Beer hall racism stains Germans' sober image

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The Independent Online
GERMANY'S most sensationalist tabloid, Bild Zeitung, stunned its readers yesterday by claiming that foreigners in their midst were no more inclined to criminality than the natives.

In a prominently displayed article on "beer-hall prejudices", the paper set out to dispel myths that few politicians have had the courage to rebut in the run-up to September's elections. "Internal security" is one of the main themes of the campaign, and the threat to it is almost invariably perceived to be coming from outsiders.

Now the right-wing Bild wants to put the record straight. The crime statistics blurted out by politicians are misleading, it warns. Some 28 per cent of all crime is attributed to foreigners, who account for less than 9 per cent of the population. But these offences include infringements of immigration rules, the paper notes. A foreigner who sneaks into the country is thus a criminal on arrival. However, "among foreigners who have lived with us for a long time, the crime rate is lower than among German citizens".

Coming from Bild, this kind of expose is no less startling than a pro- German editorial would be in the Sun. For readers who could bear to continue, a litany of negatives lay in store. It was not true settlers from the former Soviet Union were being pampered with generous state handouts and pensions, the article declared. And, most shockingly, foreigners did NOT take away jobs from Germans. They mostly did work no German was prepared to do. The country had to import 180,000 seasonal workers from Eastern Europe, for instance, to help with this year's harvest.

For all Bild's commendable effort, it would be premature to expect the beer halls to transform into temples of multi-culturalism overnight. Record unemployment is generating an underclass seething with discontent, and it is not easy to blind their prejudice with simple arithmetic. The angry young men of Saxony-Anhalt, who flocked to the racist German People's Union (DVU) in last month's vote will not renounce xenophobia just because hardly any foreigners live in their Land.

The problem is that anxiety about foreign influences is not confined to society's losers. "Foreigners are guests in our country," declared a visiting politician from Bonn, addressing a rally four days before the Saxony-Anhalt vote on the market square of Magdeburg. He was speaking about crime at this point, and could not help noticing all the DVU posters on the lamp-posts. "Criminal Foreigners Out," the posters screamed. "Foreigners who do not abide by the law can make themselves scarce," intoned the statesman on the rostrum. His name was Helmut Kohl: the same man who brought us the euro and all that peace and harmony on our continent.

His remark was barely noticed by the German media. The "linkage" between crime and foreign origin is an axiom. Russians are brothel-keepers or gangsters, Poles are indolent car thieves or hyper-active building labourers who steal German jobs, and Africans are shop-lifters.

The biggest groups, the Turks, are something else. As Bild points out, the criminal rate among them is extremely low, yet they are seen to pose other dangers to German society. Turks are said to be given to religious fanaticism; their alien ways trouble the majority. There is just one MP of Turkish origin - a Green.

A tiny proportion of "guest workers" have obtained German passports in the past quarter-century. A recent attempt to offer third-generation immigrants the prospect of automatic German citizenship was torpedoed earlier this year by right-wingers in Chancellor Kohl's coalition. Non-Germans, as Mr Kohl emphasises, must remain "guests". Prospects for social advancement in this limbo are, therefore, limited.

In reality, "foreigners" and German thoroughbreds live together without much friction, at least in the west. The only reason the "foreigner question" has gained such prominence recently is that Chancellor Kohl has an election to win in September.

He cannot, as he would like, campaign on tax reform and job creation, because he has already failed to deliver on past promises. He cannot trumpet his greatest achievement - European monetary union - because the majority of Germans detest the euro. That leaves him "internal security", the magic phrase that hits the right-wing button every time. And since he has had 16 years to strengthen law and order, the problem needing to be fixed must be a new one. Step right forward, you malingering "guests".

The opposition must remain silent, because they are seen to be lacking foreigner-bashing credentials. "There are two kinds of election themes," a senior Social Democrat campaign manager explained recently. "Winning themes, such as employment, training and the family. And there are positioning themes. Internal security belongs to the latter. In this area we cannot win - we can only position ourselves."

That means keeping their heads down. Last year, Gerhard Schroder, the Social Democrats' chancellor candidate, tried to steal some right-wing clothes by advocating deportation for "foreign criminals". The new policy was given a test-run at regional elections in Hamburg, where it only succeeded in boosting the vote of the DVU.

Leading article, page 18