“History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.”
– Konrad Adenauer
“No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical. . . [it] seemed impossible in an age of reason.”
– Stefan Zweig, on Vienna before World War I
Chaima doesn’t need a menu or time to think. It’s a warm, slightly humid evening in July and we are sitting outside in Cologne’s hipsterish Belgian Quarter. “Gin Tonic bitte, mit Bombay Saphire,” she tells our waitress. Chaima is German, born in Bremen, 22 years old. She’s full-figured and pretty, with coal eyes and long jet-black hair. Starting at age 13, Chaima lived in Saudi Arabia for five years. Her mother is a German homemaker; her father, whose work took the family to Riyadh in 2008, an electrical engineer from Syria. She has two younger brothers who still live with her parents in Saudi Arabia.
Today Chaima Bankesli teaches the German language to refugees in a state-funded school in Siegburg, a town of some 41,000 barely an hour outside Cologne. Perhaps because of her own family story, Chaima is sanguine about migrants and integration, even if the composition of her own classes points to formidable problems.
The class of a dozen students I attend, my second time visiting her school—a small, nondescript building in a light industrial park a 20 minutes’ walk from Siegburg’s town center—includes both men and women, from their early 20s to mid-50s. There are Syrians and Afghans, a young Iraqi student, and a pharmacist from Cairo who fled Egypt because, he tells me, he was persecuted as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s a fellow in Chaima’s class from Kashmir, and a young Tajik woman named Saodat, who shares with me during a coffee break how she made her way to Germany through Kazakhstan, Russia, and Poland. Many have paid smugglers to facilitate their way here; a young Afghan and his brother paid $10,000 a piece. “It’s scary,” says the Tajik Saodat of her circuitous route to Germany, “when men you don’t know fetch you in the middle of the night for the next leg [of your journey].” Saodat was traveling with her nine-year-old daughter.
The Siegburg school is a small window on broken biographies, intertwining destinies, and the immense problems faced by newcomers and host country alike in Germany today.
When Angela Merkel famously said, “Wir schaffen das”—“We’ll manage this!”—when heckled at a press conference after a visit to a refugee camp near Dresden in August three years ago, the German Chancellor was focused on the refugee crisis of 2015. The integration crisis, one has the impression, is still to come.
No one can fault the generosity. In 2015 Germany, a country slightly larger than the U.S. state of Oregon, population 82 million, admitted more than one million refugees from mostly Muslim-majority countries. According to a formula based on the population and tax revenues of individual federal states, they have been distributed across Germany. Since 2014, more than 1.4 million people have applied for asylum in Germany, more than 43 percent of all applications made to the European Union, and six times, for example, the number made to France.
Many are drawn to Germany because of the country’s prosperity, and because the German government was initially so welcoming. It is not always clear what people are fleeing, and similarly often unclear who will be permitted to stay in Germany.
Consider the refugees of the Siegburg school. Tajikistan is poor and authoritarian, but not war-torn. The Egyptian druggist from the Brotherhood insists he was not politically active. The Afghan brothers say they were threatened by the Taliban when they refused to pay protection money for their small business. Still, they worry their application for asylum will not be approved. At a “Flüchtlingsheim,” a complex of garden apartments built for refugees in nearby Troisdorf, one of the two young men lifts his pant leg and lowers his sock to show me a long scar, an injury for which he was hospitalized in Afghanistan after being nearly run over by a Taliban driver. In the Siegburg school 70 percent of the students come from Syria, 20 percent from Afghanistan, and 10 percent from a mix of other countries.
None of this is straightforward.
“There are different countries and cultures here, including divides between Sunni and Shi‘a,” says Chaima of her students. “There are Syrians who do not drink alcohol, and those who do. Some students would prefer not to have a woman teacher, you can feel it. A number are surprised to learn that I can understand their conversation when they speak Arabic during breaks.” I note that some female students in Chaima’s school wear headscarves, and some do not. In spring the state coalition government of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats here in North Rhine-Westphalia introduced a plan to ban girls under the age of 14 from wearing headscarves in school, a proposal that divided teachers, religious groups, and politicians. One suspects such initiatives stir controversy and confusion among new Muslim arrivals, too.
