Here is the story by Der Spiegel:
A lot happened on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, much of it contradictory, much of it real, much of it imagined. Some was happenstance, some was exaggerated and much of it was horrifying. In its entirety, the events of Cologne on New Year’s Eve and in the days that followed adhered to a script that many had feared would come true even before it actually did.
The fears of both immigration supporters and virulent xenophobes came true. The fears of Pegida people and refugee helpers; the fears of unknown women and of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even Donald Trump, the brash Republican presidential candidate in the US, felt it necessary to comment. Germany, he trumpeted, “is going through massive attacks to its people by the migrants allowed to enter the country.”
For some, the events finally bring to light what they have always been saying: that too many foreigners in the country bring too many problems along with them. For the others, that which happened is what they have been afraid of from the very beginning: that ugly images of ugly behavior by migrants would endanger what has been a generally positive mood in Germany with respect to the refugees.
As inexact and unclear as the facts from Cologne may be, they carry a clear message: Difficult days are ahead. And they beg a couple of clear questions: Is Germany really sure that it can handle the influx of refugees? And: Does Germany really have the courage and the desire to become the country in Europe with the greatest number of immigrants?
The first week of 2016 was a hectic one. Tempers flared and hysteria spread. It should be noted that an attack would have triggered similar national emotions, or the murder of a child in a park or any other crime that touched on our deepest fears and serviced our long-held stereotypes — any crime in which a foreigner was involved. On New Year’s Eve in Cologne, it was — according to numerous witness reports — drunk young men from North Africa who formed gangs to go after defenseless individuals. They humiliated and robbed — and they sexually assaulted women.
Their behavior, and the subsequent discussion of their behavior in the halls of political power in Berlin, in the media and on the Internet, could easily trigger a radical shift in Germany’s refugee and immigration policies. The pressure built up by the images and stories from Cologne make it virtually impossible to continue on as before. That, too, is a paradox: The pressure would be no less intense even if not a single one of the refugees and migrants who arrived in 2015 were among the perpetrators.
Refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, foreigners, friendly or evil, new or long-time residents: It doesn’t matter. It seems as though the time has come for a broad debate over Germany’s future — and Merkel’s mantra “We can do it,” is no longer enough to suppress it.
New Year’s Eve marks a shift because it crystallized a widespread unease with state inaction. The happenings on the square between the Cologne Cathedral and the main train station was as symbolic as they were real: symbolic of the state’s powerlessness in the face of chaos and crime.
Two months after the attacks in Paris, one can have one’s doubts as to whether Cologne represents a “completely new dimension of violence,” as has been repeated by both police officials and politicians. What is clear, however, is that the police were unprepared and that they failed. The officers on site were reduced by the circumstances they faced to playing a pitiable role.
Some of the reactions coming from politicians this week were also a bit pathetic. Instead of offering a vision for how national and state politicians intend to integrate hundreds of thousands of foreigners or for how the state intends to finance and organize this new immigration society, many political leaders preferred to merely repeat tired demands for harsh judiciary action and other self-evident legal responses.
The chancellor too joined the legions of phrasemongers and, as has been her wont since last summer, did not have much to offer aside from her fundamental confidence. It is a political path that won’t take her very far anymore. It has felt this week as though voters, if they don’t feel like their concerns are being taken seriously by Merkel’s conservatives or her Social Democratic coalition partners, will search for answers from other, more radical groups. As such, Cologne will be a test for Berlin.
But this hectic, fervid and, at times, hysteric, week has also been about much more: Namely it has been about all of the issues that the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the xenophobic movement Pegida have been shouting about for months. It was about Merkel’s refugee policies and the upper limit for refugees demanded by her conservative Bavarian allies. Added to that was the perpetual problem of violence against women. It was about the integration of foreigners, the danger of a societal split over the refugee question and a shift to the right in Germany. But it was also about the quality of the work done by the police and about a state being unequal to the task facing it. It is a lot to think about. The role of the “lying press” can’t be forgotten either. And yet, it still isn’t entirely clear what actually happened on New Year’s Eve in Cologne.
