What does Black Lives Matter have to do with Germany?

The protests against police violence in the USA have triggered a discussion in Germany about discrimination, immigration and the country's image of itself. Why are people who do not look German considered foreign even if they hold citizenship? And how could we all live together better? A conversation with racism researcher Mark Terkessidis

By Jorg Hantzschel

In Germany, tens of thousands turned out to demonstrate for Black Lives Matter. Out of solidarity with black people in the USA - or because they see their own situation reflected in these images?

Mark Terkessidis: Many younger people attended the demonstrations. Either they had experience of discrimination themselves or had heard about it from their classmates. They are no longer prepared to accept that Ahmed, Vassili, Songül, Leyla or their parents are treated differently by the authorities or the police. And of course there was Hanau. That was incredible: people were murdered because they went to shisha bars. There are not the same cases of deadly police violence in Germany as in the USA, but there are incredible stories relating to the trivialisation of racist acts, false investigations, the insensitive treatment of victims, victims who are taken for perpetrators. The NSU affair showed that.

Shouldn't the slogan be different in Germany, so that it also includes minorities of Turkish origin?

Terkessidis: It always depends on who is most actively involved at any given moment. Black people's organisations like Each One Teach One or ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland) have put racism and colonialism very firmly on the agenda. They are also able to link their problems with the situation in the USA and with the experience of being black, which is now seen as a universal form of racist experience. But it is quite clear that many people who are discriminated against in Germany have other origins, including European ones.

Black Lives Matter demonstration in front of the Victory Column in Berlin, 27.06.2020 (photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)
"Race" is outdated, yet racism still exists: "The word racism extends far beyond the term 'race'. It is the term we use to address illegitimate divisions between 'us' and 'them'. Like sexism, it is about one of the great inequalities of modernity. It shouldn't really matter that a person is female, but if only men work at the next higher level of the hierarchy, how can this be addressed without talking about gender? It remains complicated, but we have to face this complexity." explains Terkessidis

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Why does Germany struggle so much with its role as an immigration country?

Terkessidis: De jure, Germany has only recently become an immigration country. It was only in 1998 that the federal government recognised an "irreversible process of immigration". Before that, it was assumed that the so-called foreigners would all go back home. In 2000 the citizenship law was changed, which made it clear: there are also Germans of non-German origin. Awareness of this has often been slower to catch on. But if we compare racist statements of today with those of the nineties, we can see that there is less crass biologism, such as referring to immigrants as "parasites".

Why did Germany hold on to its 'ius sanguinis' for so long?

Terkessidis: Descent was supposed to act as a guarantee of cohesion. It is no accident that the German national anthem puts "unity" before "justice and freedom". Unity was a constant of Germany's development from a loose collection of smaller states into an imperial power – and "blood" was considered the solution. France, on the other hand, encouraged immigration as early as the 19th century. Anyone who professed their loyalty to France should also be able to become French. Later, the blood right was also a convenient way to regulate immigration: you simply don't give rights to immigrants.

The citizenship law has been changed, but the label "migration background" is still used to record non-German origin up to the second generation. What do Syrian refugees have in common with someone like you, born in Germany of a Greek father?

Terkessidis: Of course, having a migration background does not make for a homogeneous group. But statistically if you have a migration background your risk of poverty is more than twice as high. Your prospects regarding jobs, education, health, everything is much worse. The proportion of decision-makers with a migration background is well below average. If you have a Turkish surname, you are demonstrably less likely to be invited to job interviews. You can't talk about the situation in Germany without including acknowledging such things.

Doesn't this mean that we are insisting on the old definition of being German?

Terkessidis: It is true that the use of the "migration background" classification also perpetuates the division. A class in which 70 percent of children have a migration background is considered a problem. Why not say: 100 percent children? This also puts the children of German origin at a disadvantage. A quarter of them have the same language problems as those with another mother tongue. But they are taken less seriously, because language problems are linked to "foreign" origin.


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What was your own experience?

Terkessidis: I always used to be considered a foreigner. Now I have a migration background, which is progress (he laughs), but at least my affiliation is no longer in question. Speaking with an accent also used to devalue people. I no longer experience that at parents' evenings at my son's school in Kreuzberg. Or take the integration conferences I often attend: in the past it was considered unseemly for me to speak there as an expert. After all, as an affected person I could not be "objective". That was really crazy. Today, the composition is very different. I am not completely satisfied, but something has changed.

Also a success of anti-racism?

Terkessidis: Yes, though lately I've been bothered by the apparent need to lecture people. Every wrong word is taken as an opportunity to educate "white" people about their privileged status. If I'm a professor at the university and I'm not of German origin or BPoC and take the janitor to task, then I should also be aware of my privilege, my class affiliation.

Do you support the Greens' initiative to delete the term race from the Basic Law?

Terkessidis: Yes. The term is part of the biological tradition that German scientists followed until the nineties. Geneticists then showed that races do not exist. But I find the discussion a bit cheap. What role does the term ultimately play in the Basic Law? The improvement of our anti-discrimination legislation would appear to be more urgent.


