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German Know-Nothings Today

“I don’t know.”  Those words, often repeated 160-odd years ago in the USA, earned the gang of those using them the nickname “Know-Nothing Party.”  Those were no expressions of intellectual modesty; party doings were secret, so members were not supposed to disclose anything about them, but just say, “I don’t know.”   Their patriotic title was actually “American Party,” but many members truly knew almost nothing except that they hated immigrants, especially Catholic Germans and Irish, and wanted to bar them from entry, from citizenship and from the vote.  This uplifting program, including violent attacks on those fleeing famine in Ireland or repression in Germany after a lost revolution, won the “Know-Nothings,” by 1856, eight state governorships, five seats in the US Senate, and forty-three in the House of Representatives.

Today we are also bedeviled by Know-Nothings — in many countries.  We hear similar views in London and Paris, in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, in Munich and Berlin.  And we hear of results worse than in 1855 in Maryland or Massachusetts: of desperate misery in the “Jungle” of Calais or at the Italian-French border, of broken windows and flaming roofs in refugee hostels in more and more German towns.  Such attacks, vicious graffiti, insulting hog carcasses, increasingly, Molotov cocktails as well, numbered 202 in Germany alone in the first half of 2015, already surpassing the number in 2014.

No one can deny that serious problems exist.  Refugees today are not from Ireland . . . or Germany, now one of their main goals; 160,000 applied here for asylum by June 30th and the numbers are increasing.  Very many are fleeing war zones, their direct dangers and their hunger and destruction — people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Turkey, Sudan and South Sudan.  Hunger and destitution play key roles for many from African countries, often paired with repression.  Then there are those from Bulgaria, Rumania, and the countries carved out with the dismemberment of Yugoslavia.  These “Eastern Balkan” asylum seekers are mostly Roma (“Gypsies”), discriminated against nearly everywhere, pressed into miserable schools, largely bound to the worst of jobs or none at all, subject to hatred and often violent attacks.  All the refugees want only a chance to earn a living, care for their families, return where possible or find peaceful new homes.

Germany was often faced by waves of newcomers, not only in past centuries.  Millions of ethnic Germans, forced to leave Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary after 1945, faced difficult, often frosty receptions in places where they were resettled.  Then huge sums were invested to build up West Germany and workers from Spain, Italy, and then Turkey were “imported” by government agreement, especially after 1961, when the Wall prevented further recruitment of East Germans.  Most of these euphemistically titled “guest workers” were given heavy and dirty jobs, on shift work and assembly lines, and their employment helped keep wages down in Germany while lessening unemployment and political radicalization in their home countries.  The program ended in 1973; almost all 14 million returned home; two million stayed, grew roots, fetched and raised families, and are now in their second and third generations.  But the integration process is far from concluded and was complicated in the early 1990s by German unification — or rather annexation.  There was nasty violence against people with different colors, clothes, and languages, by West Germans but even worse by East Germans suddenly deprived of their jobs, less accustomed to many nationalities, hence more easily misguided in their frustration and disappointment to attack peaceful, industrious people they were led to see as intruders.


The situation cooled somewhat after 2000.  But today, with large new numbers arriving, it is again threatening, indeed very threatening.  Despite some people’s theories, however, not all Germans are the same!  Many feel great sympathy toward them after the terrible scenes of warfare in Syria and Iraq or the terrible tragedies of capsized vessels and lost human beings in the stormy Mediterranean.  Perhaps some recalled their own travails.  In addition to many who accept the newcomers with at least mental welcome mats, not a few offer food, clothing, toys, and personal care to help them settle at least temporarily.  Thousands, especially young people, demonstrate in their defense, march with “Welcome” signs, and defiantly confront that other contingent — the modern Know-Nothings.

However, as more and more are assigned to city boroughs, small towns, even villages, as container homes are erected and even school gymnasiums filled with cots or mattresses, it becomes easier to stir up hatred, spread fear of disease or crime, and warn of dangers to schoolchildren.  Public aid sums are falsely magnified to encourage envy.  Donald Trump’s vicious words about Mexicans or pictures of anti-immigrant vigilantes in the US Southwest can give a hint of this.  But recollections of the not-so-distant German past, of similar visages and bulging, shaven napes, cannot but arouse distinct icy fears.

