Germany in 2016: New Year, new mood

The harassment of women during New Year’s eve celebration in Cologne and other German cities has changed perspectives on the refuge crisis

Florian Neuhof

Published: Updated:

The New Year could hardly gotten off to a worse start in Germany. As people gathered around Cologne's historic cathedral to celebrate on New Year's Eve, it soon became evident that something was going wrong. Groups of men of 'Arab and North African' appearance, as the police would later put it, massed next to the adjacent train station and began harassing women. Up to 1,000 men are estimated to have ganged up on female passersby, allegedly groping, pick pocketing and even raping.

While there is no certainty yet about the level of refugee involvement in the Cologne attacks - some say that a long established criminal network of Moroccans is largely to blame - there is no doubt that the incidents were on a massive scale, and hundreds of complaints have been registered with the police.

The news hit Germany like a meteoroid. The refugee crisis had held the country in its grip for most of 2015, dominating politics, conversation and media coverage. As a massive 1.1 million refugees streamed into Germany that year, far more than into any other European Union member, no corner of the country was left untouched by this momentous event. The influx led to a spike in xenophobic attacks, and many grumbled about heavy burden it placed on infrastructure and social services.

But it also mobilized thousands of citizens, who volunteered countless hours of their time to help the newly arrive find their feet. The images of men, women and children risking their lives to make the hazardous journey into and across Europe unleashed a tidal wave of compassion in Germany, and for a while optimism abounded about integrating the newly arrived.

The harassment in Cologne, which to a lesser extent also took place in Hamburg and Stuttgart, could turn the mood decisively.
After decades of feminist campaigning, the rights of women are sacrosanct in Germany, but even a more conservative society would baulk at the prospect of their women being targeted by a rapidly growing group of outsiders. That some level of organization appears to be behind the attacks make them particularly menacing.

It was the perfect gift to those claiming that the people streaming in from the Middle East, Africa and further afield are not compatible with German culture and society. The xenophobic right wing fringe, which had thus far been drowned out by the well-intentioned majority, had been complaining about the amount of young Arab men entering the country for a long time. It has now become difficult to counter their smug 'I told you so’s'.

Their skepticism and prejudice has now hit the mainstream. After opening their borders and arms to refugees, Germans feel taken advantage of, and fear that their country will sink into lawlessness.

Unsurprisingly, some of the harshest blow back I have heard has come from women, who are in no mood to compromise their social freedoms or run a higher risk of harassment.

The overarching question is this: Is the integration of refugees possible without compromising the liberal values that underpin Germany society? After Cologne an increasing number of people are not so sure anymore.

The incidents are likely to have a big impact on Germany's willingness to take on further refugees, and to provide for the ones already there. Hope that the country would benefit from the infusion of new cultures and peoples have been replaced by worry and uncertainty.

That is a shame for Germany, and disastrous for those fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere.

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