Berlin has just re-introduced the cornerstones of the EU anti-discrimination directives, namely the reversal of the burden of proof and class actions. In response, police representatives said they could no longer do their job. That is borderline undemocratic.

If the concept of race is out-dated, why do we cling to the concept of racism?

Terkessidis: The word racism extends far beyond the term "race". It is the term we use to address illegitimate divisions between "us" and "them". Like sexism, it is about one of the great inequalities of modernity.

One dilemma always remains: if we name things, we renew discrimination; if we do not name them, we pretend there is no problem.

Terkessidis: We have to live with this paradox. It is similar with gender, disability or sexual orientation. It shouldn't really matter that a person is female, but if only men work at the next higher level of the hierarchy, how can this be addressed without talking about gender? It remains complicated, but we have to face this complexity.The subject of colonialism, which you wrote about in your last book, "Wessen Erinnerung zählt?" (lit: whose memory counts?) is equally complicated.

Terkessidis: I am glad that we have now started to talk about it in Germany, but I do think that the debate is too much limited to the colonies in Africa. The German imperial project was also a very continental one. For 150 years, Polish-speaking areas were part of Prussia or the German Empire. Why don't we also talk about colonialism there? Then there was the "Drive to the East ", the project of economic penetration and moral conquest by foreign cultural policy in Eastern Europe, the Balkans or the Ottoman Empire. It was a different concept of colonialism to that of France or Britain. Yet it is still having an impact on many levels today, whether through the widespread cliches about Poland or in the austerity policy towards Greece.


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Why is there so little debate about this today?

Terkessidis: Until recently, there was little knowledge about colonialism at all. The memory of the Shoah occupied the foreground because the crime was so monstrous. Since the nineties, however, with the debates about forced labour and the crimes of the Wehrmacht, other victims have also come into focus. If I let 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war starve to death behind the front lines, what kind of opinion do I have of these people? Is that not imperial, colonial thinking? What mentality is it that makes it possible to burn down 1600 villages in Greece? The "forgotten victims" of the Second World War are now being remembered, the victims in Poland, in the former Yugoslavia, in Ukraine. I would argue in favour of linking the debate on colonialism with the debate on the "forgotten victims".

How do Poles or Greeks react when they are described by you as formerly colonised?

Terkessidis: I have not yet had the chance to discuss that with them. The term "crypto-colonialism" has however already been coined in Greece.

I guess we also find it difficult to imagine the Poles as a colonised people.

Terkessidis: Because they are "white"? German Jews didn't look any different either, so people tried to give them big noses or other "racial" characteristics. The SS even examined the "Volksdeutsche" from the Baltic States to see if they were also "racially" German enough. When the impoverished peasants from Oklahoma migrated westward in the USA during the Depression, they were given the same clichés as the blacks: stupid, useless, violent. In crime novels of the twenties, Greeks and Armenians have the same image as the Jews: they were considered sleazy types of traders. Racist ideas are not just about skin colour.

Historian Achille Mbembe is under fire for his criticism of Israel, but also because, like others, he draws a line from colonial atrocities like the genocide of the Herero to the Holocaust. This is held against him as a relativization.

Terkessidis: The author Michael Rothberg distinguishes between competitive and multidirectional memory. The former prevails because one wants to achieve something politically. The Holocaust has also become a global model for racist victim experiences. This is why black activists have spoken of slavery as a kind of Holocaust. At the same time, Israel is very sensitive to the uniqueness of its own victim experience. I am in favour of multidirectional forms of remembrance, because they enable us to move forward together.

How do you interpret the debate surrounding Mbembe?

Terkessidis: Even German historians have said that Germany anticipated its subsequent methods of extermination policy in German South West Africa. And nobody has got upset about that to date. Nobody outside of Germany can understand what the fuss is about. That the federal anti-Semitism commissioner has, so to speak, decreed how a "foreign scholar" should talk about the Holocaust! If Mbembe is to be linked to anti-Semitism, then which one of us is not anti-Semitic? Micha Brumlik is already talking about a new McCarthyism.

Shouldn't our Nazi past and the process of coming to terms with it have led to a particularly progressive and open approach to minorities?

Terkessidis: I don't think we have made bad progress in the politics of remembrance. The debate on overseas colonialism had scarcely begun when the coalition parties entered the subject in their coalition agreement. The decision of the ministers of culture on restitution also came quickly. How that will go down, we will see. But these decisions are great successes.

Basically, we should now make a kind of anti-racist inventory of the laws, the authorities and the police. And from our previous experiences with remembrance policy, we need to take a critical look at "our" culture, from its monuments and its institutions to the lessons we can learn from its history: what is the overriding perspective? Wouldn't it make more sense to understand Germany as a node in a transnational network rather than as a container? We should not see it as a terrible thing, but as a programme of innovation essential to making the country work better for everyone.

Interview conducted by Jorg Hantzschel

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2020

As a publicist, Mark Terkessidis is primarily concerned with the subject of racism. In his latest book, "Wessen Erinnerung zählt?"  (lit. whose memory counts?) he examines the legacy of German colonial history.