Fake News Meets German Racism
By Musa Okwonga
The story, about a mob of Arab men rampaging through the well-heeled streets of Frankfurt and sexually assaulting German women as they went, must have been irresistible — so irresistible that Bild, a popular newspaper, published it early this month with little scrutiny.
The problem, as the local police soon found, was that it was “completely baseless.” There was no record of any assault. The article relied entirely on interviews with a restaurant owner and one woman, whose motives for inventing these allegations remain unclear.
Bild retracted the article last week. No matter: The damage had been done, the fictitious tale having found many believers, either eager or fearful, among the German public.
Bild’s editors were presumably hoping to break a story similar to one that emerged just over a year earlier, when several men, identified as appearing North African and Arab, attacked women at the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne. More than 100 complaints were filed by terrorized women.
This horrific event precipitated a sharply negative turn in the country’s attitudes toward men with nonwhite skin. According to the state prosecutor, the “overwhelming majority” of the suspected attackers were asylum seekers of some form, coming mostly from Morocco and Algeria; but it was the country’s million refugees who were held responsible. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which fights right-wing extremism, published a report on how the Cologne attacks had led to a reawakening of the old trope of the foreign sexual predator.
As a black man who has lived in Berlin for two and a half years, I have witnessed a distinct change in the racial temperature, a shift both statistical and visceral. In the former sense, there are the results of the recent local elections, in which the far-right party Alternative for Germany captured almost 14 percent of the vote; the party enjoys support not only from the white working class, as is the prevailing stereotype, but also from the more affluent. In the visceral sense, my nonwhite friends and I have experienced varying degrees of verbal intimidation and physical aggression.