On Thursday, it was said that 16 suspects had been identified and that some 200 complaints, most of them from women saying they had been victims of sexual assault, had been received. But how did the events unfold?
At 8:57 a.m. on the morning of January 1, the Cologne police department’s press department released a statement under the heading: “Festive Atmosphere — Celebrations Largely Peaceful.” But that isn’t how Cologne police officer Hermann Wohlfahrt had experienced the previous evening.
Wohlfahrt has been a police officer for almost 20 years and has seen a lot: hooligan battles and melees between neo-Nazis and anarchists, for example. When speaking with SPIEGEL about New Year’s Eve, he asked that his real name not be used. Wohlfahrt is a pseudonym.
His street shift began at 10 p.m. and he had been assigned the area around the cathedral and some of the main streets nearby. Some 80 riot police from the 14th Company were on duty that night, which was twice as many as had been patrolling the streets the previous year — an increase that was largely due to fears of terrorist attacks. The Cologne police station had requested the full complement of 124 riot police, but the state police headquarters denied the request.
In the preparatory meeting at 9 p.m., just prior to his deployment, Wohlfahrt learned that there was an unexpected situation at the main train station. In a statement issued later, the police summarized the situation as: “400 to 500 apparently intoxicated persons engaging in conspicuously aggressive behavior. The majority are male and they are firing off firecrackers and rockets in an uncontrolled manner.” In an internal report from Jan. 2, these men were surprisingly quickly, and without any confirmation whatsoever, described as “refugees.” Shortly before 11 p.m., the police began speaking of more than 1,000 people, mostly men and mostly of “North African or Arab origin.”
At the taxi stand on the square, two young women climbed into Lucia Keller’s vehicle and asked her to take them to Breslauer Square, located on the other side of the train station. Keller had been waiting for a fare for an hour and didn’t know what was going on in the area, so she asked the two women why they didn’t just walk through the train station to the other side. “We don’t want to go through there,” was the response. They had already seen what was going on inside.
Hermann Wohlfahrt arrived in front of the train station at around 10:50 p.m. His estimate for the number of men in the square in front of the station and on the stairs leading up to the cathedral is between 1,000 and 1,500. He watched as some of them aimed fireworks at others. And he was surprised that the men seemed completely unimpressed by the police presence.
Wohlfahrt doesn’t know where the men were from. He recalls that some of them kept shouting the French phrase “Pas de problème!”, which means “no problem,” and then continued lighting off their fireworks. “We had no effect on the atmosphere whatsoever,” Wohlfahrt says. Colleagues of his reported seeing two Moroccans trying to take a mobile phone from an Iranian refugee, but it is impossible to confirm that story. It is neither clear that the attackers were from Morocco nor that their victim was from Iran, much less a refugee from Iran.
Wohlfahrt first heard reports of sexual assaults over his police radio. He also heard that a female colleague had become a victim of violence. She had been together with two other officers dressed in civilian clothes in order to track down pickpockets and petty thieves when she was surrounded and indecently touched while others tried to steal her bag. From a police report, Wohlfahrt later learned that, because of the “complexity of the situation as a whole,” the “deployment of uniformed officers” to protect the policewoman “had not been possible.”
By a quarter past 11, all officers belonging to the 14th Company had arrived at the main train station and began clearing the square shortly thereafter, with federal police officers blocking the entrances and exits to the main train station. The operation lasted 40 minutes, whereupon parts of the 14th Company were ordered to deploy to other parts of the Cologne city center. Around 40 officers remained behind at the cathedral and they watched as the area once again began to fill with people. The police established two corridors: One on the narrow area between the top of the stairs and the cathedral, and the other at the entrance to the train station. Several people asked police for an escort, including, as the police report makes clear, many who themselves had “immigration backgrounds.”
One of them stopped Hermann Wohlfahrt not long after midnight and asked him if such events are typical for New Year’s celebrations in Germany.
