Germany has started 2016 with a deep and bitter debate: How should the country respond to the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, in which mobs of men allegedly robbed and sexually assaulted women on the streets?
Concrete information about the night is sparse, and competing narratives abound.
“A lot happened on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, much of it contradictory, much of it real, much of it imagined,” wrote the staff of Der Spiegel, who obtained an internal police document about the night’s events. “Some was happenstance, some was exaggerated and much of it was horrifying.”
This much is known: A group of men, reportedly numbering more than 1,000, gathered at Cologne’s central train station late on New Year’s Eve. The station, by the city’s famous cathedral, was a central hub for people traveling between the city’s fireworks display and its nightclubs, the New York Times notes.
In smaller groups, witnesses and authorities say, men surrounded women, groped them and stole their belongings.
Cologne police are currently investigating 379 criminal complaints, about 40 percent involving allegations of sexual abuse, the Associated Press reports. The wire service earlier noted two allegations of rape.
The Cologne police chief described the assailants as “Arab or North African” in appearance. As a result, the outcry over the attacks has not only centered on victims and perpetrators: it’s extended to a broader national debate over migrants, multiculturalism and Germany’s open-door policy to asylum seekers.
Here are a few of the central questions dominating the conversation:
What is known, and what’s assumed, about the perpetrators?
Accounts of the assailants as Arab or North African in appearance have profoundly shaped the reaction to the night’s events. But it’s difficult for police to pinpoint exactly who was involved.
A police report from that evening says police checked 71 IDs at the scene, Der Spiegel reports, most of which were asylum-seeker documents. And earlier this week, authorities identified 32 people suspected of being involved in the attacks, the Associated Press. Of those, 22 were asylum-seekers. Three German citizens and a U.S. citizen were also among the suspects.
Many more men were alleged to have been involved in the attacks, but they’ll be hard to find.
“The police chief says that many victims can’t identify their attackers and don’t think they’ll be able to, even if they were arrested,” NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson told Renee Montagne this week.
Police have asked for videos of the event to help identify suspects, Soraya says.
Multiple officials have called for the German public not to assume, based on a description of assailants’ appearances, that they were migrants or asylum-seekers. The Cologne Refugee Council Director noted to Soraya that Germans of North African descent, or the children of guest workers, could also fit witnesses’ descriptions.
But the fact that the majority of current suspects are asylum-seekers has been taken by many as confirmation of their fears, even though it seems very few of the total alleged assailants have been identified.
Were the attacks coordinated?
On Sunday, in an interview with the German tabloid Bild, Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas called for authorities to investigate any possible connection between the events in Cologne and incidents in other cities.
“All connections must be carefully checked,” Maas said, according to the AP. “There is a suspicion that a particular date was chosen with expected crowds. That would then be a new dimension.”
Maas also said, “If such a horde gathers in order to commit crimes, that appears in some form to be planned.”
His comments are the most recent suggestion of coordination, but far from the first. Police had been looking for possible connections already — smaller incidents in Hamberg and Stuttgart were identified earlier this week. New Year’s Eve assaults also occurred in cities in Sweden and Finland, the AP reports.
Authorities haven’t announced any evidence of advance planning or coordination.
Why was the police response so inadequate?
The Der Spiegel account of the night itself depicts a police force so overwhelmed that it couldn’t even protect a policewoman from being publicly groped.
Officers at one point cleared out the square by the train station — then a number of them left the area, and the crowd began to return.
The police were clearly unprepared, despite the fact that they were already monitoring criminal gangs active in the square.
To make matters worse, the next morning they announced the night had been “largely peaceful.”
Earlier this week, Soraya reported on some of the apparent failings of the police force, led by Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers:
“Albers says his officers didn’t learn about the sexual assaults until the next day.
“One victim who spoke with German channel n-tv accused police of keeping her and several female friends, who were also attacked, from seeking refuge inside the nearby main train station.
“The victim, whom the TV channel identified only by first name, Michelle, said police didn’t take her sexual assault claim seriously for several days and at first would only file a report about her cellphone being stolen.”
And why did it take days for the police to admit the scale of the crime and chaos? The police chief says victims were slow to file complaints, Soraya reported: but some victims, like Michelle, have accused the police of ignoring claims they filed.
Was the story underreported, and if so why?
In addition to the police being slow to disclose the events, one prominent German media outlet, public broadcaster ZDF, was slow to cover them.
That’s fueled both criticism and conspiracy theories, Der Spiegel reports: “In Germany, there is a stable minority that is convinced that the country’s broadcasters, newspapers and magazines are controlled by dark powers and have agreed to suppress bad news about foreigners so as not to endanger the political project of welcoming refugees.”
ZDF has apologized for the delay in reporting on the attacks.
