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02/24/2012
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The World from Berlin

'The Shame Must Continue to Burn in Our Hearts'

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Semiya Simsek (left) and Gamze Kubasik pay tribute to their murdered fathers at Thursday's ceremony.

On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to the families of immigrants murdered by a neo-Nazi terror cell. Newspaper editorialists across the political spectrum agree that the event was a wake-up call for Germans and that it's time to become tolerant and accepting of the country's large immigrant population.

It was an event unlike any Germany has seen in recent years. And for many people, the gesture of solidarity with the victims of far-right violence was long overdue.

On Thursday, the country paid tribute to the victims of the neo-Nazi terror cell with an official state ceremony at the Konzerthaus concert hall in Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the keynote speech, where she described the murder series as a "disgrace for our country" and asked the victims' relatives, many of whom were present, for forgiveness for investigators' wrongful suspicions.

Photo Gallery

Photo Gallery: Memorial for Victims of Neo-Nazi Terror
But for many the most moving part of the event was when the relatives themselves got the chance to speak. The daughter of Enver Simsek, who was murdered in Nuremberg in broad daylight in 2000, paid moving tribute to her late father. Semiya Simsek also talked of the burden of having to live with the false suspicion that family-related or criminal motives must have been behind the murder. "For 11 years, we weren't even allowed to be victims with a clear conscience," she said.

Ismail Yozgat, the father of one of the victims, delivered a short speech in Turkish in tribute to his murdered son, and asked that the street in the city of Kassel where his son was born and also died be renamed in his honor. Gamze Kubasik, whose father was murdered in Dortmund in 2006, spoke of her hope "for a future that is characterized by more solidarity."

Racist Assumptions

The Zwickau-based neo-Nazi terror cell is believed to have murdered nine small business owners of Turkish and Greek origin and one policewoman between 2000 and 2007. The revelations about the murder series shocked Germany when the terror cell was discovered in November 2011 and sparked a heated debate about the threat of right-wing extremism.

Police had earlier failed to solve the murder series despite extensive efforts. The victims' families have complained that investigators initially assumed that the murders must have been motivated by family tensions or criminal ties, and argued that such suppositions were racist.

Investigators came one step closer to clearing up the crimes on Thursday when it was revealed that a former associate of the neo-Nazi trio, identified only as Carsten S., had admitted that he provided the group in 1999 with the Ceska pistol they would later use in the murder spree. S., a former official with the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) who has been in custody since the beginning of February, insisted he had not known what the neo-Nazi cell planned to do with the gun.

On Friday, German commentators discuss the significance of Thursday's memorial ceremony, with some arguing that it made a welcome contrast to the indifference shown by the German government in the early 1990s, following a wave of attacks on immigrants.

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The commemoration with which Germany paid tribute to the victims of the far-right murderers was an official state ceremony. That was not unproblematic, because it was precisely this state that had failed dramatically. Firstly, because it could not protect the victims. Secondly, because it was unable to catch the perpetrators over a period of many years. And finally, because it made the victims' families into suspects. The relatives felt like the authorities even treated them like criminals. In this respect, the 'disgrace for our country,' that Angela Merkel spoke of was, in particular, a disgrace for the German state. Hence it was good that the chancellor asked for forgiveness."

"The German population, too, needs to provide a response. It can only be the following: The Turks in Germany belong to us. We often discuss -- rightly -- the topic of integration (of foreigners into German society), but on this day we did not. Because, despite all the discussion over how we can sensibly live together or side by side in the future, one thing is indisputable: The Turks in Germany are at home here. That's what the young women said, that was the message of the memorial event, and hence it was on balance a good thing that it was an official state ceremony."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"On Thursday, the chancellor talked of 'the importance of sensitivity and a keen awareness.' Most politicians in the past did not possess this sensitivity and awareness. Neither did the media. And those who did have it, did not have the power to change anything or turn around the public mood. For 15 years, from the mid-1980s onwards, German election campaigns were driven by fears of the supposed Überfremdung (literally: 'over-foreignization') of Germany. What havoc did those fears cause? … Is it just coincidence that the right-wing extremists from Zwickau grew up in such an atmosphere and went on to become racists and murderers?"

