Germany’s racist history
Germany is a multi-layered, diverse country with all the sorts of regional charms, historical antagonisms, city feuds and in-group/out-group preferences of any other. But it is also unique and has different traditions and traumas to other countries. As someone who’s lived here a decade, I discover new idiosyncrasies about this place all the time. What I’m saying is that Germany is special, and deeply weird, in ways that aren’t immediately apparent when you first move here.
And yet, there is something it shares in common with other European countries with a history of colonialism, and even with my home country the United States, and that is a tradition of everyday and institutional racism.
It seems it is tempting for some Germans to negate this fact, saying that Germany’s unique history means it has a different set of issues to deal with. In a recent article (“Expat-Splaining”, 12.3) the editor of the English edition of Berliner Zeitung (and one of my former employers) argued that Americans who are trying to “import” discussions about racism to Germany are guilty of “cultural imperialism,” trying to bring “identity politics” where it doesn’t belong. This argument is incredibly off, and the latest in a long line of efforts to erase a vibrant history of exchange of racist ideas and practices between the continents and foist responsibility on to the other.
In fact, racist ideas were born not in the US but in Europe in the 1500s, as explored in the book Stamped from the Beginning by historian Ibram X Kendi. Racism against Africans and Slavs was theorized in Europe and used to justify early colonialism and the origins of the transatlantic slave trade – activities Germany enthusiastically and lucratively participated in. Later on, Germany practiced genocide on the basis of burgeoning racist ideas on more than 60,000 Herero and Nama people in Namibia, an act for which they still have paid no reparations and “eerily presaged” the methods used in the Holocaust years later.
When Hitler rose to power, he searched for examples of segregationist practices that would justify his set of Nuremberg Laws that outlawed various interactions with Jewish Germans. As outlined persuasively in the book Hitler’s American Model by US law professor James Whitman, Hitler’s researchers returned with an extensive catalogue of American race laws that persuaded him that the international community could raise no issue with the Nuremburg laws without being hypocritical about the US’s explicitly eugenicist legal traditions. This was not imperialism, but inspiration.
The idea that this interplay between Europe and the United States of developing racist ideas, laws, and conspiracy theories has suddenly come to a stop is utterly belied by the current immigration regime based on fear and racism. In 2015, European right-wing racist conspiracy theories about Syrian refugees being a Trojan Horse for ISIS terror cells traveled directly to the United States, where individual state governors called for their states to be removed from the US refugee resettlement regime and a young upstart you might know by the name of Donald Trump ran a presidential campaign promising a Muslim ban, constantly referencing Germany, which he said has been “destroyed” by immigration. Shortly thereafter, the AfD rode into parliament echoing many of the same arguments Trump has made (even using his same PR firm to craft campaign slogans). Keeping up, Germany’s fatuous interior minister changed the name of the ministry to “Homeland” (like the HBO show with Claire Danes!) and said in an interview that Islam doesn’t belong to Germany, the latest in a long line of imaginary racist ideas pinging back and forth seeking to exclude and delude to eek out a small political advantage. (In fact, there have been Muslims in German territory since before the country was unified as a state – you can visit proof of this in Berlin.)
The point is, Germany is unique, but not so unique that they only have occasion to discover racism if it’s pointed out by an immigrant from the United States. People who have allegedly lived here for years can’t have missed the political slogans like Kinder Statt Inder (“Children instead of Indians” CDU 2000), Wer betrügt, der fliegt (“Cheaters have to leave,” a reference to racist stereotypes about Roma, CSU 2013) and of course the litany of racist slogans, policies and scandals by the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, the AfD. I suppose a semi-conscious person cannot also miss the endless parade of nazi scandals plaguing the police, Bundeswehr, BAMF and more (a recent scandal had police exchanging doctored pictures of Black refugees in ovens).
Racism in the Ausländerbehörde
Even someone who has just moved here has occasion to find this out, because the one thing all we (non-EU) foreigners have in common is a trip to the place where the institutional racism that troubles Germany’s stable bureaucracy is most utterly apparent, the foreigner’s office, or Ausländerbehörde.
