On Oct. 17, the leading candidate for the mayoral race of Cologne, Henriette Reker, was attacked in broad daylight. Just one day prior to the election, the offense happened on a farmer’s market where Reker was campaigning.
Reker suffered a severe stab wound to the neck and was brought to the hospital immediately. And the attacker didn’t even attempt to flee. Instead he stated: “I had to do this. I am protecting all of you,” according to local newspaper reports.
When questioned by the police, the attacker explained that he had attacked Reker because of her pro-refugee stance and for her support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. Attacks on politicians are very rare in Germany, but most of the attacks that do happen are committed by lone and mentally-ill perpetrators.
Attacks with a reason stated so clearly are very uncommon. What this demonstrates is how torn Germany is about Merkel’s so-called open-door policy.
Germany, like Sweden, has been praised as one of the countries that are best responding to the current refugee crisis. But it was estimated that about 800,000 asylum-seekers would reach Germany in 2015, hoping to escape the terror or war in their home countries. So far, 758,000 refugees have been registered and it can be expected that the total number including unregistered newcomers is much higher.
Recent statistics predict that there will be up to 1 million registered refugees by the end of the year. To put these numbers into perspective, it should be noted that Germany has a population of about 80 million people.
Most of these refugees have crossed many countries hoping to reach Germany or travel further north in more than horrible conditions, especially since some countries such as Hungary have partly closed their borders in an attempt to stop the influx of refugees. Chancellor Merkel has made it more than clear that Germany will continue to welcome and support all those crossing the borders, stating: “We will cope.”
Although doubts and fears about how to handle the situation are rising, thousands of people have taken up volunteering work in order to help the refugees, providing shelter, food and clothing but also small gestures, such as handing out blankets to those arriving. Many universities have opened their doors to allow refugees to join the seminars or provide language classes. The army has joined in the efforts, building temporary housing in public parks or gymnasiums. Even famous news anchors have spoken out against anti-refugee initiatives.
Since Germany has an aging population, this could also be a major opportunity for the country, preventing problems like the shortage of talent for the welfare system.
Yet, many Germans, including politicians, have expressed their doubts about whether the German society and economy can handle the quickly rising number of refugees in a reasonable manner.
But as the attack on Henriette Reker has shown, there is also an uglier side. Right-wing grassroot movements, such as the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, PEGIDA, have gained traction and even joined forces with other populist movements. These movements are taking advantage of the uncertainty within the German population in order to establish themselves as the only option to deal with the crisis.
Their influences are especially strong in the east of Germany, presumably because of the less democratic traditions, the weaker economy, and income levels.
The east of Germany was a separate state and a dictatorship from 1949 to 1990. The totalitarian government allowed little to no liberties or civil rights, including free elections or any kind of free political participation. When the wall separating East and West came down in 1989, thousands of people fled to the Federal Republic of Germany - and were thus, in fact, themselves ‘refugees’.
Today, multiple politicians in support of the pro-refugee politics have been threatened publicly. And even worse, some of the refugee accommodations have been attacked. The situation is getting more and more severe and Merkel is losing more and more support, especially from her conservative sister party.
In order to stop the recent developments, the populists, and their xenophobia, the government needs to reconnect with the people. Fears and concerns need to be taken seriously and prejudices must be put away. But most importantly, hate speech and threats against the refugees must be banned and persecuted in order to ensure a version of Germany that is worth living in. The following months will show.
The attacked mayoral candidate, Henriette Reker, survived. She is now the elected mayor of Cologne and will hopefully continue her pro-refugee work.