Watching the fallout from the New Year’s Eve incidents in Cologne and several other German cities has been like watching the shock waves from an explosion as it gradually surges outwards in all directions. And it’s far from over.
170 victim reports have been filed to Cologne police. Many charges relate to theft, and many involve sexual assault, including at least one rape, allegedly perpetrated by men of ‘North African appearance’. But on the evening itself, police failed to respond adequately – in some cases at all – to victims’ reports, despite larger presences across Germany due to a terror warning in Munich. In fact, 500 officers were present in the square in Cologne. (Here’s a good summary in English, put together by the editors and writers at Der Spiegel.)
It is the sexual assault that has been at the centre of the story, not the victims. Indeed, it is the idea of sexual assault perpetrated upon German women by foreigners that has been the epicentre of the political explosion. Since 1 January, there have been calls to close the borders, end all German intake of refugees and asylum seekers, and immediately deport any non-German found guilty of sexual harassment. These calls have been echoed across the political spectrum. In fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a politician who has not made some sort of public statement on ‘Cologne’, including the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose portfolio does not usually include sexual assault and petty theft on the streets of Cologne.
Not even the Paris terror attacks of November last year appear to have had such a destabilising effect on Germany’s so-called ‘open door’ policy on immigration and asylum – but perhaps that is because the mass killings in Paris didn’t involve questions of moral and cultural standards around sexuality and gender relations.
By now, it is well-known how ferociously the events have been seized upon by conservatives and radical right-wing groups opposed to immigration. The language of the public debate has been predictably filled with calls to defend ‘our women’ from the ‘uncivilised’ hordes of medieval barbarians from the Middle East. Vigilante groups have formed. One announced on Facebook that it would be organising ‘patrols’ around Cologne with the intention of ‘cleaning up’.
‘We’re not out to start a war,’ the group stated, ‘but neither will we turn a blind eye when women are attacked and groped.’
‘We want to step up and offer our assistance,’ said the founder of Cologne Citizens’ Defence (which recruits from sports fighters, bodybuilders and bouncers), in order to ‘make the city safe for our ladies.’ Within a few days its Facebook presence ballooned to over 9000 members.
On Sunday night, a group of at least 20 men attacked 11 ‘foreigners’, including Pakistanis, Guineans and Syrians. Two of the victims were hospitalised. On Tuesday in the eastern city of Leipzig, following a rally by the local branch of right-wing anti-Islam movement Pegida, more than 200 Nazis went on a rampage through a left-wing district smashing shops and businesses. Earlier at the rally, placards bearing slogans such as ‘Rapefugees not welcome’ could be seen.
To an Australian audience, these arguments might sound familiar: ‘Defending our women’ was a catch-cry of the Anglo-Australian mob on a racist rampage in Cronulla in 2005. Almost a decade later, following an alleged sexual assault by a Sri Lankan asylum seeker, then Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison called for the same demands now emerging from the German parliament: increased criminalisation, surveillance and police controls of asylum seekers.
In Germany, feigned concern for women has by no means been the preserve of right-wing street movements. Rather, it has been reflected at every level of the political establishment. Loud and indignant statements have been made by many conservative politicians – some of whom, as recently as 1997, voted against legislative reform to (finally!) criminalise rape within marriage.
As left-wing publicist Jakob Augstein noted in Der Spiegel, ‘the women of Cologne are but minor characters’ in the unfolding spectacle. In fact, Augstein notes, women are being doubly abused, as illustrated by the front covers of centre-right Focus magazine, and the centre-left daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Both covers manage to be racist, and gratuitously, viscerally sexist at the same time.
It has been seductive for many, including liberal feminists, to throw the focus onto what Germany’s former minister for women, Christian Democrat Christina Schroeder, called the ‘violence-legitimising masculinity norms of Muslim culture’. Certainly, the latest published information on the perpetrators make such lazy thinking easy: Cologne police now say they have identified 19 suspects (a far cry from the 1000 figure that was still being quoted a week ago), none of whom is a German citizen. Nine of them are in Germany ‘illegally’, ten are asylum seekers. The majority are from the North African region, mostly Morocco. One hails from Syria.
According to Cologne police statistics, 40 per cent of North African immigrants fall foul of the law in some way within 12 months of arrival (compared with 0.5 per cent of Syrians). North Rhine-Westphalian Interior Minister Ralf Jäger claims that this is due to pressure upon young men to begin earning money as quickly as possible in large sums, ‘in order to pay their people smugglers’. This may be part of the picture, to be sure, but social and economic exclusion is also a significant factor – it always is where petty crime is involved.
These suspects have posed a challenge to unhelpful narratives aimed at denying any asylum seeker involvement. But, along with holding individual perpetrators to full account, the conditions of possibility for such acts need to be tackled. As such, it’s even more important to take a principled stand against racism, Fortress Europe and social exclusion.
Furthermore, we need a solid commitment to women’s rights. Socioeconomic inequality is a major fertiliser for sexist ideology. Too many commentators to mention here have identified the utter hypocrisy of the responses outlined above, given the evidence of sexual assaults at events like Oktoberfest in Bavaria, and Carnival in Cologne itself. Even the most conservative police figures of reported rapes at Oktoberfest are between two and ten per year. In 2015, 26 sexual assaults were reported at the festival, including two cases of rape. The police report for one of the assaults described how a woman was charged with grievous bodily harm and issued a four-figure fine when, in response to ‘a playful grope under her skirt’ (police description), she turned, beer glass in hand, and struck the perpetrator in the head.