Here’s another window on the challenge at hand.
I’ve been twice in the past year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a Bavarian ski village 90 minutes by car south of Munich. Garmisch is alpine-gorgeous and pristine; it has also been ethnically homogenous. Today, it’s where you’ll find between 200 and 300 refugees, many of them young men, most from Nigeria. In some cases, judgment on asylum applications has not yet been decided; in other instances, young men are not working because they’ve not yet cleared hurdles to join the workforce. In the meantime, many ride around on bikes during the day. Some get caught up in criminal activity at night.
Local mayor Sigrid Meierhofer, a Social Democrat in otherwise conservative CSU-dominated Bavaria—the Christian Social Union being the regional sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union—has warned state and federal authorities from the outset of a powder keg: young men, far from home, without women, families, or work. Looking at the situation across Germany, Peter Klöppel, anchor and former editor-in-chief of RTL television back in Cologne, tells me how Germans can be their own worst enemies. “We’re world class in process and in bureaucracy,” he says. “Our thoroughness about jobs training and certification can be an advantage in properly qualifying people. It shows itself now, though, to be a significant impediment to getting people quickly into the workforce.”
But it’s not just that it’s taking too long.
“Many feel the government has lost control—and until the government sends a clear signal that they have re-established control over borders, voters will send a message via the ballot box,” says Sascha Müller-Kraenner, a German Green Party member based in Berlin. “The problem doesn’t seem to be mass migration, as numbers are down to pre-2015 levels or lower, but rather the perception of uncontrolled migration.”
It’s the populist Right that profits from all this. Germany’s right-wing populist party holds seats now in 14 of Germany’s 16 state legislatures. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) secured 92 seats in the Bundestag last year with 12.6 percent of the national vote. The party began in 2013 focused on opposition to the Euro. After 2015, the party modulated quickly to a predominantly anti-immigration agenda. In eastern Germany, AfD has often a working class character and a strong preoccupation with refugees, while in western Germany AfD also includes middle class voters fed up with identity politics, and with what many see as regulatory overreach in the economy.
It is not simple to sort. AfD’s standard bearers are themselves a curious lot.
Alice Weidel, the 39-year-old Bundestag member and chair of the parliamentary faction, is a case in point. Weidel is a former Goldman Sachs banker from North Rhine-Westphalia, from the city of Gütersloh about an hour and a half drive northeast of Cologne. Weidel was a top student in her class at the University of Bayreuth where she studied business and economics. She lived six years in China, working there also for the Bank of China. Today, the Mandarin-speaking Weidel lives in Switzerland where she raises two boys with her lesbian partner Sarah Bossard, a 36-year-old Sri-Lankan-born Swiss filmmaker.
Weidel and AfD co-chairman Alexander Gauland are the two public faces of the AfD. At first glance, they are an odd couple. The 77-year-old ex-journalist from East Germany, a frumpy and acerbic national conservative, made news this summer with his quip that “Hitler and the Nazis are merely a speck of bird poop in 1,000 years of successful German history.” Gauland, who for 30 years has worn his signature green tweed jacket, says not everyone who has a German passport is a German. He calls for a de-acceleration of technological development, and a return to Heimat—a German word for homeland that connotes a strong sense of community, of connection and belonging. To some ears Heimat rings malignly nationalist.
Weidel is fit, slim, and attractive. She wears dark-rimmed glasses and pins her blond hair back. Weidel leads the pro-entrepreneurship side of the party. Yet she is not to be outdone by Gauland on core ideological issues. Weidel says Germany is “governed by idiots who function [still] as marionettes of the occupying powers who still want to keep Germany small.” She says she doesn’t want to see her country “covered with Muslims.” Last year she stormed off the set of a nationally televised talk show, ostensibly frustrated that her fellow panelists refused to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. Although she herself lives with her lesbian partner and children, Weidel opposes gay marriage.
