Today's date:
Winter 1993

Heimat Babylon: The Challenge of Multicultural Democracy

Daniel Cohn-Bendit - Best known as "Danny the Red," who lead the May, 1968 student revolt in Paris, Daniel Cohn-Bendit is now Frankfurt's Deputy Mayor for Multicultural Affairs. His most recent book is Heimat Babylon (Our Homeland, Babylon) published earlier this year.

Riots against refugees in Rostock. An arrogant Bundesbank threatening to ruin the weaker economies of Europe through its authoritarian obsession with monetary stability. The "ethnic cleansing of Gypsies" deported to Romania, where they face certain persecution. So soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is Germany already reverting to the dark nationalistic ways that many feared prevail once the country was ruined?

This view is an exaggeration. Certainly there are forces in the new Germany that would make it like the old. But, for the first time in its history, Germany has become anchored in the West, culturally as well as politically.

The closure of the East during the Cold War forced a historic opening to the West. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of democracy and tolerance is now as commonly accepted, at least in the western part of Germany, as vacations in France or American rock music among the young.

Also, Germany at the end of the 20th century is no longer "the ideal nation of the Volk," but a multicultural society. One-fourth of the population in Frankfurt, for example, is now of foreign origin. This is largely a result of immigrant workers - Gastarbeiter from Turkey and elsewhere - who helped build the western German economic miracle during the postwar years and then stayed on with their families.

Thus, the events we are witnessing today are not only Germany's attempt to come to grips with European integration but its attempt to come to grips with its new self.

The issue of mounting violence against refugees and immigrants is most urgent in the eastern part of the country. While there have been isolated incidents in the west, the sympathy of the public is limited. In the east, however, the frightening potential exists for a popular social movement.

The economy and cultural roots of such a movement are not difficult to discern. People in the east unrealistically thought that unification would bring their living standards up to the level of the west overnight. In reality, it will take at least 10 or 15 years. Life will continue to get worse for them before it gets better, and so they face the future with fear and uncertainty.

What happens, then, when 400,000 refugees thrust themselves into this caldron of angst? The refugees present the opportunity to give a name, a visage, to the fears that plague the German of the east. As such, they become the targets of aggression.

Add to this the mentality of a people raised in an authoritarian political culture with an unbroken continuity from Nazism to communism. Not surprisingly, democracy is currently understood in the east only on very simple terms. To them, it does not entail a culture of tolerance but an opportunity to say what they mean after 40 years of censorship. To them, democracy means being able to say "we don't want foreigners."

Youth gangs that have been beating immigrants and burning hostels are the vanguard of this angst. But the danger lies in the larger popular sympathy. Today the face they give to their fears is that of the refugee. Tomorrow it will be the Jew or the homosexual.

Rather than crush these outbreaks of racial intolerance, the ruling Christian Democratic authorities instead unconscionably tolerated the hate crimes for too long. They hoped to use the mood of the east to force the Social democrats and other parties to accept the constitutional renovation required to amend Germany's asylum law, thus shoring up their faltering political base after 10 years of Helmut Kohl's leadership. Fearing their own political isolation, the SPD has now accepted the need to address the popular anger over the tide of foreign immigrants by changing the asylum law in the constitution.

But playing these politics of fear has only encouraged fascist street gangs in the east. In effect, these thugs have been told by the authorities, "Throw a few more Molotov cocktails and the law on asylum can be changed. Then we can close the border."

Facing the real-life challenges of multiculturalism on a daily basis in Frankfurt, I am fully aware of the need to tighten Germany's immigration and asylum laws. Nearly two years ago, well before the current violence, my proposals for such changes were fairly ignored by the establishment and were greeted by the old left, which steadfastly supports open borders at all costs.

While I still believe Germany must change its laws, to do so under the current circumstances - when foreigners who have sought safety opportunity in Germany under the existing laws fear for their lives - would be a travesty for the liberal democracy that has finally taken root here after so much travail.

Only if the German authorities first demonstrate unremitting intolerance of the intolerant, thereby removing the danger to immigrants and refugees, should the laws be reformed.

Germany has the most liberal asylum law in the world. This law was generously adopted after World War II, when Germany was in a morally chaste mood due to the war crimes that had forced hundreds of thousands of refugees on the rest of the world. Germany today takes in more than 60 percent of those seeking asylum in the European Community. Clearly, the influx of refugees must be shared more equally by all European states.

Abuse of the asylum law, designed to grant safety to those who suffer political repression, has aggravated the problem. Today, a young Moroccan who sees he has no future comes to Germany, seeks asylum and gets in. No society can absorb foreigners on such liberal terms forever.

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