Germany on the Edge

Discernible police presence. Berlin, July 30th.

It was as though the Apocalypse was at hand. The big attack, or so it seemed, had finally arrived, ritually choreographed, within shouting distance of the 1972 Munich massacre, in which 11 Israeli athletes died, at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, aided by Neo-Nazis.

But, as the evening unfolded, and the assailant pursued, fulfillment of the right-wing narrative would prove to be elusive. There would be only one gunman, and his politics would turn out to the polar opposite of the Palestinians who ruined Germany’s first Olympic Games since the Third Reich.

For once, the fascists were stumped. The victims of the attack turned out to be Muslims, and the terrorist, the same. There was no way to make a case out of this against immigration, or Islam. The foreigners had packed their bags in advance, and done themselves in, without any assistance.

Heaven forbid if the victims of the Munich killings had turned out to be actual Germans. Anti-refugee sentiment would have soared to new heights, and right-wingers would have what they’ve wanted for months: a German version of the Nice massacre, if not the Brussels or Paris attacks.

Granted, that would be crass. However, if that’s what it will take to mobilize the middle class against multiculturalism, the sacrifice is likely worth it. Fear of sounding like Nazis has silenced Germans for too long. The stress of the refugee crisis offers the best opportunity to overcome taboos against racism inspired by the Americans.

Hailing from Kosovo and Turkey, and the Arab world, with one Greek to spare, Ali Sonboly stole their thunder. Caught on camera defending himself against racist insults. (“I’m German,” he responded), the Breivik-worshipping ethnic Iranian was too complicated to reduce to stereotype.

Instead, what Germany got was a facsimile of the wars in Syria and Iraq, with a mostly Balkan cast. Certainly, that was something to use as source material, against Muslim refugees, as one could argue that there is no point in allowing them to replay their conflicts here. But that theory never made it to press.

If anything, Germans were reminded of Akif Pirincci, the Turkish-German novelist, who, at a PEGIDA rally in Dresden, in 2015, called refugees “invaders,” saying that proponents of multiculturalism should be put in concentration camps. That is, if they could connect the two.

Yet, the figure of the 57-year-old writer was nowhere to be found, as Germany’s media and politicians poured over the killings, confounded by the fact that it was not, as predicted, an attack by ISIS, but by someone who, though of Middle Eastern descent, was, without argument, local.

Even more surprising is the fact that there was little public acknowledgement of the fact that it was the second such attack in a week to be aimed at other foreigners. In the case of the Wurzburg attack, for example, all but one of the victims were Chinese tourists.

There’s no arguing that the Munich attack is not a part of today’s terrorist continuum in Europe. It fits. The problem is that it says more about the crises inspired by racism, amongst minorities and immigrants than it does the anxiety about difference amongst ethnic Europeans.

Given the kinds of pressures minorities find themselves under in this type of environment, in which, as opinion polls and surveys repeatedly show, racist prejudices associated with the extreme right are becoming mainstream, it’s inevitable that immigrants will internalise the hostility they experience. Killing each other, committing suicide, fits within that narrative.

To wit, as soon as he was identified, the one thing that the German media was insistent on pointing out is that Sonboly suffered from severe depression, and had a history of mental instability. Though the analysis was not political, it was a crucial first step in explaining why someone like him would go to such lengths to murder others, particularly in such a premeditated way.

Yet, it did little to account for why he chose to kill persons from the same religious community, also of foreign background. Was it out of frustration that he could not fit in himself, and therefore could only become German by murdering other persons of Muslim descent? No one will ever know.

The lack of context is understandable, given the way that Germans tend to frame what their country means for immigrants. It is a place of unparalleled stability and affluence and retains a resilient welfare state, that has survived the ravages of neoliberalism, albeit in diminished form.

The privilege of living here is inarguable, and, on the right, Germans are inclined to covet the country as though it were a bank. A besieged one, to be precise, in the language populist parties like Alternative für Deutschland, which espouse a mix of neoliberal fiscal policy and racism.

That Germany would also be a place that inspires insecurity is almost impossible to get across, as its stability is an integral part of the Bundesrepublik’s post-WII identity. Affluence is not as general as the ideology would admit, particularly given the Anglo-Americans type economic reforms of the Schröder era, and the uneven integration of the former DDR, which began in the early 1990s.

Germans are not alone in having to contend with this political problem. One of the innovations of European populism is its mixture of left and right, in questions concerning diversity. If we want to preserve the welfare state, we must preserve it for those who deserve it, not outsiders, hoping to unfairly benefit from its largesse.

The Munich killings exposed this ideological continuum, because the killer was himself a minority, rehearsing the anxiety of his national identity, in its most ugly, and retrograde light. By murdering other Germans of immigrant background, Sonboly undoubtedly hallucinated that he was protecting his home for the same reasons that Anders Behring Breivik defended his.

As the gunman’s own background attests, diversity in Germany is inescapable. The issue is the price that its minorities will have to pay for integration – at least the kind they think demanded of them. No wonder some will want to reinvent themselves as Breivik, and not, for example, Osama Bin Ladin. They know that they are Germans, but feel helpless to assimilate further.

By aping neo-Nazis, and appropriating their victims, teenagers like Sonboly are forging identities that uncritically mirror a hostile environment. Racism is their reality principle, or so the message they’re sending reads. As long as we’re worse than you, we can declare ourselves equals.

Their alienation should make us shudder. It is no different then turning to radical Islam, albeit in German nationalist clothing. The problem is that the national turn will not overturn discrimination. The racism will remain, and ultimately privilege groups like ISIS, as alternatives.

Photograph courtesy of the author