”. Now we know that his motives were xenophobic, and that he was connected to a – nowadays forbidden – right-wing extremist organization called Liberal German Worker’s Party.
An attempted murder motivated by someone’s refugee policy must be a meaningful wake-up call for Germany. So far, this gesture remained an isolated incident. However it is very important to ask: how did we come to this?
The answer is rather complex. It involves a combination of different factors.
First of all, the role of economic inequalities within German society: the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. This context makes very likely a “war between the poor”; the lower social strata fight with the migrants in order to obtain a part of the public welfare. Or, at least, this idea of “competing miseries” is instilled in the citizens’ perceptions by the propaganda of the far right.
Second, the Euro Crisis: many Germans fear that they will have less because the German government gives so much money to Greece. They are afraid to loose their wealth and living standard, but also their national sovereignty.
Third: the increasing complexity of politics in a global context. What happens in Syria, Crimea or Hungary clearly has an impact on Germany, directly or indirectly. This originates a very understandable – yet worrying – reaction: closing the borders in order to shut out the migrants as well as every other problem. This “solution” is proved to be very successful also in Switzerland, Austria, and Poland, just to mention a few examples. Indeed, it is far from being a German issue.
Moreover, one must consider that the so-called refugee crisis is particularly relevant in the German public debate. Up to a million asylum seekers are expected in Germany in 2015, while in 2013 there were only 130.000 applications. Why are these refugees coming to Germany/Europe? In short, there are several causes: the ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq; the fundamentalist terror by IS and Taliban in the Near and Middle East; Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab in Africa; the Eritrean dictatorship; last but not least, the fact that in the last years the Western States gave less and less money to those on-the-spot refugee programs and the UN aid programs.
Economic inequalities, unemployment, globalization, and the refugee crisis: they all contribute to form the social background – the Zeitgeist – that allows understanding the attack to Henriette Reker. However, two more ingredients should be added at the core of this indigestible recipe.
First of all there are the political reactions, especially from Angela Merkel, going in the direction of a more tolerant approach to the refugee crisis. And secondly, Eastern European countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary) are either not capable or not willing to provide refugees the slightest form of protection. In a humanitarian act the German government allowed many of those refugees to enter Germany even though the Dublin treaty forces those countries where the refugees first arrive to deal with their asylum applications.
As a consequence, an unsettling number of German citizens have been demonstrating against refugees and foreigners in Germany for almost a year now. Those people marching in the PEGIDA ranks every Monday in Dresden are not only extremists or Nazis; some of them are just worried or scared citizens. It doesn’t really matter whether their fears are justified or not. They exist and they need to be heard by the political elites. However, the only ears ready to listened to these worries were PEGIDA and Alternative for Germany. But they didn’t only listen, they rather augmented and manipulated these fears and in return made the people feel that their anger was legitimate and that ‘the German people’ as a homogeneous group didn’t want those refugees.
This radicalizing attitude among disillusioned far right-wing activists as well as “common citizens” was visible already during last summer: quite a few (planned) shelters for refugees were set on fire, and when Chancellor Angela Merkel was due to visit a center for asylum-seekers that was hit by violent far-right protests, two other refugees shelters were set on fire.
There is one thing all Germans can do about this escalating situation. Stand up and disclaim xenophobia and violence, showing to extremists and far right-wing activists that their position is neither legitimate nor the majority opinion. Hopefully, Angela Merkel will continue to reject criticism of her open-door refugee policy, even if this means losing support and stirring up the blind rage of some vulgar racist. Even if this will mean to face another attack as the one against Henriette Reker.
Because give in to the blackmail of the ultra-right would be the first step in a direction of no return.
 Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the occident.
 Alternative für Deutschland.
 Cfr. with: The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. Interview to Ruth Wodak.
 Since recently they even claim: ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (We are the people), clearly being inspired of the GDR citizens in 1989.
Tanja Wolf is the author of this article for POP. Her research interests concern the right-wing parties in Europe as well as right-wing populism and extremism. She also studies left-wing propaganda, especially in former socialist or communist states. She works at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität in Würzburg, Germany.