The overriding message from the media is that we should remain calm in the face of recent successes by the populist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Bernd Ulrich, the chief political editor of weekly newspaper Die Zeit, and other observers have even written that given the one million new refugees in our country and the resulting upheaval, Germans have actually remained pretty level-headed.
But that's not my take at all. Especially after I got a look at another side of the populist scene at a Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) demonstration in Dresden. Being in the middle of a mass of people endlessly shouting “Lying press!” or “We are the people” took every bit of calmness out of me. The crowd was intoxicated, aggressive and a bit sluggish. A curious mixture. It seemed to me that they were waiting for something.
After the three state elections last weekend, the AfD is now sitting in eight of Germany's 16 regional parliaments. And I don't feel calm. I feel angry.
Xenophobes don't belong in German state parliaments. These are people who benefit from democracy but act undemocratically toward other citizens. Who profess to be the only ones taking the concerns of the German people seriously, but use these “concerns” as political currency. The AfD and Pegida foment anger to incite the weak against those who are even weaker. That is their party platform.
The AfD and Pegida foment anger to incite the weak against those who are even weaker.
And yet why are most people focusing on right-wing voters, and not the anger they induce in citizens like me?
The word “concerns” has become unbearable. What they really mean is Muslims. And what is it again that they are doing to us? Swamping us, making us non-German. But is being German so ephemeral? The AfD and their ilk intentionally avoid going into detail on this.
The asylum-seekers coming to us in their time of need are mostly Muslims. And while they may not all be Syrian engineeers, the overwhelming majority are behaving peacefully and haven’t taken anything from anybody. We have the police and internal state security for the rest. I can’t understand why some wouldn't even offer them a cot in a gymnasium. Or why those who want to treat refugees with humanity are reviled as “do-gooders.”
A right-wing publicist recently spoke in all seriousness of a “Totalitarianism of the Good.” I call these words a brutalization.
Because of its moral cowardice, the political establishment is not in a position to organize the democratic anger of their voters. To show who is and must remain in charge – namely those who believe in democracy, and remaining open and sensible.
Instead, there has been uncertain dithering accompanied by minor concessions to the haters, such as when the chairman of the center-left Social Democrats and Germany's vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, recently sat down with Pegida supporters to simply “listen.”
Or when our interior minister addressed adult refugees as though were ill-mannered teenagers, telling them not to come here. Or when Julia Klöckner, the lead candidate of the Christian Democrats in Sunday’s Rhineland-Palatinate state elections, construes a burka problem every couple of months, as if all women here will be forced to wear a veil.
Even Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently felt compelled to remind migrants about the “obligation to integrate” just one day before the state elections. Naturally, the message wasn’t directed at the refugees – many of whom probably don’t yet understand Ms. Merkel – but at Germans. It was as if to say, "See, we conservatives are also tough on foreigners!"
Why are people acting as if foreigners haven’t already been living in Germany for some 50 years? The country is still here. And it's doing great.
In its party program, the AfD officially recognizes the right to asylum. But I’m not buying the lie that they have nothing against refugees, foreigners or Muslims. Since their representatives now have all the attention, they can finally get a few things that have been bothering them off their chests. It's a mindset characterized by thoughts like, "Wasn't it nice when we were all straight? When there weren't any minarets? When we could still use the N-word without being called a right-wing extremist?"
It makes no sense to insult Muslims, gays and people with other lifestyles, all while demanding every possible freedom for themselves.
We live in one of the most liberal, affluent and democratic societies in the world – and we should be happy that the system didn’t totter after Sunday's memorable elections. But if there is actually a danger of this, then perhaps a few more sensible people ought to get worked up about it.
Yes, a lot of things are changing, some perhaps too quickly. But there's no legal right to having nothing change. What is tragically comical about this is that these right-wing populists and the Islamists they hate meet on exactly the same point: Both are enemies of an open society.
It took a lot of energy for Germany to overcome the xenophobic attacks that took place here at the beginning of the 1990s. This reconciliation was probably only possible because Germany has inconceivably strong citizens such as Mevlüde Genç, who lost two daughters, two granddaughters and a niece in an arson attack in Solingen in 1993. This pious woman didn’t succumb to hate but continually embraced German society in speeches.
Today refugee homes are burning again, and we read about some kind of xenophobic act almost daily. Fortunately, there have been no deaths yet. But these acts endanger that hard-won reconciliation.
I cannot understand people who cast their precious vote for a party that exploits their fear. These are people who don’t understand democracy for what it is: a special gift that needs to be handled carefully and gently.
I know people will accuse me of being a do-gooder, or of trivializing what they see as the downfall of Western civilization. My answer is this, a relic of Western thought:
"Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, may we bring harmony; Where there is error, may we bring truth; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love."
These are the words of Saint Francis of Assisi. But surely those defending the Western world must know that.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]