Among such German Know-Nothings are still the PEGIDA demonstrators with their “anti-Islamic” shouts and banners.  Nationally more organized are those in the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, which recently ousted its moderately far-right leader and moved even further to the racist right; the split cut its poll numbers to 3-4 %, which would at least keep it out of the Bundestag.  The older National Democratic Party (NPD), no longer seated in Saxony’s legislature but very present in its main districts, has now been augmented by a newer group called the Third Way, a mix of violence-prone neo-Nazis, which has spread from Bavaria to the eastern Brandenburg — and of course Saxony.

Though small in number, they are clever in stirring fear and resentment, especially when those responsible for bringing in refugees fail to discuss and explain the move to local residents.  Freital near Dresden, in GDR days a flourishing steel town, has been plagued for weeks by noisily menacing rallies led by such right-wing forces.  The police hold them back from the hotel assigned to asylum seekers, but just barely; at a public meeting those supporting the refugees were booed and denied the word, including Saxony’s Interior Minister, who as mayor in another town once took a strong stand on the issue, but more recently, like his boss at the helm in Saxony, often seems nearly tongue-tied.  Freital’s mayor, on the other hand, was anything but tongue-tied during his election campaign when he demanded “sanctions against the swarming, violent asylum-seekers . . . adventurers coming to Germany to live a life of ease at the cost of the community.”  All three politicians are from the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of Angela Merkel.

One city councilor, a leader of the Linke (Left) party who took a courageous stand for the refugees, awoke one night when his car exploded and burnt.  Threats mailed to him had been dismissed by the police.  In Meissen, to the north of Dresden, threats to a building being repaired for use by the new arrivals were similarly dismissed.  It was also wrecked by fire.

German politics are again split.  With a low birthrate and sinking population, new people are needed by many corporations, to whom national background is of little importance.  Upright democratic words come easily to the tongue tips of politicians — if and when they want them.  But above all the demands of working people must be contained, and how better than, despite all doubletalk, to let them be misled into fighting not the big firms but those “greedy foreigners” — whether Greeks in Athens or Syrians in Dortmund?  New laws now demonstrate this bipolarity; refugees who have lived here four to six years, if they speak German and have jobs, have better chances to remain, which is humane.  But for those refugees still outside the borders it will be tougher.

Perhaps not for all of them.  Qualified engineers, doctors, and other desirable professionals will now have better chances, for they are needed.  The right-wing Bavarian leader Horst Seehofer had a new plan, now being copied elsewhere.  Sort out those from the “East Balkans” with little hopes of acceptance, keep the latter in gyms or tents and throw them out speedily.  Only a few on the Left or some Greens have noted the possible resemblance of such “Gypsy camps” with those of the Nazis before the trains brought the Roma to Auschwitz.

No, it’s not the same.  But too few realize that the wars in Aleppo, Baghdad, and Kabul, which force so many to risk their lives in leaky death traps, were caused or armed by the major western powers, or that the poverty sending Africans along the same route derives from colossal, lasting exploitation, with cheap exports of “northern” goods destroying the livelihoods of small farmers, tailors, and other craftsmen, forcing them into hopeless mega slums and from there across the deserts to Libya, where warplanes of the great powers created the chaos conducive to today’s racketeering smugglers.

The solutions will not be easy.  They demand peace and justice in the Near East, without western armies and armaments, they demand truly independent, healthy development in Africa, north and south, and fair, humane treatment of everyone living in a country, regardless of origin.  No, not easy!

The old Know-Nothings in the USA, with nothing to offer voters except hatred, were soon overrun by the approaching Civil War, though the human problems still remain.  In Europe, especially in Germany, the forces misusing the problems of properly treating such increasingly desperate “undesirables” represent a growing threat, far more dangerous than the old Know-Nothings . . . and eager to seize their chances.


Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).




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