June 14 1993


June 14 1993



They came all week, bringing wreaths, candles, teddy bears and bunches of flowers. Germans, bowed in repentance and horror, and Turks, gripped by fear and loss, laid their tributes outside the three-storey white house at 81 Untere Wernerstrasse in the west German city of Solingen. There, a Turkish immigrant named Durmus Gene had struggled to raise his children and grandchildren in modest respectability. And there, two women and three girls in his family had burned to death— the latest victims of Germany’s epidemic of neo-Nazi violence. Amid the wilting flowers and guttering candles that turned the burned-out house into an instant shrine, someone had placed a hand-lettered sign with a message that captured the feelings of Solingen’s stunned population. It read simply: “Grief. Shame. Fear.”

A fourth word might well have been added: Anger. After months of enduring racist attacks, Germany’s Turkish community finally struck back. For four nights, young Turks rampaged through the streets of Solingen, smashing windows and turning the centre of the humdrum industrial town into an eerie place of broken glass and boarded-up shops. At the same time, Turks demonstrated in other cities around the country—serving notice that the once-silent minority wants protection from violence and, most controversially, recognition as full German citizens. For Germany, that demand poses a profound challenge to its very sense of nationhood. For much of the rest of Western Europe, too, it comes at a time when tensions over immigration and race are at their strongest since the Second World War.

Even as Germany reeled from the shock of Solingen, the signs of that tension were all too evident. All over

Europe, the barriers to unwanted immigrants are going up—a new kind of Iron Curtain erected by governments terrified at the public backlash against floods of newcomers. Just days before the attack, the German parliament had adopted measures that will severely limit the right to asylum there, the most common route for foreigners seeking to settle in Germany.

And last week, France’s new conservative government responded to a rising tide of anti-immigrant feeling by announcing that it is aiming for a policy of “zero immigration.” It set out new measures to tighten its borders and expel illegal immigrants. France has been experiencing racial violence, as well. Last week, arsonists torched a Turkish-owned factory near Grenoble and daubed its walls with swastikas. At the same time, European Community ministers agreed on tougher new guidelines to curb the flood of asylumseekers from the south and east.

Even in Britain, where governments have long congratulated themselves on avoiding the kind of bitter debate over

race and immigration now raging elsewhere in Europe, there was a jarring reminder of stresses just below the surface. Backbench Conservative MP Winston Churchill, grandson of the wartime prime minister, last week sounded a shrill warning that what he called “the relentless flow of immigrants” must be stopped “if the British way of life is to be preserved.” Tory leaders quickly slapped Churchill down. But his speech gave voice to an undercurrent of resentment against non-whites in times of high unemployment and a slumping economy.

Nowhere, though, is the debate as sharp as it is in Germany, where a Nazi past casts a long shadow over relations with foreigners. Solingen, a city of 165,000 between Cologne and Dusseldorf in the north Rhine region, welcomed its first Turks in the early 1960s. They arrived as “guest workers”—cheap labor to fuel the country’s economic miracle—and now form a relatively prosperous community of 7,900. Among the early arrivals was Durmus Gene, who worked in local factories and saved hard to buy a 100-year-old house,

the charred beams of which were starkly outlined against the sky last week.

Gene raised five daughters, and by the time the house was set on fire shortly after 1 a.m. on Saturday, May 29, almost 20 members of his extended family lived there. The quiet street was mixed: Germans and Turks lived easily side by side and the racial tensions in other parts of Germany seemed a world away. “These were our neighbors,” said Christa Kloempges, who lives down the street from the Gene family. “This came like a bolt from the blue.”

Danger, however, was almost next door. In the days before the attack, town officials say, a group of German youths began to gather in the park behind the Gene’s house to drink and shout far-right slogans. One of the group, a 16-year-old skinhead named Christian Riha, lived in an apartment barely 50m down the street. In the hours following the arson attack, police arrested Riha and, a week later, three other young skinheads. Authorities now claim that the youths set the fire as an act of revenge after three of them

were thrown out of a bar following a scuffle with two foreigners. The attack leaves disturbing questions for the vast majority of Germans who deplore assaults on foreigners. Hans Krebs, Solingen’s deputy mayor, expressed his shock after a memorial service for the five victims outside the city hall. “When you learn that perhaps a 16-year-old

boy did this, you must ask yourself what is going on in our society,” he said. “How can we have come to this?”

The apparent harmony in Solingen before the fire, however, was based on the almost complete exclusion of the Turks and other foreigners from the town’s power structures. Typically, Turks worked as semi-skilled factory laborers; a few saved enough to start up their own small businesses, but most planned to retire back to their home towns in Turkey. Although there are 1.8 million Turks in Germany, it is almost impossible for them to become full citizens. Germany’s nationality laws, which date back to the First World War, make citizenship dependent on German bloodlines rather than birthplace. The descendants of German settlers from far-flung parts of Eastern Europe, for example, have an automatic right to citizenship even if they have long since forgotten the language, while Turks and other foreigners have no such right even if they were bom on German soil and have no other home.

