On January 18, the German interior ministry announces the lift of the 2012 moratorium on the deportation of refugees convicted of serious crimes from Germany back to Syria, which remains a conflict zone. Refugees fear that deportations will not remain limited to criminals.
Armin Laschet becomes head of the Christian Democratic Party with 521 votes. Though Laschet will most likely continue Merkel’s centrist political course as the new CDU chairman, there is no guarantee that he will secure the Party’s nomination for chancellor at the September elections.
Omid Nouripour, Frankfurt Green Party and Bundestag member, proposes on January 22 that the Green Party is a contender for the conservative Christian-Democratic vote in the upcoming federal election. His self-confidence demonstrates that the Greens and their environmental agenda have achieved mainstream status.
In the trial on the 2019 assassination of Walter Lübcke, who had served for ten years as the regional governor (Regierungspräsident im Regierungsbezirk) of Kassel in Hesse, a verdict is reached on January 28: the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt sentences neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst to the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The CDU politician Lübcke was targeted as a scapegoat of the far right in Hesse due to his outspoken support of Merkel’s asylum policy. Though this is not Ernst’s first politically motivated crime, it is the first assassination of a public official since World War II.
Controversy mounts at the end of January as Germany recommends against administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to those over the age of 65, citing insufficient data. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) contradicts the draft recommendation of the German Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO), approving the vaccine for everyone aged 18 and older, including the elderly. The CDU/CSU agrees with the recommendation of STIKO, while the FDP sharply criticizes the decision to side with that of EMA. These disagreements between authorities contribute to rising uncertainty and public resentment toward vaccines in Germany.
In protest of Putin’s detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on February 1,
France calls on Germany to abandon its Russian natural gas pipeline project. In Washington, Biden considers sanctioning the Russia-to-Germany pipeline and emphasizes the over-dependence of Europe on Russian energy.
On February 1, the WDR (West German Broadcasting) talk show “The Last Instance” (“Die letzte Instanz”) earns strong public backlash [aka a “ social media shitstorm”] following a racist segment in which host Steffan Hallaschka engaged an all-white panel of celebrity guests, including Micky Beisenherz, entertainer Thomas Gottschalk, actress Janine Kunze and pop singer Jürgen Milski, in a debate over whether or not a German barbecue sauce bearing thepejorative name “Zigeunersoße” (literally “gypsy sauce”) should be renamed. The WDR subsequently released an apology on Twitter, acknowledging that minority voices affected by the discussion’s content should have been included. The show aired just two days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the 500,000 Sinti and Roma murdered in Europe.
On February 10, Die Welt journalist Ulf Poschardt tweets an article about Merkel extending the pandemic lockdown until March 14, and takes aim at Baden-Württemberg’s Green Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann, who cautioned against expectations of an “Öffnungsorgie” [“opening orgy”]. Kretschmann’s choice of words is viewed critically. Poschardt writes: ““Das Wort „Öffnungsorgie“ bringt Freiheitsverachtung, Lustfeindlichkeit und Autoritätsfetisch zusammen. Es ist das ekelhafteste Wort der aktuellen Debatten. (Dass ausgerechnet der einst ökolibertäre Kretschmann es benutzt: bitter)”. [“The word “opening orgy” brings together contempt for freedom, hostility to pleasure and a fetish for authority. It is the most disgusting word in the current debates. (That the once ecolibertarian Kretschmann, of all people, uses it: bitter)”].
A debate about Nazi history and its legacy in Germany ignites in February. The artists Moshtari Hilal and Sinthujan Varatharajah discuss continuities of Nazi-era capital on Instagram and coin the term “Deutsche mit Nazihintergrund” (“Germans with a Nazi background”). This term has since provoked some defensive reflexes in the press and on social media. Die Zeit reports that Hilal and Varatharajah seem to have hit a sore spot. They address the rarely noticed topic of Nazi heritage in Germany – and the question of how today’s cultural elite still profits from capital generated by their families during National Socialism.
At the end of 2020, the conference of interior ministers decided to lift the ban on deportations to Syria that had been in place since 2012 due to the ongoing civil war in Syria. From January 1, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) was to examine each individual case in detail and attempt to facilitate expulsion. The press reports that now, three months after the decision, nothing happened and the announcement of the deportation of criminals was pure rhetoric.
On March 3, AfD successfully appeals the Verfassungschutz’s designation of the party as a Prüffall (test case). The domestic security agency, the Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) will monitor a group that is labeled a test case within the limits of publicly available information, and upgrade them to Verdachtsfall (suspicious case) to designate them a legitimate threat to national security. Thus, it is a legal designation that functions as censorship and also justifies full investigation and monitoring of the group including surveillance that would otherwise be a violation of their civil liberties. The Verfassungsschutz previously had designated both the most far-right caucus and the youth wing of the Alternative for Germany as a Verdachtsfall, and had expanded that to target the entire party.
In Baden-Württemberg, a police operation against refugees is conducted in a refugee shelter in Ellwangen. Experts declare this operation illegal.
Also in March: A 19-year-old collapsed in a cell at the Delmenhorst police station and later dies in hospital. Qosay K. had previously been arrested by police in a park after being stopped. Comments in social media raise questions about the police’s portrayal of the incident as a “tragic accident.”
The German government’s ambivalent approach to AstraZeneca seems to be boosting vaccine hesitancy. Germany and a number other European countries move to reimpose lockdowns they had begun lifting in part due the confusion around the AstraZeneca vaccine including the idea that it causes blood clots and that it has a sub-optimal effectiveness rate. Merkel announces Germany’s toughest lockdown to date and then reverses course following backlash.
