Hate Seems Most Rampant Where the Fewest Foreigners Live
By Kurt Reumann
FRANKFURT. Do foreigners have to be afraid in Germany? Wolfgang Thierse, the president of the Bundestag, the German parliament, said that during his travels he found "fear everywhere," among young democrats and young left-wingers, of violence. That means young Germans and not just foreigners are frightened of right-wing extremists.
In his comments, Mr. Thierse was largely referring to eastern Germany. While it would be wrong to pretend there is no right-wing violence in western Germany, there is much to be said for Mr. Thierse's observation that xenophobia in eastern Germany is "something dramatically different" than in the west. "Having something against foreigners is an almost natural part of popular consciousness for a significant number of eastern Germans, if not for all of them," he said recently.
There are many reasons why a comparatively large number of eastern Germans do not particularly like foreigners. For a start, hatred of foreigners is often a product of the imagination and not experience. For that reason, xenophobia is strongest in regions where there are fewest foreigners. According to the Shell study Youth 2000, almost one-quarter of the young people interviewed said they had "no contact at all" to foreigners of their own age and almost half said "not very often." Together that is a good two-thirds.
Eastern Germans in particular contributed to this overall negative picture. If you pool the answers "not at all" and "not very often," this is true of more than 90 percent of eastern German adolescents. It is hardly surprising. The percentage of foreigners living in the states that were part of the former East Germany ranges from only 1 percent to 2.5 percent of the population. Almost two-thirds of all foreigners in Germany live in the four western states: Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.
Moreover, many eastern Germans had a latent fear of all things foreign, both under communist rule in East Germany and then after the fall of the Iron Curtain when they suffered feelings of uncertainty or even uprootedness. Foreigners were the most obvious personification of the unknown and the different, but xenophobia is also directed against western Germans. The few western German teachers at eastern German schools could write a book about it.
Without a doubt, right-wing extremists say there are too many foreigners in Germany more frequently than other sections of the population. Opinion research institutes that tend to interpret this view as the most important indication of right-wing extremist attitudes obtain fairly high figures, although right-wing radicals do not do well at elections in western Germany and only in certain areas in eastern Germany. So it would be wrong to draw far-reaching conclusions just from answers to the question whether too many foreigners live here.
You do not have to be a neo-Nazi to believe that. People annoyed by abuses of the asylum laws or others who believe that a high percentage of foreigners stokes right-wing extremism among German workers and the unemployed often tell interviewers that immigration needs to be reduced. These are Germans who favor the Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian-based sister party, Christian Social Union, or even the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor of the former East German communists. But they do not favor the right-wing Republikaner, the National Democratic Party or the German People's Union.
However, there is one crucial point for the political climate in a community: whether the perpetrators of extremist violence can assume their xenophobic slogans ("Foreigners Out!") and actions will meet with popular approval. In eastern Germany, they are applauded far more frequently than in western Germany. It is therefore wrong to assume that xenophobia is exclusively a phenomenon found among the younger generation.
In eastern Germany, it is also found among older people. Xenophobia and latent anti-Semitism existed in East Germany, which is why Mr. Thierse warned against the "secret consent" that starts with the statement "but they are our boys" and ends with the statement "but there really are too many foreigners." Particularly in areas where there are no foreigners for miles around, foreigners have to serve as scapegoats because there are not enough jobs for Germans.
Such attitudes are all the sadder because they distort the image of young people in west and east. Most adolescents are friendly, optimistic and hardworking as the wealth of data and convincing analyses in the Shell study show. The responses to the question "Can young Germans and foreigners learn from each other?" are the best proof. "Yes, they can both learn from each other" is the most frequent reply, although there are interesting differences between the sexes and nationalities. A total of 69.5 percent of German boys and 76.7 percent of German girls gave this balanced "polite" answer, 77.9 percent of Turkish boys and 83.3 percent of Turkish girls, and 81.8 percent of Italian boys and 87.7 percent of Italian girls.
The differences between the nationalities arise because (on average) young foreigners have more contact with young Germans than young Germans have with young foreigners. The differences between the sexes are an indication that boys have a stronger tendency to extreme opinions and violence than girls, a tendency that is also stronger among less educated boys than among their better educated counterparts.
It is also young German boys who tend to say "no, they cannot learn anything from each other," (14.4 percent) as opposed to German girls (9.5 percent), and more often those with right-wing extremist sympathies than those with democratic convictions. A total of 2.3 percent of young Germans say they could learn more from foreigners than foreigners could from them.