It took four days before an officer with the federal police force put into writing what, from Wohlfahrt’s perspective, really happened that night. The author makes it clear that the escalation that took place prior to the clearing of the square was caused by “persons with migration backgrounds.” Later on in the “deployment report,” it says that an identification of the perpetrators “was unfortunately not possible.”
His report reads like the protocol of a massacre. “Upon arrival,” it begins, “we were informed of the conditions in and around the station by agitated citizens with crying and shocked children.” Many “upset passersby” ran to the arriving police to tell them about fights, thefts and sexual attacks against women.
Regarding the situation on the square in front of the train station: “Women, accompanied or not, had to run a literal ‘gauntlet’ of heavily intoxicated masses of men of a kind that is impossible to describe.” There were fears that “the situation we were confronted with (chaos) could have led to serious injuries or even to deaths.”
The report mentions deliberate attempts to provoke the police. One example is of someone who “tore up a residency permit with a smile on his face, saying: ‘You can’t touch me. I’ll just go back tomorrow and get a new one.'” Another example mentioned in the report was an unidentified man saying: “I’m a Syrian! You have to treat me kindly! Ms. Merkel invited me.”
By morning, the riot police unit had banned 10 people from the square, taken 11 people into custody and arrested four others. There were 32 criminal complaints and the documents of 71 people were checked. The report indicates that the “majority” of those people whose documents were controlled were only able to produce “a registration document as an asylum seeker” issued by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. The “number of persons from the North Africa/Arab region,” the report notes, was “very surprising” to the officers.
The public, though, was initially left in the dark. An early indication that sexual predators had been on the prowl between the train station and the cathedral appeared around 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day on the Facebook page of a group called Nett-Werk Köln.
There are around 140,000 members of the group and the postings are usually rather run-of-the-mill. It is a local platform for Cologne residents looking for a party space or a cheap car repair shop, for people who have lost their phone or who have picked up a stray cat. The site is operated on a volunteer basis by Phil Daub and a few others. The 47-year-old Daub worked as a moderator in the 1990s for the music broadcaster Viva. Today, he does voice-overs for advertisements and is a voice for the broadcaster Sat.1.
The Jan. 1 entry on Nett-Werk Köln spoke of “horrific scenes in the Cologne train station.” The author wrote of “crying women after multiple sexual attacks in the crowd.” He wrote that he had been in the middle of the throng “hand-in-hand with my girlfriend, which unfortunately didn’t prevent her from being repeatedly grabbed under her dress.” The author combined his narration with a mention of his own efforts on behalf of the refugees who have poured into the country in the last year. “Is it for this that I donated half of the contents of my wardrobe? Is this the new Cologne? Is this the new Germany?”
The entry posted on New Year’s Day can no longer be found on the Nett-Werk site. One of the group’s administrators thought it was the work of a troll and immediately deleted it.
But the short text was nevertheless quickly shared. It was taken over by the kind of people who decorate their Facebook pages with the German flag, demand the resignation of Chancellor Merkel or who are firmly rooted in the right-wing extremist scene.
The tone on Nett-Werk Köln has also become much coarser since the New Year — so course, in fact, that Daub felt it necessary to post a long contribution on Wednesday distancing himself from the content of his own forum. “The fact is,” Daub wrote, “that Nett-Werk is currently a battlefield of verbal violence, mutual accusations of guilt, calls for vigilante justice, insults, abuse, incitement and racism.”
The Facebook site of public broadcaster ZDF has also become a kind of battlefield. There is talk of the “lying press,” conspiracy and state-control. “We are being overwhelmed with hate and anger,” says Elmar Theveßen, ZDF’s deputy editor-in-chief. “The mistrust that we are being confronted with is worrisome.”
Something did, in fact, go wrong at ZDF. Initially, the most important news story of the new year went uncovered by the public broadcaster. Other media had already reported on the events in Cologne over the weekend, including the Cologne tabloid Express, the website of the Munich-based paper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the German news agency DPA. Following the press conference given by Cologne police on Monday afternoon, SPIEGEL ONLINE jumped on the story, as did private broadcaster RTL and Germany’s other public broadcaster ARD. But ZDF remained silent.
