Germany is Not the Anti-Racist Model We’re Looking For

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Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, photo by Marius Serban

Over the past few weeks I have come across a number of posts heralding Germany as a model for how to reckon with grave atrocities committed at the national level. This narrative is not new, but it has again gained traction as statues commemorating Confederate generals, colonial leaders, and others are torn down across the country and around the world. In the eight years I spent living in Germany I often raved about the six weeks of paid vacation or never having to worry about losing health coverage, but the more I understood about how racism and white supremacy continue to shape German society, the more uncomfortable I became with the notion that Germany should be looked to as a model for anything having to do with societal inequity. Instead, what we can learn from Germany is that atoning for past national sins does little for future generations if the systems that allowed those sins to occur are not dismantled.

In the late 1960s, after more than 20 years of fraught silence culminating in unruly student-led protests, Germany began an exerted national effort to “come to terms with the past.” In the decades since, countless memorials to the victims of the Holocaust have been erected and former concentration camps have been transformed into remarkable museums and educational facilities detailing the horrors carried out during the Nazi period. These memorials and museums are unquestionably good things.

Yet, these sites, and the broader “culture of remembrance” cultivated around them, tell just one part of a longer, more complex story. Focusing only on this excerpt of German history is akin to celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. for “fixing” racism. In the case of Germany, taking a narrow focus masks the through line from the violent nation building of the 19th century, to the 1904–1907 genocide of the Herero and Nama at the hands of German colonialists in what is now Namibia, to the far-right murder of nine people in a shisha bar in Hanau this past February, and the white supremacist violence that has time and again been exposed within the German police force. The atrocities of the Holocaust can be anchored within this timeline, but without socio-historical context, lauding the lack of monuments to Goebbels, Rommel, or Himmler offers very little of substance from which we can or should learn.

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Looking at the TV Tower from Warschauer Strasse, photo by the author

I first lived in Germany as a high school exchange student nearly 20 years ago. I stayed with a generous, funny, warmhearted Turkish German family, who helped dislodge the white washed picture of contemporary Germany from my naïve mind. Years later, I moved to Berlin as a master’s student with the plan to stay for one year, which turned into eight. I returned to the US last fall after receiving a PhD, which focused on German national identity and belonging in relation to race and racism. Being a foreign researcher studying racism and identity in a predominantly white, conservative university led to many strained encounters, including in the classroom, both as a student and instructor.

I taught in the teacher training college at the University of Potsdam, which sits just outside Berlin in the former East German state of Brandenburg (on the site of a Nazi training facility turned Stasi university, though nearly all original buildings have been torn down). I intentionally focused on historical through lines in my seminars, as most of my students had never learned about German colonialism, though many were reticent to fill this educational gap. After a guest lecture from a local historian, which included information about architects of colonial oppression such as Adolf Lüderitz, Carl Peters, and Gustav Nachtigal (all of whom had Berlin streets named in their honor, which were re-named in 2018 after a protracted campaign led by Black German activists) a few students loudly complained. One asked, “We are already constantly told how awful we are for what happened during WWII, so why do we have to learn about other terrible things from Germany’s past?”

Why indeed. My students were a mix of commuters from Berlin (like myself) and locals from Potsdam and surrounding small towns. This allowed for a diversity of life experiences, but, as is the case among teachers across Germany, the vast majority were white, and most were women. While only a few of my students openly supported the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party rapidly gaining ground at the time, overt racism was not uncommon in my classes of soon to be teachers, including among the self-proclaimed liberal students. For instance, teachers are banned from wearing religious headscarves in many German states (with rationale based in “neutrality” in Berlin to Christianity in Bavaria), a policy shown to have a clear negative impact on Muslim women (which should be obvious). Yet, my students were quick to cite a lack of interest in education as a reason Turkish Germans are less likely than their German heritage peers to pursue higher education, rather than the increasingly well documented systemic discrimination Turkish German youth encounter, or racist policies such as the so-called headscarf ban.

After a semester or so of teaching, confronting racism and reflecting on its meaning became part of my curriculum, though I was regularly told by my white German colleagues that it need not be, that I was overreacting, that I was interpreting things wrong as a result of my foreignness. White Germans often chastise Americans for their “obsession” with race, but what I came to learn in Germany is that not naming race is one of the most powerful ways to maintain a racially stratified society. I use the phrase “white Germans” intentionally, though it’s a descriptor rarely uttered in Germany, particularly, though perhaps not surprisingly, by white Germans themselves. The German word for “race” (Rasse) was removed from both popular and official usage following the Holocaust, but the colorblind lacuna this created has done little more than provide space for systemic racism while making it very difficult to name, track, or condemn.