For a non-German, becoming a citizen is extremely difficult. The process normally involves passing elaborate tests on German language, history and culture and typically takes 10 to 15 years. As a result, only about one per cent of Germany’s Turkish population has full citizenship rights—including the right to vote. By both law and custom, Turks and other foreigners are almost invisible in public life: there are no Turkish members of parliament and only a handful in such sensitive areas as the civil service, the police and the news media.

For younger Turks, many of whom were born in Germany and have no intention of resettling in Turkey, a country that is essentially foreign to them, that is no longer accept-

able. “We work hard and we pay taxes to pay for reunification of the country like everyone else,” complained Osman Teke, a 23-year-old construction worker who was among a crowd that gathered outside the gutted house. ‘Then, when they think they don’t need us any more, they set fire to our homes.” Others warned of more violence to come. A 19-yearold construction worker who was wearing a red and white Turkish flag as a bandana around his head told of his anger and frustration: “It’s like war. If the Nazis go on like this we’ll kill them. We’ve had it. Soon it won’t be just windows that get broken around here.” An engineer named Salih made the point most eloquently. He carefully unwrapped a Turkish newspaper, revealing a chunk of charred wood inside. “I took it off the house, like other people took parts of the Berlin Wall,” he said quietly. “I’m taking it as a reminder that this should never happen again.”

The Turks’ fight for full recognition as citi-

zens is political dynamite in Germany. Many German traditionalists, as well as the fringe groups on the far right, strongly oppose replacing the “blood” concept of citizenship with eligibility based on where someone is born. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has resisted calls to allow Turks and other foreigners to apply for dual citizenship—keeping their ties to their old country while making it easier for them to acquire German passports as well. And ever mindful of the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany, Kohl stayed away from last week’s memorial services for the Solingen victims. Instead, his government spent almost as much time

denouncing the Turks who took to the streets in protest as it did condemning the murderous attack.

Other German leaders were more outspoken. President Richard von Weizsäker, whose position is largely ceremonial, made an unusually sharp break with Kohl’s government when he spoke at a funeral service for the victims at a mosque in Cologne. Von Weizsäker distanced himself from the government’s attempts to portray the attack in Solingen, and the torching of another Turkish home in the town of Mölln last November in which three people died, as isolated acts. “Rather,” he said, “they spring from a climate generated by the extreme right. Even criminals acting alone do not emerge from nothing.” More controversially, the president lent his moral support to the Turks’ campaign for dual citizenship by suggesting to his fellow Germans that they “speak too easily of ‘the Turks.’ ” He continued: ‘Would it not be more honest and human

to say, ‘German citizens of Turkish heritage?’ ” Kohl, however, has pointedly not gone to any memorials for victims of racial attacks or visited any of the hostels for refugees that have been assaulted by neo-Nazis. His spokesman dismisses such visits as “condolence tourism,” and the chancellor’s critics accuse him of appeasing right-wing sentiment. Indeed, three days before the Solingen attack, the German parliament passed a law limiting the right to political asylum in Germany. Article 16 of the country’s 1949 constitution gives anyone the right to claim asylum in Germany—a provision that has enticed a flood of would-be refugees from Eastern Europe in the past several years.

Of the refugees entering the 12 European Community nations, Germany receives 70 per cent—a staggering 440,000 last year alone, at a cost to the German federation of some $8 billion—sparking a wave of public resentment. Under the new law, which will come into effect on July 1, Germany will be able to turn back asylum-seekers who arrive via so-called safe third nations. That includes all countries bordering on Germany, so the German government will in effect just be handing the problem back to its neighbors.

France, too, has made it clear that it plans tough measures to counter the widespread public percep tion that it is being flooded by immigrants. The coun try's new interior minister, Charles Pasqua, elaborating on the "zero immigration" target in an interview with Le Monde, said that "France has been a country of immi gration, and ? longer

wants to De. we uont nave the means," he added. "If we don't hold this line firmly, public opinion will harden and the country will drift to the extreme right." Pasqua proposed new laws to make it more difficult for immigrants to bring their fami lies to join them; to let police make random identity checks to catch illegal immigrants; and to make it harder for children born in France of foreign parents to receive French citizenship. Left-wing critics charge that the government is pandering to unfounded fears, but Prime Minister Edouard Balladur had a sharp response to that. "Look at what is happening in Germany," he said. The message was clear, and filled with irony: politicians may be quick to condemn hor rific attacks in places like Solingen, but they are equally quick to use them to justify legal measures against foreigners else where in Europe.