Members of the Bundestag from Angela Merkel’s CDU resign after claims of corruption and profiteering in securing mask procurement contracts for their firms. Union members of the Bundestag collected six-figure sums from the federal government’s mask procurement program.The current crisis was caused by business deals of the members of parliament Georg Nüßlein (CSU) and Nikolas Löbel (CDU). Consequently, Löbel has resigned his seat in the Bundestag with immediate effect and Nüßlein does not intend to run for the Bundestag again. The so-called “mask affair” involving Nüßlein and Löbel damages the Union deeply.
Following investigations by the Munich General Prosecutor’s Office on initial suspicion of bribery, the German Bundestag lifted Axel Fischer’s (CDU) political immunity on March 4, 2021.
In the same month, CSU member of the Bundestag Tobias Zech also resigns from his post because of possible “conflicts of interest” and accusations that he had linked his mandate and entrepreneurial activities. The corruption scanalds harm CDU’s reputation ahead of key election in September.
Debate and discontent regarding COVID policies in Germany continues. German politicians are continuously spreading confusing messages, change rules and are not handling the pandemic well.
In April, the appearance of Bavarian cabaret artist Helmut Schleich performing in blackface on his show “SchleichFernsehen” sparks outrage on social media. The sketch involved the white cabaret artist dressed up as a fictional Black dictator.
At the beginning of April, so-called “Querdenker” (“lateral thinkers”) gather in Stuttgart, aiming to defend themselves against the politically initiated Covid measures.The authorities initially expect about 2,500 participants. More than 10,000 people turn up. The Querdenker demonstrations primarily bring together people who have abandoned all established media and, according to the press, have retreated into a parallel universe.
In April, the Federal Constitutional Court decides to overturn Berlin’s rent cap. In concrete terms, this means that rent caps are a matter for the federal government, not the states. Journalist Deborah Cole reports: “Germany’s highest court said Thursday that a policy to freeze rents in Berlin for five years to combat soaring housing costs was unlawful, in a ruling slammed by tenants’ rights groups. The capital’s “Mietendeckel” law or rent cap “violates the Basic Law and is thus ruled void”, said the Federal Constitutional Court in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe”. The rent cap for more than 1.5 million apartments passed by Berlin’s House of Representatives in January 2020 was a key concern of the governing coalition of center-left Social Democrats, Greens and Left Party.
The New York Times reports on the potential political landscape as of September, after Merkel and her government leave office. According to journalist Steven Erlanger, the Green Party will fill the vacuum Merkel will leave behind. It also reports that the Greens are no longer the party known in Cold War times, but rather, “The Greens are now centrist, eager for power, with a surprisingly gimlet-eyed view of international affairs and of how Germany needs to change without alienating big business.” By electing the Greens as the leading party, Erlanger says Germany could send a signal of change throughout Europe. It would also be a sign of a more determined foreign policy, especially in view of relations with China and Russia.
On April 19, For the first time in history, the Greens have named a candidate for the chancellorship. The Green party chose Annalena Baerbock as the party’s first chancellor candidate in its 41-year history. Senior party members at an internal meeting of the CDU federal executive committee back Armin Laschet for chancellor. The CDU’s Laschet is challenged by the more conservative Bavarian CSU’s Söder, who leads in polls but lost the binding Kreisvorsitzendenkonferenz vote 31-9. Merkel’s conservatives choose the wildly unpopular Armin Laschet to run for chancellor in the fall.
At the end of April, a video in which 50 German-speaking actors and two directors criticized the government’s COVID policy and media coverage of the issue with seemingly satirically intended comments caused quite a stir. Under the hashtag #allesdichtmachen, which translates as “close down everything,” or “make everything tight,” is garnering much criticism. Accusations include that the videos are anything but clever protest against disproportionate lockdown measures, but are instead unhelpful cynicism. In addition, an affinity to the conspiracy scene was obvious, according to the newspaper Neues Deutschland. Well-known participants in this campaign are Jan Josef Liefers, Heike Makkatsch and Volker Bruch.
Former Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann prompted backlash outrage with a racist message to former professional soccer player Dennis Aogo and subsequently lost his position as a member of the supervisory board at Berlin Bundesliga club Hertha BSC. Lehmann wrote via WhatsApp to Aogo “Is Dennis actually your token Black guy?” and provided the sentence with a laughing smiley. The WhatsApp message was published by Aogo on Instagram. Lehmann’s contract with Hertha BSC was terminated as a result. Following this incident, the Green Party overwhelmingly vote to remove Boris Palmer, mayor of the Southern German city Tübingen, due to racist comments against Aogo. Palmer called Aogo a “bad racist” in a Facebook post and used a racial slur.
The CDU mask scandal grows and is said to have an even greater scope than previously assumed. Markus Söder must justify whether he still has his party under control, because the corruption scandal surrounding the procurement of medical masks continues. The focus is now onAndrea Tandler, the daughter of Gerold Tandler, from 1971 to 1978 Secretary General under Franz Josef Strauß. The Federal Minister of Health, Jens Spahn, is under criticism because, according to Der Spiegel, he is said to have been in personal contact with Andrea Tandler. Tandler is said to have raked in over 30 million Euros in commission. The press speaks of clan criminality and corruption.
During the holy month of Ramadan, the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to escalate as Israeli forces raid and shut down Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, which includes sacred religious sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians, prompting retaliation with rockets by Hamas in the besieged Gaza Strip and an 11-day war that leaves 232 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead. A live Deutsche Welle interview with Ali Abunimah, a well-known Palestinian-American journalist, is roundly condemned in the major German media. After the interview, the journalist sharply criticized Deutsche Welle. He emphasizes that, through its military, financial, and diplomatic support, Germany bears responsibility for Israel’s “crimes” against the Palestinian people. Deutsche Welle apologizes shortly afterwards for what they refer to as Abunimah’s “anti-Semitism” and “support for terrorism.”
