Fireworks in Berlin

Harry Stopes

The elections held in September 2021 for the Berlin Abgeordnetenhaus, the state parliament, were marred by administrative problems at nearly a tenth of polling stations. There were shortages of ballot papers, unusually long queues to vote and ballots delivered to the wrong locations. Some voters were turned away, or offered only ballot papers for the federal elections taking place the same day (in which Olaf Scholz was elected as chancellor). After a long investigation, the state constitutional court ruled last November that the state election would have to be repeated. The date was set for 12 February.

The most obvious beneficiaries of the rerun were the CDU: as in 2016, the 2021 election had left them as the largest opposition party against a ruling coalition led by the SPD, with the Greens and Die Linke as junior partners. Unlike in 2016, this time the CDU were also in opposition nationally, able to position themselves, however disingenuously, as the party of change. Everything from Berlin’s chronic lack of childcare places to its shoddy public transport was grist to the mill. ‘A new election means a new start,’ many of the CDU election placards read. Polls in December showed the CDU only slightly ahead of the SPD, even though only 24 per cent of Berliners were satisfied with the state government.

In the event, the CDU got 28 per cent of the vote; the Greens and SPD each took 18 per cent; Die Linke 12 per cent and the far-right AfD 9 per cent. Turnout, at 65 per cent, was ten points lower than seventeen months ago. All three members of the ruling coalition lost more voters to abstention than they did to any opposition party. (This wasn’t the case for the right-wing liberals of the FDP, however, who lost out to the CDU and saw their tally drop below the 5 per cent threshold, leaving them without any seats in the new state parliament.) Even though the SPD vote dropped to its lowest level since reunification – and the CDU reached their highest tally since 1999 – the so-called ‘Red-Red-Green’ coalition can still hold on to power with 90 of 159 seats. Other possibilities are a CDU-SPD or CDU-Green coalition, though the latter is unlikely, thanks in part to the mindless auto politics of the CDU. Exploratory talks began last Friday.

More important than the anti-political mood, however, or the advantage accruing to the CDU from its being in opposition, are the racist undertones (and sometimes overtones) of the CDU’s campaign. Since its defeat in 2021, and especially since the election of the belligerent Friedrich Merz as leader in January 2022, the party has veered sharply to the right, above all on migration. In November, the national ruling coalition announced their intention to change the law on citizenship, to allow naturalisation after five rather than eight years of residency, and to permit dual nationality, currently impossible in most cases. The CDU’s response was a wave of invective premised on the notion that foreigners are dangerous, workshy and unworthy of the honour of being German (which they never really would be anyway). The change would supposedly unleash a surge of welfare tourism and reduce the German passport to ‘junk’. ‘All I can say to these people,’ the Berlin-based Jewish-American writer Ben Miller tweeted, ‘is that your grandfathers and great-grandfathers would be proud.’

Berlin, like other cities, has a long history of chaotic New Year’s Eve celebrations. This year a bus was set on fire in Neukölln, a neighbourhood which in German public discourse is shorthand for migration and the challenges of the inner city. A number of police officers and firefighters were attacked, and 48 were reported injured. The police announced that they had arrested 145 people. According to media reports the primary culprits were migrants or had a ‘migration background’. Only a week later was it clarified that the arrest figures were for the whole city, not just Neukölln, that only 38 arrests were made for attacks on police or firemen, and that most of the injured police were suffering sonic trauma from the loud noises.

By then the narrative was firmly established: gangs of migrant youths deliberately attacked the police in large numbers. Jens Spahn, a former health minister considered a moderate figure in the CDU, blamed ‘unregulated immigration’. Jan-Marco Luczak, a member of the Bundestag from southern Berlin, said that any debate about regulating fireworks should not distract from the fact that ‘attacks on police officers and emergency workers were mostly carried out by migrant men who are hostile to our state and its representatives.’ A colleague from Hamburg blamed ‘West Asian, darker skin types. To put it exactly.’ Merz told a television interviewer that Turkish and Arab schoolboys are ‘kleine Paschas’ who refuse to obey their teachers, with the support of their parents. Mario Czaja, the CDU general secretary, proposed a ban on children speaking languages other than German in school playgrounds. The SPD tried to get in on the act, with the interior minister, Nancy Faeser, blaming ‘violent integration resisters’.

The integration discussion, as Manuela Bojadžijev and Robin Celikates have put it, is ‘post-factual, selective and ahistorical’, but it performs a useful role for the German right. On the one hand, it’s used as a defence against accusations of racism (such as those I’m making here): we don’t want to get rid of you, the argument goes, we want to integrate you. But this demand reifies the predicament that the invitation to integrate pretends to negate, that the migrant is always the Other. The Berlin CDU asked the Berlin police how many of those arrested on New Year’s Eve had German nationality, how many had foreign nationalities, what those nationalities were, how many of the Germans also had a second nationality, what those foreign nationalities were. Of the Germans arrested, they also wanted to know what their first names were.

Voters got the message. Of those who voted CDU, 41 per cent named ‘security and order’ as their top priority, while 57 per cent of the entire electorate agreed with the statement: ‘I find it good that the CDU clearly identify the problems with migrants.’


  • 22 February 2023 at 8:48am
    S. S. says:
    That CDU language pillorying migrants, etc. is sometimes more, sometimes less overt but can be discerned without a notable break since the 1990s, in the early 2000s, and so forth. When convenient the SPD will try to join that chorus. There is distinct decades-long continuity in German political discourse.
    It's just that "the media" pretends to "discover" the not-very-nice "underbelly" of conservatism in Germany every few years. (I'm not saying that the LRB is doing that here but a bit of historical context would be useful.)

    • 22 February 2023 at 10:03am
      Harry Stopes says: @ S. S.
      Sure, that’s largely fair. By way of example (as you no doubt know), the last time German nationality law was somewhat liberalised in 1999, the CDU made sure the reforms didn’t go as far as they might have done. What I’m pointing to here is the very striking shift in the intensity and tone of these arguments (partly, I think, a reflection of Merz’s personality and temperament in contrast to Merkel and Laschet), even if the ideological content is, as you say, more consistent than some might realise. The contrast is particularly striking in the context of the Berlin elections this year and in 2021, in my experience.

    • 22 February 2023 at 10:50am
      S. S. says: @ S. S.
      ps. e.g. a clip from around 2006 in which we get snippets of conservative party grandees (Waigel et al) from 1998, 2002, and the Neukölln district mayor at the time postulating about integration reluctance: