The Root of the Problem (Racist Violence in Germany)

Posted by John Rosenthal

Predictably, Brandenburg Interior Minister Jörg Schönbohm has been attempting to put in doubt that there was a racist component to the assault in Potsdam two weeks ago that has left the 37-year-old Ethiopian-born engineer, Ermyas M, in a coma. (For background, see "A Grim Record (Racist Violence in Brandenburg)".) This despite the massive prima facie evidence constituted by the voice mail recording on which the presumed assailants can be heard repeatedly calling Ermyas M. a "nigger", as well as a "shitty nigger". (For Schönbohm’s "cautious" approach, see here, for instance, in English; and note that the Deutsche Presse Agentur [DPA] report linked fails altogether to mention the voice-mail recording.)


In having his office take over the investigation, German Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm, on the contrary, has underscored the apparent racist character of the incident. Nonetheless, Nehm’s own words in defending his decision inadvertently reveal the degree to which racial discrimination is part of the fabric of German society. On Thursday, 20 April, Nehm said the following:

Violent attacks against our foreign fellow citizens [ausländische Mitbürger] produce a climate of fear and intimidation among the latter and leave the impression that they could not live safely in the Federal Republic of Germany.

[Source: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26 April]


One could hardly disagree with Nehm’s assessment. But what is a "foreign fellow citizen"? In most modern legal systems, such an expression involves a contradiction in terms. A fellow citizen is, of course, necessarily not foreign. Not so in Germany. This is because German law, by virtue of paragraph 116 of the German Constitution or "Basic Law", distinguishes between being a citizen of the German state [Staatsangehörigkeit] and being a member of the German people or nation [Volkszugehörigkeit]. The latter manifestly refers not to a legal status, but rather to an ascribed – and, according to German law, supposedly "verifiable" – ethnic identity. Thus Ermyas M., a German citizen, is, nonetheless, considered – not only by the skinheads who are presumed to have attacked him, but also by the German Federal Prosecutor whose office intends to prosecute the latter – as a "foreigner".

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