In mid-May, the newspaper Die Welt published a report on the discussion about gender-equitable language in Germany. The article clarifies that the rejection of gender neutral language is growing in Germany. According to a poll conducted by Infratest Dimap in mid-May, the majority of Germans reject the consideration of different genders in language. In German, a present participle construction (“Zuhörende”), gender asterisks or a pause in speech is used to signal gender neutrality. Political parties in Germany also show different attitudes toward gender-equal language: the Greens, who are particularly committed to political correctness, are opposed to gender language by a slim majority (48 percent). Criticism prevails among supporters of all other parties: 57 percent of SPD supporters are against it, 68 percent of CDU/CSU supporters; they are followed by the Left with 72 percent, the FDP with 77 and the AfD with 83 percent disapproval. Gender-equitable language is part of a heated debate in Germany that splits politics as well as citizens.
Germany recognizes the colonial crimes in Namibia as genocide and also announces its willingnis to pay reparations. The German Empire was the colonial power in what was then German Southwest Africa from 1884 to 1915 and brutally put down rebellions. During the Herero and Nama War of 1904 to 1908, mass murder occurred in what is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Historians estimate that 65,000 of 80,000 Herero and at least 10,000 of 20,000 Nama were killed. Since 2015, the German Foreign Ministry has used the term genocide in reference to these massacres. Now the atrocities are also officially referred to as genocide. In mid-May, the Federal Republic reached an agreement with Namibia that provides for an apology and reparations for the genocide of the Herero and Nama people. At the end of May, the press reports that the planned reparation is rejected by some ethnic groups. Namibia’s biggest daily newspaper The Namibian slams discourse of “reconciliation” as belated and disingenuous, echoes the response of opposition parties in Namibia to the German declaration in its headline on May 28: “German genocide offer ‘an insult’”.
On June 23 Merkel gives her last address to the Bundestag before the final Sommerpause of her tenure, continuing to push for a common asylum policy within the EU, including the Joint European Asylum Agency and increased cooperation between the EU and Turkey as a country of transit for Middle Eastern refugees. She also calls for increased military spending under Germany’s obligations to NATO. Her legacy is heralded in the press as that of an exemplary Krisenmanager.
Bloomberg reports that “Berlin’s local government faces the prospect of being forced to buy out large landlords such as Vonovia SE after activists said they collected enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot in September”. The initiative “Volksbegehren Deutsche Wohnen & Co” (petition for a referendum) would like to stop a further increase in rents. The movement gained momentum in April when Berlin’s rent freeze was overturned by Germany’s highest court, forcing thousands of tenants to repay rent reduction.
On July 16, the same day Nordrhein-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and the neighboring nations of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands suffer from catastrophic flooding, Merkel makes her first state visit to the US under President Biden. At the press conference, Merkel addresses the flooding, Germany and America’s shared geopolitical objectives regarding global vaccinations and climate change, and areas of disagreement including relations with Russia and China. Theseflood disaster are of new proportions. About 100 to 150 liters of rain per square meter fell in parts of the two states within 24 hours. The majority of the water masses pelted down in a short time window of ten to 18 hours. The district of Ahrweiler is particularly affected. The number of dead is assumed to be 180. The disaster triggers discussions about the future of Germany in view of climate change as well as how to deal with risks. In addition, the district administrator of the Ahrweiler district is suspected of negligent homicide. After the flood disaster, the public prosecutor’s office in Koblenz investigates the district administrator because, according to several sources, he had been warned about the flood. According to crisis researchers, Germans have lost the ability to deal with risks and it is essential to think preventively because for the first time it is becoming clear to the majority of Germans that climate change has hit home.
In August, the shortlist for the Leipzig Book Fair Literature Prize is announced. Critics point to the absence of people of color among the nominees. According to author Sibel Schick, it is no longer acceptable for a literature list to categorically exclude the perspectives of minorities, whether intentionally or not. There are extremely talented voices in Germany, especially in recent years: Novels like Identitti by Mithu Sanyal, Adas Raum by Sharon Dodua Otoo, or Asal Dardan’s Reflections of a Barbarian are currently generating a lot of attention and gaining high sales figures.
With the withdrawal of the last U.S. soldiers from Kabul Airport in August 2021, the U.S. and its European allies ended the military mission in Afghanistan after almost 20 years. While Germans are being evacuated because of the rapidly deteriorating situation, Afghans who supported the German military are being left behind. In view of the dire situation of the population in Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, German politicians appeal to Germany’s shared responsibility for NATO’s 2001 invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for example, calls the events a “human tragedy” and stresses that the images of despair from Kabul are shameful for the West and also for Germany. Angela Merkel takes a self-critical look at the international military mission in Afghanistan. She says the fight against terrorism “has not succeeded as we set out to do…That is a bitter realization.”
On 10 September President Frank-Walter Steinmeier honors “guest workers of the first generation” in a ceremony to commemorate 60 years of the German-Turkish Recruitment Treaty, speaking against hate, citing the Turkish song Özdemir Erdoğan: “Gurbet” by Özdemir Erdoğan, and officially acknowledging that homeland can be conceived as plural affiliations: “Heimat gibt es im Plural.” He emphasizes that Turkish immigrants have deeply shaped and transformed German society and that Germany is a country with an “immigrant background” – a highly controversial term used to refer to people that immigrated to Germany.
On the electoral lists for the Bundestag, several people identifying as transgender or non-binary are running. Among them is also Tessa Ganserer, she is the first politician in Germany who has come out as a transgender woman during her term of office. On the ballot, however, is still her old name “Markus”, which she discarded more than three years ago. This is painful and hurtful for her, she states in an interview. Ganserer represents the visibility of the transgender and non-binary community and is a role model for the still underrepresented LGBTQ* community in Germany.