The Ausländerbehörde, (now relabeled in a friendlier tone “Landesamt für Einwanderung”) is a truly wretched institution that has caused deep despair for thousands of people. It is a place where dreams go to die and relationships are forced to end. It is place of long, anxious waits in the cold at dawn and then in rooms stinking of desperation, diapers and tears. It’s a place where the testimony of abusers is decisive over whether their ex gets to remain in the country. It’s a place where petty, vindictive office workers casually destroy lives. And above all, it is a place where institutional racism and xenophobia are on full display.
Anyone who has ever been there knows the drill. You go there at 5am (or earlier) because there are not appointments available for 8 months. You bring every document you have ever possessed, plus ones that don’t exist in other countries, like a document stating you aren’t married. (Apparently in Germany this document is issued fresh daily until the day you marry, other countries just aren’t as organized.) You bring a wad of cash (they won’t tell you how much in advance) because there is no ATM on premises, they don’t accept cards, and if you leave the building you forfeit your place in line. The clerks aren’t allowed to speak any other language than German to you, supposedly because you might be able to sue them if they say something wrong in non-Deutsch. There is no concern about the legal implications of forcing people to fill out documents in a language they don’t understand, or accidentally deporting them because of a linguistic misunderstanding. Oops! If you do speak German then they speak twice as fast and refuse to explain any bureaucratic terms that are over your head. This language issue is made worse by the fact that they so frequently get the law wrong, and jump to the conclusion that they can deport you for things like separating from your partner or not having an international marriage certificate translated. For this reason, one of my friends who is a lawyer always prints out the relevant laws to help the clerks do their job. Other people without a law degree might not be so well-equipped to deal with this.
Above all is the overall sentiment, reiterated in every interaction, that the employees of the Ausländerbehörde are just waiting for the opportunity to make you leave, rooted in a deep-seated belief, reinforced by the law, that foreigners only arrive in this country to take from the real Germans, and that the darker your skin color is the more likely that is true.
I am extremely confident in this assessment and would never be ashamed to state it publicly: the Ausländerbehörde is a prime example of institutional racism.
Listen up, Germany
I point that out because my comments about the Ausländerbehörde in a private facebook group for Americans became the basis for the article mentioned above about how American imperialists import ideas about racism and identity politics to Germany and then tirelessly and condescendingly lecture Germans about these completely foreign concepts.
While this whole set up raises a lot of interesting questions about journalistic practices, it raises an even more interesting question: are some Germans really not aware that the Ausländerbehörde is a terrible, racist pit of despair?
It’s a real possibility. Unlike the political slogans I mentioned above, most Germans have no reason to encounter the Ausländerbehörde unless they are helping to translate for someone there or have married a person from out of the country. In those circumstances, they are probably aware. (Actually, it’s more obvious if you understand German than when you don’t, because you pick up on racist comments by guards and clerks). But other than that, why would Germans know? And if foreigners complaining about their experiences in Germany is considered by some to be imperialism, then we are in a real pickle about how they can ever find out (barring that they join a private Facebook group to listen in.)
So below I’m just going to leave a few German sources here about how racist the Ausländerbehörde is, for people who prefer their lecturing about racism to come exclusively from people of their own nationality in order to avoid “woke imperialism”. They cover incidents of racist violence, racist statements, nazi sympathies, racism against co-workers, and more. They report how people in Germany experience the Ausländerbehorde as a “place of fear” and how people from certain countries are put under “general suspicion” on the basis of stereotypes. Even co-workers aren’t safe from racism at these offices. These are not disconnected, isolated incidents but endemic to the institution that exists to enforce immigration laws that are increasingly exclusionary and increasingly disregard international law.
I’m not sure what a big difference it makes to hear it in German, but then again, I’m always learning new things about this country. Maybe it’s a tradition that to acknowledge the racism that takes place in your name you need to have someone say it several times in German. I know it’s annoying to stick on this point, but foreigners like me live here, and have opinions. And look at it this way: if foreigners won’t tell Germans what goes down at the foreigners’ office, who else will?
And surely if they knew, they would want to change it?
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