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Letter from the Streets of Berlin: Anti-Fascism and 21st Century Communities
Alex Steffen, 5 Sep 06

One of the shifts that we all have to adjust to in the Global North is the fact that as the global population grows, we are increasingly in the planetary minority; and that as the youth bulge reaches adulthood lots of young people in Africa, Asia and Latin America will seek work and better lives in Europe and America.

There are three great forces at work here. The first is that as developed countries have gone through the demographic transition that accompanies modern, urban lifestyles, birthrates have declined, leading to comparatively older societies in need of young labor. The second is that countries in Global South have just encountered the first part of that transition, where death rates fall as birth rates rise. As a result, for instance, the countries neighboring Europe (from Morocco to Afghanistan) once had only half its population; now they are slightly more populated; and by 2050, their population will be three times as large as Europe's. The third is that our world is connected as never before, and people nearly everywhere know what Global North standards of living are like and to some degree wish to have the same. In short, the world is full of ambitious young people, the developed world is short of labor, and the money immigrants can make here and send home has become vital to the fates of many, many people. Immigration is not going away (and no fence will stop it).

Finding ways of accomodating these realities is essential to building a stable planet in the 21st century. Sensible immigration policies and multicultural societies are prerequisites for a bright green future.

But it is also an uncomfortable fact that anti-immigrant politics, including Neo-Nazism, are on the rise across the developed world.

Here in Germany, the extreme right, while still very fringe, is growing larger and more violent, with almost 1,000 hate crime attacks last year. Public displays of Nazi sentiments, once nearly unthinkable, have become more common, while the NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands) -- a right-wing party widely considered to be fascist sympathizers, or worse (though so heavily infiltrated with secret agents and informers that an attempt to ban the party had to be suspended) -- has gained ground in recent years, actually sitting a few elected officials.

What's more, neo-Nazi culture (from rascist music to veiled Nazi symbols to particular brands of clothing known for their skinhead associations) is reportedly becoming semi-mainstream among conservative youth and in former East Germany. Some German commenters see this resurgent fascism as mostly youthful rebellion, albeit of a disturbing form schools and police seem unable to stop.

Many here, though, conscious of the terrible cost of this continent's history of racism and fascism, are unwilling to sit by and watch the spread of far-right politics. Indeed, anti-fascism is a big movement here. Anti-Nazi posters and stickers are scattered all over the hipper parts of Berlin and over the next couple weeks there are a series of rallies and hip-hop concerts and lectures, even a skateboarding competition, all aimed at confronting the spread of neo-Nazism here. Reportedly, leftist/ punk/ immigrant kids are even turning big parts of Berlin into "no-go zones" for skinheads, and will attack them on sight.

Fascism is abhorrent enough that, despite believing that extra-state political violence is always wrong, I find myself sympathetic to anti-fascist kids willing to kick the crap out of right-wing thugs.

But I also wonder if escalating violence is, in fact, an answer, either in Europe or America. Efforts at building tolerance and multicultural sentiment through art, community dialogue and civil rights laws have clearly worked to a certain extent, but it's my data-free belief that racism and enthnocentrism are still deeply entrenched on both continents, and the most progress has been made among those already sympathetic to the cause.

Which leaves me, sitting in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood and watching the mix of people walking the streets -- Europeans, Germans of Turkish descent, recently-arrived folks from Africa, Russia and the Middle East -- to wonder if there isn't perhaps a more worldchanging approach to forming truly multicultural societies. Given the degree to which both global inequity and structural racism are part of the problem, don't we perhaps need some tools, models and ideas which get at the embedded systems and cultural roots of the problem? It seems to me that putting the stomp on a skinhead is the ultimate case of treating (or beating) the symptom while the cause goes on festering.

But can we successfully hack our communities to eliminate or at least greatly reduce racism and ethnocentrism?

How? Models must be emerging which allow us to win hearts and change minds and get at systemic problems, but we rarely hear of them. If you're reading this and you have suggestions of models to look at, or ideas of your own, we'd love to hear them.

We need to find a way to overcome these 20th century attitudes and start building truly multiethnic 21st century cities. To fail does more than invite further unrest like the French riots of 2005, it frays our societies, leaving unprepared to deal with the even bigger challenges we know we will face over the next half century.