Jürgen Habermas reflects on the debate on fundamental rights in the current pandemic situation and asks what duties the principles of a liberal constitution impose on the government during a pandemic and what room for maneuver do they have towards their citizens. Time and again since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been questions in Germany and other democratic countries about encroachment on civil liberties on the one hand and protection against the virus on the other. Habermas discusses the controversies in the debate about the right course of action to combat the pandemic between “defenders of strict preventive measures and advocates of a libertarian course of openness.”
In September, the young journalist Nemi El-Hassan was to broadcast the science format Quarks from Westdeutscher Rundfunk. This announcement then triggered a debate in the German media, in which El-Hassan was accused of anti-Semitism in a pattern that has become more recognizable since the Bundestag voted to ban the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions or BDS movement. In particular, it parallels the witch-hunt against Cameroonian postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe led by Merkel’s ant-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein in March 2021. The case of El-Hassan had also been set in motion by conservative media and politicians, this time by a report in the Bild newspaper, which reported that the journalist had been at an pro-Palestinian Al-Quds Day demonstration in Berlin several years prior. As a result, El-Hassan had distanced herself from the demonstration in 2014. Subsequently, further accusations were made against El-Hassan regarding statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict, participation in demonstrations, visits to the Imam Ali mosque in Hamburg and activities on social media. The Central Council of Jews in Germany expressed doubts as to whether El-Hassan was suitable as a presenter for WDR and called for the incidents to be investigated more closely. On the other hand, as in the case of Mbembe, numerous personalities from culture, science and the media expressed solidarity with El-Hassan in an open letter. As a result, WDR does not want El-Hassan to host “Quarks”.
On September 22, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin was officially inaugurated with a formal ceremony. Located in the rebuilt Berlin Palace, the Humboldt Forum is a cultural forum and universal museum that is home to the Ethnological Museum Berlin (formerly in Dahlem), the Museum of Asian Art of the State Museums, and the Berlin Exhibition of the City Museum as well as the Humboldt Laboratory of the University. Some art historians, ethnologists and historians have criticized the concept of the Humboldt Forum for years. A major point of criticism is that the ethnographic museum stores and displays stolen objects that originate from the colonial era. It is repeatedly emphasized that looted art must be returned. According to critics, the Humboldt Forum’s failure to address Germany’s colonial history and its responsibility to deprived nations, led to the prominent resignation by Bénédicte Savoy from its advisory board. German Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke at the opening ceremony. Both speakers pleaded for an honest view of history and the indispensability that the Humboldt Forum actually becomes a forum where debates are held and Germany’s forgotten colonial history is dealt with.
Maria Speth’s documentary Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse was awarded the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear and has been nominated several times for the German Film Award. In the three-and-a-half-hour documentary, the teacher Mr. Bachmann, who is about to retire, and his students are accompanied in their everyday school life. The location of the film is a Hessian Gesamtschule (comprehensive school) in the small town of Stadtallendorf. One of the special features of the film is the interpersonal interactions between students and their teacher. Mr. Bachmann says: “These grades don’t show anything about you at all. They are just snapshots. What’s more important is that you’re all great kids. Great teenagers.”
Also, the cultural makeup of the class is intriguing. Seventy percent of Stadtallendorf’s population has a history of immigration, and nearly 5,000 are of the Muslims faith. Most students come from working-class families. They have, for example, Turkish, Greek, Italian, Bulgarian, Russian or German roots. This diversity is also represented in Mr. Bachmann’s classroom and offers a lot of potential for conflict on the one hand, which is shown again and again in the film, and a sense of shared history and sense of communal experience on the other. The film demonstrates the central role of the teacher in the success of learning and motivation, and the importance of personal interaction, especially with the backdrop of the experience of lockdown and homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On October 8, satirist Jan Böhmermann comments on the fact that the AfD is now legally entitled to millions of euros in taxpayer money for its in-house foundation after its second successful Bundestag election result. In his show “ZDF Magazin Royale, Jan Böhmermann dissects the AfD and its Desiderius Erasmus Foundation.
Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn is sticking to his idea of allowing the so-called COVID state of emergency to end on November 25. While he wants to end the state of emergency after 19 months since March 28, 2020, he stresses that the end of the pandemic situation does not mean the end of all measures and a state of special caution is still needed. He says Germany is moving from a state of emergency to a state of special caution.
On October 17, 2021, US journalist Ben Smith writes in the New York Times an investigative and comprehensive report on how Bild editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt created a climate at Bild that mixed sex, journalism and corporate money. The New York Times report voices strong accusations against Reichelt. The allegations include abuse of power, bullying, the exploitation of dependency relationships, sexual misconduct and his relationships with young female employees of the editorial office. The article creates a worldwide stir and media giant Axel Springer is under pressure. One day after the New York Times publication, Springer announces its separation from Reichelt.
On the morning of November 1, 25-year-old Giorgos Zantiotis died in police custody in Wuppertal. He had previously been brutally arrested by several police officers. His sister has reportedly published a video on social media showing him being violently subdued by police while calling out for help. Giorgos Zantiotis is a young Greek worker with German citizenship. His death ignited anger on social media and the streets. Shortly after the announcement of Zantiotis’ death, demonstrations are held against police violence.
Austria imposes a new nationwide lockdown on people not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or recently recovered from the disease. The decision comes as the country deals with its highest rates of infection since the pandemic began. Also fighting with high infection rates, Germany considers full lockdown and imposes new restrictions for the unvaccinated.