On Tuesday, the station issued a public apology for the lack of coverage. “It was a lapse in judgement that the 7 p.m. evening news show didn’t at least mention the incident,” Theveßen wrote on Facebook. Such an open admission of error by a senior manager at a public station in Germany is rare, but Theveßen’s act of repentance did little to calm the doubters.
All established media have been confronted with the same phenomenon. In Germany, there is a stable minority that is convinced that the country’s broadcasters, newspapers and magazines are controlled by dark powers and have agreed to suppress bad news about foreigners so as not to endanger the political project of welcoming refugees.
More than 2,000 users have thus far commented on Theveßens post, with most of the missives of a horrifying nature — a collection of conspiracy theories characteristic of the far-right. One user named Johannes Normann, formerly a regional leader for AfD, wrote: “Does ‘our’ news have to be first cleared by our trans-Atlantic ‘friends’? After all, they ‘ordered’ the ‘Islamic mass-immigration.'”
Another user, Julien F. Weikinnes, wrote: “What would have happened if 100 Pegida followers had raped 300 Muslims? There would probably have been a breaking news alert and a live story from the Cologne train station.”
Those, of course, are just the voices of individuals. Yet according to a survey conducted by Allensbach, 41 percent of Germans believe that critical voices are suppressed when it comes to the refugee issue. On the right wing of the political spectrum, that belief has become a certainty.
Right-wing populists and extremists are positively celebrating what happened in Cologne as confirmation of their long-held beliefs about foreigners and their allies with the “lying press.” Whether PI-News (PI stands for “Politically Incorrect”) or Pegida, whether AfD or the neo-Nazi party NPD, whether the right-wing party ProNRW or the newly converted far-right snobs: All of those who wrote about Cologne reveled in the incident.
“Templer” wrote in PI-News: “The crazy chancellor has allowed millions of male, sexually starved, asocial illegals from the Middle East and Africa to come to Germany. Blond German women are, according to the Koran, ‘prey-women’ who can be abused according to your whims or enslaved.”
“Eurabier” wrote, likewise in PI-News: “The lefty-green lying press … would have liked to have kept this group rape under wraps.”
“eule54” wrote in PI-News: “All of it was predictable from Merkel’s niggers, gypsies and Arabs, who she waved in illegally.”
“Hans-Werner Link” wrote in Facebook: “Where were the girls screaming welcome this time? Those whores would certainly have loved to have their crotches or tits grabbed by countless hands.”
“Stephan Tautz” wrote in Facebook: “Put them on a ship and sink them in the Atlantic.”
There are even worse entries than these ones. But there are also missives with similar messages, yet delivered in a more genteel manner. Thomas Schmidt, in a blog belonging to the new right-wing magazine Sezession, writes of an “ongoing population exchange.” On the website of the magazine Blaue Narzisse, also a right-wing publication, Felix Menzel writes of the need to “throw out non-integrated foreigners, cease paying social benefits to new arrivals and open asylum centers in North Africa and the Middle East.”
And of course Björn Höcke of the AfD shouldn’t be ignored. On Facebook, he wrote: “The events at the Cologne train station on New Year’s Eve gave our country a taste of the looming collapse of culture and civilization. Hundreds of women were victims of a group of 1,000 (!) North African young men.”
No matter how often such nonsense is repeated, it doesn’t make it any more true. Yet the inaccurate, exaggerated numbers have found their way into the global press.
Who should one ask to better understand what happened in Cologne? Wilhelm Heitmeyer is one of Germany’s best known social researchers. For almost 20 years, he has led the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at the University of Bielefeld. His focus is on violence and brutalization, forces that drive society apart.
The fact that women were physically attacked, Heitmeyer says, is nothing new. “That has always happened. What’s new is the constellation and the magnitude.”
He says that the interaction of several factors is likely what made the large number of attacks possible. “The police could have handled 20 men. It follows, then, that there must have been a critical mass of perpetrators with the same idea in mind,” he says. He notes that normal New Year’s Eve happenings also played a role. “On New Year’s, many people tend to collect in small spaces, it is loud and screams can easily be misinterpreted. In addition, large crowds make it more difficult to identify individual perpetrators.”
