German politician Henriette Reker was stabbed shortly before she became Köln’s new mayor – and just weeks later hundreds more women were assaulted. At a time of social and political unrest, can she give the city a glimmer of hope?
To reach Henriette Reker’s office in Köln’s airy 1970s city hall on a sunny morning, visitors must first navigate clusters of wedding parties. Festive, smiling groups holding flowers and children congregate around brides – young in white, older in purple.
One floor above, removed from the hubbub, the new mayor – calm, brisk and down-to-earth – conducts back-to-back meetings from a large room with a wall of windows. When Reker, a 59-year-old native of the city, takes a seat, you would never guess that less than a year ago – the day before the mayoral elections – a middle-aged German man ran up to her in the square where she was campaigning and, shouting about refugees, stabbed her over and over again in the neck.
Reker spent three days in a coma. Only when she woke up did she find out, from her husband, that she had won the election, making her the first female mayor in Köln’s 2,000-year history.
Just weeks after she was sworn in Reker’s city made global headlines again. The topic, once more, was violence against women: this time co-ordinated sexual assaults on hundreds of women at the main train station on New Year’s Eve. They were carried out by a group of men, most of whom were of Arab or North African origin.
Monocle: You were just in the hospital again, for 10 days. How are you feeling?
Henriette Reker: Very well. The judgment against the man who stabbed me has now been delivered and with that I hope to put the whole discussion about the attack behind me. I’m tired of constantly being “the victim of an attack”. I want to focus on the city of Köln first and foremost.
M: When you heard about the women who were assaulted next to the train station did you identify with them?
HR: Maybe it’s because you’re a woman but no one else asked me about this. Yes, it was exactly like that. I felt for the women right away because just a few weeks earlier I myself had experienced something similar.
M: You were criticised as being unemotional in the aftermath of these New Year attacks.
HR: I didn’t sink into commiseration because that would not have helped anyone. I tried instead to immediately re-establish security in the city. Things had to move very quickly: every day guests come to the city and people – all people – have to be able to move around freely, without fear.
M: With more than 1,000 reports of sexual assault in one night, the New Year attacks shocked the world. How could they happen in the first place?
HR: Köln is legendary for its tolerance and its love of celebration – and lots of people come here for Carnival and Christopher Street Day. On New Year’s Eve a number of men met in one spot. They didn’t organise it before, they just came to Köln to party. But thanks to alcohol and drugs it developed into criminal activity.
M: Still, why here, why now?
HR: For years there have been too few police officers in Köln. I don’t want to criticise the individual officers who were there but there were simply not enough of them. For example, I talked to a policewoman whose female colleague was on the spot as a civilian and it happened to her just like everyone else: she was shoved and assaulted. Now it’s much better. Since New Year the region has added 120 more police to the force. But the terrible thing is that something awful has to happen before anyone wakes up.
M: As a mayoral deputy from 2010 to 2015, you did lots of work with refugees. Are these attacks the result of a culture clash?
HR: The perpetrators were not the typical war refugees – the vast majority of war refugees are so happy to be here, to be in a safe place, and so worried that they could be deported. If you look at the statistics we have now the vast majority of the New Year’s Eve perpetrators come from a milieu that existed before the refugee crisis. Men from Tunisia and Morocco who were already involved in drug-related crimes.
M: Are attacks like this a new reality or was New Year in Köln an exception?
HR: We’re living in a time of social upheaval. It has to do with globalisation, the refugee crisis and the fact that people are coming to Germany who are not prepared for the cultural differences they encounter here. What the perpetrators all had in common was a completely antediluvian view of women – that united them. They made women run the gauntlet and that makes me furious, of course.
M: Some people in Köln say the whole city was wounded by your attack.
HR: By chance this attack was made on my person. But really it’s an attack on democracy. I believe it’s part of a pattern – like with Jo Cox [the murdered British MP]. That really made me sad.
M: You see the attack as a social reaction to powerful women?
HR: Women are bringing about change and being targeted for attack. In my case, it was very clearly right-wing violence. He wanted to target someone who worked with refugees. And I wasn’t even giving flowery speeches about integration, I was just doing my job.
M: You were in a coma when you were elected. Did you ever consider not taking the mayorship?
HR: Never. It was clear to me that if I was healthy enough to do it I would take the job – and the doctors said I could.
M: After the New Year attacks you were accused of blaming the victims for not having kept ‘an arm’s length’ distance from their attackers.
HR: Ach. I was asked in a press conference what safety tips we could give. The City of Köln has a pamphlet that talks about how young women and girls can stay safe when they go out: it say things such as “stay with your friends” and “pay attention to your drinks so that no date rape drugs can be put in them”. I named the “arm’s length” suggestion as one example from this pamphlet.
M: Your comment even got a hashtag: #einearmlaenge.
HR: I didn’t say that if the women had kept an arm’s length distance the New Year’s Eve attacks wouldn’t have happened. It was just an example and an unfortunate one in this context – especially when taken out of context. But you know, in comparison to what the women underwent that night, this “shit storm” was nothing. And in retrospect I asked myself, why did I choose that example? There were enough tips in the pamphlet, I could have picked something else. And I think it does have something to do with my attack. Because I wanted, subconsciously, to hold onto the illusion that if you just keep enough distance you can protect yourself against an attack like this. Which of course is not true.
M: There is a new police president. Do you work well with him?
HR: I work very well with the new police president. The problem with the former police president was that I was not adequately informed; I just got bits and pieces. I learned most of the details about the New Year attacks in the newspaper, and the picture I had after a week of reading was not at all what the police had told me.
M: Because you were new? Because you are an independent candidate in a city that’s known for one hand washing the other?
HR: No, it wasn’t personal. I think it was just the former police president’s communication style. Now that we have a new police president it’s different. He sends a text when a relic is stolen from the cathedral.
M: Is that a figure of speech?
HR: No! It just happened. It’s a cloth with [Pope John Paul II’s] blood. We are all wondering, who does that? And what is he or she going to do with it?
1956 Born in Köln
1986 Completes law degree
2000 Becomes deputy mayor for the city of Gelsenkirchen for social affairs, health and consumer protection
2010 Made deputy mayor for the city of Köln for social affairs, integration and environment
2015 Survives right-wing knife attack and is elected first female mayor of Köln