In his column in the conservative weekly Focus, Ahmad Mansour, executive director of the Mansour-Initiative für Demokratieförderung und Extremismusprävention, an organization that purports to prevent the spread of fundamentalist Islam in Germany, discusses racism as a universal problem, which he claims has been hijacked by “fringe groups.” He explores the power structures in the discourse on racism in Germany. He argues that so-called “identity politics” represents a dualistic worldview, which divides the population into minorities and majorities. According to Mansour, this framework infantilizes minorities and claims interpretive sovereignty over the discourse of racism. The problem, he says, is that it faces little resistance from established institutions, such as the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung or federal government policy. He laments that the cabinet committee for combating right-wing extremism and racism is developing extensive measures at the expense of the fight against Islamism and racism among minorities, which in his opinion follows precisely this identity politics logic. His article is one of the more nuanced examples of the backlash to the perceived excesses of cultural liberalism among the media establishment and general population in Germany, including the concern that a new, politically correct form of intolerance against the majority can arise in the name of tolerance.
Citizens of Berlin have voted in favor of expropriating large housing corporations, but Berlin’s governing “red-red-green” coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left Party is hesitating. According to Die Zeit, the initiators of the initiative see a failure to implement the demands of the most successful referendum in Berlin’s history as an attack on direct democracy. There is still a great controversy about the referendum on the expropriation of large real estate companies. Berlin’s top Left Party candidate Klaus Lederer has announced another referendum if a law for the expropriation of large housing companies is not passed under the new coalition. According to Lederer, the Left Party is the only party that is seriously fighting for the socialization of housing. He stresses that his party will not simply abandon this project. 59.1 percent of voters had voted for expropriation in the referendum on September 26. During the coalition negotiations, the SPD, the Greens and the Left agreed to first appoint a commission of experts to examine the implementation and to give it one year to do so. The initiative “Deutsche Wohnen und Co enteignen” had recently made demands for the composition of this expert commission. Thus, exactly 59.1 percent of the members should represent the urban society. Representatives of the real estate and finance industry should not belong to the commission, according to the activists. Overall, the project is controversial among the SPD and the Greens, while the Left Party was the only one of the three parties to speak out in favor of expropriation.
Angela Merkel leaves office with Großer Zapfenstreich on Dezember 2. Her choice of songs played by Stabsmusikkorps includes punk singer Nina Hagen’s 1974 “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen”. Her song choice was widely covered in the inernatonal press.
During his inaugural visit to Poland in mid-December, Chancellor Olaf Scholz stressed the importance of good neighborly relations. Olaf Scholz and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki discuss the political treatment of refugees at the Polish-Belarusian border. Der Spiegel reports that Scholz also assured the Polish government of support in the dispute over refugees in the border region with Belarus. Scholz says the actions of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko are “inhumane.” The EU accuses Lukashenko of deliberately smuggling refugees to the Polish-Belarusian border and using people who have fled as human shields. Neither Der Spiegel nor other media report on the devastating conditions at the Polish-Belarusian border. Still, refugees are stuck and suffering from harsh weather conditions.
According to media reports, former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will work for German-American technology investor Peter Thiel in the future. The 35-year-old has confirmed that he will work as a “global strategist” for Thiel Capital in California from the first quarter, Austrian news outlets Kronenzeitung and Heute reported on Thursday, citing Kurz. A native of Frankfurt, Thiel was one of the founders of online payment service PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook (now Meta). He is considered politically conservative and is among the supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump. Kurz had resigned as Austria’s chancellor in early October over persistent allegations of corruption and had withdrawn from all political posts in early December.
In late December, Deutsche Welle reports that some anti-vaxxers are taking drastic steps to escape vaccination, with vaccine-hesitant Germans emigrating to far-right colonies in North and South America. For example, more than 1000 Germans emigrated to Paraguay in 2021.
On January 27, Bavarian authorities confirm the first case of COVID-19 in Germany in the district of Starnberg, which neighbors Munich.
On Wednesday, Feb. 19 Tobias Rathjen, a far-right gunman whose racist manifesto revealed that he was inspired by the Q Anon movement, attacks two hookah bars in Hanau, a city in Hessen not far from Frankfurt. He kills nine young people, all of them immigrants and German-born people of color: Gökhan Gültekin, Sedat Gürbüz, Said Nesar Hashemi, Mercedes Kierpacz, Hamza Kurtović, Vili-Viorel Păun, Fatih Saraçoğlu, Ferhat Unvar, Kaloyan Velkov. Subsequently, he shoots his mother Gabriele Rathjen and himself. This shooting occurs just hours after the German government approved a bill cracking down on hate speech online.
Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s anticipated successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer steps down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union and announces that she will not be running in the election for chancellor after she failed to contain a political crisis in the state of Thuringia, where Christian Democrats broke the taboo against working with the far-right nationalist party Alternative for Germany to vote out the state government lead by the Left Party, who the Christian Democrats have sworn never to work with. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s standing is badly hurt when little-known politician Thomas Kemmerich (FDP) is elected state premier with votes from both the CDU and the Alternative for Germany. This was the first time in Germany’s postwar history that a state premier had been elected with votes from the far right. Amid the fallout, Friedrich Merz, runner-up in the 2018 leadership vote, resigns from his private sector job to “be of even greater help in the renewal of the CDU.”
On February 27, 46-year-old far-right YouTuber Tim Kellner is acquitted in a defamation case involving local Berlin politician Sawsan Chebli after he called the Social Democrat, who is of Palestinian origin, an “Islamic mouthpiece” and “affirmative action immigrant” [“Quotenmigrantin der SPD”] on his popular YouTube channel. Chebli calls the verdict “a bitter message to everyone affected by hate and incitement, everyone insulted, threatened, and attacked by racists.”
Also in February, the Anglophone press takes notice of 19-year-old German vlogger Naomi Seibt. Dubbed the “Anti-Greta,” Seibt became a social media star after the Heartland Institute, a right-wing US think tank, gifted her a platform on YouTube, where she denies climate change and rails against feminism and immigration. She is invited to speak at a panel on climate at CPAC 2020. She is similarly embraced by the AfD: Although she denies being a member, she has spoken at party events and admitted to voting for the AfD in 2019.
In March, conservative media and politicians, including Chancellor Merkel’s anti-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein, mount a campaign to bar philosopher Achille Mbembe from the 2020 Ruhrtriennale Festival in Bochum, charging that Mbembe, who hails from the former German colony of Cameroon and ranks among the world’s leading theorists of colonialism and postcolonialism, has relativized the Holocaust and questions Israel’s right to exist by extending his critique to Israeli government policy. Lorenz Deutsch, an FDP state representative in Northrhine-Westphalia, accuses Mbembe of “postcolonial Israelfeindschaft” or hatred of Israel. In 2019, an overwhelming majority in the Bundestag had made it illegal to use public funding for events that promote the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Mbembe responds that he is in no way affiliated with BDS, that “proper critique of colonialism and racism has nothing to do with the relativisation of the crime of the Holocaust” but is in fact “a key element in the fight against antisemitism,” and characterizes the smear campaign targeting him as a racist attempt to criminalize his scholarship. Numerous international scholars express solidarity with Mbembe and concern about German politics of unilateral commemoration.
“Germany enters the home office”: According to a recent poll by the German Association for the Digital Economy (BVDW), 75.4% of over 1000 employees were generally prepared to work from home during the pandemic.
Germany closes its borders to Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Denmark, and France on March 16. Other EU countries had already imposed significant border controls, including Austria, Denmark, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. A global travel warning is put into place effective March 17.
On March 17, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) jointly announce temporary suspension of resettlement travel for refugees.
Also on March 17, the cast of the 13th season of the reality TV show Big Brother Germany, who had been cut off from world news since February 6, receive information about the Covid-19 pandemic on live television.
The German government enters its first nationwide COVID-19 lockdown comparatively late, on March 22. Unlike the majority of its Western European neighbors like Italy and France, Germany does not issue a stay-at-home order, focusing instead on strict social distancing measures. The Federal Center for Health Education and other government agencies circulate flyers and infographics explaining the public health regulations in various languages.
In early April, the number of COVID cases reaches the grim milestone of one million globally as Germany’s death toll exceeds 1000 victims, which nevertheless makes for one of the lowest mortality rates in the world. In this period, a number of distinct media discourses become visible. The press in the United States and the German-speaking world alike marvel at and debate Germany’s “Corona miracle”. At the same time, the lockdown measures responsible are subject to a sizeable backlash on putatively civil-libertarian grounds: in the conservative press, where commentators wring their hands about the looming threat of “Gesundheitsdiktatur” (“dictatorship of health”), and even more notably in the streets, at the so-called “hygiene protests” of the German anti-lockdown movement, which is comprised of different far-right and conspiracy-oriented groups under the banner of “Querdenker” (translated in the English press as “lateral thinkers”) and quickly gains momentum in numerous cities as the month goes on. Other commentaries focus on the media fetishization of so-called essential workers. “Don’t call them heroes,” reads the headline from a column in Die Zeit by Alice Bota. Hero worship is of no use to anyone, she argues, especially not those who are at the greatest risk due to their social position and still underpaid for it.
On April 15, on the basis of Germany’s low numbers, Merkel announces a plan to ease the lockdown, which does not in any case prevent the infection rate climbing again, and mask mandates are imposed in a number of federal states and then nationwide on 4/22.
German sports fans vocally oppose the proposed May return of the Bundesliga, the top flight of men’s professional soccer in Germany, in the form of “ghost games”, matches played without supporters in the stadium. Fanszene Deutschland, the national association of organized soccer fans (known in Europe as Ultras), slam the decision to resume playing in a statement, calling it “simply absurd”: “Soccer is of great importance in Germany, but it is certainly not essential.”
Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who lost ground in the Bundestag to the debutant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2017 and received a record-low 29% of the vote in the 2019 European Parliament elections, see a surge in popularity. Bavarian premier Markus Söder—who also heads the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU)—is lauded in the press for his crisis management. He rapidly overtakes Merkel as the most popular politician in Germany, and consistently tops polls as the clear favorite to succeed her as the CDU’s Spitzenkandidat or top-line candidate in the 2021 federal elections, while continuing to maintain publicly that he has ruled out a run for national office this cycle.
On April 29, federal prosecutors charge neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst in the murder of Walter Lübcke, a local politician with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who was turned into a scapegoat in Hessen’s far-right spaces for promoting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy and killed in Germany’s first political assassination in the postwar era. Lübcke’s family, who joined the prosecution as co-plaintiffs, are not convinced that Ernst acted alone and demand that the codefendant Markus Hartmann be convicted as an accessory. Der Spiegel questions how the authorities classified the two men as “cooled-down” extremists and ceased monitoring them.
On May 16, the Bundesliga is the first major sports league in the world to resume playing. In a particularly striking adaptation, the popular club Borussia Mönchengladbach places 13,000 life-sized cardboard cutouts bearing the likenesses of actual season ticket holders in their home stadium at Borussia-Park.
The summer sees the Black Lives Matter movement throw racism, police violence and Germany’s colonial legacy into sharper relief than ever before. In June, Social Democrat Karamba Diaby, who emigrated from Senegal to the GDR in the 1980’s and in 2013 became the first black member of the Bundestag, receives a slew of death threats and his district office in Halle is riddled with bullet holes after criticizing the German tendency to downplay racism as mere hatred of foreigners.