Heitmeyer believes it is incorrect to speak of organized crime, as German Justice Minister Heiko Maas did this week. “Organized crime has a stable structure with targeted and obscured courses of events. But in Cologne, we are looking at the absence of structure. I assume that the perpetrators coordinated using modern communication devices and social networks. We are familiar with that from violence-prone football fans.”
Because words can generate reality, Heitmeyer warns against speaking of sexual attacks. “That trivializes the phenomenon,” he says. “It’s about violence. And violence is a demonstration of power — in this instance, women’s right to self-determination, in order to express their inequality.”
The search for the perpetrators initially led the Cologne investigators to a criminal milieu, one that has plagued Cologne for years, especially in nightlife districts or around the train station. It’s typically groups of young pickpockets who use perfidious tricks to snatch wallets, phones and other valuables off unsuspecting pedestrians. The perpetrators dance up to their victims in a pretend celebratory mood, rub up against them and rob them. Those who try to defend themselves are insulted, threatened or even hurt.
In Cologne alone, more than 11,000 people have been robbed in this way in the last three years. According to police, all of the perpetrators have been male and in the majority of cases, they have come from North African countries such as Morocco and Algeria. The authorities are also investigating groups of men from central Africa and Kosovo. One person involved in these investigations has said most of the men have been in Germany for quite some time but only have a “tolerated” immigrant status, meaning officials could not confirm their country of origin due to missing travel documents. This milieu has little to do with the refugees who have arrived in Germany recently after fleeing places like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
The perpetrators — among whom are also some Germans — tend to be between 16 and 25 years old and they usually operate in small groups. On any given day in Cologne, there are about 20 of them on the streets. Conviction rates are low, and when they are made, the result is usually just a fine. Thus far, such penalties have not had a deterrent effect.
But all that may now change — now that the criminals have moved on from mere thefts and threats. New Year’s Eve may have marked a dramatic turning point. Sexual assaults were perpetrated en masse in several cities, as if coordinated by some invisible hand. Two of the alleged attacks in Cologne ended in rape. These are serious offenses that can hardly be mentioned in the same sentence as the tricks of the pickpockets.
In one rather explosive development, however, authorities in Cologne were able to locate some of the mobile phones that were stolen on New Year’s Eve. In a number of cases, the trail has led to refugee shelters or their immediate neighborhood.
The stories of Lara, Jeanette and Paul, three university students from Bonn, paint a vivid picture of what so many women experienced on New Year’s Eve. The trio had traveled to Cologne with two other female friends because the parties there are simply better than they are in Bonn. They arrived at the square in front of the train station just as the police were clearing it. They didn’t know what was going on — all they saw was police officers in helmets pushing people back. They continued on to the banks of the Rhine River, a vantage point from which they could view the fireworks, when Jeanette realized that her money, ID and entry ticket for that night’s club had been stolen.
At midnight, they shared a bottle of cheap champagne out of plastic cups and then headed back to the central train station. In front of the stairs leading from the cathedral down to the train station, they had to squeeze past a large group of men. They locked hands, letting Jeanette take the lead because she knew judo. Paul tried to provide some cover for the girls. At one point, Lara cried out: “Someone just grabbed my crotch!” That was just the beginning.
Hands seemed to come from every direction to grab the women’s bodies. They always went for between the legs. Paul’s attempts to protect the women were futile. Providing cover for one left another to fend for herself. “It was one hand after another,” Jeanette says. She was able to throw one attacker “really violently to the side” with a judo grip.
None of the three students can say for sure who attacked them. They are, however, all in agreement that all of the men surrounding them were speaking the same language, and that it sounded a lot like Arabic.
What Lara, Jeanette and Paul experienced in Cologne wasn’t unique to that city. Police reports indicate that a large group of men also gathered along the famous street in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district known as Grosse Freiheit, most of whom were probably of North African descent. These men committed a series of “property thefts with sexual components.”
