LONDON — “What are you doing here in Germany,” asked the three drunken youths when they ran into Alberto Adriano in Dessau one Saturday night in June. “I live here,” Adriano might have replied, but he didn’t get the chance. The three were still rhythmically kicking and stamping on his head with their steel-capped boots and chanting, “Get out of our country, you nigger pig,” when the police pulled up and arrested them.
Adriano was born in Mozambique, but he came to what was then East Germany in his early 20s and had lived and worked in Dessau nearly half his life. He spoke fluent German, and was married to a German woman with whom he had three children. He died three days after the attack without regaining consciousness.
Adriano’s skinhead killers went on trial on Aug. 22, with Germany’s chief federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, leading the prosecution personally. Germany is considering a legal ban on the neo-Nazi National Party of Germany, whose members are involved in a high proportion of attacks on racial minorities and foreigners, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is spending two weeks touring the areas of eastern Germany where the far right is strongest and the racist violence is worse.
These responses would be more reassuring if the xenophobia were confined to a few neofascists. It isn’t; it’s a popular sport throughout eastern Germany.
Two weeks ago, one day after a German court awarded large civil damages to Noel Martin, a black British construction worker who was left paralyzed after a racist attack in the town of Mahlow two years ago, skinheads attacked and severely beat an Angolan in the same town.
So is there some special wickedness in the Germans that makes them instinctive racists, in Hitler’s time or in our own? One doubts that Christian Richardson would think so.
Richardson is English, and moved to Dublin last year to be with his 24-year-old Irish girlfriend. He quickly found a good job in the booming Irish capital, and last June (about the same time Adriano was being kicked to death in Dessau) his parents came over from England to visit him. His dad is white and his mum is black, which would not turn any heads in his native city of Bristol. In Dublin, it nearly got them killed.
Walking in the center of Dublin, the three were set upon by white Irish youths. Christian Richardson’s father was stabbed six times in the neck and back as he tried to protect his Jamaican-born wife. He almost died.
His son treated it as an isolated incident and stayed in Dublin — until it happened again in mid-August as he was cycling to work.
“It was broad daylight,” said Richardson. “Three lads shouted a load of racist abuse at me as I passed them, and then started coming after me. I was terrified. I thought: ‘That’s it. I’m off. No way I’m staying around to take this.’ I just packed my bag and got on a plane.”
There is racist violence in Britain too, but Richardson clearly feels a lot safer in Bristol than in Dublin. As for eastern Germany, it is off the scale: racial attacks there are four times more frequent than in Britain. So what do East Germany and Ireland have in common that could account for their brutal racism? Not much, on the face of it.
Ireland is Catholic; eastern Germany is Protestant. Eastern Germany (as Prussia) was a great power; Ireland was a British colony. After a generation of communist rule and a decade of Western aid, eastern Germany is still one of the poorest regions of the European Union, with unemployment of over 17 percent; Ireland is now the “Celtic Tiger,” with an economy growing three times faster than the European average and only 4 percent unemployment.
But there is one common factor. These are both places where almost everybody was white until recently. Perhaps the problem is not innate, ineradicable racism, but just the panicky reaction of an isolated population when its ethnic homogeneity and cultural conformity begins to be challenged.
German politicians (and now some Irish ones too) respond to outbreaks of racial violence with demands for tighter immigration controls, as if the problem were too many foreigners. But there is a strong case for saying that the real problem is too few.
Compare Britain, which has had large-scale immigration for over a generation and is now a fairly relaxed multiracial society, with Ireland, a society only recently emerged from the Catholic nationalist dream of a single people united by religion, language, and history. Or compare former West Germany, which has taken in lots of immigrants since the 1960s, with former East Germany, which spent 40 years living in a cave.
The lowest rate of racist violence in Germany is in the state of Saarland, on the French border, where 8.2 percent of the population is foreign-born. The highest rate is in Saxony-Anhalt, where only 1.7 percent are foreigners, and an even tinier proportion are nonwhite. All the other eastern states share the same pattern of high antiforeign violence and practically no foreigners.
So maybe the real solution is to flood the place with people from elsewhere, and wait for the locals to get used to diversity. Of course, first you have to figure out some way to persuade the outsiders to stay.