There is an enormous body of scholarship and statistical evidence detailing and describing everyday sexual assault and sexualised and gendered violence in Germany – which shows there is nothing imported about sexism.
The Cologne events occurred within hours of, and possibly even simultaneously to, Merkel’s nationally broadcast New Year’s address (here with English subtitles), in which she thanked her people for the ‘warmheartedness and devotion’ they had shown refugees fleeing war and death in 2015. She thanked volunteers, military, civil servants and police, who ‘even at this moment’ (!) were contributing something ‘extraordinary’ to the project of integration and social cohesion.
Days later she lashed out viciously, saying that the ‘full force of German law’ should be mobilised in response to Cologne. Concern or sympathy for the victims was barely discernible. As one presenter on national television network ARD remarked, such statements are surely obvious, given that the ‘full force of German law’ applies in principle to every German citizen as well. Merkel has thus been shown a hypocrite: golden words of welcome in her New Year’s Eve address, followed by a searing legal double standard just a few days later.
Above all, this situation poses a strategic challenge to Merkel: given all the ‘our values’ talk, and her celebration of the ‘open door’, it is impossible for her to pursue an openly racist line with any legitimacy. Using the events in Cologne to halt refugee intake would look foolish: from the right’s perspective it would be an admission that the policy was wrong in the first place, and for the left it would indicate a failure to uphold the Geneva Convention, or defend a policy that many believe is Merkel’s single positive contribution during her entire Chancellorship. This has left the government (including its Social Democrat partners) scrambling for a response that is strong-armed enough to placate the hardened anti-immigration conservatives in Merkel’s own CDU/CSU, but which does not look like a blanket racial profiling of 1.1 million new Germans.
Two short paragraphs from Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle neatly summarise the double message coming from Berlin:
[Germany’s Justice Minister, Heiko] Maas added that ‘cultural background justifies or excuses nothing. … For us, men and women have equal rights in all matters. Everyone who lives here must accept that.’
In the coming days, Maas’ Social Democrats (SPD) are expected to join coalition partners, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s (CDU) in presenting new laws to the Bundestag that would expedite the deportation of asylum seekers and migrants who commit crimes. The administration has received a hefty amount of criticism for ill-preparedness when dealing with the open-door policy it has adopted towards Europe’s migrant crisis.
Article 53 of the Residency Law, which states that asylum applications will not be affected or influenced in any way by convictions carrying sentences of less than 3 years’ prison, is now being opportunistically described as a legal loophole.
Merkel’s Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière, has proposed strengthening government powers to deport non-Germans by expanding the list of criminal convictions forming grounds for deportation to include petty crime and lower-level sentencing. The fallout is also spilling into neighbouring countries. Members of both the Dutch and Slovakian governments have expressed their interest in restricting specifically Muslim refugees from entering their countries, citing Cologne as their reason. The truth is that they did not need another reason – Merkel has been under consistent attack from the far right of her own coalition party for her open-door policy, and the right-wing populist Pegida street movement had some successful mobilisations long before the events of New Year’s Eve. But the popular understanding of the Cologne events as evidence of a uniquely Muslim threat to European women certainly makes pushing these policies much easier.
Among feminists, liberals and the left, responses have been varied. A chorus of commentators have been quick to press the need to fight both sexism and racism at the same time, and banners at a demonstration in Cologne just days after news of the assaults emerged bore slogans to that effect. A resolution passed on Tuesday by the parliamentary caucus of the left party, Die Linke, strongly opposes moves by the Merkel government to toughen asylum policy and compromise the rule of law. It also draws critical attention to the German military interventions and weapons exports to the Middle East that have contributed to the creation of the asylum and refugee influx.
Some commentators from the liberal left, though, have called for more police. But if 500 police officers did nothing to help victims on New Year’s Eve, a continuing increased presence is hardly going to help. Other responses have revealed the truly bizarre effect when surveillance logic is given a ‘feminist’ spin: one call distributed by Australian feminist group Destroy the Joint was for the introduction of curfews! Which is little different to Scott Morrison’s suggestion of special behavioural protocols for refugees and asylum seekers beyond the existing legal framework.
A good list of solutions to the issue of sexual assault and harassment has been put together by the #ausnahmslos campaign, launched as a successor to the #aufschrei hashtag of a few years ago. But the list is incomplete. There are no demands directed at alleviating the socioeconomic effects of capitalism that enable and perpetuate gender inequality and sexism. Without directly tackling this aspect – that is, pay inequality, legal inequality and employment inequality, all of which lead to lack of financial and legal independence and thus greater susceptibility to coercion, as well as propping up the idea that women have less social value – little will change for women in Germany, or anywhere else.
In terms of the continuing fallout from Cologne, one thing is clear: in the German government’s attempts to maintain control over its future course, and as pressure from an increasingly confident right-wing grows, the prize role of victim will continue to be shunted onto society’s oppressed – women, refugees and asylum seekers, the socially excluded and disadvantaged. The only effective response can be to oppose the trend and increase collective solidarity.