In Stuttgart, a 20-year-old Iraqi has been in custody since the morning of Jan. 1 for allegedly groping two women at the city’s Schlossplatz square. Police in Frankfurt am Main have reported similar incidents.
Jeanette and Lara, the two students from Bonn, went to the police six days after New Year’s to file complaints for sexual assault. “We want this to be documented,” Lara says. It makes them furious to read in the newspaper that what happened in Cologne came from the pickpocket milieu. The way Lara sees it: “We were systematically sexually harassed.”
By the time Jeanette, Lara and Paul boarded the delayed train that would take them back to Bonn on New Year’s, it was 2 a.m. During the ride, they met a young Syrian who told them about his flight from Damascus through Lebanon and Turkey and eventually by boat to Greece. From there, he continued on foot through the Balkans and on to Germany. Afterwards, they told him about their night in Cologne. He was horrified, they say.
Society should be grateful for witnesses such as Jeanette, Lara and Paul: people who experience horrible things, but who still refrain from resorting to prejudice.
Cologne’s central train station isn’t far from the tower where the office of one of Germany’s leading feminists, Alice Schwarzer, is located. It is from there that she broadcasts her commentaries on current events out into the world. When it comes to the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Schwarzer speaks of “war” and “terror.”
“Young men of Arab or North African descent are playing war in the middle of Cologne,” she writes, describing a “gang-bang party and 1,000 men who were acting as if they were at Tahrir Square in Cairo, dreaming of being heroes like their brothers in the civil wars of North Africa and the Middle East.” They are a product, Schwarzer says, of misplaced tolerance in this country.
Schwarzer is speaking the language of all the people who see the events of New Year’s Eve as proof that sexual violence is an imported problem — a result of failed immigration. Young German feminists see it differently.
They argue that sexual violence is not a migrant phenomenon at all, but a long-standing, societal problem. Young feminists like Anne Wizorek criticize that Schwarzer — along with many others — is using the New Year’s violence to fuel racist sentiment. They also criticize that broad swathes of society are acting as though there wasn’t any sexual violence in Germany before the refugees arrived.
Every year during Oktoberfest, for instance, there are a number of sexual assaults, even rapes. Men grab women inappropriately at clubs across the country. At public viewing sites, where people gather to watch soccer, or Karneval, the boundaries between playful flirting and malicious badgering are quick to blur. Nearly 60 percent of German women say they have been sexually harassed, according to a 2004 study. Sixty percent! It’s impossible that such a staggering number of women were only harassed by men from North Africa.
Young feminists are being asked why they haven’t been showing their outrage over the latest attacks as strongly as they did three years ago with the hashtag “#aufschrei,” German for “outcry.” At the time, a politician with the FDP party named Rainer Brüderle made a lewd comment to a female journalist and set off a wave of criticism on Twitter. Is it because many of the attackers this time around were migrants? Is that what they call political correctness?
When emotions are running high, nuanced opinions tend to be drowned out by the hysteria. A black-and-white view of the world takes hold and politicians promise swift, conclusive “solutions,” as if such a thing were possible.
In this environment, reports of everyday sexism are hardly even registered in the public sphere because they don’t match some people’s perception of everyday life. But in some areas, everyday life has been in such disarray for such a long time that many speeches about the need for a strong integration policy sound like empty words.
Ercan Yasaroglu, a social worker from Berlin, was appalled when he heard about the attacks in Cologne. He was furious and dismayed, but he wasn’t surprised. “What happened in Cologne has been happening here in Berlin for a year, but on a smaller scale,” he says.
Yasaroglu works in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. In recent months, he has seen how, time and again, women are verbally harassed, then groped, then robbed. “This is not some sudden loss of inhibition, but calculated action by criminals.” Thieves intentionally distract women with sexual assaults, he says, and many of those responsible are from countries in North Africa. Some of them have had their applications for asylum rejected, leaving them with a “tolerated” immigration status and a miserable life.