In an interview, SPD co-leader Saskia Esken says that German police have a problem with “latent racism,” to which the federal Minister of the Interior and former CSU party head Horst Seehofer responds that he finds “the accusation of latent racism in the German police force utterly incomprehensible.” Seehofer and other conservative leaders also defend German law enforcement against progressive currents within the media. When the Iranian-German writer Hengameh Yaghoobifarah writes a provocative column critical of policing in the Tageszeitung, Seehofer threatens them with criminal charges.
The closing of museums, theaters and concert venues due to the pandemic threatens the livelihoods of artists and other cultural luminaries. On June 17, the upper house of German parliament, the Bundesrat, approves the €1 billion stimulus package Neustart Kultur (Restart Culture). While culture and media minister Monika Grütters calls for reopening museums, there is also a multitude of creative attempts to make cultural content accessible online by broadcasting house shows, livestreamed and on-demand presentations of exhibitions, performances, lectures and festivals. The online magazine Monopol publishes a running series of commentaries on “Coronavirus and Art.”
Germany’s largest meat processing facility, one of sausage baron Clemens Tönnies’s eponymous Tönnies factories in the Nordrhein-Westphalian town of Gütersloh, is the site of a massive coronavirus outbreak in mid-June. More than 1500 employees are infected with the virus. All 7,000 workers and their families are placed under quarantine until July 2, and the factory is forced to close temporarily. The outbreak, hardly an isolated case in meatpacking facilities, sheds light on industry-standard working conditions. Around half of workers operate as subcontractors, and the majority come from Poland, Romania and other Eastern European countries. The outbreak is attributed to overcrowded, dilapidated accommodations for foreign workers and poor hygiene standards at the facility. The “essential” function of migrant workers, often on temporary contracts in low-wage sectors of the economy like the meat industry, construction, agriculture, healthcare and sanitation where the “home office” is not an option, remains a hot topic in political discourse. A ban on subcontracting in the meat industry is proposed in the Bundestag.
In July, accusations of racism are evidently vindicated in a stream of revelations regarding the police and military. The police in the state of Hessen are linked to a spate of letters and emails containing racist and misogynistic threats from the anonymous sender “NSU 2.0” sent to left-leaning politicians and journalists as well as a lawyer in the NSU trial. Numerous reports also reveal the far-right activities of Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bohnert, the German military’s social media spokesman, as well as incitement and even plans to overthrow the government discussed in a Telegram channel used by active and former military service members.
Der Spiegel reports that a network of far-right intellectuals in Canada, including former ARD news anchor Eva Herman and her life partner, the conspiracy theorist Andreas Popp, are attempting to entice like-minded Germans to leave the “war zone” of their home country to establish a “colony” in Cape Breton in the province of Nova Scotia.
The German government attempts to remedy a shortage of healthcare workers by recruiting abroad – primarily in Kosovo, Mexico, and the Philippines – but these measures are themselves curtailed upon the imposition of pandemic travel restrictions.
On August 27, the German federal government and all but one state, Saxony-Anhalt, agree to implement a nationwide mask mandate with a minimum 50 euro fine for Maskenverweigerer, those who refuse to wear a mask in public. Conservative media like the Axel Springer-owned Die Welt slam the mandate on civil liberties grounds. Some 18,000 protesters, dubbed “Corona-Rebellen” in the press, flood Berlin’s Alexanderplatz on the 29th, maskless but bearing QAnon and Trump propaganda. The far-right, conspiracy-minded coalition that makes up German Q includes the Reichsbürger movement—adherents of the theory that Germany has been under secret military occupation by the United States continuously since the end of World War I—who were generally hostile to America until Trump, but now believe the US president intends to restore the country to its 1871 borders. Among the hundreds arrested on the day is vegan cookbook author and self-described “ultra-right-winger” Attila Hildmann, who had already seen his own planned anti-lockdown rally canceled by the city of Berlin in July.
The English-speaking world continues to look to Germany as a model of pandemic response: One article in the UK Financial Times attributes the German “corona miracle” not only to the leadership of Merkel in particular, but also to the nation’s politics of consensus and high level of social trust: “Langsam aber sicher, slow but sure, is the abiding principle that dominates public life. Create consensus where you can; value thoroughness in a politician over rhetorical flourishes.”
Tensions heat up in the domestic debate about the racism that, beneath the surface of consensus politics, nevertheless pervades government institutions. As numerous fires ravage the Moria migrant detention camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, interior minister Seehofer bars individual German states from taking in any of the more than 12,000 asylum seekers now without shelter, since the EU-states cannot agree on a joint policy on asylum. CDU/CSU politicians eventually agree on accepting 1.500 refugees, mostly unaccompanied minors and families with children. The EU is still far from instituting a coherent policy on asylum despite the new Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed by the European Commission on 23 September, which “sets out improved and faster procedures throughout the asylum and migration system” and calls for “fair sharing of responsibility and trust.”
After numerous scandals involving the far right in recent months, in which racist chat groups pointed to the existence of broad fascist police networks, Seehofer declines to open an investigation of police racism, citing the need for “a substantially broader approach to all of society”: “There will be no investigation that concerns itself exclusively with the police and the accusation of structural racism within the police from me,” the former CSU party leader said.
On September 26, German Football Federation (DFB) general secretary Friedrich Curtius admits to mistakes in the treatment of Mesut Özil, the former national team player who drew fire in the German media for a photo op with Turkish president Reccep Tayyip Erdogan in the runup to the 2018 men’s soccer World Cup. Özil was accused of dual loyalty and subsequently blamed for the bad tournament result by the media and DFB officials, and on July 22, 2018, the Arsenal player announced his retirement from the national team, complaining of racism in the federation and among his fellow players.