AfD is a hodgepodge of voter frustration, a “Sammelbecken,” as Germans call it, “or collecting bowl” for a range of grievances. It’s a protest party, and a platform where boundaries are frequently not entirely clear.
Uwe Tellkamp, a 49-year-old physician and best-selling novelist, is part of this milieu. Tellkamp is the author of the 2008 bestseller turned popular two-part TV movie Der Turm (The Tower), which captures in sharp relief—in 973 pages no less—the atmosphere of East Germany in the last years of communism. I heard Tellkamp address some 700 people in March in a packed auditorium in his hometown of Dresden. The event made national news.
In 2017 Tellkamp had signed something called “Charta 2017,” a manifesto attacking political correctness and the ostracizing of Germany’s new national conservatism. In the Kulturpalast in Dresden in spring Tellkamp asserted that 95 percent of refugees coming to Germany are not refugees fleeing war or political persecution but rather, foreigners looking to exploit Germany’s generous welfare state. Weidel says it’s less than 1 percent who are actually eligible for asylum. Bavaria’s CSU governor Markus Söder ignited national debate and controversy this summer when he demanded an end to what he called Asyltourismus (Asylum tourism).
All this is exaggeration for effect. Precise figures in many of these matters are actually unobtainable. In today’s divided Germany one side laments a growing lack of empathy, while the other insists rule of law is crumbling. There is anxiety over change, and a growing sense of losing control that is palpable in different parts of German society.
In March this year Tellkamp signed another public letter, this one called Gemeinsame Erklärung or “Joint Declaration,” in which signatories declared:
We observe with growing disconcertment the damage done by mass illegal immigration to Germany. We declare our solidarity with those who are peacefully rallying for the restoration of the constitutional order at the borders of our country.
In February, in the city of Essen in North Rhine-Westphalia, a food bank stirred national controversy when it announced that it would no longer provide food and services to migrants. Only those with German passports would be served.
The west Geman state of North Rhine-Westphalia has taken in the largest quota of refugees in all of Germany. Known as the land of coal and steel (Land von Kohle und Stahl), North Rhine-Westphalia—Germany’s most populous state—was once key to West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle that transformed this part of the country in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today, you still find big companies here like Deutsche Telekom and Ford. Some innovation industries have moved in. But the state lags nevertheless behind other parts of the country in economic indicators like growth and unemployment. There are more jobless foreigners than anywhere else in the country, and North Rhine-Westphalia has some of the highest crime rates in the country. It made national news when in June a 25-year-old man of Turkish descent stabbed a 15-year-old Romanian girl to death in a public park in the town of Viersen near Düsseldorf. The AfD tweeted sarcastically, “just another one-off incident.”
I’m interested in a particular detail. I want to know from Chaima about what I hear in Uwe Tellkamp’s Dresden; that, as a result of refugee flows and a burgeoning immigrant population, there are now 11 “no-go-zones” in Cologne.
“I’ve only heard of one no-go zone,” says Chaima, who lives in nearby Bonn, and “that’s Kalk.”
Kalk is where Henry Flory lives. And when I ask Flory about no-go zones in Cologne, he looks amused.
Flory is a 31-year-old American musician from suburban Virginia whose passion is 19th-century German romanticism—Brahms in particular—and who plays first section violin with Cologne’s symphony. Traced back, Flory is a beneficiary of Anglo-American largesse. His employer, the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) orchestra, was founded by British occupation authorities in 1947, part of a network of radio symphony orchestras founded after World War II by the allies, including by the Americans. Occupying powers grasped early on the hunger of local populations for culture, for distraction and relief from capitulation and destruction, and the need to knit Germans into the project of forging a democratic nation going forward.
