Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rajashri Dasgupta - "Everyone laughs in the same language" - Leipzig opts for colour

In the front gallery of a church in Dresden, a familiar face looks  back from two paintings. The wise assertion written across the canvases reads: "There is no way to peace, peace is the way." Taken aback at first to see the image of Mahatma Gandhi with his hallmark bald head and round glasses in a distinctly foreign setting, his words of peace are at marked contrast to the horror of what happened in February 1945 : 25,000 people perished in the bombings on Dresden, Germany by Allied Forces at the end of the Second World War. The church, like many other magnificent buildings in the city on the banks of the Elbe river, has been reconstructed from debris, a grim reminder of war, but also a testimony to the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Six long decades after the War, Gandhi's words augured a prophetic significance one April afternoon. Historical Dresden, the capital of the state of Saxony in East Germany, has been rocked by angry demonstrations that have spread to neighbouring Leipzig and across Germany. The murder of 10 journalists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris have led to demonstrators demanding restrictive immigration rules. The weekly demonstrations since the last six months, sometimes of thousands of people, at times have turned violent.  Led by right-wing groups, the Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) in Dresden and its sister organisation, LEGIDA in Leipzig, have been condemned both by the media and leaders of political parties in Germany as being racist and prejudiced against immigrants and asylum seekers, especially Muslims.

The varied nature of the anti- immigrant demonstrations reflect the social currents in east and west Germany. Demonstrations fizzled out in Munich and Stuttgart while the majestic Cologne Cathedral switched off its lights in protest at PEGIDA marches. Since January in Saxony, massive counter- demonstrations  picked up as people sang and danced on the streets; a banner of the counter protests in Dresden showed, "Everyone laughs in the same language".  Leipzig,  a historical centre for commerce and book fairs, has benefited from its constant exchange with foreigners. Its  people countered LEGIDA with "Courage zeigin" (Show Courage) when 30,000 people filled the city streets. One poster read,  "Leipzig is Colourful," punning on the word 'colour'.  Deans and rectors of six universities in Leipzig  condemned the "xenophobic, nationalistic and sexist" LEGIDA politics. 

The PEGIDA broke up recently and their founder-leader, Lutz Bachmann resigned in January when his photograph posing as Adolf Hitler surfaced leading to criminal investigations against him. In Leipzig, every Monday, Gewandhaus, home to the electrifying orchestra that is one of the finest in the world, hangs a huge banner urgning: “Diversity, Tolerance, Openness" as LEGIDA supporters protest in front of the opera house. Counter demonstrators across the plaza call to make Leipzig a "a city of peace and home for all." The claim is not rhetoric, diners readily assist us in deciphering the German menu card, while pedestrians through gestures and scribbles have helped us find our way home, and complete strangers have shared their life stories with us. Mistaking my queries about LEGIDA as concern for my personal safety, a bystander reassured, "Don't worry lady, we will take care of you. No one will harm you in our city. "

A study supported by the research institute, Bertelsmann Stiftung showed that though more people  are welcoming of immigrants than before , east Germans (includes Saxony) are "more skeptical" of immigrants than people in the west. Demographic changes are comparatively insignificant in the east, less than 1 per cent  of the population are Muslim migrants as against 5 per cent in west Germany. Observers say that one reason for anti-immigrant attitudes is perhaps because east Germans , once under the close surveillance of German Democratic Republic (GDR), do not have the "experience of mixing with others."Without immigrants, Germany could face severe crisis if its birth rate remains unchanged ; the Federal Statistics Office estimates the population will decline by more than 20 million people by 2060. 

Germany, with its relatively strong economy and welfare schemes, has attracted -seekers. Recent United Nations data show Germany has received the maximum  asylum applications, 42 %  more than even the USA. Asylum seekers, fleeing the violence in the Middle East and economic crisis in the Balkans  and Africa have been sheltered in hurriedly spruced up abandoned buildings mainly in remote areas in East Germany. Many local communities are not accustomed to living with ethnic diversity and complain of funds shortage;  they feel the alleged increased burden on welfare programs to provide resources and accommodation for the immigrants. 

Many admit unemployment and insecurity are not new to the region, it dates back to the experience of reunification of Germany in 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall  was welcomed  for opening up fresh opportunities and choices, but in the process there developed feelings of discrimination and disappointments. Depending on the age, gender and location of the person, the experience has been varied. The young migrated in huge numbers to the west,  the old inherited state pension; the generations in between, aged 35+ years, were left to fend for themselves and their families, without jobs or state support . The exit of GDR meant old factories were shut down, throwing out thousands of workers. There are stories of factory units and buildings sold to west German investors "even for a dollar" with expectation of fresh investment;  when it did it was  for private profit.

Women, once pivotal to the GDR economy, enjoying assured employment, housing, state-support child care, education and health care, post reunification had to fight to retain their jobs ( lucky if they got part-time jobs) and struggled to pay for basic social services. "It is a lost generation," say many. "They would like to see the Berlin Wall rebuilt". 

A common refrain is about discriminatory wages and pensions between the east and west and discrimination at job appointments . "The winner takes it all. The loser’s standing small," Leipzigers quote ABBA's famous lyrics about their situation. In the absence of recognition of their rich history and identity by their own brethrens, east Germans tend to express feelings of "lack of worth" and "loss".  Right-wing leaders maturate inflamed politics on ghosts of the past -- and new ones -- depicting asylum seekers as the devil of all problems.

The author is a senior journalist, currently based in Leipzig