A September 29 panel discussion livestreamed by the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (ADS) debates the invocation of “race” in the German constitution and federal anti-discrimination legislation. The ADS argues for replacing the word with “racist discrimination” or “racist ascriptions” because “race” harkens back to Nazi terminology and codifies race as an existential category. Opponents emphasize that “race” in jurisprudence is not used as a biological identifier, but rather as a legal instrument for the identification of discrimination and structural inequality. “Race,” they argue, is a social construct and, and dispensing with the term would only serve to erase the societal reality of people who experience racism.
Words and the German lexicon come into focus in October as the German Language Association gears up for its annual selection of the German “Word of the Year”. The Youth Word of the Year, selected through a vote put on by the Langenscheidt publishing house in Munich and this year chosen directly by young people online through an online voting system, is “Lost,” which designates someone who comes across as clueless.
The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), a leading CDU-aligned thinktank, argues against the use of the words “Palestine” and “Palestinian” due to their allegedly “anti-Semitic associations.” Prominent new media personality Tilo Jung, host of the popular YouTube interview show Jung & Naiv, tweeted “The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung is working to ban ‘Palestine’ und ‘Palestinian’ from the lexicon,” followed by a clown face emoji and screenshots of an invitation to a KAS event titled “‘Palestine’ – History and Problems of the Concept.”
This while human rights advocates sue the Bundestag over the violation of their rights to freedom of speech and assembly via the German government’s conflation of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel in a 2019 resolution condemning the international BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) for Palestinian liberation and rights as anti-Semitic and banning, for the first time at the federal level, the funding of projects or institutions that call for boycotting Israel, which in turn earned a rebuke from the UN.
On October 19, around 40 immigrant organizations meet with Chancellor Merkel, integration minister Annette Widman-Mauz, and health minister Jens Spahn to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on immigrant communities. According to a study by the OECD, immigrants have been hit particularly hard by high infection and mortality rates in Germany due to poor labor conditions in high-risk jobs and cramped living quarters.
Following the October 29 knife attack in the Basilica of Notre Dame in Nice, in which 3 worshippers were killed by a Tunisian immigrant, France’s center-right president Emmanuel Macron defends cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and his Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer warns of the existential threat of “Islamo-leftism” in French academia. Tensions regarding immigration and Islam are raised continent-wide, including in the German-speaking world: Austria’s conservastive chancellor Sebastian Kurz responded in similar fashion that same day, as a crowd of young men of Turkish descent stormed a church in Vienna. He vows to “do everything in my power to defend” Christians and the “European way of life from Islamists and political Islam,” a pledge he repeats once more after 4 people are killed and dozens injured in Vienna in a Nov. 2 attack for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
In a move interpreted as a preemptive concession to the CDU/CSU in advance of the 2021 federal election, the German Green Party leadership fights off calls for climate action from the party’s left at their annual party congress on Nov. 22. Annalena Baerbock, one of the Greens’ signature pair of party leaders, ruled out proposing emissions targets in excess of Paris commitments and successfully blocked their inclusion in the party’s 2021 campaign platform.
The German Language Association (GfDS) announces that the German “Word of the Year” is Corona-Pandemie (“coronavirus pandemic”). Other phrases included in the shortlist are Verschwörungserzählung (“conspiracy narrative”), Gendersternchen (“gender asterisk”) and “Black Lives Matter.”
Late on November 30, the Federal Ministry of the Interior announces that Interior Minister and former head of the CSU Horst Seehofer has banned the far-right organization “Sturmbrigade 44” (a.k.a. “Wolfbrigade 44”) as unconstitutional after several raids in three German states. Similar actions were blocked by courts in the state of Saxony-Anhalt.
In December, the German media report that the Leibniz Institute for the German Language (IDS) is compiling a dictionary of COVID-related neologisms. Already included are over 1000 “new words as well as familiar words with new meanings that have arisen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which we are still monitoring to observe the extent to which they enter the mainstream vocabulary.” This means one will encounter technical and everyday terms like “Mindestabstandsregelung” as well as ”Impfstoffmafia” and other curious formulations whose widespread usage remains in doubt.
The Humboldt Forum opens in Berlin on December 17, triggering a debate about Germany’s approach to its colonial legacy not for the first time but all the more broadly and critically in the wake of that summer’s media discourse on racial issues. Particular controversy surrounds the planned centerpiece of the new museum’s ethnological collection, the so-called Benin bronzes, statues looted during the European colonization of Africa whose restitution the Nigerian government has demanded for years.
In a videoconference also on the 17th, Merkel and Health Minister Jens Spahn praise Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, the Turkish-German couple now famous as the founders of the company BioNTech which developed the West’s first COVID-19 vaccine in collaboration with Pfizer: “We are incredibly proud, also as the German government, to have such researchers in our country,” Merkel tells the pair. Both the German and English-language press jump at the chance to celebrate the two scientists for their breakthrough, but some commentators caution against narratives that present an individual success story as a model of integration or instrumentalizing the background of its heroes as a rhetorical bludgeon against the anti-immigrant right.
Merkel and her cabinet ministers continue to enjoy high favorability as crisis managers: According to one poll, Health Minister Spahn is the most popular politician in the country. This is attributed in the media to the general tendency of periods of crisis to boost public support for the authorities.
According to statistics from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the number of asylum applications submitted in 2020 fell 26.4% from the previous year to 102,581 first-time applications. This is primarily attributed to travel restrictions and the closing of the German border due to the pandemic. Syrians continue to make up a plurality (35.5%) of applicants. Deportations to conflict zones also continue apace during the pandemic.