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Pretzel swastikas and Döner killings: are Germany’s best intentions becoming its fatal flaw?

The importance attached to maintaining the narrative of a tolerant Germany elides some uglier cultural symbolism - as evidenced by the media sensationalism of the 'Döner killings'. It's time for a more productive discussion of prejudice

The recent exposure of a neo-Nazi cell in the small East German town of Zwickau has cut to the quick of a country that has, in the decades since World War II, applied its famously rigorous nature to the task of soul-searching.

In Germany the swastika is a banned symbol, as is making the Sieg Heil salute. In 2009 when the Mel Brooks musical that dared to laugh at the Nazis, The Producers, made its German debut, a pretzel was used as a fantastically clever replacement for the swastika shown on promotional material for production in other countries. The following year, the Deutsches Historisches Museum held an exhibition, entitled ‘Hitler and the Germans’ that excluded Hitler’s personal effects in order to prevent neo-Nazi pilgrimages. When asked how they felt about such a potentially provocative exhibition, the typical reply was that the exhibition was an entirely appropriate - necessary, even - step in Germany’s sustained efforts to stamp out Nazism and the prejudice that saw it flourish. Indeed, it seemed it was primarily non-Germans who were provoked by the occurrence of such a public self-examination in Berlin. Germans were mentioning the war, to paraphrase a tired joke.

Arguably, these are xenophobic times. Though it is often the first country in Europe to be scrutinized for evidence of racism, Germany’s commitment to education and self-examination make an impressive contrast if one considers the open hostility towards Roma communities tolerated in other European countries like Italy and Hungary; or the recently passed law against praying in public in France (a gesture that is particularly unsympathetic to those trying to observe Islamic prayer times). Yet while the ability of a neo-Nazi group to operate so successfully for so long in Germany is an obvious injury to the country’s efforts, this story bore the token of something that should be every bit as troubling to Germans, that showed itself long before the discovery of a neo-Nazi connection.

The ‘Döner Killings’ is the name given a series of ten murders that took place between 2000 and 2006. Eight of the victims were either born in Turkey, or had Turkish roots; one victim was born in Greece, and one was a Caucasian German. The crime scenes dotted the width and breadth of Germany.

The first four victims were all murdered within a year of each other, and the only theme the German police inferred from the ethnicity of the victims was that some as yet unidentified Turkish organized crime syndicate must be to blame. “Surely this is not how our country treats minorities, so it must be the minorities themselves who are treating each other this way?”, was the implication. The investigation into the killings, called Operation Bosphorus, made its suspicions eponymous. So the process of ejecting the victims from German society began, their reputations tainted by the suggestion that they had dealings with criminals, and their families grilled by police for information in support of a narrative that would allow Germany to occupy the goodies position.

Mehmet Turgut, the fifth victim, was murdered while opening up a friend’s döner kebab shop in Rostock. It was at this point that the media, including mainstream publications such as Der Spiegel, began to call the murders the ‘Döner Killings’. For the record, one other victim, İsmail Yaşar was murdered in his kebab shop. The other eight victims had occupations ranging from being a policewoman, to owning a flower shop, to being a machinist in a factory, to being a locksmith. ‘Döner Killings’ it is.

The victims - already pushed to the fringes of German society with the organized crime theory - were further flattened and degraded as their murders were branded after a fast food item. Not of high quality; not to be taken seriously. In the sensationalist world of mass media, sensitivity is often sacrificed on the sharp hook of, well, a sharp hook; something that sounds catchy or stirs the imagination. The German language, so often savoured for its precision, is sadly let down by such a facile and inaccurate label. The German people, in turn, let themselves down by tolerating the popularization of a term that wallows so contentedly in its racism (in January of this year, a jury of German linguists agreed, declaring ‘Döner-Morde the ‘Ugliest Word of the Year’ in 2011).

