In February, the Essen food bank Essener Tafel makes headlines when it comes under fire for, and is finally pressured to reverse, a policy of turning away non-citizens, claiming foreigners with a “give-me gene” and a lack of German “queuing culture” had come to make up over 75% of their clientele. Other food banks distance themselves from these comments, and politicians including Angela Merkel make statements of condemnation. According to a different perspective, the real problem goes beyond racism: namely, the food bank was not originally conceived as a charity for pensioners and low-income earners, and not for refugees, who should receive sufficient support from the government that they do not have to rely on food banks.
The Turkish-German journalist Deniz is released from imprisonment without charge by Turkey and arrives in Berlin on February 16. He now faces an indictment by Turkish prosecutors carrying a sentence of 18 years.
On March 14, Merkel is sworn in and another grand coalition between the SPD and CDU/CSU is officially announced, after SPD members had voted with a 66% majority in favor of joining 10 days earlier. The CDU’s conservative Bavarian sister party, the CSU, leverages the talks to pull migration and border policy to the right, taking issue with the Merkel government’s temporary opening of the border in 2015 and threatening the coalition if stricter border controls are not adopted. Although CSU leader Horst Seehofer declared in July that the conflict between the CDU and CSU was resolved, the conflict over refugee policy continues to rage on.
The general European trend of the decline of traditional centrist political parties continues in Italy’s parliamentary elections, where the right-wing nationalist Lega Nord and anti-EU populist Five Star Movement come out big winners and form a far-right coalition government with the Five Star Movement at its head. On July 1, the coalition is sworn in under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Italy enters a collision course with the EU on questions of both economic and migration policy.
The deadly poison attack in early March against the Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in Salisbury, England causes international tensions to flare, particularly between the UK and Russia, with diplomatic consequences. Russia and the UK each expel dozens of diplomats from their respective countries. In addition, the EU and other Western countries, including the United States, affirm the UK position and expel a total of 110 Russian diplomats.
On April 12, the last annual Echo Music Awards take place. Among other winners, the German music industry’s most important awards ceremony honors rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah, whose lyrics had mired them in controversy. The Federal Music Industry Association (BVMI) released a statement after the awards ceremony announcing the end of the Echo award, claiming that such a prize can never be allowed to serve as “a platform for anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, or the trivialization of violence.” The discussion surrounding accusations of anti-Semitism against the rappers had already reached a fever pitch in the run-up to the awards.
The Social Democrats undergo a change at the helm when Andrea Nahles as becomes their first female party chair on April 22.
Protests erupt in Bavaria in response to a heavily contested amendment to that that state’s policing regulations vastly expanding powers of surveillance and detention.
On June 1, Bavaria’s “cross decree” stipulates that crosses must be displayed in all of the conservative Southern state’s public buildings, sparking debate nationwide in the wake of Seehofer’s comment that “Islam does not belong to Germany,” repeating a central slogan of the far-right Alternative for Germany and putting Merkel at odds with her closest coalition partners on the question of religion and cultural identity. The Catholic Church, as well, has criticized the CSU’s approach.
In June, the migrant rescue ship Lifeline from the humanitarian organization Mission Lifeline is blockaded for days when no EU government is willing to grant entry to the 230 migrants the ship had saved from the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya. Finally, the ship is allowed to dock in Malta, and the captain is ordered to appear in court to address alleged problems with the ship’s registration. Also in June, another Mediterranean humanitarian vessel, the Aquarius, is similarly kept at sea for days before being permitted to dock at the Port of Valencia in Spain. Both Malta and Italy had previously refused to take in the refugees.
At the end of June, the EU countries meet in Brussels at a summit on changes to the Common European Asylum System. On July 4, 69 Afghans were deported from Germany. Provoking outrage, Seehofer joked while announcing new border controls, “On my 69th birthday of all days—I didn’t ask for this—69 people were sent back to Afghanistan.”
In mid-May, Mesut Özil draws fire for a photo op in London with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with his fellow German national team player of Turkish origin, İlkay Gündoğan. A discourse surrounding accusations of Özil’s divided allegiances continues during Germany’s disappointing World Cup in June, throughout which Özil remains silent before announcing his retirement from the national team on July 22, and accusing the German Soccer Federation (DFB) of racism. The saga leads to a broader debate about everyday racism in Germany, including Germans of color sharing their experiences using the hashtag #MeTwo.