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No country has been more succesful at integrating more immigrants than the United States. The great waves of migration in the past, first from Ireland and Germany, and later from Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, and the Pacific Rim, have settled here and are now indistinguisable Americans. It's unthinkable in this day in age for anyone to take "anti-Irish" or "anti-Italian" points of view, except in jest among friends. Already Hispanic immigrants are showing the same trends as the waves that came before them.

If there is a "universal" solution to this problem, its roots will be found in America. I think the central point is defining a group of people based on shared ideals and a shared future, rather than on shared enemies or a shared past. For two long Germans have defined themselves based on their history, and their Aryan blood (this is still true today, though they are less violent about it). When Germans have created a vision of Germany's future, and invite all people to help them build that future, then immigration will be much less of an issue. The same (only more so) can be said of Japan, one of the most xenophobic societies in the world.

Posted by: Cardozo on 5 Sep 06

I think the claim that "No country has been more succesful at integrating more immigrants than the United States" is very contestable. I also think it's part of the popular myth of the self-image of white Americans and is not necessarily mirrored in the experience of racial minorities in the USA.

Perhaps you ought to take a look at the phenomenon of structural racism in the USA, as well as the very real geographic segregation along racial lines that seems to be getting worse not better.

I believe that strategies for dealing with fascism will be particular to the geographies they arise in. So for example the USA will have to deal with it's Gitmos, Patriot Acts and Europeans will have to deal with the rise of far right parties, be that Le Pen or the BNP.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 5 Sep 06

Alex, Alex, Alex,

You didn't need to fall for it.

I have been reading your posts, wondering if you were going to get suckered by mainstream media reports about this city I live in and love. And, yes, you fell right into it - you had to mention the really very insignificant phenomenon of neo-nazism.

I have lived in Berlin these last four years, having originally come from New Zealand. I live in one of the supposedly most dangerous neighbourhoods Neuköln and I see women walk alone every night after midnight. I compare this with years living in London, Boston, near San Francisco and in Sydney. In my experience there is absolutely no comparison.

Berlin is easily the safest of all these cities. It's even safer than some NZ cities and that is really saying something.

Why do so few write about the miracle of good living and safety that is Berlin, right in the heart of Europe?

There's so much good to write about Berlin, and Alex Steffen has written much that is positive, but can we PUHLEEEEEZ finish with this oft media-driven obsession with a miniscule group of neo-nazi has-beens????

Mo Riddiford

Posted by: Mo Riddiford on 5 Sep 06

"I think the claim that "No country has been more succesful at integrating more immigrants than the United States" is very contestable."

Go on then, name the country. I didn't say the USA was perfect, I just said it was the best to date.

I'm a broadly read, man of the world. I speak a bit of several languages, and I can't even properly pronounce half the names of the people I do business with upon first meeting them. There is no large country more cosmopolitan than the USA, and most Americans today who think otherwise simply don't know (or choose to ignore) that there was a time when Italians were considered "non-white." We have integrated more people, from more parts of the world, than any other country. That's just a fact.

Having never been to Berlin, however, I can't know if Mo Riddiford is correct. He may be. There certaintly seem to be more media obsession about racism and Klan rallies than I encounter in my daily life in the United States.

Posted by: Cardozo on 5 Sep 06

How much of America's success at integrating immigrants has been a function of its vast geographical scale and plentiful natural resources (or military power to access resources from elsewhere)? There's nowhere on Earth left with the material conditions of America's growth in the 20th century. I'm not a materialist/determinist, but I think this counts for a lot.

If there is a "universal" solution to this problem, its roots will be found in America.

There is no "universal" solution to anything. Mostly it is dominant super-powers that believe there is, and they (and significantly, others) usually pay heavily for their delusion.

Basing its ideals on the future rather than the past was probably a prerequisite for America's absorption of immigrants - what success would it have had if it had not buried the memory of the genocide at its roots?

I'm not saying that any of the sad little fantasies about the past in Europe are better; just that any steps forward have to accept the past fully - not deny it or whitewash it.

Posted by: Gyrus on 5 Sep 06

Beyond the usual remedies and preventives (prosecuting attackers, greening industry, working toward social justice, striking a balance between traditional identity and global citizenship), perhaps we could be looking more deeply into the role of pop culture. Music, for example, can be a powerful worldchanging vehicle and spanner (as it were) of ideological divides, so long as it doesn't get too distracted by niche-making and deference to the market.

Posted by: Jon on 5 Sep 06

>"I think the claim that "No country has been more succesful at >integrating more immigrants than the United States" is very >contestable."

>Go on then, name the country. I didn't say the USA was perfect,
>I just said it was the best to date.

