Germany's Newest Aliens: The East Germans

By O'Brien, Peter | East European Quarterly, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Germany's Newest Aliens: The East Germans


O'Brien, Peter, East European Quarterly


INTRODUCTION

Before 1989, Germans used the term "Wende" (the turn) to refer to the transition from the Schmidt to the Kohl government in 1981-82. This meaning disappeared overnight between November 9 and 10, 1989. The real Wende became the revolution in the GDR and the subsequent unification of the two Germanys. Doubtless this shift in meaning was justified. By October 1990, Germany had experienced far more than a change in political leadership. It now had new expanded borders, 17 million new citizens, and a mountain of challenges to overcome.

Among the myriad problems confronting Germany, migration was paramount. Indeed, it seems fair, in retrospect, to claim that migration (or the threat of it) inspired the revolution and determined the collapse of the GDR. Nor is it outlandish to suggest that migration set the pace and terms of unification. Once the Krenz regime opened the Berlin Wall and let its people vote with their feet, it had no real chance of surviving. Similarly, had Helmut Kohl not quickly promised reunification, he would have likely faced massive emigration from East Germans.

A new nation-state was formed under the pressure of migration. In addition to the 17 million newcomers produced by unification on October 3, 1990, the FRG already had over 5 million foreign workers and refugees. Moreover, unusually large numbers of refugees from East Europe and elsewhere (nearly 500,000 in 1992, alone(1)) sought to take advantage of Germany's liberal laws regulating political asylum. These numbers imply that well over one quarter of united Germany's residents are migrants or newcomers of one sort or the other. There can be no denying that Germany has become a land of immigration.

Anxiety has surfaced that Germany is reviving and reverting to an aggressive and atavistic racism in response to large-scale emigration. Hundreds of books, articles and conferences in recent years have addressed this theme.(2) Both the number and intensity of criminal acts hostile to foreigners increased after unifications (2426 in 1991 to 6336 in 1992).(3) According to the Agency for the Protection of the Constitution, the number of right-wing, extremist groups rose from 76 in 1991 to 82 in 199" encompassing an estimated 41,900 members.(4) One recent survey found that three quarters of polled Germans view the "foreigner problem" as the most important issue in Germany.(5) In response to growing xenophobia, the Bundestag recently amended the constitution to toughen its article (16) regarding political asylum. Germany again seems a place neither comfortable nor safe for non-Germans.

This essay contends that these fears are exaggerated. I do not deny signs of resurgent racism or rising xenophobia. However, I insist that they do not signal a return to a Nazi or Nazi-like Germany. Rather, I argue that such sentiments have found little realization in legislation hostile to foreigners, particularly those living in the FRG. On the contrary, I show that much legislation has been passed or proposed which is beneficial to foreigners and even more which is hostile to (some) Germans both inside and outside the FRG. Put differently if Germany needs a Systematic policy of exclusion to deal with its migrant problem, there is not much evidence which points to a deliberate racist strategy.

Does this mean there is no politics of exclusion evolving, in Germany? No! I aim to show that the emerging politics of exclusion rests more on the principles of liberalism than on racism. In a recent essay Etienne Balibar discerns an emerging shift in the instruments and justifications of discrimination:

It may well be that the current variants of

neoracism are merely a transitional ideological

formation, which is destined to develop towards

discourses and social technologies in which the

aspect of the historical recounting of genealogical

myths (the play of substitutions between race,

people, culture and nation) will give way . …

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