On July 11, the verdict in the NSU trial is handed down, with Beate Zschäpe of the far-right terrorist group National Socialist Underground sentenced to life in prison. Plaintiffs and victims who feel betrayed by the government’s systematic coverup of NSU crimes were disappointed as well in the light sentencing of Zschäpe’s codefendants.
The German-Jewish writer Max Czollek makes a splash in August with the publication of his essay collection Desintegriert euch! (“Dis-integrate yourselves!”), a manifesto that rails against the Federal Republic’s societal principle of integration, underneath whose surface remains the racially homogeneous ideal of the German Volksgemeinschaft or ethnic community. According to Czollek, he fears “we are now seeing that there is much more continuity, that we actually live in a post-National Socialist Germany in which we have to give much more serious consideration than we had, for a while, at least hoped to the continuity of those political traditions and the willingness of the population to embrace them.” In light of this, the author calls for a true denazification, in the sense of a paradigm shift from the dominant concept of integration to one of “radical multiplicity”: “And when one follows this line of thinking, then I would say that the call to dis-integration is one that promises or tries to think a concept that would make something like the AfD, like right-wing, ethnic nationalist frameworks impossible.”
The end of August is marred by a deadly knife attack in Chemnitz in the federal state of Saxony. When it becomes known that the alleged perpetrators were migrants, conservatives and right-wing extremists call for protests that erupt on August 26 and 27 into riots with violent clashes involving conservative protestors, neo-Nazis, counter-protestors, police, journalists, and passersby, with migrants themselves the primary victims. Some describe the violence as a “witch-hunt,” and the Saxon police are heavily criticized for their underwhelming response to the situation despite warnings from Saxony’s branch of the Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s federal domestic security agency.
The hashtag #WirSindMehr (“We are more”) becomes a rallying cry against racism in various outlets, including a major concert. In an interview, the head of the Verfassungsschutz Hans-Georg Maaßen expresses doubt as to the authenticity of a video showing an attack on a migrant during the mayhem in Chemnitz, and faces a firestorm of backlash. When it is revealed that Maaßen had previously expressed concern in his role as head of domestic security about “left-wing radical forces in the SPD,” he is dismissed from his duties. Subsequently, his planned transfer to a senior post in the Interior Ministry caused controversy not least because it was functionally a promotion, and in November he is ushered into retirement.
In Sweden’s parliamentary elections on September 9, despite a significant loss of support to the far-right Sweden Democrats, the governing Social Democrats remain the strongest party.
At the end of September more than 8500 prominent members of German civil society, primarily from the sphere of arts and entertainment, signed a petition calling on Seehofer to resign as Interior Minister.
On September 29, as part of his hotly contested state visit, Turkish President Erdogan participates in the dedication ceremony for the Central Mosque in Cologne. The Mayer of Cologne and North Rhine-Westphalia Minister-President Armin Laschet avoid the dedication ceremony, and notable politicians are absent from the state dinner.
Sahra Wagenknecht, leader of the Left Party in the Bundestag since 2015, founds the controversial “Aufstehen” (“Stand Up”) movement to circumvent parliament and reach across party lines in an effort to move Germany’s politics ostensibly leftward towards a more just and peaceful coexistence. It remains an open question how many people Wagenknecht can mobilize and win over, or whether she may be tripped up by her thoroughly polarizing personality. Moreover, Aufstehen faces serious backlash from the left, including from within her own ranks in the Left Party, on the basis of its alleged concessions to right-wing xenophobia and explicit departure from a left-wing politics of open borders.
At the beginning of October, Saudi journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi is murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Der Friedensnobelpreis 2018 geht unter anderem an die Jesidin Nadia Murad. Sie wurde 2014 Opfer des ISIS im Nordirak. Sie fand Aufnahme im weltweit einzigartigen Hilfsprogramm Baden-Württembergs für jesidische Frauen und Kinder aus dem Nordirak. Seitdem macht sie sich für das Schicksal missbrauchter Frauen und Mädchen stark.
The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who was captured by ISIS in northern Iraq in 2014, and was rescued by the German state of Baden-Württemberg’s unique humanitarian program for Yazidi women and children from northern Iraq. Since then, she has campaigned for the welfare of abused women and children.
