Can Europe Make It?

The tragedy of Cologne and its aftermath – the depletion of civility

This is a vicious circle of harassment, animosity, and aggressive and uncivilized behavior that seriously undermines the resource which is crucial for successful integration.

Petra Gümplová
10 March 2016

Police officers detain people during carnival celebrations in Cologne, 4 February 2016. Getty/Volker Hartmann. All rights reserved.After the reports about the string of sexual assaults during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, media outlets across Europe followed with the news about refugee and migrant sex crimes – groping at swimming pools, verbal abuse and throwing of stones on the streets, or harassment at a music festival. Responding to these events, local authorities issued warnings to women to avoid certain places, towns barred migrants from entering swimming pools, thousands of police personnel were readied to patrol carnival marches, and pink security zones for women were proposed.

This reaction is deeply frustrating. Groups of men sexually assaulting women in public spaces is a new form of violence against women which needs to be condemned and punished. But this wave of reporting on Cologne has increased an already existing anti-immigrant fervor and has given fresh impetus for further violent xenophobic attacks, as another stereotypical image of a migrant, this time as a rapist, is settling in our imagination and exacerbating our fears.

Thus, the vulnerable, and yet single most important resource for a successful integration of a diverse society is now being eroded, perhaps beyond the point of return. This resource can be called civility, characterized as respectful, polite, and friendly behavior toward strangers, regardless of whether they are one’s own compatriots or foreigners.

Resources and challenges of integration

Last year, over one million refugees came to Germany and the total number of people resettled could be much higher if migrants are joined by their family members over future months or years. This is a number larger than the total number of refugees that the US – with a population of 320 million to Germany’s 80 million – has accepted in the last 10 years. These people will add up to a fifth of the population with migrant origin who, according to official numbers, already live there. On top of that, there is a comparatively lower tolerance to open public displays of racism and xenophobia and the lack of the feeling of national or cultural superiority.

Yet in many ways, Germany seems to be in a unique position to deliver on its promise of integration. It has a strong economy with a record budget surplus and a robust labor market with low unemployment. It has an extensive and generous welfare state. It has a dense and decentralized structure of well-funded and resourceful local public and non-profit organizations providing services on behalf of widely shared ideals of solidarity, equality of opportunity and social justice.

On top of that, there is an impressive, comparatively lower tolerance to open public displays of racism and xenophobia and the lack of the feeling of national or cultural superiority. According to latest polls, the support for giving asylum to those fleeing war zones still remains high, at 94%.

In the late summer of last year, masses of ordinary people greeted arriving migrants and refugees at the train stations. But the Willkomenskultur has evaporated after the Cologne attacks. Germans now support more substantial limits on immigration – caps on numbers of incoming refugees, limits on welfare benefits, the return of economic migrants, the control of borders.

The latest demonstration of Pegida, an anti-Islamic organization, drew thousands of supporters to Dresden. Frauke Petry, the leader of Germany’s main rightwing anti-immigrant party, Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), said recently that migrants crossing illegally from Austria to Germany should be stopped with firearms, if necessary. Sahra Wagenknech, the co-leader of the left party Die Linke proclaimed that those who abuse hospitality, lose the right to it.

What is more, since mid-2015 Germany has registered a sharp increase in vandalizing attacks on refugee facilities and asylum seekers’ accommodations. The journal Zeit reports that there have been over 220 of such attacks in 2015 alone. As many incidents are not reported, the figure could be even higher. Many of them were arson attacks; and many resulted in the injuries of refugees (only four of them have resulted in convictions so far.) Recently, a mob of angry protesters in Clausnitz, Saxony blocked a bus with refugees headed to their accommodation, chanting “Go home”, and a dead pig inscribed with “Mutti Merkel” was placed at a site where a mosque is being constructed in Leipzig. What is more, since mid-2015 Germany has registered a sharp increase in vandalizing attacks on refugee facilities and asylum seekers’ accommodations.

This is a vicious circle of harassment, animosity, and aggressive and uncivilized behavior that seriously undermines the resource which is crucial for successful integration and which consists in making everybody, especially foreign newcomers, part of one society. That resource is civility. It includes forms of interactions and gestures among people in daily contexts such as on the street, in stores, or in the subway. It is more than being polite and tolerant: empathy, compassion, solidarity, active readiness to help are expressions of genuine civility.  

Civility is a universal human good. It can be described in Arendtian terms as a frail and intangible human in-between which enables human beings directly to relate to one another in various contexts. It binds them together, not merely as distinct individuals who are equally worthy of equal respect for their rights, but as humans worthy of kindness and empathy. Despite its intangible quality, civility is the essence of what sharing the human world could possibly mean. It escapes institutionalization. It has to be practiced and reciprocated in direct face-to-face interactions.