In my conversations in Cologne, Kalk is mentioned frequently as a trouble spot. Flory describes Kalk, an industrial neighborhood in east Cologne incorporated into the city in 1910, as simply “Turkish working class,” and tells me he’s never had a problem. He does concede that his South Korean girlfriend Seowon with whom he lives—she, too, is a violinist—is not fond of the neighborhood. “There are groups of Turkish and Middle Eastern men hanging out on street corners who will make harassing comments,” Flory continues, “and there is some drug dealing in the neighborhood you need to be aware of.” What some see as threatening, others see as opportunity. Flory and his girlfriend, who arrived here in August 2017, have a bargain. They pay $900 a month for their apartment. But Seowon avoids walking alone at night.
A 2013 article in a local Cologne newspaper cheerfully describes Kalk as genuinely “multikulti” with “good prices” in shopping arcades, and special treats such as generous gelato portions (“the scoops are much bigger than in the inner city”). Cologne Cathedral on the other side of the Rhine would be 45 minutes on foot or a short bus ride.
In summer 2018 I find Kalk shabby and charmless, a far cry from colorful and gentrified Kreuzberg, Berlin’s Turkish enclave, or from the upbeat 2013 description in the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. There are plenty of Turkish and Middle Eastern eateries. One stands out on the main street for the plainness of its name: “Syrian Restaurant.” Which reminds me of the cynical Cold War quip as Soviet proxies made gains across the developing world, forcing innocents abroad: “lose a country, gain a restaurant.”
To the north of Kalk lies Chorweiler, with its own 1970s public tower blocks where one sees abundant satellite dishes on balconies, presumably to receive foreign-language television stations. No, there are still no proper no-go areas here. But Cologne police recently counted 13 “dangerous vicinities,” Chorweiler and Kalk included, where crime rates are above the city’s average. In Kalk, some local Turks now say they themselves are victims of growing crime perpetrated by newcomers from Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Between Kalk and Chorweiler lies still another Turkish neighborhood called Mühlheim. It was here in the Keupstrasse in June 2004 that an explosive planted by neo-Nazis—a pipe bomb with nails—wounded 22 people. A barber’s shop was destroyed, with numerous stores and cars on the strip badly damaged as well.
Through what lens to look?
“Who told you that there are no-go-zones in Cologne?” says Werner Peters. “It’s ridiculous.”
Peters drinks a small beer at the same cafe where the Syrian-German Chaima and I had met, Cafe Central in Cologne’s Belgian Quarter. The beer is Kölsch, brewed in Cologne since 1906. Cologne—called Köln in German, both words coming from Colonia, as the city began as a Roman colony—had more than 40 breweries before World War II. After the war the number was two. Kölsch is also a dialect of German and, as Peters emphasizes, it connotes a local laid-back style of life. We’ve always been an “island of tolerance here,” local journalist Uli Kreikenbaum tells me in a separate conversation.
Peters himself hails from Düsseldorf, the financial center and capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and in 1797 the birthplace of Heinrich Heine, the poet who penned the words already in 1823, “wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen”—“where books are burned, in the end, people will be burned, too.”
Peters has lived in Cologne for decades. He’s a hotelier, writer, and political organizer. He’s also an America enthusiast. His first book in 1992 was titled, The Existential Runner: On Democracy in America. His boutique hotel in Cologne’s shabby chic Belgian Quarter is called Hotel Chelsea after the fabled New York property which for years had been home to writers, actors, and musicians. At the Chelsea Arthur Miller drafted “The Chelsea Affect.” Dylan Thomas died of pneumonia in room 205 in 1953. While staying at the Chelsea Arthur C. Clark wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Peters’s adopted city of Cologne has close links to West Germany’s roots. The father of the modern Federal Republic Konrad Adenauer came from the city. Adenauer—strongly anti-Prussia and devoutly Catholic—served as Lord Mayor from 1917 to 1933 before being sacked by the Nazis. He was later re-installed by the Americans, but then dismissed by the British who apparently objected to his cockiness. His insistence on looking eyeball-to-eyeball with the allied powers put him in good stead with fellow Germans, though; he was eventually elected West Germany’s first Chancellor, leading the country from 1949 to 1961. It was largely because of Adenauer that the West German capital found itself a home in nearby Bonn. Modest Bonn was appropriately nondescript, and non-threatening. It was a city without a past, as Adenauer put it.