During the period between January and October 2018, a total of 158,512 people applied for asylum in Germany, which compared to 187,226 applications during the same stretch of the previous year constitutes a decline of 15.3%.
In early October, Jewish members of the AfD found the group “Jews in the AfD,” to the great consternation of leaders in Germany’s Jewish community.
On October 29, Chancellor Merkel announces the end of her political career, declaring that she will neither stand for reelection as CDU chair in December nor serve in any other public office in the future. She will remain Chancellor until 2021.
Seehofer announces that he will step down as chair of the CSU at the beginning of 2019, although he will remain Interior Minister in the coalition government.
On December 7, the new CDU leadership is voted in during the party’s 31st convention. In the second round of voting, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer edges out Friedrich Merz in the race for party chair. Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose politics are conservative including on issues of migration, announces her plan to discuss key policy decisions at a conference of the party leadership in January 2019 and calls for a national debate.
At the end of November, a majority in the Bundestag votes to ratify the UN Migration Pact, which is then adopted at a December meeting in Marrakech, Morocco and sets global guidelines for an international regime to regulate migration and curb illegal migration. Nevertheless, it is hotly debated in other European countries and the US.
To close out the year, on December 31, Israel withdraws from UNESCO, following the United States, which withdrew in 2017 after the administration of Donald Trump accused the organization of anti-Israel bias on account of the membership of the Palestinian Authority, the decision to declare Hebron a Palestinian world heritage site, and references to Israel as an occupying force.
In general, the number of asylum requests declines in comparison to the preceding year. In 2015, 890,000 refugees were registered; in 2016, only 280,000; in 2017, only 140,000. In comparison to the rest of Europe, Germany remains one of the top destinations: in 2016, Germany had 60% of all asylum requests within the EU-28. The majority of refugees come from acute crisis regions: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are the top three. As in the preceding years, Germany struggles to keep up with the sheer volume of asylum requests. Waiting times can last up to a year longer than the supposed seven months and make a successful integration difficult. Moreover, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) lack resources and personnel to process requests effectively.
Petitions can also make the processing of applications difficult. Between June 30th, 2016 and June 30th, 2017, German courts record more than 320,000 cases. In 2017, the number of deportees sinks by 5.6 percent in comparison to 2016 (23,966). Still, individual cases often come to the public eye. For example, a student of a German occupational school was to be deported to Afghanistan. His peers, however, mounted a resistance to police, eventually resulting in an official lawsuit against the refugee in January. The question persists in German politics, whether Afghanistan can now be considered safe for refugees to return. The same question applies to other countries such as Hungary, which is ultimately deemed unsafe, despite the Dublin system, due to poor living conditions for refugees residing in the country.
Another point of discussion in 2017 is the falsification of information on part of the refugees. Specifically, asylum-seekers might give a false age, as adults and minors are processed differently from a legal standpoint. In 2016 alone, 46,786 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in Germany and, moreover, it is hard to say how many declarations of age were true. Countries propose to screen the age of refugees more exactly by possibly introducing a hand-scan that would reveal the individual’s true biological age. However, this method is met with much criticism, as it is not clear from a medical standpoint how accurate such tests are.
Past transgressions in the country of origin also become part of the debate. German law states that the asylum-seeker may not be deported if they are threatened with the death penalty in their home country (according to the Right to Life, Art. 2, Paragraph 2, Sentence 1). Therefore, the extent of criminal activity is hard to accurately and statistically determine. This leads to cases in which refugees might confess to serious crimes in order to not be deported.
On January 18th, Joachim Gauck gives a speech at the end of his time in office as federal president, in which he calls for tolerance and a unified Europe. At a March 25 summit in Rome, Germany along with the other European nations celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European Union.
After a failed coup attempt in Turkey in the summer of 2016, a indefinite state of emergency is announced by the Turkish government, which is in turn met with strong criticism from the UN. In the following widespread arrests of 2017, many oppositional activists, judges, and journalists find themselves among the 50,000 people who are affected. In 2018, leading employees of Cumhuriyet (a newspaper critical of the government), are given multi-year prison sentences. This is met with international criticism as the arrests contradict article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In line with two cases (1 and 2) decided by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in which Turkish journalists were arrested, criticism of the government cannot count as terrorist support. Because Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, it is theoretically obligated to accept the ruling of the ECHR.