Like other common-pool resources (air, water, sunshine), it is nearly impossible to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from the use of civility. And unlike other common-pool resources, it never faces a problem of overuse. On the contrary, the more it is used, the more robust it becomes. But it faces the problem of fragility, and is difficult to renew once destroyed. Civility sparks civility but in the case of anti-social behavior, people either withdraw or reciprocate.

Civility among modern strangers

In a book Distant Strangers published last year, historian James Vernon shed new light on civility. He showed that the process of modernization in Britain – arguably the first modern society – crucially consisted in establishing a profoundly new social condition: a society of distant and anonymous strangers who are in abstract and legally regulated political, economic, and social relations. Vernon urged the need to explore how people navigate the terrain where they are strangers to one another, how they re-embed or flesh out their abstract and bureaucratized economic, social, and political relations in space and through more personalized ties.

Sociology hitherto has not provided the framework for this kind of exploration because it has always been preoccupied with problematizing the modern condition of strangeness. Sociology hitherto has not provided the framework for this kind of exploration because it has always been preoccupied with problematizing the modern condition of strangeness. While Marxist tradition focused on alienation under capitalism, critical theory inspired by Max Weber focused on the destruction of freedom and autonomy due to modern legal rationalization.

Only in the late twentieth century, reflecting on the growth of pluralism, complexity, and diversity in modern western societies, did some thinkers, e.g. Germany’s Jürgen Habermas or Hauke Brunkhorst, embrace the condition of strangeness as the prominent social condition of democratic pluralist societies, integrated not by common culture but by law and individual rights and deliberative practices.

But how the social condition of strangeness is humanized has not been an object of further investigation. Political philosophy, especially its republican tradition, long ago emphasized active, participatory, and virtuous practices of citizenship as a way of giving life to abstract political relations. At the end of the twentieth century, many thinkers emphasized civil society – the sphere of voluntary associations, social movements, citizen initiatives, and other forms of collective action and mobilization that emerge in the space between the state and intimate sphere – as the solution for a robust democratic polity through the exercise of political rights and civil liberties.

Civil society is assuredly hugely important in modern democracy. However, the example of a right-wing movement like Pegida shows that civil society associations are usually not only oriented to a limited set of goals (and bureaucratized as they grow) but also that their goals can be exclusionary, discriminatory, subversive, or illiberal.

As the role of civil society in the process of integration of a society can be ambiguous, social sciences are only now beginning to find a name and relevance for civility in human society, especially in a society with social and cultural diversity and mobility. A study by The Young Foundation from 2011 suggests that civility – subtle, daily practices of treating one another with empathy – acts as a hugely important social ‘glue’. Correspondingly, aggression, rudeness, abrasiveness, and indifference, not to say violence, leave lasting emotional and social damage as they shape individuals’ perceptions about a place and their expectation of future behavior.

Politics of civility in an immigrant society 

We need to find ways to sustain and cultivate civility, if only because our societies are undergoing massive transformation in the ways we relate and interact with one another. On the one hand, technology and social media transform human connectedness into indirect connectivity. On the other hand, securitization and legal regulation of every physical space and social context makes us confront one another almost exclusively as rights or other legal entitlements holders. Increasingly we turn to law enforcement or judicial process for the protection of these.

But is this anywhere near sufficient? Immigration is impossible to stop, and all our societies are undergoing a rapid rise in all kinds of diversity and plurality. Many resources are needed if we want to succeed in the task of keeping our societies cohesive and integrated, with no parallel communities, ungovernable neighborhoods and immigrant ghettos, and with no increase in incivility and violence in urban areas alongside other forms of social exclusion, marginalization, and alienation which, in the end, significantly undermine everybody’s freedom, democracy, and security. We surely need laws, policies and welfare state services protecting individuals against risks and discrimination and reinforcing equality of opportunity in order to improve the lives of individuals. But we cannot rely merely on a culturally impoverished notion of welfare state services or law enforcement if we want to make humans part of one society.

It is civility, an inexpensive human resource, which has the greatest potential to facilitate a successful integration. As a spontaneous expression of empathy in a concrete situation, civility is difficult to program or institutionalize. It must be awakened in each of us, here and now. The tragedy of Cologne and its aftermath is that people may be less willing to activate this genuine human ability within them. One piece of good news is that there are some who realize how fragile this resource is vis-à-vis harmful stereotypical images. A young German woman recently created an online map ( which tries to debunk rumors and stories about migrant crimes spreading quickly via social media. The map pinpoints all the supposed incidents and then links them with investigation reports. Most of the stories, it turns out, are false.

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