Since Germany was unified as a nation-state in 1871, a narrative of blood-based belonging, or ethnic nationalism, has guided citizenship policies and everyday notions of who is German and who is an outsider. In 1999, after decades of immigration from countries including Turkey, Russia, and the Balkan nations, a new law was passed broadening non-ancestry based citizenship. This legal overhaul allowed for a German citizenry reflective of the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity already present in the country. It was not until 2014, however, that dual citizenship was opened to the children of non-European Union citizens, who previously had to choose between gaining German citizenship or maintaining the citizenship of their parents. As part of my doctoral research I interviewed Turkish German young adults, most of whom had faced this choice. All had chosen German citizenship, but were angry and humiliated at having to prove allegiance to the country in which they were born and raised. Many noted that despite already feeling German their whole lives, having a German passport would not take away the fact that they are viewed as perpetual Others in the eyes of many white Germans.

To be clear, the problem, so to say, was not coming from the side of my participants, many of whom expressed their desire for a normal life in terms of simply wanting to be recognized as fully human. Instead, they are problematized by a system that claims the “cultural differences” between white Germans and Germans of color are insurmountable, while passing laws that normalize racist exclusion.

Until the early 2000s, it was normative to discuss “Germans” and “foreigners”, with the latter referring to anyone perceived as non-German. I was shocked to find this was still the language used in survey research with school children when I arrived at the University of Potsdam in 2014. I was told it was for clarity — children can easily discern between “Germans” and “foreigners”. When I pointed out the racism inherent in this explanation and the potential harm associated with the use of these terms, I was presented with a lecture on my own foreignness. Though my persistence eventually won out, the language that became status quo was similarly shaped by the specter of racism in a country that doesn’t acknowledge race.

The German census bureau introduced the term “person with migrant background” in 2004, broadly defined as anyone with non-German heritage up to two generations back, in an effort to track the newly diverse citizenry — without naming race. Over the past 15 years, “migrant background” has become ubiquitous, and is very often shortened simply to “migrant”, regardless of where one is born or how one identifies. Like “foreigner” in previous decades, “migrant” is used almost exclusively to describe people of color, including Germans of color, though “German” is notably absent in most discussions.

Without this minimal context, it might seem confusing why leftist Green Party politicians and others in Germany are currently calling for the removal of the word “Rasse” from the key non-discrimination clause in the German constitution amid the global push for anti-racist action. Unlike the general understanding of race as a social construct with material impact shared by most Americans, Rasse is understood solely as a pseudo-scientific, biological construct — the definition used by colonialists and Nazis to undergird the dehumanization and extermination of millions of people. The Green Party Co-Chair Robert Habeck, one of the politicians arguing to remove Rasse, stated, “There is no such thing as race, there are only people.” This type of colorblind reasoning washes over the impact of racism, working to uphold rather than dismantle the structures that allow it to flourish.

This call follows shortly on the heels of the anti-discrimination law passed in Berlin in early June, which includes protection on the basis of “skin color” in addition to gender, religion, and multiple other social categories. This law offers one step towards legally addressing the racism that is alive and well in Germany today. Yet, a cultural shift is still needed, which has to include a more detailed reckoning not just with the Holocaust, but with the notion of Germanness itself, and how it continues to be closely intertwined with whiteness.

Large acts, such as the targeted murders of Turkish and Arab heritage Germans in Hanau, Cologne, Dortmund, and elsewhere, are connected to everyday microaggressions such as asking “Where are you really from?” The racial profiling of Black Germans is connected to the reticence to acknowledge Black Germans as German. Very often racism in Germany is situated as anti-foreignness (Fremdenfeindlichkeit), which itself reiterates an exclusionary notion of Germanness steeped in whiteness. Who is allowed access to citizenship, who is labeled a “migrant”, and who is likely to be stopped by the police are shaped by a racialized understanding of belonging that dates back hundreds of years, long pre-dating WWII.

Until this through line is taught in schools and connected to critical reflection about whiteness and white supremacy on a national level, racism will remain a foundational element shaping German society. To understand contemporary racism in Germany requires connecting the historical dots from ethnic nationalist nation-building in the 19th century to “anti-migrant” sentiment today. Continuing to laud Germany for how it “dealt” with its past invisibilizes the ongoing racism shaping the opportunities and experiences of all Germans today.

Rather than lauding Germany for the work they have done, we should critically support the work left to do. Monuments were never built to celebrate the Nazi past, but neither was this past adequately situated with what came before, or what has happened since. This is a mistake both Germany and the US can and should learn from.

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