Since its founding in 2013, Germany’s far-right parliamentary party, Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, has profoundly shaped anti-refugee politics. International headlines hone in on the pending controversies of AfD politicians’ connection to street-based Nazi movements in Germany and throughout Europe. That the AfD recently gained 37 seats in the Saxony state government is formidable. Yet, what is too often missed in these accounts of racism in Germany is the growing network of organizations working to assert the will of an anti-racist majority.
This network is making critical interventions in the particular ways racism operates in Germany. For starters, they consistently point out how racism is built into governance and national security. At the same time, they also work to connect anti-racist and anti-fascist movements with artists and students.
Laura Frey and Vincent Bababoutilabo are two activists in this important network. I met them in 2018, during the final months of the NSU trial, as they continued to work on the Tribunal — a people’s court that was set-up to protest the systematic exclusion of families whose loved ones were killed by the National Socialist Underground, an organized terrorist network that targeted migrant communities with serial murders and bombings from 2000-2007. Laura and Vincent worked on the NSU as part of their political education efforts. While Laura had previously worked in schools with students on racism, anti-semitism, sexism and neo-Nazi ideology, Vincent had experience organizing Afro-Germans. This brought him to the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, or the Initiative for Black People in Germany, known as ISD, which is where he now works.
With far-right governance sweeping across Europe, the United States, Philippines, India and Brazil, I spoke with Laura and Vincent to learn more about the key aspects that animate the anti-racist movement in Germany.
What are some of the anti-racist strategies you see in Germany?
Laura: On the grassroots level, a lot of anti-racist work is organizing support for and together with refugees who are crossing E.U. borders, through Turkey, Greece, North Africa, as well as Spain and Italy. What is happening there is murder at the borders of the European Union. A lot of people are crossing with ships, and a lot of people are dying.
Anti-racist education is a common intervention point in Germany. The organization I come from — Network for Democracy and Courage — started in Saxony, historically an area in Germany where neo-Nazis are living. The organization was founded because racism, antisemitism, sexism, and neo-Nazism are only taught as historical issues and not referred to as contemporary problems. The idea is teaching children how to recognize and intervene against these ideas and people promoting them.
Vincent: Germany signed the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. And the U.N. has a commision, a group of people who go into Germany and speak with activists and initiatives, and they write a report. Every time they report on Germany, Germany always gets very low grades because of how it sees the problem as “foreigners” — xenophobia — and not racism. So, these U.N. delegates come into Germany and say that racism is actually happening. They are pushing the German government to recognize it’s a problem and to develop better, more committed anti-racist strategies and laws.
Laura: For anti-racist groups, a part of the work is trying to shift the discourse. Until about 10 years ago, you were not able to talk about racism because racism did not exist according to the public. We would talk about xenophobia, but that would not cover what is actually happening. There was a lot of racism happening not only against people who did not have a German passport, but against people who do have a German passport but do not “look” white. This tendency — to talk about xenophobia but not racism — put conversations into more of a nation-state and citizenship discourse, but it was actually racism that was happening. Still, people are fighting [to ensure] that racism is recognized and [seen as] a problem in Germany. Calling it xenophobia is pushing the problem to the borders, making it a border issue. We are fighting a lot to name things like attacks on houses where refugees are living or former guest workers. We’re still trying to push the boundaries, trying to talk about racism on these terms.
How has Germany’s history shaped anti-racist struggles today?
Vincent: Today in Germany, we are fighting for a society that believes migration has always happened. We’re in the fucking middle of Europe! Throughout history there was always a Polish person who said, “Hey, I want to go to France” and stopped in Germany along the way. The German nation is not that old. But right now, the nation is the point of reference and not migration. So we’re trying to take migration as a starting point for all anti-racist organizing. Here it gets interesting, because many black anti-racist and anti-colonialist struggles tried to use nationalism as a tool for liberation. It didn’t turn out very well in my opinion.
