I am leaving The Local today after three and a half years working for the website as reporter then editor.
When I started in the job at the beginning of 2015, Germany was leaving a very good impression of a sleepy country pub while quietly turning over cash like a Vegas casino. Angela Merkel had been in power for a decade and, if polling figures were to be believed, she could easily last another ten years. Unemployment had dropped to levels never previously seen. Germany was the export champion of the world (and football champion to boot).
Looking at the figures, little has changed since. The economic good news never stops. The capital is slowly being rebuilt into a city worthy of its title. The airport still isn’t open, but who knows, maybe if I’d stayed a year longer even that would have changed.
At the same time though, Germany has become a very different place. There is rancour and anger in the streets now. When Merkel heads out of Berlin into the eastern provinces she is hounded by cries of “traitor to the people” or “Merkel out!” By last year’s elections she had turned from the CDU’s biggest asset into a weight around their neck. The country’s “Mutti” had become the evil aunt.
The humiliation for the CDU was most keenly felt in the east. Since reunification, they have dominated the states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. But at the national election their authority was smashed by the Alternative for Germany (AfD). And if polling is to be believed the AfD are going to become the second biggest force in eastern politics next year when three state elections are held.
Conveniently for opinion makers in the west, anger in the east is easy to portray as nationalist, xenophobic and all things they seek to distance Germany from.
German media in the west often shake their heads about the east: those poor Ossis who had to live for so long under dictatorship, they still just don’t get democracy; they are such victims, but why do they have to take this out on the only people weaker than them – the refugees?
Opinion makers concern themselves with causes like shutting down nuclear power plants, convinced they are saving the world from a technology that never killed a single German. Meanwhile, barely a week goes by without a rape or knife attack perpetrated by a refugee.
Mainstream politicians and newspapers told Germans when all the refugees came in 2015 that the newcomers would be so grateful for the protection that they would obey the law. Even now the broadsheet press shy away from honest discussion. And while it is no longer credible to say that refugees all behave themselves, criminologists tell us that the behaviour of criminal asylum seekers is perfectly explainable through things like their age or their frustration at not being able to stay in Germany.
But what difference do these explanations make to a woman who was sexually assaulted or the family of a teenager who was stabbed to death?
People have a right to feel mainstream politicians aren’t taking their concerns seriously. It should come as no surprise that people flee from all the established parties – left and right – to the only party that talks about these things – the AfD.
Which brings us to Merkel’s often wretched handling of the situation. She is the architect of Germany’s refugee policies. So as well as taking international acclaim for taking in so many Syrians, she should take responsibility for its failures. She should at the very least have the backbone to meet the families of the Breitscheidplatz terror attack rather than duck away from it until they publicly embarrass her into action.
She regularly laments the language used by her critics on the streets of eastern cities. But when does she ever do anything that shows that she takes their concerns seriously? After the recent unrest in Chemnitz she had the chance to show solidarity with the family of a man stabbed to death by an Iraqi who arrived in 2015. Instead she solely focused on the appalling acts of vigilante violence that took place afterwards, without giving due attention to the anger many people in the city feel who have nothing to do with Nazism or football hooliganism.
The result is that people who are primarily worried about the safety of their own neighbourhoods are being pushed into an alliance with extremists and racists. Rather than differentiate between genuine concern and actual extremism, the national (western) media is tarring all these people with the same brush.
And if anyone thinks that avoiding this subject helps asylum seekers, they should think a little bit more about whether making people bottle up and hide their fear of crime is a healthy way of creating societal harmony.
Everyone is responsible for their own political actions – and east Germans have to take responsibility for voting for a party that has more than one Nazi apologist in its ranks. But they are hardly being given a good alternative at the moment.
So after three years I’ve learned that, if a good society is built on sound economic policy, then Germany has little to fear for now. If it is based on people talking, listening and having the humility to accept when they are wrong, then the country is on much less stable footing.
*This article originally stated that the government gives Jews advice on protecting themselves from anti-Semitism. In fact the Jewish Central Council gave this advice.