In the months since the discovery of the National Socialist Underground there has been no shortage of national hand-wringing and cold sweats about how such a group could have survived - indeed, thrived - for so long, and about how much the German secret service - one of whose agents was a witness to the last murder - knew about the cell. Amid the tough questions Germans are asking of themselves and their government about how this rolling tragedy has unfolded, it is significant that the ‘Döner Killings’ name has remained largely unchallenged through several years of media coverage. In the acceptance of the derogatory label, we may find a clue as to how the NSU has survived for so long, unchallenged.

Looking at the police officers patrolling in front of the synagogues and Jewish cultural sites, and considering that pretzel on the poster for The Producers, Germany comes across as a nation with a lot of good intentions. There would, however, seem to be a sort of cultural blind spot when it comes to the gulf that can exist between intention and implementation.

One Berlin theatre company shone the spotlight on this disparity in their recent staging of the play I’m not Rappaport. Insisting that they were simply unable to find an actor in Berlin possessing the (apparently) triple qualification of being a black man whose German was flawless and whose talents weren’t confined to musical theatre, the company opted to present a white German actor in blackface. Company director Dieter Hallervorden was quoted on the Deutsche Welle website saying that ‘We never intended to offend anyone….the play is against racism and so are we.’ Hallervorden, (who insisted that the show would not be cancelled) then went on to ask why - with the play having been staged by some forty German theatres since its 1987 premiere where the role of the African American was only twice played by a black man - it has been deemed a problem this time around. While this startling fact may explain Hallervorden’s surprise, it does nothing to vindicate his position.

Similar confusion was expressed by Hermann Benker, union leader of the Bavarian chapter of the national German Police Union. His union has been distributing a calendar for the last six years that was just banned by Munich police chief Wilhelm Schmidbauer. The calendar, which accented the months of the year with cartoons portraying what Benker described as a ‘gallows humour’ found the greatest fodder for its scaffold in crude portrayals of visible minorities. One image featured a black man drawn with thick red lips whose speech bubble uses the German word for the suppression of evidence that in the context becomes a pun that adds a meaning about the ‘darkening’ of the German population.

A spokesperson for the Munich police force stated that the drawings were ‘incompatible with the values of the police force’ and that they were being removed for fear of them being misunderstood.

Was it not enough to say that they were incompatible with the values of the police force? What is there to ‘misunderstand’?  Have we missed something? Does the artist have a close black friend - or some ace-in-the-hole that could assuage our fears that he meant to promote a negative image of black people among the police? Once again, there is this habitual insistence on the intention taking precedence over the impact.

Union chief Benker insisted that the cartoons have ‘…nothing to do with the disparaging of any group of people.’ He insists that it is a victimless crime because he has not seen a victim. Indeed, Benker probably does not want to think that there is a victim - rather that his colleagues all have a chuckle behind closed doors and everyone goes home without having internalized any of the racist typologies upon which the humour relies. His mistake - as with Hallervorden, and Operation Bosphorus, and the media who popularized the term ‘Döner Killings’ - is to have privileged their intentions above any evidence as to outcome.

But so long as the narrative of a tolerant Germany is more important than the experience of those who are testing that dream, the country will be condemned to repeating these traumas and disgraces. Racism has much to do with accepting what you don’t understand, and, as such, the fight against it takes a lot of lateral thinking. The fact that Germany does not bear the shame of a history of minstrel shows doesn’t make it into a sort of cultural isolation chamber where blackface can be used independent of its connotations elsewhere in the world. The fact that you like eating Turkish food doesn’t make döner kebab a good symbol to use in referring to a tragedy that involved several Turkish Germans. Productive discussions of prejudice necessarily have to allow space for that which is beyond one’s own experience. Tolerance is an endless negotiation: no country has mastered it completely. But to reach the next level Germans must start to contemplate its ‘unknown unknowns’ and have a little faith in someone else’s narrative. 

About the author

Elizabeth Grant is an artist and freelance writer who recently completed the Masters of Letters in Fine Art Practice at the Glasgow School of Art.

She was a finalist for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, and has been supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. Follow her on twitter@LitszenGrant

Her work can be seen here.


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