The organization “Reporters Without Borders,” which fights for international freedom of information, places Turkey at 154 of 180 possible countries in terms of respect for freedom of the press. The course of action against journalists in Turkey affects German journalists as well. 154 Journalists are still in prison, among whom is Deniz Yücel, perhaps the most prominent case.
On February 14th, 2017, Deniz Yücel is arrested in Istanbul. The arrest is based on an interview with the leader of the PKK as well as a later article in which he expresses doubt that Fetullah Gülen was behind the military coup of 2016. He then fights for his freedom for a year, receiving support not only from his family, but from socialites and the social media hashtag #freedeniz as well. For instance, a commemorative motorcade is organized and his book Wir sind ja nicht zum Spaß hier (We’re Not Here To Have Fun) is published. In the evening of the event, German socialites, including Herbert Grönemeyer and Anne Will, read his texts aloud. After a year in Turkish prison, without an official lawsuit, Yücel is released February 16th, 2018. This happens not least due to the pressure and negotiations of German politics as well as increasing public concern. In the same month, the indictment against Yücel is lifted. The indictment, common to many of Yücel’s colleagues who are also detained, references incitement of the masses as well as terrorist propaganda for the banned, Kurdish worker party PKK. The office of the state’s attorney demands 18 years in prison.
On February 17th, the Germanist Borchmeyer publishes his book Was ist deutsch? Eine Nation auf der Suche nach sich selbst (What is German? A Nation on the Search for Itself), in which he tries to pursue the question of national identity.
Violence against refugees sinks in 2017. Already in the first quarter, according to the BKA, there are 93 fewer attacks on refugee homes than the previous year, which had 165. Most of the crimes are registered in Brandenburg.
In April of 2017, President Erdogan calls upon Turkish people living in Germany to vote on the implementation of the new presidential system. However, this provokes much critique, as the new system gives the president more power than ever before. Among many changes, some of the more notable include: the president is allowed to stay party leader, may enact indirect influence on official appointments within the justice system, and is the only one who may declare a state of emergency. In Germany, these changes are viewed critically. Cem Özdemir, leader of the Green Party and son of a Turkish guest-worker (‘Gastarbeiter’), calls upon all those of voting age to vote against the new system. According to official reports, Erdogan wins with just 51.41% of the vote; 63.07% of Turkish expatriates living in Germany vote for the new presidential system.
On the international stage, the vote is seen negatively. The fact that the majority of Turkish expatriates in Germany voted for the new system irritates Germans and casts doubt on the success of German integration programs. Yet, as Prof. Dr. Ferhad Seydar or migration researcher Serhat Karakayali attempt to explain, the problem of integration and identification is much more complex and multi-faceted. Soon, many in Germany doubt the legitimacy of the election results; some accuse the Turkish government of spying on Germany’s Turkish population, while others suspect voter fraud.
Also in April, it is discovered that a German Bundeswehr soldier had fraudulently registered himself as a refugee with the goal of carrying out an attack in order to demonstrate the supposed danger of asylum seekers. The federal courts ultimately acquit him. The case provokes a discussion about proper and effectives procedures for processing asylum requests and ultimately results in retroactive checks for over 85,000 applications.
At the end of April, German Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière publishes his theses on German mainstream culture (“Leitkultur” in German, directly translated as “leading culture”). In the end, the CDU-politician earns more criticism than praise; his theses are not seen as entirely constructive.
On July 30, gay marriage is legalized in Germany as a majority of the Bundestag votes for marriage equality.
On the 7th and 8th of July, the G-20 Summit takes place. Argentina, Australia, Brasil, China, Germany, France, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and the USA meet to discuss a variety of pressing global issues. In Hamburg, multiple demonstrations take place as protestors demand a more just process of globalization as well as more attention towards issues like climate change. Some protests are peaceful, others turn more violent, in which radical protestors acting independently burn cars, tear down police barricades, loot local business and destroy property. Police are also attacked. As a result, 40 million euros are made available for compensation. There are multiple arrests and just three weeks after the G-20 Summit, there are still 35 detainees who are suspected to have been involved in the riots. The leftist organization “Rote Flora” (“Red Flora”) is at first also blamed for the violent protests, but the investigation is soon dropped, as there is little substantial evidence of their involvement that could back up the public accusations.
