Germany is still in the throes of a debate about migration and racism after dozens of people were arrested in Berlin for attacking police and emergency services on New Year’s Eve. Both the progressives and conservatives have valid points but neither side wants to admit it.
Almost two weeks after revellers fired rockets at police cars and threw bottles at firefighters, television programmes are still preoccupied with questions about why it happened and what to do. Appearing on different talk shows this week, Friedrich Merz, leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, and Franziska Giffey, Berlin’s Social Democrat mayor, offered competing narratives. “We’re dealing with a real problem when it comes to the integration of young people,” said Merz, pointing out that the worst of the violence was clustered in areas such as Berlin’s Neukölln, where many are from migrant backgrounds. “These are kids from the neighbourhood,” said Giffey. “They’re German.”
So who’s right? Both are. Berlin’s police arrested 145 people of 18 nationalities on New Year’s Eve. It’s fair for conservatives to ask whether youths enjoying the protection of the German state are also disrespecting it. But a third of the alleged perpetrators were German.
German youths in Neukölln often come from migrant backgrounds but they go to German schools. Yet the system stratifies students at the age of 11, with teachers largely deciding whether a student will go to a vocational school or an academic one in preparation for higher education. Many young people of migrant heritage end up losing out on academic opportunities at that time. Ugur Sahin, who developed the Pfizer/Biontech coronavirus vaccine with his wife, was only able to go to an academic school after a white German neighbour intervened on his behalf. That’s hardly a success story for German inclusion. Yet conservatives vociferously defend the model despite its inequality.
Germany needs to have an honest debate about integration. But it’s likely to make both conservatives and progressives uncomfortable. That is why they’re likely to keep avoiding it.
Aaron Burnett is a Monocle contributor based in Berlin.