A Dance of Interpretation, Part III: Refugees Welcome!

By Bryce Bower, Staff Writer

There were many German people who originally supported Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s decision to accept and provide asylum for Syrian refugees.  As with any government decision, however, there were also those who opposed it- and those who continue to oppose it.  In Germany, this tension manifested as the deeply seeded and partially hidden clash between the extremes of fascism and communism.

Ultras supporting French football club l’Olympique Marseille. Photo courtesy of skyrock.net

The fascists want their country to be sovereign, pure, and devoid of outsiders, while the communists desire all immigrants to be welcome. This divide was very obvious in the first half of the 1900s, but gradually it became more subtle. The indirect ways that the tensions still simmer can be seen when Ultras, fanatical supporters of football (soccer) teams, have what are essentially gang wars with other groups. According to Alberto Testa and Gary Armstrong, authors of the book Football Fascism and Fandom: The Ultras of Italian Football, Ultras were born out of a neo-fascist movement after WWII. They disguise their extreme political views under the pretext of being fanatical football fans. When I began to consciously look for signs of this clash in other areas, I started noticing it more and more—particularly with the graffiti in town.

Burg bei Magdeburg, being part of former East Germany, had lost a sizable percentage of its population to the more developed western side of the country after the Soviet Union’s collapse.  Thus, there were many abandoned city blocks and apartment buildings.  This was bad for the struggling economy of the Saxony-Anhalt region, but very good if you needed to house thousands of refugees. Burg was divided between those who went out of their way to help Syrians, like the workers at the Red Cross who – would often spend more time at the office than they got paid for – and those who felt the refugees were a danger to Germany.  The average person I talked to fell somewhere between these two extremes.

When I was in studying near Burg, we would sometimes take short trips on the train to Magdeburg, Berlin, or Potsdam.  Train stations in Europe are often main hubs of transportation, and the station in Burg — in spite of its small size — was no less of a hub.  As it was such a well-traveled and public place, different groups would often paint things on the walls or place stickers in the halls to be seen by as many people as possible, for better or for worse (Usually for worse). The brick walls of the buildings in Burg were a battleground between fascists and antifascists, or “antifa,” which can be interpreted as ‘communist.’ Occasionally some slogan or politically charged phrase would appear on the walls, and then the city would have to bring people to come and clean it off or paint over it.  The warring factions would even alter each other’s messages, to great effect.

German dialects. Courtesy of thegermanz.com

The biggest linguistic adventures I had in Germany were whenever I took a taxi, as the taxi drivers had what I would describe as very “rural” accents.  German is a difficult language because of its origin; Germany, formerly being made up of disparate neighboring tribes, has roughly 35 dialects.  While Hochdeutsch, or High German, is the academic standard and what I had learned, the taxi drivers I encountered were not interested in the ‘correct’ pronunciation.  By the time winter started turning to spring, my German had gotten pretty good and I was told (very occasionally) that I could pass for a German. This was a problem, because taxi drivers would hear me speak and assume I could understand them, even if they spoke what sounded to me like a different dialect. The more I spoke to them, though, the easier it became to understand them.  I would often inform them that I was a student, and then ask them very personal questions about their political views (which is a super impolite conversation topic in Germany). I brought it up – well aware of the fact that I was committing a social faux pas – because at that time I dreamed of writing this series of articles on Syrian refugees, and I am glad that I asked (this is also why I took pictures of the graffiti). Some taxi drivers I spoke to had positive views: “Of course there will be some bad immigrants, but that doesn’t mean the rest of them should be blamed for the horrible actions of a few.” Others were less sympathetic, suggesting that “these criminal refugees are out of control.” Yet others declined to talk about the political climate, “Excuse me, but that is not a nice conversation topic.”

In Germany, the swastika is a rather shameful symbol, and German people strive to rise above the past it represents.  However, to the immense embarrassment of my German friends, and despite its illegality in Germany, we would sometimes see it tagged on walls by fascist groups. It was often met by anti-fa phrases– accompanied by the Soviet scythe and sickle. Below is a slideshow of pictures that I took of the graffiti at the train station in Burg bei Magdeburg. I saw various phrases like “Nazis auf’s Maul”, which in English equates to “Nazis get punched in the mouth”. While the fascists tagged “Merkel muss weg!” (Merkel must go!), the anti-fas insisted that “Burg bleibt rot” (Burg remains red, communist red) and stickers insisted that refugees are lazy and cost Germany too much money. What I found most interesting was the month-long skirmish over the phrase “Refugees Welcome” along the ticket building.  It appeared overnight and instantly drew the attention of more “artists”.  A couple days later I was leaving on a trip and found that the opposing group had written a large “NOT” between the words. On my return a week afterwards, the anti-fas had repainted the middle with the word “ARE”.  This would get painted white by the city, and then the battle would start again. The walls had become a battleground of ideology, a place where warring ideas duked it out in public.

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