From his office at Kottbusser Tor in the heart of Kreuzberg, Yasaroglu gazes out at snowy streets. He has lived here since fleeing Turkey 30 years ago. To him, Kreuzberg seemed like a German melting pot of sorts, a place where people from around the world can live together more or less peacefully. But the atmosphere has changed in the last year or two. It’s gotten rougher, more hostile.
A dozen gangs, roughly 10 to 15 people in size, have divided the neighborhood up amongst themselves and are increasingly terrorizing residents and tourists. The number of registered drug-related crimes has increased by 90 percent in the last year, the number of pickpocket thefts by 30 percent. Numerous business owners in the area complained in a letter to the city government of the new level of aggressiveness at Kottbusser Tor. The square is dominated by criminals.
What’s the best way to deal with such problems? A year ago, Yasaroglu wrote a letter to Berlin politicians requesting they make integration work a higher priority. But he also asked for a greater police presence in Kreuzberg. “If we can’t — or don’t want to — integrate these people, then we need to at least monitor them.”
Integration, integration policy, repression, immigration policy, caps on immigration: The events in Cologne have profoundly changed the dynamics of Berlin politics. Chancellor Merkel and her confidants fear that it will only get more difficult to enforce their current refugee policy.
Merkel doesn’t usually comment on events until she has the full story. The fact that she has already responded to the violence in Cologne by saying that it deserved a “tough response by the state” shows how seriously she takes the matter.
Her fears are shared at the highest levels of her governing coalition. The parliamentary group leader of her Christian Democratic party, Volker Kauder, says he is concerned that what happened in Cologne will inflame already negative attitudes toward refugees. Kauder says the hate mail he receives has gotten more aggressive since New Year’s.
Many members of German parliament report having similar experiences as Kauder. Gunther Krichbaum, chairman of the Committee on the Affairs of the European Union and a supporter of Merkel’s refugee policy, says: “Cologne has the quality of changing the entire debate over refugees.”
In fact, that’s already happening. Merkel is suddenly calling for a “tough response,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière says it must be easier in the future to deport delinquent asylum seekers. Justice Minister Heiko Maas, who is otherwise rather reserved, has said it may be possible to deport offenders.
Top Christian Democratic and Social Democratic leaders have until now avoided using such sharp language. But they are worried that right-wing movements like Pegida or populist parties like the AfD could become even more popular if the federal government is seen as being too soft on foreigners who commit crimes.
The Christian Democrat’s new party line can be found in the so-called “Mainz Declaration,” which the party’s federal-level leadership intends to adopt this weekend. In the case of offenses like the one in Cologne, the declaration foresees “potential perpetrators being immediately ordered into custody” if there is sufficient suspicion against them. In the case of violence against police officers and other emergency personnel, a new designation will be created that will come with “significantly higher prison sentences.” And anyone who is sentenced to imprisonment without parole will forego his or her right to being classified as a refugee or asylum seeker.
The leader of the Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, presented his party’s new stance on the issue during a breakfast with other Social Democratic cabinet members at the Economy Ministry on Wednesday. “The time for understanding is over,” he said. “Something must now be done — otherwise the people won’t understand us at all anymore.” Parliamentary group leader Thomas Oppermann tweeted after the meeting in a manner that would usually be ascribed to members of the right-wing AfD: “No pardon for sex attackers. Investigate, arrest, punish harshly. And deport them if possible. To protect the victims and the refugees.”
Even Merkel’s style of communication has changed.
The “events in Cologne” on New Year’s Eve: It is a formulation that takes no time at all to type or, for politicians and functionaries, to speak into a microphone. But doing so is the first mistake. The word “events” seems so passive, so unavoidable. But what happened in Cologne was more than fate, they were violent sexual assaults perpetrated against women by groups of men. And if the numbers and portrayals are true, then one can use a term that is among the ugliest in a societal context: mob.
A mob is a collection of people that establish a social dynamic within which pretty much all other rules are ignored. Violence is often the result. A mob is a mobile, transitory, extralegal space — established by those who temporarily peel away the thin veneer of civilization.
