It is being called a “Night of Shame” — New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, where dozens of women reported that they were sexually assaulted by hundreds of men said to be North African and Middle Eastern migrants.
It has spawned nearly two weeks of debate and recrimination, not to mention violent retaliation. In the global media, what exactly happened on the final day of 2015 in that picturesque city on the Rhine has become a topic of feverish debate and speculation. As The New York Times writes:
The Cologne police [said] they had received 90 complaints from victims, including one who said she had been raped. No arrests have been made. It was not clear that any of the men involved were among those who arrived in Germany over the past year from conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The German weekly Der Spiegel suggests that while something “horrifying” most certainly took place, competing narratives make it difficult to pin down how much, if any, of it was committed by migrants. The magazine reports:
A lot happened on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, much of it contradictory, much of it real, much of it imagined . . . In its entirety, the events of Cologne on New Year’s Eve and in the days that followed adhered to a script that many had feared would come true even before it actually did.
What is clear is that the backlash has been both swift and severe. On Saturday, a protest in Cologne by the German anti-immigration group Pegida degenerated into a scrum as demonstrators hurled beer bottles, firecrackers and stones at the police, who retaliated with tear gas and water cannons. And more than 200 right-wingers were arrested in Leipzig after they allegedly vandalized buildings and burned vehicles “on the fringes of an anti-Islamization rally.”
On Sunday, a group of Guineans and Pakistanis – none of whom fit the profile of the alleged Cologne assailants – found themselves under attack after a call reportedly went out on Facebook urging a “manhunt” for foreigners.
In response, The Independent reports, some refugees wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel, denouncing the anti-immigrant venom and expressing gratitude for how they had heretofore been received.
But Almin Mazjek, secretary-general of the Central Council of Muslims, told the Independent that he fears the damage may be difficult to repair. He said the 22-year-old council’s membership, some 15,000 to 20,000 German, German-Arab and German-Turkish Muslims, has noticed a fresh wellspring of Islamophobia, of which Sunday’s “vigilante attacks” are but the latest sign:
We are experiencing a new dimension of hatred. The far-right mob sees its prejudices confirmed and an opportunity to give free rein to hatred of Muslims and foreigners.
And that “mob” may have found a sympathetic ear in an unexpectedly high place – the Office of the Chancellor. Merkel, who has long stood by the decision to welcome migrants fleeing violence in their home countries, sounded a lot less supportive when she said on Tuesday, according to The Atlantic, that “the events of New Year’s Eve have dramatically exposed the challenge we’re facing, revealing a new facet that we haven’t yet seen.”
Later that same day, the government announced a plan to tweak current laws to permit the revocation of foreign sex offenders’ refugee status, making it easier to deport those convicted of any crime. According to Justice Minister Heiko Maas, this is the least that can be done for the New Year’s Eve victims.
But Maas also stressed to The Atlantic that migrants should not be treated as a nameless, faceless source of suspicion, saying: “As abominable as the crimes in Cologne and other cities were, one thing remains clear — there is no justification for blanket agitation against foreigners.”
Echoing the sentiment expressed in Der Spiegel, he noted that certain forces “appear just to have been waiting for the events of Cologne” and regretted that, with many victims unable to identify their attackers, it is unlikely that these new regulations will dispense much justice.
Meanwhile, the wave of refugees is not expected to recede anytime soon. One reason is that many migrants simply prefer the vaunted New Germany to the rest of Europe — and for good reason. As the British policy analyst Hans Kundnani points out in his 2015 book “The Paradox of German Power,” the country’s “rhetoric focuses on stability: it talks about a ‘stability union’ and is proud of its Stabilitätskultur, or ‘stability culture.’ ”
To that end, Merkel’s policies have kept Germans, in the words of The National Interest, an American international-affairs magazine, “in jobs and away from wars. The country’s unemployment rate is half that of the [European Union] as a whole. And the post-war impulse toward pacifism has been satisfied by [Merkel’s] keeping her country out of Iraq and Libya, not to mention out of Syria and other conflicts.”
As for the rest of Europe, it’s keeping an anxious eye on this latest incident involving migrants. The Cologne assaults have prompted even Pope Francis to acknowledge that the massive influx of refugees is causing problems, some foreseen, others less so.
Ever hopeful, however, the pontiff added that he prays “Europe [will] find the right balance between its two-fold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants.”
The unfortunate reality is that not everyone in Germany is as confident as the pope of a happy ending.