From financier to flag-bearer for Germany's far-right

Thilo Sarrazin's attacks on immigration have divided a nation. Tony Paterson watches an unlikely demagogue in action

It was not the sort of reception normally laid on for an author whose book has sold well over one million copies: outside the community hall in Ehringshausen, a sprawling suburban town north of Frankfurt, an angry army of left-wing protesters was growing hoarse from screaming: "We don't want racist pigs!" Burly police struggled to keep them on the pavement.

An elderly woman in a fluffy hat had covered herself with placards proclaiming: "Thank you foreigners for everything you have done to build up Germany!" But on the steps of the community hall, a crowd of grey-haired, middle-aged men queued to see the writer who has polarised the country by daring to write what many claim is "what everybody really thinks".

The author was Thilo Sarrazin, the renowned 65-year-old former Bundesbank board member and Berlin city government finance minister who has shocked and nauseated parts of Germany's liberal establishment with his explosive, bestselling book about immigration entitled Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is doing away with itself).

Sarrazin's work is a long and divisive essay, based on questionable statistics, about what he considers to be the combined ill-effects of continued Muslim immigration and an accelerating decline in the birth rate of intelligent white Germans.

His argument, boiled down, is that Muslim immigrants are chronic under-achievers who not only breed like rabbits but are more likely to be dependent on social security and involved in crime than ethnic Germans and other Europeans.

"No other group is so intent on stressing its otherness, especially through clothing worn by women," Sarrazin says. "In no other religion is the transition to violence, dictatorship and terrorism so fluid."

Sarrazin quotes and agrees with Enoch Powell, who in 1968 shocked Britain with his infamous "rivers of blood" speech predicting that the UK would be swamped with West Indian immigrants. In a similar vein, Sarrazin predicts the Germans will eventually be outnumbered by an underclass of Muslims.

"I don't want the land of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to become predominantly Muslim, or to become a place where Turkish and Arabic are mostly spoken, or to be a country in which women wear headscarves and the daily rhythm is determined by the call of the muezzin," he writes. "Whole clans have a long tradition of incest and correspondingly many handicaps.

"More children from cleverer people before it's too late."

Towards the end of his 450-page book, Sarrazin presents readers with the grim spectre of a future Germany in which Muslims are in the majority and Cologne's mighty cathedral has to be handed over to the Islamic community for future use as a mosque.

Since it was published in August by Germany's respected DVA publishing house, Deutschland schafft sich ab has topped Der Spiegel magazine's national bestseller list. The book is now on its 16th edition. At the last count it had sold in excess of 1.3 million copies, making it one of the most widely read titles published in Germany since the Second World War.

Sarrazin's views are credited with sparking a "long overdue" debate in Germany and elsewhere about immigration. They have helped to foster a climate in which Chancellor Angela Merkel has denounced attempts to build a multicultural society as a "complete failure". David Cameron chose Germany to make virtually the same statement in February.

But the book has also found many critics, including the general secretary of Germany's Central Council of Jews. He suggested that Sarrazin should apply for a job as a spokesman on race issues for the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party.

In Ehringshausen, the author was making one of his regular appearances at a public reading of his work. The event, which was sold out almost a month in advance, was organised by the youth wing of Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic party and billed as an "opportunity for people to discuss an explosive subject on the spot". The town's 600-seat community hall was packed. The audience almost exclusively consisted of white middle-aged or older Germans.

With his grey hair, moustache, tweed jacket and thick spectacles, Sarrazin looked like an elderly schoolmaster at a strict 1950s prep school. The protesters were his first target. "These are left-wing fascists, who don't read and know nothing," he announced to his audience, earning a burst of wild applause. Sarrazin then ran through his well-known theories which were peppered with observations: "Britain provides a good case study on Muslims. Immigration from the Indian sub-continent has shown that Hindus far outperform Muslim Pakistanis and Bangladeshis at school," he insisted. "The more religious the Muslims, the worse they are at school, at work and at integration."

Department for Education figures show that Indian children outperform those from Pakistan or Bangladesh, and they are more likely to be Hindus. But Muslim children educated in Muslim schools outperform those taught in non-faith state schools, according to a study carried out in Bradford, debunking his theory that the more religious the Muslims, the worse they are at school.

The author delighted in telling the crowd about a podium discussion at which a young headscarf-wearing Muslim woman asked him what she should do to integrate herself better into German society: "I told her: 'You must take off your headscarf !' It is legitimate for the German Volk to ask whether it wants to keep its identity."

Ms Merkel's young conservatives had hoped that Sarrazin's reading would spark a lively pro-and-con discussion between their guest and the audience. But the middle-aged crowd in the hall appeared to agree with everything the speaker had to say. Sarrazin was delivered soft-ball questions, such as: "What should we do to stop the rise of the Muslim population?" He replied: "Intelligent women must have more children." He did not mean intelligent Muslim women.

One member of the audience won special applause after stating: "Let's be honest Mr Sarrazin, the whole debate about immigration is being conducted by naïve do-gooders and token immigrants. When are you going to start your own political party?" The author refused to take up the challenge and somewhat meekly replied that he believed the main parties faced their last chance to take up the issue themselves.

Sven Ringsdorf, one of the young conservatives' leaders, said the event has shown that "Sarrazin has struck a chord with the audience". He said the young conservatives had wanted to provide a platform for Sarrazin and had not considered inviting a speaker who might take issue with his views. When Sarrazin's critics have tried to speak at his readings they were shouted down.

In Ehringshausen, judging by the 137-metre queue for signed copies of Deutschland schafft sich ab, it seemed reasonable to assume that the same would have happened this time.

Most of those in the queue interviewed by The Independent had a negative story to tell about their experience with Germany's 3.5 million Turks. Annette, a hairdresser in her 30s and one of the few younger women at the event, complained that Turkish mothers at her child's kindergarten refused to bring their offspring to children's parties and just stayed away without saying anything.

Siegfried, a pensioner in his 70s, said that Turks "hang around in knife gangs and threaten people". Pushing a wheelchair-bound relative down the street, he described how he was forced off the pavement by a group of young Turkish boys. "They are all the same," he said.

When Deutschland schafft sich ab was first published there were fears that Sarrazin's views would lead to the sudden formation of a new and threatening far-right party. In the meantime, the book is viewed more or less as a safety valve which enables many ordinary Germans to see their prejudices reflected and not feel alone.

If a survey conducted among 10,000 Sarrazin readers for Germany's Süd deutsche Zeitung newspaper is anything to go by, his fans are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives rather than raving neo-Nazis.

An overwhelming majority was shown to be middle class and middle-aged or elderly men who valued "a harmonious private life" and "cleanliness in the home". Most of them subscribed to the following assertion: "I don't like changes in my life. I prefer to stick to my old habits."

Some say that such findings make Sarrazin's book no less disturbing, as they suggest there is a grain of truth in the claim that he has written "what everybody thinks".

Profile – Thilo Sarrazinn Thilo Sarrazin, 66, the son of a doctor, grew up in the West German town of Recklinghausen and studied economics at Bonn University. He has spent most of his working life as a civil servant. He served as a Berlin city government finance senator and as a Federal Bank board member. He is a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party. He is married to a teacher, with whom he has two children. His book, Germany Does Away With Itself, was published in 2010 and predicts that Germans will soon be outnumbered by an underclass of semi-criminal, welfare-dependent Muslims who breed like rabbits. The book provoked an outraged response from immigrant and Jewish community groups. But it has sold almost 1.3 million copies.

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