Social media, particularly Facebook and WhatsApp, have taken on a complex collection of roles in Germany. They constitute alternative public spheres, but are also platforms for documentation, discussion and organization. That sounds fantastic, and it sometimes is — but not always. Because in the wake of the attacks committed on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, it can also be seen how online mobs are established. And the degree to which they can escalate from the Internet into the real world can be gauged.
The manner in which the attacks in Cologne are being perceived, discussed and processed in social media would be worth a dozen catastrophe-sociology studies, but the “events in Cologne” should be examined at the outset.
What exactly happened there cannot — yet, at least — be described as precisely as many would like, which makes it difficult for people to cram them into their specific political worldview. If one is to take a sober look at what has thus far been established — by examining videos, stories in the media, police reports and witness testimony — the following picture emerges:
A group of around 1,000 people, heavily under the influence of alcohol, felt that, in celebrating the New Year, it was necessary to shoot fireworks at others or have them fired at themselves. That is doubtlessly imbecilic, but in the mass-drunkenness that often accompanies the explosive celebrations at the end of the year, it is an accepted absurdity in this country. Out of this group of people, small mobs made up of up to 40 men repeatedly formed, in apparent accordance with a plan: That of assailing women with intentions of both robbing them and sexually assaulting them. The police has spoken of “organized crime” and, disturbingly, of “repeat offenders known to the police.” At the same time, though, it would seem that an aggressive atmosphere was established on the square in front of the Cologne train station that went beyond these mobs — one characterized by sexism and violence toward women.
On the basis of many corresponding witness statements, police have spoken of “men with a North African or Arab appearance” in reference to both the large group and to the smaller mobs that grew out of it. This bit of information has launched a societal communication process that is made up almost exclusively of precipices and pitfalls.
Because yes, there is a problematic image of women in Muslim cultural circles. And yes, it must be investigated how this image of woman might lead to violence in Germany as well — particularly when mobs form that could be connected to those cultural circles (please note the word “could”).
It is also legitimate and necessary to include the cultural backgrounds of the perpetrator groups in the investigation. Anything else would be counterproductive window dressing, because mobs are formed out the explosive intensification of pre-existing social currents. That is the reason why German mobs hunt down foreign-looking people: It is the detonation of racism already present in our society and culture. It is easy to imagine the same happening in societies and cultures were sexism is already present.
In this context, however, it is essential to differentiate between those people who perpetrated crimes in Cologne and those thought to look like the people who perpetrated crimes in Cologne. This is crucial, and it is also extremely difficult because differentiation is but an arm’s length from trivialization. And also because the justified abhorrence over the attacks leads to anger — and anger is the emotion that is least interested in examining context and background. But it is absolutely necessary: Differentiation is civilization.
Being civilized means that, even after you meet nine black-haired people in a row who prove to be assholes, you don’t punch the 10th person you meet in the mouth simply because he has black hair. There isn’t a catalyst that suddenly makes racism acceptable. Those who, against the backdrop of the attacks in Cologne, are suddenly wondering if perhaps racist generalizations are OK after all were racist all along and were simply afraid to out themselves.
This is where social (and, in part, professional) media comes into play. In the wake of the New Year’s mob in Cologne, a seemingly (to me) unprecedented wave of racist indignation has crashed over the German-language Internet — a wave that has all the elements of being a digital mob:
- radical, misanthropic generalizations (that conflate the Cologne perpetrators with all people who look like them, such as refugees, for example);
- an accelerated lowering of inhibitions created by mutual reinforcement (every racist transgression moves the limits of what seems acceptable a bit further);
- the dissemination of a quasi-apocalyptic sensibility as justification for radical thoughts and action;
- calls for concrete plans for acts of revenge and violence combined with threats of violence against those who would stand up to the mob mechanism.
Right-wing radicals in Cologne, for example, have already arranged to meet in order to hunt down foreigners. A mob is to be confronted by a counter-mob — which is, for civilization, the worst-case scenario. Particularly telling are the racist and sexist calls to go to Cologne to ostensibly “protect our women.” When exactly those people who otherwise spend the year telling women that they should button up their blouses suddenly start promoting women’s rights, then it is instrumentalized racism.