Understanding Germany’s racial challenge

Just a quick post to alert people to a piece from Sunday in the Guardian, not to be missed if you want to understand the politics of immigration in Germany, or central Europe more broadly.

It’s by James Hawes, a historian, and I’m recommending it even though I’m a bit uncomfortable with his key conclusion, because it’s a great short presentation of important truths about Germany.

Basically his argument is that the eastern part of Germany is contested territory, and that the Germans there are originally colonists, giving them a sense of racial insecurity that was not present in the rest of the country:

The result, just as in the slave-owning American South, French Algeria or Northern Ireland, was a political tradition in which the “poor whites” demanded (and doffed their caps to) a strong leadership of “their own”, ready to quell the native uprising if it ever came. It was this archetypally colonial politics that always made Prussia so different from the rest of Germany.

And because German unification happened under Prussian leadership, this sort of outlook infected the German body politic, leading (among other things) to two world wars.

I think this is quite an accurate diagnosis of the past, and one that deserves to be more widely understood. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s all that important for the current debate on immigration, although no doubt it forms part of the picture.

There’s clearly some sort of relationship between hostility to immigrants and a history of racial insecurity. The home base of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria, for example, is in Carinthia, the state that’s historically disputed with the Slovenes. Many Hungarians have a self-image as an outpost of resistance against the Slav hordes, just as many Slavs in Serbia and Bulgaria feel the same way about the Muslims.

Gallup’s survey of migrant acceptance (which I reported on last year) illustrates the pattern. But it also throws up anomalies, suggesting that the story is a complex one. Historical determinism isn’t everything.

Hawes’s conclusion is not quite that the eastern Germans are incorrigible racists, but rather the flip side of that: that because “ruthless statism” came from the east, the westerners who run Germany shouldn’t let the fear of descending into authoritarianism prevent them from cracking down on the racists. As he puts it,

Rather than let East German politics once again deform the whole country, Germany must have the confidence to use the full weight of the western Rechtsstaat – the law-based state – to make sure that we never again have to see what we saw last weekend in Chemnitz. It really is the only language these people understand.

I’m uncomfortable with dismissing quite so sweepingly the concerns of people in the east, especially when they are shared so widely beyond Germany’s borders. But the call to be resolute in defence of the values of civilisation is worth heeding.



2 thoughts on “Understanding Germany’s racial challenge

  1. > “It really is the only language these people understand.”
    Well, there’s a solution. Are there any other ethnic tribes in the world other than Prussians for whom the Guardian would recommend such stiff medicine? Boer Afrikaners, too, I suppose — but then like the Prussians, they have racism deep within their genes, so they must be dealt with sternly. None of this “look at root causes” guff with such violent barbarians.


    1. Thanks Tom – that’s the source of my discomfort as well. To read him more charitably, the “these people” are just the small minority of racist thugs; the point of the historical determinism (such as it is) is not to say that easterners are mired in authoritarianism, but that westerners are not, and therefore don’t need to be afraid of using force when necessary to defend civilised values. But I agree it’s very easy to read it your way.


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