A slew of public, racially-tainted remarks by Thilo Sarrazin, an executive board member of Germany's central Bank, has sparked a wave of outrage in the country. While the media and government circles have rallied in unanimous condemnation of Sarrazin, his views seem to have resonated with a significant part of the German population. Joel Schalit, our Observer from Israel who currently lives in Berlin, sent us his view on the subject.
It was a publisher's dream come true. The week of the book's release, every national media outlet was discussing its author. As the publication date grew closer, each day, it seemed, was not without some related controversy. By the time the volume finally went on sale, on August 30, it was one of the best selling books in Germany.
Surprisingly, this was no celebrity tell-all or Stieg Larsson novel. The title in question, Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab (‘Germany is Digging Its Own Grave') is about immigration, by an author without any related credentials. Thilo Sarrazin is a government officer, employed as an executive board member of the Deutsche Bundesbank, Germany's central bank.
It's hard to imagine how such an individual would have their opinions taken seriously enough that they'd influence an entire country's discussion of such a significant subject. Yet, following the publication of excerpts from his book in Bild last week, a series of inflammatory statements to the press about Jews and Basques helped seal the deal.
"'Smarter' Jews from eastern Europe rather than other ethnic groups"
Stating that Basques and Jews have distinct genes that set them apart, Sarrazin succeeded in drawing attention to his book's equally controversial conclusion: that Muslim immigration is destroying Germany. Muslims are to blame for Germany's decline, the banker contends, because they are unproductive and prone to violence.
At one point, reported to have stated that he would prefer "smarter" Jews from eastern Europe to immigrate to Germany, instead of members of other ethnic groups (smarter than the average German, Sarrazin is said to have remarked), the Bundesbank official made it clear he viewed Jews in the same overall camp as Muslims.
That such unprecedented outbursts about Jews and Basques would publicise the existence of a book promoting hatred of Muslim immigrants ought to be instructive. Not just their being singled out, for discrimination, but that they're being lumped together, with Turks, despite their clear differences, would have such resonance for Germans.
Clearly, there is something about Basques and Jews that remains fear-provoking. Especially when conjecturing, as Sarrazin's book worries, what the long-term consequences of Muslim immigration to Germany will be. Is it that Jews still do not appear to be fully European? Might Germans come to more closely resemble them in the future?
Though Germany's leadership levelled intense criticism at Sarrazin for his reactionary positions, an Emnid poll conducted after his book's release confirmed the worst possible fears about their popularity. Some 56 percent of those surveyed agreed that Muslims are responsible for their own failure to integrate, while only 11 percent blamed ‘Germany'.
In other words, German public opinion is the problem, not just Thilo Sarrazin. Though he deserves to be harshly rebuked for his positions, vilifying him for stating what many Germans believe won't necessarily tackle the larger issue. All Sarrazin did was give this sentiment the stamp of approval of the establishment, thereby encouraging its growth.
While it's incumbent on the German government to prevent its employees from using their jobs to promote intolerance, (especially considering that 20 percent of people living in Germany are now foreign-born) it is equally important that it grasp this racism's significance. To state the obvious, why did this happen now? What's different about it?
This is especially significant to answer, as much German discourse about the event has stayed within the parameters of the discussion set by Sarrazin. Hence, one encounters repeat expressions of regret for the failings of properly integrating Middle Eastern migrants, coinciding with vigorous denunciations of the banker's xenophobia.
Like the rest of Europe, Germany could do a better job of de-stigmatising immigrants. During times of crisis, ‘foreigners' are default scapegoats for social distress, much as they are in countries with similarly diverse populations, like Italy and France. Recent campaigns against Roma and Arab migrants next door have not gone unnoticed.
Though Germany has been praised for its resurgent economy, analysts have been quick to point out that this applies almost exclusively to the export sector. German wages remain flat, domestic spending has decreased, and unemployment rolls have only been reduced through the creation of part-time jobs. It is, to many, a false recovery.
Thus, it makes perfect sense that a representative of Germany's financial sector would argue that it is minorities who are spoiling it for everyone, not bad economic planning. After all, resurgent racism is typical of environments characterised by rising inequality. No one would know better than an officer of one of the world's largest welfare states.
Late Thursday afternoon, the Bundesbank effectively fired Thilo Sarrazin, by relieving him of his responsibilities. It is now up to Germany's president, Christian Wulff, to formally discharge him. Given the Merkel government's desire to see Sarrazin punished, it's only a matter of time before he is finally let go.
As the banker's book sales suggest, banishing him will not limit the damage already done, though it will disidentify the government from it. Nevertheless, his pairing of anti-Semitism with islamophobia remains invaluable, because it highlights the interchangeability of both prejudices.