Germany | 1 min

Anti-Slavic Racism in Germany: Perpetrators, Victims, Twitterers

White people are also victims of racism in this country – specifically those from eastern Europe. But is there room for them in the current anti-racist discourse?

This Article is part of the debate on
Mental Wealth Germany Poland Politics of Memory Racism

Erica Zingher
An elderly man stands with his bicycle in front of a Russian speciality shop in Ludwigsburg, Germany.

Anti-racist protests and debates, including ones about Germany’s colonial past, are experiencing an upswing. This is good and important. Reappraisal is taking place, albeit slowly. But there is a crucial gap in this anti-racist discourse: the confrontation with anti-European and anti-Slavic racism.

The fact that since 1945 the crimes of the National Socialists, and above all those of the Wehrmacht, in eastern Europe have been neglected, but also that a historical continuity of anti-Slavic racism has not been revealed, is evident in today’s discussions on racism.

It exists, the long tradition of anti-Slavic and anti-eastern European racism in Germany. This is according to Jannis Panagiotidis, migration researcher and director of the Research Center for Transformation History(RECET) at the University of Vienna. He considers the current debate on whether white people might experience racism in Germany to be too simple.

People from eastern Europe experience racism not because they are white, but despite it. The perpetrator’s perspective is crucial here, says Panagiotidis.

No binary black-white formula

The problem would be that it is often pretended that racism is an exclusively black-white formula, he says. Yet racism, especially in Europe, has never been based exclusively on skin colour distinctions. So-called “race theory”, as it existed in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, divided humanity not just into whites and blacks, Panagiotidis says, but into “civilised” western Europeans and “barbaric, backward” people in the East. This categorisation reached its peak later under the National Socialists, who spoke of “slawischen Untermenschen”(“Slavic subhumans”). The anti-Semitic image of “eastern Jews” is also historically related to this.

Since the Enlightenment, eastern Europe has been a place of backwardness from the western perspective. Where previously the mental border still ran between North and South, between the “educated South” and the “barbaric North”, this shifted from the Enlightenment onwards. Soon “the West”, which saw itself as civilised, was looking at the “backward East”.

In the German context, this pronounced anti-Slavism has a special “unpleasant tradition”, says Hans-Christian Petersen. He teaches at the Institute of History at the University of Oldenburg, focussing, among other things, on the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. “In sources from the 18th century onwards, one repeatedly finds the idea of so-called ‘German culture bearers’ who would bring the light of culture to the ‘dark East'”, he says. Travelogues, he continues, were the primary source, saying “how uncivilised and backward everything was” there in the East. A colonialist view of the East can certainly be discerned in them. It is therefore not enough to limit German colonialism exclusively to the years between 1884 and the end of the First World War.

This German tradition finds its expression in the concept of the “German East”. At the time it was imagined as a space that was freely available –  “culturally speaking it was essentially an empty space which could be completely rebuilt and filled with one’s own culture and superiority”, says Petersen. This later reached its negative climax under the National Socialists and the “Master Plan for the East”, which is barely anchored in collective knowledge.

Hitler’s criminal plan

With the start of the war against the Soviet Union in 1941, Hitler dreamed of the ideal image of the “East”, which was to be taken over as a German settlement and supply region all the way up to the Ural mountains. Hitler’s criminal plan was to settle five million Germans in annexed Poland and in the west of the Soviet Union. 31 million people were to be deported or murdered in total. 14 million “alien peoples” were to become slave labourers. The lives of the Slavic and Jewish populations in these areas were threatened by starvation, exploitation, deportation, and death. Only the course of the war put an end to the murderous plan. Anti-Slavic racism was genocidal in the German context, says migration researcher Panagiotidis.

Until the noughties, however, Nazi crimes in eastern Europe appeared only on the margins of Germany’s collective memory. This changed in part with the second Wehrmacht exhibition in 2001, with the start of the debate on forced labour, and with the establishment of the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and Future in 2000, as well as the start of compensation payments to former slave labourers from eastern Europe.

In the past twenty years, however, the process of coming to terms with National Socialist crimes in eastern Europe has been societally sluggish. In academia, on the other hand, there are comprehensive works and studies on the subject. It is therefore surprising that this knowledge has barely made it into anti-racist discourse.

Fear of victim competition

Ignorance alone could be changed. Unfortunately, some anti-racists are also unwilling to acknowledge the history and the concerns of eastern Europeans. As if there is a fear of victim competition or simply no place for these people in anti-racist discourse.

Last November, journalist Hasnain Kazim got upset on Twitter about who was being invited as a USA expert in the context of the US presidential election. “This is like the Helmut Kohl government, who they all saw as ‘Russian Germans’ – owning a German shepherd 200 years ago was enough”, he wrote. His tweet sparked criticism. Kazim initially ignored the fallout, but deleted his tweet later on.

So, Kazim, who himself is repeatedly the victim of right-wing hate messages and racism, verbally kicked people who have had similar experiences. Is that surprising? Not really. Not only did Kazim reveal that he was insensitive to the history of Russian Germans, but he also used a crude slogan that was popular among right-wingers over twenty years ago.

After days of silence, Kazim apologised on Facebook. There, too, he proved once again that he had made no progress in his discussion of the topic. He spoke of Russian Germans as immigrants who would have been naturalised because of their “German blood”, while non-white migrants who had lived in Germany for a long time had to overcome bigger hurdles, such as Kazim’s family.

Violence against post-Soviet migrants

In fact, Russian Germans were never naturalised because of their “German blood”. Rather, the grounds for their naturalisation was the expulsion and deportation they experienced during the Second World War. Russian Germans had to prove their “German ethnicity”, ie their ethnic affiliation. Many Germans, however, sweepingly regarded them as “Russians”.

Hardly known about are the post-Soviet migrants who became victims of racist violence. Probably because they were difficult to categorise. Were they not too white to experience racism? Migration researcher Panagiotidis writes about this in his recent book Post-Soviet Migration in Germany.

On 4 May 2002, youths attacked the Aussiedler [editor’s note: term for ethnic Germans from eastern Europe who since have resettled in Germany] Kajrat Batesov and his friend Maxim K. in front of a club, and insulted them as “fucking Russians”. Batesov died of his injuries on 23 May 2002. The court did not want to acknowledge a “xenophobic motive” for the crime.

In Heidenheim, a right-wing extremist stabbed Viktor Filimonov, Waldemar Ackert and Aleksander Schleicher, all three young ethnic German immigrants, to death on 19 December 2003. In this case, the court also did not see a racist motive.

The fact that post-Soviet migrants are among the perpetrators of racist violence is “one of the paradoxes of mainstream German society”, writes Panagiotidis.

Alex W., a Russian-German, stabbed Marwa El-Sherbini, a three-month pregnant Egyptian woman, to death in a Dresden court on 1 July 2009. The racist motive for the crime here was crystal clear.

What does this illustrate?

Probably that the boundaries between perpetrators and victims are not always as clear-cut as some would like. The reality is more complex than has often been portrayed in anti-racist discourse.

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