Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Kristallnacht and the Present

Twenty one years ago tonight, one of the most unexpected, and significant, events in modern European history took place. The fall of the Berlin Wall, and the consequent collapse of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), was an event that took almost everyone by surprise and as such remains full of emotionally charged memories. Footage of men with mullets in leather jackets weeping for joy at being able to traverse the few metres of the Death Zone unabetted is not easily forgotten.

I've written about the rather horrible cooincidence of history that means Germans must commemorate both one of their proudest moments with one of their most shameful in a previous post, so I won't go into much detail here. On Sunday I laid a Rose at the memorial to the unknown prisoner as part of a service of remembrance organised by the German Trade Union Congress, at which the representative for Munich, Matthias Jena, pointed out the similarities between the events of Kristallnacht and the current political 'hot potato', integration.

In late August a German Social Democrat politician, Thilo Sarrazin, published a book entitled Deutschland schafft sich ab, or "Germany does away with itself", in which he argues that immigration is slowly destroying Germany through a lack of social integration. He highlights in particular the negative impact of Islam on German culture. This is not a surprising view for him to hold given the group most associated with post war immigration is Turkish workers.

These views hit a raw nerve in Germany, and over the past three months or so it has been a huge topic of national debate. There are many who sympathise with his fears, and there have been many television debates relating to the topic. In fact one of the themes to arise from the publication of the book is the freedom of Germans to discuss questions of racial and cultural integration without being dismissed as 'Nazis'. When the SPD discussed the possibility of terminating Sarrazin's membership on the basis of holding views that were 'not compatible' with the party, many construed this as an attack on his right to speak freely.

It's an extremely difficult situation. There are many Germans who fear immigration and are angered at the seeming unwillingness of immigrants to integrate, yet they are instantly told by those who are supposed to represent them that there is no problem. They thus think that there is a problem and that they are now a surpressed majority. The history of many nations tells us that a 'silent majority' that feels marginalised is a very dangerous force indeed.

At the service on Sunday Matthias Jena was quite clear as to where the comparisons lie. He was quick to point out the poignancy of the memorial service coming in the middle of such a public debate, and that the current debate over integration was developing into a debate over selection.

These are topics that all nations find extremely hard to discuss openly. We in the UK are no different; just substitute 'Turkey' with 'Pakistan'. However as Germany commemorates the night on which the persecution of the Jews finally left the law court and erupted into the streets, they will continue to keep in mind where misunderstanding and intolerance can lead, as well as what happens when one marginalises the problem rather than dealing with it face to face.

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