How about Canada?

It has more immigrants (per capita) and less inequality. And it does it all that in two official languages.

Its probably not better than the US by all criteria but it is certainly a contender.

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 5 Sep 06

Ayelet Shachar has written an excellent little book on governing multicultural societies, called Multicultural Jurisdictions. She's developed an innovative model for distributing power across cultural boundaries. Not without its problems, but a great place to start.

Posted by: Adam Smith on 5 Sep 06

"No country has been more succesful at integrating more immigrants than the United States."

Oops! Garry beat me to it! Canada is far beyond America, both in per-capita number of immigrants, but more importantly, in the speed at which they attain stability and status within society. It took a couple generations for most non-WASP European immigrants to enter the mainstream, but an English-speaking Vietnamese or a French-speaking Senegalese is accepted and respected as soon as they obtain Permanent Resident status.

There is a very basic difference that makes "integration" easier in Canada: it has a policy of multi-culturalism, which is integration at its finest, rather than the "melting pot" policy and attitude of Americans -- that's more like "assimilation" than "integration!"

But what a typically American attitude! Arrogance goeth before a fall. I'll bet Romans were saying similar things, just before the Vandals and Visigoths started beating back the borders. And although I have no data to back it, I'll bet the Romans would vie with the US in terms of integrating/assimilating other cultures.

"The great waves of migration... have settled here and are now indistinguisable [from] Americans."

Like I said, assimilation, not integration. In Canada, cultural differences tend to be celebrated, rather than hammered into conformity.

"I think the central point is defining a group of people based on shared ideals and a shared future, rather than on shared enemies or a shared past."

And America does this how? "You're either for us, or against us!" That's hardly sharing. Can you even imagine how it must feel to be a Moslem in America? I'll bet they aren't feeling too "integrated" these days.

"The same (only more so) can be said of Japan, one of the most xenophobic societies in the world."

Guess that's why so many of them immigrate to Canada, rather than the US! They are free to celebrate and cherish the best parts of their culture, while accepting that of Canadian culture that makes sense to them. No pressure to "melt in the pot."

I really fear for a world in which 300 million people (5%) who use 25% of the world's resources all think like Cardozo.

Posted by: Jan Steinman on 6 Sep 06

Why would anyone want to get into a conversation about which country in the world has best integrated immigrants? What does this say in itself?

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 6 Sep 06

"Why would anyone want to get into a conversation about which country in the world has best integrated immigrants? What does this say in itself?"

It says that rapid immigration of peoples with different cultures into a particular region causes tension, so identifying those countries that have found the best solutions to this problem is crucial to avoid the rise of far-right, reactionary, "beat the foreigners" groups.

Though it also has an element of nationalism and nationalist pride, which I do find disquieting. And it's kind of narrow in its focus on how people who are "different" are treated once they live within a particular nation and not how that nation treats them globally. For example, the US doesn't have too much trouble with Middle East-descended people settling within its borders, but it does have a history of bombing their countries and propping up oppressive regimes. Its attitude toward the peoples of Latin American is pretty similar.

And as far as the US being the best at assimilating others: Its definitely up there, but the continuing failure to let African-Americans into their share of the economic pie is pretty disgraceful--especially since they've been here since the start. Historical examples of the Native American genocide and Japanese internment must be considered as well, though one could say that we've evolved somewhat since then and have developed better solutions.

The veracity of that last statement will be tested over the next two decades by the way we treat Middle East-descended immigrants. Especially if the oil-economy begins to tank and people begin to feel great economic pain.

Posted by: Bolo on 6 Sep 06

Well, I'm curious, what does the United Kingdom or France or Denmark have to learn from the United States about dealing with immigrants?

I also think it's interesting that Alex's article talked about far right groups and fascism - which are not necessarily the same as coming up with policies which are deal positively with immigrants and minorities.

From the point of view of fascism the US looks like a pretty scary place to some of us. The idea that we would have something to learn about handling minorities from the USA really is not obvious.

As Lewis Lapham wrote not so long ago about the US, "...I think we can look forward with confidence to character-building bankruptcies, picturesque bread riots, thrilling cavalcades of splendidly costumed motorcycle police."

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 6 Sep 06

Arguments about which country has the best policies concerning immigrants aside, it is certainly a challenge all post-industrial countries will have to face given aging and declining populations. Pension plans and retirement stipends need young workers to pay into them. These workers have to come from somewhere.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 7 Sep 06



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