Werner Peters is himself at first glance quintessentially west German: secular, pacifistically-inclined, socially liberal and a strong proponent of the social market economy, or Rheinisch capitalism—as opposed to the rough-riding Anglo-Saxon variety. Peters was nine years old when, four years after the end of World War II, the west German state was founded. Peters is also a quirky, eclectic fellow. You know a person by the company they keep, as they say.
In the artsy-Bohemian restaurant in Hotel Chelsea I meet over dinner Peters’s friends Susanna Piontek and Guy (formerly Günter) Stern, German Jews living outside Detroit. She’s a fiction writer, of short stories and poetry. Susanna’s husband is a professor of German literature. She is 54 years old; Guy is 96. Günter Stern was a member of the “Ritchie Boys,” war refugees who escaped Hitler’s Reich—a good number of them German Jews—who were trained as intelligence officers and interrogators at Camp Ritchie, Maryland for return to the front lines.
Susanna says over green tea and salad that it’s unlikely she would ever move back to Germany. “It may already be too late for Germany,” she says, lamenting the recent influx of foreign migrants. Susanna, of liberal persuasion, is appalled by stories of Muslims in Germany refusing to shake the hands of females. There’s no doubt that the country is becoming a more complicated, untidier place.
One evening Peters, at his home a five-minute walk from Hotel Chelsea, was preparing for us asparagus and Parma ham. He was just back from holiday in Provence and, as he began to tell me about the artist Martin Kippenberger, our dinner conversation was interrupted by a scruffy fellow who had stopped by to pick up a key. The man is homeless. Peters hired him once as a night clerk in his hotel, but it didn’t work out. “He’s somehow tormented,” Peters tells me. The key is to a second apartment Peters owns upstairs, where the gentleman is invited to find shelter and a shower. Peters’s most recent book is called Generosity.
Starting in the mid-1980s Martin Kippenberger lived off and on in Peters’s hotel for years. In an arrangement not out of kindness, but rather one of business and barter, the artist received a room at Hotel Chelsea in exchange for the loan of his artwork exhibited in the hotel.
Kippenberger was not only a painter. He was also a conceptual and installation artist, and an eccentric par excellence. He inherited 700,000 German marks from his dermatologist mother who was killed when a pallet fell off of a truck, after which the artist started making art out of pallets. He tried acting in Florence. He ran a night club and started a punk band in Berlin. He opened the “Martin Bormann Gas Station” in Brazil. In Berlin he once went into a bar posing as a Nazi. He got himself badly beaten, and he then painted a picture of himself, his face entirely bandaged. Before he drank himself to death in 1997 at the age of 44—and well before he became famous—Kippenberger let Peters have his work “Young Sympathetic Communist Girl” for a song. The painting hangs today in a Cologne museum, appraised at 3 million euros.
The mild-mannered Peters has been calling for resistance and peaceful insurrection for years. He is slender, dressed often in a black or charcoal gray shirt, with a wry smile seemingly always at the ready. He’s also passionate and furious about what he sees as rigged systems. “In Cologne,” says Peters, “the politicians own the city.” Fed up with what he views as self-dealing elites in local and national politics, Peters founded in 1998 “Die Partei der Nichtwähler”—“The Party of Non-Voters.” That year his own protest party stood for national elections and captured 6.8 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia (the only state in which they ran). Today Peters wants a radical restructuring of the German party system to allow space in parliament for those who find no natural home or access to the existing party landscape.
