Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The country has entered a period of harsh self-reflection on matters of gender, policing, and especially immigration.
Almost a week later, Germany is still reeling from the sexual assaults that took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Gathering outside the city’s main station, a group of up to 1,000 men stormed into the celebrating crowd under a volley of fireworks, grabbing women violently, stealing bags and purses. To date there have been 90 complaints of assault from shaken, bruised women, including one of rape. So far, owing in part to the size of the crowd, the number of arrests is zero.
A rampage like this would always provoke outrage, but the Cologne outbreak (matched by a smaller but similar incident in Hamburg) has one particularly incendiary detail. According to city police, the male attackers appeared to be of “Arab or North African origin.” Now the country has been plunged into a bout of heated self-questioning. Why did police prove so ineffectual? Why did the story take four days to break in the national media? And do the attackers origins suggest, as some have claimed, that Germany’s immigration and integration policies are failing?
The debate could scarcely come at a more fraught time for Germany. Fears about Europe’s refugee crisis are bleeding into ongoing critiques of immigration to create a confused, fearful climate. In December alone, Germany received more than 127,000 refugees.
In a country of 80 million people, this level is still ultimately absorbable, not least because with the world’s lowest birthrate, Germany actually needs migrants. But the sheer speed of the influx—1.1 million in 2015—is nonetheless a major logistical challenge, leaving exhausted, often traumatized migrants to queue for hours in sub-zero temperatures at refugee reception centers like the one at Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport. Fearful of overspill, Denmark reintroduced border controls at its frontier with Germany this Monday, to condemnation from the German Foreign Ministry.
At a time when migration from majority-Muslim countries is high, it’s hardly surprising that a story of sexual assault by a gang with apparent origins in such places has proven incendiary (which exact regions is as yet unspecified). Still, the fact is, there’s no evidence of any refugee involvement in the incident whatsoever. The absence of refugees in the crowd—confirmed by police who recognized known offenders within it—has not stopped supporters of the extreme-right pressure group Pegida to call, in an echo of recent comments by Donald Trump, for the closure of Germany’s borders.
First in the firing line, however, has been the media—so slow on the uptake that some have cried cover-up. As one writer put it:
Despite online and social media that relay the latest escapades in the Kardashian household from the U.S. within minutes, it took four days until the incident was finally reported nationally.
While the story did indeed stay under the national radar for a while, it has now become such a cornerstone of national coverage that the cover-up allegations are fading. Other criticisms have stuck more firmly. Ineffectual policing has been lambasted by Germany’s interior minister, while Cologne’s mayor has earned herself few fans by the shades of victim-blaming in her naïve suggestion that, in the future, women in dense crowds should keep men “at arm’s length.”
Some have gone as far as interpreting the attack as an example of failed multiculturalism. Controversial feminist veteran Alice Schwarzer, who blamed the “violence-legitimizing masculine norms of Muslim culture,” had this to say of the attackers:
These young men are the sad product of a failed, never even really desired integration. They are the product of false tolerance, in which almost everyone—people, the media, churches, and politics—our democracy, our rule of law, our equality can be questioned, even trodden underfoot in favor of "other customs" and an ominous "religious freedom."
Other commentators have come down hard on this racialized perception of the violence. The incidents took place in a country where drunken sexual assaults are also notoriously common at classically German-identified events, such as Munich’s Oktoberfest. All this in a world where, according to the U.N., 35 percent of all women “have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives.” Ignoring culturally ingrained misogyny might be a grave mistake, but so would ascribing misogynistic violence to one culture when it is in fact ubiquitous, suggested newspaper Taz. In response to Schwarzer, it wondered if the:
“violence-legitimizing masculine norms” in the German, non-Muslim majority culture would [also] be no problem? For what would have been different if the perpetrators had not been "North African," but ur-German men? Not much for the affected women. The public reaction, however, would have been different. Many would not have believed the women concerned, trivialized or ignored the incident, or even blamed the women themselves. Those who would have dismissed the incident are the same ones who are now particularly outraged.
The issue isn’t likely to die down quickly—rightly so given the gravity of the assaults. While New Year’s Eve is fast receding, Cologne’s Carnival (Germany’s largest and most famous) is coming in early February. A massive and much loved six-day spree, it’s now liable to take place in an atmosphere of intense vigilance and tension. With no mutually agreed answers on the table as to who to blame for the New Year’s attacks—and how to avoid a repeat—Germany looks well set for a particularly fractious 2016.