"For 50 years, the German political establishment argued, without bothering to involve immigrants in the debate, about whether Germany was now a 'country of immigration' or not. Its so-called 'foreigner policy' was not made with the interests of immigrants in mind. Instead, the target audience was entirely ethnic German voters. They were the wrong target group, and the policy itself was also wrong, representing immigrants as it did as first and foremost a security risk."

"The memorial event was a wake-up call. The chancellor called for tolerance. Perhaps a different word would be better: respect. Integration is based on respect between ethnic Germans and immigrants. The fact that immigrants had to wait so long to get that respect is our fault."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Official state ceremonies are supposed to be solemn and grand. Nothing should be spontaneous -- all feelings of anger and despair should be contained. The commemoration for the 10 victims of the neo-Nazi trio had a different atmosphere. Not because Angela Merkel gave a fitting speech, which almost made one forget the anti-multicultural slogans that she brandished for a while in the past. And not because the event was a long overdue symbol of the fact that Germany's conservatives no longer make sarcastic remarks about politicians indulging in 'condolence tourism' as then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl did back in 1993 after the murders in Solingen (where five girls and women of Turkish origin died in a far-right arson attack)."

"No, this event was different because Ismail Yozgat, the father of one of the victims, spoke -- and in Turkish, no less. His actual words were not spectacular. It was not a political manifesto, let alone an angry rant. Above all, it was a speech giving thanks. A few sentences, a mixture of self-assertion and the modesty bordering on humility that is typical of the first generation of immigrants to Germany."

"People like Ismail Yozgat are invisible in our society. They do not talk at receptions, and they do not appear on talk shows. If they appear in the media at all, they are depicted as people who refuse to integrate or learn German, as evil family patriarchs, as social parasites or, at best, as a greengrocer in an early-evening TV series. Ismail's speech was moving because it represented someone from the invisible generation of immigrants appearing on a large official stage."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Germany has changed. To realize that, one just needs to think about the handful of people … who organized a candlelight vigil against xenophobia and right-wing extremism in Munich on Dec. 6, 1992 (following a series of violent attacks on immigrants and Turks in Germany). This was not a struggle between the left and the right. It was about citizens who did not want to live in a state that allowed asylum-seekers' residences to be torched. They were not only protesting against the perpetrators. They were also protesting against the country's leadership, which was silent on the murders. The German chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, who is far too venerated today, said nothing. Not a word of solidarity with the victims, let alone a comment about the negligence of the authorities or even one about everyday racism in Germany, including in upper social circles. What we saw yesterday was, in contrast, moving."

"We have a poor memory. We are good at looking the other way, and we are great at switching our attention to the next topic on the following day. But maybe our country would be in a better state if the investigative journalists who so brilliantly uncovered … the grubby misdemeanors of the (recently resigned) President Christian Wulff were to devote the same energy and enthusiasm to the many unsolved far-right attacks."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The commemoration at the Konzerthaus is a milestone in promoting social cohesion among the population of Germany. ... Immigration and integration are reciprocal activities. It would be terrible if people in this country could not feel at home, 'just because their parents are from a foreign country,' as Semiya Simsek, the daughter of the first murder victim, put it on Thursday. But it would also not be good if immigrants and their children and grandchildren did not want to feel at home in this country because they did not accept Germany as Germany."

"The opportunities that this country and its society, culture and economy offer to every resident and citizen require as a precondition that people are not only physically present in Germany but that they also embrace the country mentally. Openness demands open-mindedness in return. Those who cut themselves off from society do not protect themselves but instead fail to take advantage of the benefits of their environment. For those people, immigration to Germany does not represent an increase in freedom, but in reality the loss of all those things that represent a real home."

In a guest editorial for the tabloid Bild, the prominent German journalist Ernst Elitz writes:

"Germany has bowed its head in tribute to the victims of the Nazi murderers. But the shame must continue to burn in our hearts!"

"All over the world, we preach respect for human dignity. We call on Muslims to protect Christians. Our message is that people are equal before the law -- and the police. But we have failed miserably! In democratic countries, too, racism and xenophobia lurks in many minds. It begins with foul prejudice and ends with 10 murders."

"Yesterday was a day of mourning. Today, the message is: What we demand of others, we must embody ourselves. It is a daily struggle against prejudice born of ignorance, indifference and evil."

-- David Gordon Smith

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