Peters also preaches a gospel of tolerance. “No one talks about refugees in Cologne, even though there are many,” he says, “whereas in places like Dresden, where there are none, that’s all they talk about it.” He’s proud of the spirit of liberalism and the attitude of live-and-let live that have defined Cologne’s culture. “Et hätt noch emmer joot jejange.” That’s Kölsch dialect for, in standard German, “es ist immer gut gegangen”—things have always worked out—one of Cologne’s “commandments” Peters is fond of citing to me. Peters’s partner Maria is a retired high school teacher. His 33-year-old daughter Nelly is a musician, a pop singer in Cologne. Older son Guido is a business consultant in Bonn.
During most of its history Cologne was an outward-looking, international-oriented trading city. The English word cologne, the fragrant scents used by men, was originally a special water from Cologne doctored and concocted by the Italian chemist Johann Maria Farina who settled in the city in 1709. Today, Cologne is the site of Germany’s biggest gay pride festival each year. Peters approves enthusiastically. The openness of the city is also reflected, says Peters, in the free-wheeling style with which the people of Cologne celebrate Karnival, or Mardi Gras. I have to admit I’m struck that, as we walk around the Belgian Quarter—with many streets bearing names of German military leaders like Goeben and Moltke from the 1870 Franco-Prussian War—Peters crosses on red lights. It’s not the typical German thing to do. “Is this a Cologne thing?” I ask. He smiles, and keeps walking.
On the tolerant, genteel ways of the Rhinelander, Peters is mindful of the limits of his own cheerful narrative. Cologne’s pedigree for tolerance is complicated. He points out that the Kölner were active and enthusiastic participants in the pogroms against Jews in the 1930s, and directs me to the National Socialist documentation center, a grim museum housed in the old Gestapo headquarters. In a 1937 Karnival parade, one float carried Germans made up as bearded Jews with a banner proclaiming “The Last To Leave.” Most of Cologne’s Jews were deported to concentration camps. One can go back further. On August 24, 1349 angry mobs attacked Cologne’s Jewish quarter and killed most of its residents, who were thought to be behind the bubonic plague that was raging through Europe.
In the midst of today’s intense and increasingly raucous political debates, Peters is sanguine about foreigners in Cologne. He practices what he preaches. I took him with me once on a visit to the refugee school in Siegburg. Before we left he was trying to make arrangements for the hire of one of the Central Asian students. For years his business partner was a German-Turk named Osman. Hotel Chelsea’s front desk is staffed by a young woman from Eritrea.
None of this means Peters is naive about the problems of integration. If British writer David Goodhart has it right, that a principal divide today in many Western countries is between “somewheres” and “anywheres”—the latter being post-national cosmopolitans who tend to embrace change and who feel basically comfortable working and living at home or abroad, and the former being more locally rooted, traditionally patriotic, and change-averse—then perhaps people like Peters are “anywheres” who are now being mugged by reality. Peters was incensed in May when two top German soccer players of Turkish ancestry fawned over Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one even referring to Erdogan as “my President.” This is a “disaster,” says Peters; “third generation, these two men were born, grew up and are a product of liberal democratic Germany.” Adding insult to injury for Peters was the quip of the German soccer coach who, in defense of the players, said “one needs to understand “how Turks tick.”
“I would never vote AfD,” Peters tells me, laughing a little, seemingly amused that I even asked. Yet for all his liberal leanings, Peters tells me he has some sympathy for Die Alternative. The party got 7.4 percent of the vote in last year’s state elections, its first time on the ballot in North Rhine-Westphalia, a part of the country that has been led most of the last 30 years by SPD-dominated governments. Peters will have none of the vulgar hyperbole of the right-wing populists. He blames the conservative mass-circulation Bildzeitung for promoting what he claims is a “national hysteria” over foreigners. “But the AfD is not all wrong on the need for stronger control of our borders, and on the failure of multiculturalism,” he adds. Peters has also had a change of heart on the euro and deepening European integration. “Watch [French President] Macron bamboozle us Germans into giving away more of our money for his priorities in the south,” he says.
