Angela Merkel’s Cologne Test
On Saturday, at least three groups of marchers assembled outside the main train station in Cologne, Germany. They had each come to offer their response to the attacks on women who had gathered in that spot a week earlier, to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The first march was organized by Pegida, the anti-immigrant organization that emerged in the former East Germany and has been holding regular demonstrations in cities across the country. The second was an anti-Pegida counterdemonstration, organized in part by leftist activists who accused Pegida of raising the specter of Germany’s fascist past. Demonstration and counterdemonstration were at such loggerheads that the Pegida march was delayed and then, before the marchers—some of whom were throwing bottles—had got very far, police officers wielding water cannons broke it up. Both sides claimed to be fighting for the future of Germany. Before their confrontation, though, a third demonstration had completed its route. That one was protesting violence against women, and many of the marchers had heard about it through social media or else had joined spontaneously. Of the three, it spoke most directly to the events of New Year’s Eve.
That night, as revellers filled the station platforms and—following a dubious German tradition—tossed firecrackers, they were pushed out into already crowded streets. There, groups of men who, according to eye-witness accounts and subsequent police investigations, were primarily foreigners from nations in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, targeted women and surrounded them. Some of the men groped and taunted them, while others stole their wallets and their cell phones. According to a preliminary police report leaked to the magazine Der Spiegel, “Women, accompanied or not, literally ran a ‘gauntlet’ through masses of heavily intoxicated men that words cannot describe.” The atmosphere was “chaotic and shameless.” Women reported men grabbing at their breasts and between their legs, among other violent and sexual assaults. With the press of the crowd, there was nowhere for the women to go and, although they screamed for help, the police had no effective response; the report described them as overwhelmed, and some witnesses said that they seemed to stand by in confusion. The police report expressed relief that no one was killed, but that appears to have been a matter of luck, not the result of any actions on the part of law enforcement. The chief of police has already been pushed into early retirement.
Under German law, any crimes committed in the main station, or within thirty metres of its tracks, come under the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement, and on Friday the Bundespolizei, or federal police, issued the first list of suspects in the attack. There were thirty-two: nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, three Germans, one Iraqi, one Serb, and one American. There should be more; about two hundred people have filed criminal complaints, and there are a good number of videos of the violence. (Three hundred and fifty hours’ worth, according to Der Spiegel.) The first suspects were mostly charged with property crimes, apparently because that evidence could be gathered most quickly. According to German press reports, the police traced some of the stolen phones to shelters and hostels for people given or seeking status as refugees, or to their immediate vicinity.
Twenty-two of the suspects are in some stage of the asylum process. This had already been suggested by early reports that some of the men spoke neither German nor English, but the specific number further electrified the mood in Germany. Some critics charged that the police tried to downplay the crimes because of the political sensitivity of the refugee question, if not simply to hide their own failures. The mayor of Cologne made matters worse when she was asked what women in such situations could do to protect themselves, and suggested that they might do well to keep strangers “at an arm’s length.”
For some, the attacks in Cologne, along with a smaller number of incidents reported during New Year’s celebrations in Hamburg and Helsinki, were an indictment of anyone who had thought that it was a good idea to let large numbers of refugees, particularly Muslim refugees, or even immigrants into Europe. (“Germany is going through massive attacks to its people by the migrants allowed to enter the country,” Donald Trump said.) For them, the person who should be on trial is Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has not placed a limit on the number of refugees that Germany will accept from Syria. (There are stricter standards for refugees from other countries and for economic migrants.) Merkel has been the conscience of Europe with regard to the plight of displaced Syrians, arguing that Europeans will be defined by the humanity of their response, and not by their ability to exclude others. By the German government’s count, more than a million refugees entered the country in 2015. For Merkel’s critics, New Year’s Eve in Cologne was the inevitable result, proof that her policy was doomed to fail.
Has it failed, though? More important, must it fail? One of the most provocative quotes in the leaked police report is from a man who shouted, “I’m a Syrian! You have to treat me kindly! Frau Merkel invited me.” But those words are nonsense, in more ways than one. Whether the man who said them was actually Syrian is unknown, but, whoever he was, he surely knew that “kindly” treatment does not extend to letting people get away with theft or sexual assault. And, if his taunt caused any officers to pause for even a moment, they were deeply negligent in their duties, not victims of political correctness.
Over and over again, in reference to the refugee crisis, Merkel has said, “Wir können das schaffen, und wir schaffen das.” Roughly translated, that means “We can handle this, and we will handle this”—Germany can figure it out, and pull it off. Part of handling the crisis will involve prosecuting and punishing anyone guilty of the attacks. On Saturday, Merkel said that the rules would be adjusted to make it easier to deny asylum to criminals. This was, she said, “not only in the interest of citizens but in the interest of the great majority of refugees.” (Some parties on the left disagreed, saying that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Social Democratic partners were “shooting from the hip”—overreacting in the heat of the moment.) Neither the cultural backgrounds of the male refugees nor the fact that they are traumatized, desperate, and angry is, obviously, an excuse for abusing women. By the same token, the bad acts of a few dozen, or even a few hundred, men are not an excuse for abdicating responsibility in the face of a human tragedy that has engulfed millions. (The United States has abdicated it.) What Merkel has done in welcoming refugees wasn’t the result of fuzzy passivity. It took real courage. She is too smart, and the discussions of the level of crime among foreigners are too long-standing, for her not to have reckoned that something like this might happen. Cologne is not Merkel’s first test. The rise of Pegida, which has attracted supporters who echo the rhetoric and sing the songs heard during the rise of the Nazi Party, is a reminder that it’s not Germany’s first test, either.
The opposite view, which so far Merkel has been right to reject, is that foreigners can never really do anything for a country but increase its level of criminality. (Practically speaking, in the long term, an infusion of immigrants may bring real economic benefits to Germany, an aging, shrinking country.) At the protests for women’s rights on Saturday, many of the marchers’ signs called for an end to both sexism and racism. Those goals are not in conflict; it’s worth keeping in mind that many female refugees who have entered Germany are survivors of sexual violence, either in camps or at the hands of smugglers during their journeys. They have a right to seek safety, and even kindness, in Germany. The march for women was the only march on Saturday that made it to the end of its route. It grew along the way, as passersby, many of them women, joined in. They were not willing to stay an arm’s length away from anything.
© 2016 The New Yorker