What’s new, and what’s sadly familiar?
Is the “Night of Shame” shocking in its nature, or simply in its scale?
Many commentators have depicted the events as a horrifying deviation from normal life in Germany.
The extent of the assaults and the ineffectiveness of the police presence were undeniably extraordinary. But some have argued that the elements of the incident weren’t new.
The initial crowd of drunken men sending off barely-controlled fireworks was “engaging in hooliganism one sees in many German cities on New Year’s Eve” as Soraya put it.
At least one tactic seen that night was familiar to Cologne, as The Guardian writes:
“Police have said the men appeared to have been coordinated, comparing their modus operandi to that of criminal gangs that have operated in strength for several years in the area and turning it into a place many Cologners avoid after dark. Known locally as antänzer(waltzers), the men snuggle up to their victims, often twisting a leg around them in an apparently playful fashion, which causes them to lose balance, whereupon the perpetrator uses the opportunity to whip a wallet or mobile phone from a pocket or bag.”
And Stefanie Lohaus and Anne Wizorek in Vice address the frequency of assaults at public gatherings in Germany:
“Sexual assaults and even rape happen every year at big events like Oktoberfest. ‘The way to the toilet alone is like running the gauntlet: within 50 feet, you can be sure to tally three hugs from drunken strangers, two pats on the ass, someone looking up your dirndl, and some beer purposely splashed right down your cleavage,’ wrote Karoline Beisel and Beate Wild in 2011, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. An average of ten reported rapes take place each year at Oktoberfest. The estimated number of unreported cases is 200.”
Which brings us to another theme:
What broader issues of sexism and sexual assault in Germany are involved?
This question was discussed on All Things Considered Saturday, when Anne Wizorek, one of the authors of that Vice piece, spoke to Michel Martin about sexual violence in Germany.
There’s the incident itself, with scores of women publicly assaulted. There’s the lack of police response — and the experiences of women who say police were interested in reports of thefts but not assault allegations.
And then there’s also the question of popular response, and whether women’s experiences are being hijacked for political purposes.
Wizorek started a campaign in 2013 to use the hashtag “#aufschrei,” or outcry, for women to share their experiences with stalking, harassment, assault and rape.
“Back then when #Aufschrei was big in the media and people talked about it … a lot of people also tried to downplay the problems. They were saying, ‘Well, but we’ve gotten so far and we have gender equity in Germany right now, we have a female chancellor, so what do you want?’ All that kind of argument was going on,” she told Michel.
“And those people are the ones who are now talking a lot about what has happened in Cologne. So they are using these stories and these experiences of the people who have been attacked in Cologne to only push forward with their racist agenda against migrants and refugees in Germany. And I think that’s a huge problem.”
Should Germany be worried that the events in Cologne are encouraging racism and Neo-Nazism?
A protest Saturday by the far-right group PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, attracted 1,700 people in Cologne, and was broken up by riot police, Reuters says:
“Demonstrators, some of whom bore tattoos with far-right symbols such as a skull in a German soldier’s helmet, had chanted “Merkel must go” and “this is the march of the national resistance.” “Rapefugees not welcome,” one banner read.
” … Some in the crowd threw bottles and firecrackers at officers, and riot police used water cannons to disperse the protesters.
“Two people were injured in the clash, and police detained a number of demonstrators, a Reuters witness said.”
The rising tide of anti-immigrant feeling has some observers concerned. But others say that looking at groups like PEGIDA with fear is looking in the wrong direction.
Those 1,700 protesters were met by an equal number of police officers — a far stronger showing by police than was found on the streets of Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
A counter-protest, with about 1,300 people, protested both racism and violence against women.
What does this mean for Germany’s migrant policy?
Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy towards refugees had divided public opinion in Germany even before events in Cologne. Germany accepted more than a million asylum-seekers in 2015.
The most hostile critics of the policy point towards the attacks as confirmation of their longstanding fears: that refugees are dangerous and their presence will transform German life for the worse.
More moderate critics see their fears confirmed as well: not that welcoming refugees is inherently wrong, but that Germany is not adequately prepared to manage the influx of people it has decided to accept.
And supporters of refugees worry that the widespread anger about the incident in Cologne will hurt both refugees currently in Germany, and those who would come in the future.
Merkel, for her part, is now pushing for a law that would make it easier to deport asylum-seekers who are convicted of crimes, while maintaining that Germany will be able to handle the planned volume of incoming refugees.
There are multiple answers to every question, depending on whom you ask. Almost nothing in the narrative is widely agreed upon.
Well, except for one thing. As Der Spiegel put it:
“As inexact and unclear as the facts from Cologne may be, they carry a clear message: Difficult days are ahead.”