We also have a complicated relationship to U.S. influence in our politics. For a lot of black people in Germany, the United States is a reference because the history is tied together. Many founding members of [my group] the ISD were descendants of black American soldiers. The orientation toward the U.S. discourse seemed natural. Also, Audre Lorde came to Germany in the 1980s and organized black women. Some people even see her as a founding mother of the young black movement in Germany.
But still, African migration always was and is the biggest factor. This state of purity that right-wing nationalists try to imagine, where the right people lived at the right place, never was a reality.
The meaning of blackness changed a lot too. A lot of people of color in the United Kingdom used to just identify as black. And in Germany, many radical emancipatory Turkish and Kurdish people (heavily influenced by the Black Panthers) thought about calling themselves black. It’s amazing how influential the radical black tradition in the United States was for oppressed people around the world.
Laura: The influence of U.S. perspectives on racism is important, but — at the same time — there are a lot differences [between the two countries], particularly the history of migration. There were a lot of so-called “guest workers” from Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey coming to Germany during the 1960s. Their children and grandchildren are organizing in a different way than people in the United States because the idea of dividing society into black and white doesn’t work for them. However, there are a lot of similarities between the experience of black people in the United States and guest workers in Germany, especially when it comes to the intersection of race and class. These guest workers, similar to other migrant workers in Germany, experienced a loss of status when they started to work and live here. Yet, they — along with their descendants — are often perceived as white, which is why, as Vincent said, some Turkish and Kurdish groups discussed calling themselves black.
We had an intense history of German colonialism from 1884-1914. Within a really short time, Germany became the fourth biggest colonial empire in the world. Until 10 years ago, people in Germany didn’t think it was important to talk about this time, as it was perceived as a very small, and an unimportant part of German history. However, it shaped the German state in different ways. Immigration and emigration shaped Germany differently — ranging from mass emigration in the middle of the 19th century to the Americas, labor migration to Prussia in Imperial Germany, foreign students studying in the Weimar Republic, to the mass migration in different directions connected to World War I and World War II, and the guest worker regime in the 1960s and 1970s.
What are some challenges you find in anti-racist work today?
Vincent: We are constantly trying to reframe racism differently than how the media and politicians talk about. They focus on neo-Nazis saying that they are the only racist ones. People believe neo-Nazis are on the fringe of society. As if, “They are from poor sites in Eastern Germany. They are poor and angry, and so they turn to racism.” There is a strange thing in Germany that we call poor people: “Bildungsferne Schichten,” or “people far away from education.” By saying “neo-Nazis are poor desperate people, the losers from the reunification of Germany, this is why they are Nazis and why they are racist,” they are basically saying only dumb poor people can be racist. But what we see now is that the huge rise of right-wing populism here is a very, very bourgeoise project. There are poor people in nationalist racist, right-wing organizations, but also people, who are very educated. It’s a strange thing in Germany where people think that racism has something to do with your level of education — as if when you go to school and get the right level of education, you cannot be racist. That’s ridiculous.
What opportunities are people mobilizing around?
Vincent: The NSU Tribunal was a great example, where anti-racist and anti-fascist groups put the in-fighting aside and the perspective of the victims’ families were at the center. We mourned the people killed by racists together. We condemned the system and the people responsible together and stood for a new society together.
Laura: The NSU case joined all the different aspects of anti-racism — it was about the state supporting neo-Nazis, neo-Nazis killing people, and the media and police with their racist ideas about Turkish people supporting the neo-Nazis [who killed them]. Every group could find their topic within the NSU complex. Sadly, it showed really well how all these fights are connected. And we haven’t stopped, the investigation and the work continues. For instance, the third NSU Tribunal will take place in Chemnitz in November 2019.
What kinds of collaborations would you like to create or grow between anti-racist organizers in the United States and Germany?
Laura: I think it would be very fruitful to have an exchange on strategies used by organizers in the struggles against racism in the United States. [It would help us] get a different perspective on the strategies we are using in Germany and might give us ideas on how to reframe our struggles and develop new ideas to continue the fight. Also, the right is organizing transnationally, so we have to try to find common answers to the right-wing populist backlash we are experiencing globally.