Exceptional times make for exceptional bedfellows. Peters plans to meet up in Berlin soon with Beatrix von Storch of the AfD. They were both, at different times, congressional fellows for Democratic representative Lee Hamilton years ago. From the west German northern port city of Lübeck, Von Storch is the provocateur who tweeted out in January, after police authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia posted New Years’ greetings in different languages including Arabic: “Are we appeasing barbaric Muslim rapist hordes of men?” Her remark referred obliquely back to New Year’s Eve 2016 when there was mass harassment and a large number of cases of sexual assault on women near the Cologne train station. Peters places chief responsibility for that night’s debacle on Cologne’s ill-prepared police.
What a swirl all this is becoming. The alignments that start to emerge are noteworthy.
Some, like Die Linke’s radical left-wing icon Sahra Wagenknecht—the 49-year-old wife of ex-SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine—sound a lot like AfD when they voice their concern for German workers whose jobs are threatened by the influx of foreigners. AfD is now making inroads into German labor unions, long dominated by Social Democrat functionaries who, critics argue, have lost touch with the working class.
Old categories of Left and Right seem to be breaking down. In some respects AfD is a national-socialist party; that is, anti-immigrant nationalist, while advocating a strong social welfare state and government intervention in the economy. Can it be that the old establishment parties are losing relevance? In national elections last September, Germany’s Social Democrats—garnering 20 percent of the vote—registered their worst result since the end of the Second World War. And Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, projected to secure roughly 40 percent of the vote, also badly underperformed, ending up with 33 percent.
In a 2013 book titled Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy Irish political scientist Peter Mair was recording structural shifts in European politics generally: voters’ ties to establishment parties had for years been loosening, observed Mair, civic participation was on the decline, trust in elites and mainstream was eroding. At that time Mair was asserting:
The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.
Perhaps Peters was already onto something back in the late 1990s with his “Party of Non-Voters.” So was Spinoza back in the 17th century when he observed that nature abhors vacuums.
Back in our refugee school in Siegburg I am told by school director Andreas Wojcik—a Pole of German ancestry who left Poland for Germany in the 1980s—that “it’s fine to call for integration, but what should people here integrate into? Do Germans know who they are?” For Wojcik you cannot talk about integration without talking about Germany’s own “fehlende Identität—their own “identity deficit.”
Wojcik’s young associate, the German language teacher Chaima tells me, “Of course part of me is Syrian.” When I ask whether Chaima is religious, she says: “I see myself as a Muslim-Christian-Jewish believer. . . . but I must admit, most of my German friends are secular, because there is no proven reason to be religious.”
Back in Cologne I’m still wondering about the claim of 11 no-go zones I keep hearing about from eastern Germans. There are no no-go areas where police and civil authorities do not feel safe enough to enter. There’s nothing like that. Broadly, though, some of Cologne’s problems are quite worrisome.
Ebertplatz is a small square in the northern part of the city known for night-time drug dealing, mostly by black Africans. In October last year, a 22-year-old man from Guinea in West Africa was stabbed to death at the square by a 25-year-old Moroccan. The mayor of the Innenstadt district Andreas Hupke, a member of the Green Party, declared at the time that “the police have given up control of Ebertplatz.”
Adjacent to Ebertplatz, behind Cologne’s main train station, is the immigrant neighborhood of Eigelstein, which has become known for lively pubs, panhandling, and drugs, and increasingly out-of-control street prostitution. On a sunny, hot, and humid summer afternoon walking through Eigelstein I see a prostitute wandering the streets. Her top is a see-through knit. She looks haggard. The woman, who leans on a cane, is probably 60 or 70 years old. It is hard to tell whether she is German.
Issues of law and order and social cohesion are becoming pressing matters in parts of Germany. One wonders if at the bottom of all this lie deeper issues than is ordinarily acknowledged. For decades elites and polite society have been fixated on the issue of “Europe,” and of “European identity.” It seems now the issue becomes: What does it mean to be German?
Editor’s Note: See part one of Jeffrey Gedmin’s German diaries here.