On July 23rd, ex-politican and Vietnamese businessman Trinh Xuan Thanh is kidnapped by Vietnamese intelligence in Germany, which is a violation of German and international law. At the beginning of 2018, Trinh Xuan Thanh is sentenced in Hanoi to two life sentences for economic crimes.
On July 30th, a 34-year-old Iraqi open fires in a club in Constance, Germany. It is later established as an out-of-control family conflict, but not before provoking anxieties about criminal refugees on social media.
At the end of August, AfD-politician Alexander Gauland is the target of much criticism and is denounced by the presiding judge of the Federal Court of Justice for incitement to hatred. Other AfD members stir up controversy as well, none less than Björn Höcke, who described Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as a “monument to shame.”
On October 3rd, the new Federal President Frank Walter Steinmeier gives the yearly speech on the Day of German Unity, in which he urges, “Our path must remain in peace and friendship with our European neighbors—it can never be a return to nationalism!” He also commemorates the life of a politician, “who recognized the historical opportunity of the hour and facilitated unification in the political sphere”; Steinmeier is speaking of Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor from 1982 until 1998, who died in 2017 at 87 years old, his passing commemorated by the first-ever lowering of the European Union flag. Roman Herzog, German President from 1994-1999, also passed away in 2017.
Also in October, the special council Bruno Jost, who was hired to investigate the 2016 terror attack on a Berlin Christmas market, publishes his findings: incompetence, unprofessionalism and general inadequacy on the side of German police and officials all contributed to the terrorist’s ability to carry out his attack.
In another major political event, the 23rd conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Bonn from November 6-17.
On November 23rd, Fatih Akin’s most recent film “Aus dem Nichts” (“In The Fade”) opens in theaters. Based on a xenophobic attack, the film portrays the fictional story of a German woman who loses her Kurdish husband and son. Akin receives much praise for the film and wins a Golden Globe for best foreign film. Films like “Aus dem Nichts” demonstrate the complexity of issues related to immigration and forbids thinking in terms of black and white.
Throughout 2017, four important elections take place: in the Netherlands (March), France (June), Germany (September) and Austria (October). In Germany, voter participation is at 75%. The results show an increase in support for the right-populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) with 12.9% of the vote, thus earning them 94 of 709 seats in German Parliament. Reasons for this include a pervasive fear of refugees and the AfD’s platform against political correctness.
The formation of government proves itself difficult, as the election winner, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has few coalition partners. The only possible allies, the center-left Greens and the libertarian-leaning FDP, are unable to find common ground with the CDU. After the failure of the potential coalition between the three, named “Jamaica” for short, rumors of a snap election circulate. As a solution, a “grand coalition,” nicknamed “GroKo,” is proposed, whose fate eventually starts to look like the outcome of the previous attempt.
For a time it appears that neither a “GroKo” nor a “Jamaica” coalition are options for the government. The grand coalition between the SPD and the conservative alliance of CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, is only able to form the final government after difficult negotiations leading to agreement in multiple areas. The arduous path to forming a government also produces the word of the year, “Jamaika-Aus” (“Jamaica-Exit”), to refer to the breakdown of coalition talks in November when FDP leader Christian Lindner abruptly dropped out. The buzzword or faux-pas neologism of the year (“Unwort”) of the year, “Alternative Fakten,” is similarly of political origin.
The overall picture, at any rate, is of a more and more politically divided Germany, mirroring trends in neighboring countries France, Austria, and the Netherlands, where an ascendant anti-immigrant far-right casts the centrist parties as an elitist establishment with varying degrees of electoral success.
There is significant overlap between this far-right and the “euroskeptic” and anti-EU positions of different parties, not only in parts of Eastern Europe like Poland and Hungary, but also Western European parties like Front National in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and the Lega Nord in Italy.
On the other hand, one pro-European sign is provided by centrist Emanuel Macron’s victory in France’s presidential elections and his movement “En Marche.” At his victory speech, Macron walks out to the anthem of Europe, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” before the traditional performance of “La Marseillaise.” In doing so he sent a clear signal to Europe.