Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1995 Issue

Silence in the Face of Racism

By Dale Keiger

As reunited Germany tries to find an identity, Elke Heckner believes something crucial is missing. "There is hardly any public debate over issues such as racism," she says. "Here, within [an American] university, there's a very strong awareness that we must discuss issues of race, class, nationalism, and gender. In Germany, politics are being kept out of the university. Germany, with all these social conflicts going on, needs this discussion, and it's thoroughly absent."

Heckner, a native of Munich and a Hopkins doctoral candidate, teaches a German Department course called The German "Other" : Conflicts in National Identity. She notes that who the "other" is depends on several factors.

Because the German west is restructuring the east, Heckner says, western Germans have assumed superiority and have come to regard eastern Germans as the "other."

"Right now, many in the former East Germany feel colonized," she says. "People have completely lost their socialist identity." Feelings of dislocation and a stripped identity have prompted eastern Germans to feel very much like "second-class citizens," she says. "They now occupy a position formerly occupied by foreign guest workers."

Eastern Germans have vented their resentment on foreign "guest workers," especially Greeks and Turks, who already bear the brunt of West German xenophobia. These workers were heavily recruited during the 1970s by West Germany to help build its economy. Now they are the targets of violence and discrimination throughout Germany, and the German government, says Heckner, has offered to pay some of them to return to their home countries. Furthermore, she says, guest workers, even those born and raised in Germany, cannot become citizens because they lack German blood. "What underlies these policies is still a notion of ethnic purity, in a very disturbing sense," says Heckner. "A lot of very violent xenophobia is going on."

Resentful eastern Germans have also leveled their anger at Africans who came to the former East Germany as part of government-sanctioned socialist exchange programs. People who were once socialist brothers are now targets for bigotry. Says Heckner, "In some ways, under socialism, racism [wasn't allowed], so these issues were repressed and not dealt with."

Too many modern Germans, in her view, remain silent in the face of resurgent racism. "There is a silent majority. They're not articulating any dissent with the violence, and there is complicity in this silence." She says too many Germans refuse to see any link between their silence now and the complicity that permitted the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. "I don't think Germany has ever really come to terms with its past," she says.

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