Germany has been praised as an example of an open and diverse society but Karin Louise Hermes explains how the treatment of German footballers exposes deeper societal issues
Berlin, June 2008
I was visiting from out-of-town and was excited to watch the football match being broadcast at the Brandenburg Gate Fanmeile: Germany vs. Turkey.
My reluctant leftist friend, who avoids anything which suggests German nationalism, made sure I didn’t go overboard (no flag) with my fandom. The crowd reacted just fine when Germany won 3-2, some joyful fans had a German flag painted on one cheek and a Turkish flag on the other.
The celebration of honking cars, more common at Turkish than German weddings in Berlin – but widespread for football – had passengers waving the German and various alternating Turkish flags. We had cheap German supermarket beer in plastic bottles, and a quintessential Berlin döner kebab afterwards.
World Cup 2010. Mesut Özil, a German boy whose grandparents had immigrated to Germany, became one of the most promising players to watch in this vibrant national team. A photo taken months later at Berlin Olympiastadion after another match against Turkey, shows Chancellor Angela Merkel in the men’s locker room, shaking hands with a shirtless Mesut Özil to congratulate him on the 3:0 victory. Özil became the poster boy for integration, marketed as the successful migrant (actually born in Gelsenkirchen in then-divided Germany) of Turkish descent, welcomed into an open German society as one of theirs. A Germany with an aversion to nationalism needs “colourful” faces to showcase itself on a global stage. But also at home, this German boy, who looked as untypically German as I did, made my fandom much more straightforward and relatable.
World Cup 2014. Germany made it to yet another semifinal, thrashing hosts Brazil. Headlines and tweets full of the routine martial phrasing of a calamity of this 7:1 scale, while praising this fantastic German team that went on to win the championship. Only nationalists weren’t pleased.
Munich, July 2018. Germany was dumped out of the World Cup at the group stages and blaming Mesut Özil’s meeting and photo-op in spring with another head of state – this time Turkish despot Erdoğan – for their team’s disorder. Özil was so upset by his the German FA’s failure to defend him from racist abuse that he quit national football complaining that he was “German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
The 437-day court trial for the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU) and their domestic terrorism had come to an unsettling conclusion. The neo-Nazi cell had murdered eight Germans of Turkish descent, one of Greek descent (possibly mistaken for being Turkish), and one female German police officer, who had nebulous ties to individuals with less nebulous ties to the NSU itself. The disinterested (read: white) German remembers the police officer’s name as the only pronounceable one, but every single victim was a German citizen. This was right-wing terrorism dubbed as “Döner Kebab murders”. Geographically spread out they seemed unrelated, if not for the rare Ceská 83 pistol as an assassination link. German law enforcement framed the deceased as mafia rivals, yet the Kassel crime scene involved a German intelligence agent (known as “Little Adolf” in his hometown) claiming to not have witnessed anything. The German federal intelligence agency permeates its entire system with right-wing informants, but then shreds evidence documents and files others away from public access for 120 years.
Those upset by Özil’s statement claim there is no racism towards him because “Turks are not a race”, they also say things like, “look at Özil playing the victim card and everyone is getting aboard the racism train”. Germans did away with things like “race” after 1945, because of the trouble it caused us. As a German of Colour, however, I am met with the day-to-day interrogation of my German skills and intelligence, and for being in the country I have a passport from and thus cannot be deported from. German citizens of Turkish descent remain the largest group of migrants that came as “guest workers” to rebuild post-war Germany from rubble to economic prosperity.
Now in the summer of 2018 Mesut Özil has fallen from grace as blatant racism has moved to the centre. Ozil’s fellow German teammate of Turkish descent Ilkay Gündoğan’s public apology after their joint meeting and photo-op did not save him from being booed by German “fans” during the World Cup. The pretence of focusing on the Erdoğan photo for the “democratic values” Germans must adhere to, is juxtaposed with the government’s exporting weapons to Erdoğan’s nationalist regime, as well as with the smirking photos of other football luminaries with authoritarian Putin in Russia.
Now, a third-generation immigrant has been perpetually Othered and been made to feel unwelcome in his nation of birth, a Country for which he attained the highest football achievement in the world.
This Othering and allegation of a parallel society drives the popularity of nationalist Erdoğan for the Turkish diaspora, and not the other way around. Rampant Islamophobia solidifies the belief that Turkish-Germans are foreign to German society.
They are “guests” that far overstayed their welcome. With Özil’s 4-page statement in English, the racism that Germans have mainstreamed but was lost in translation, is now out in the open.
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Karin Louise Hermes is a Filipina-German academic activist with an M.A. in Pacific Islands Studies. She is currently based in Berlin and a PhD Candidate in American Studies at Humboldt-Universität. Her research and activism revolve around WoC empowerment, Indigenous rights, and climate justice. @KarinIsSharing
Main image: Baklava in the colours of the German and Turkish flags by Jérôm
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