Since the fiftieth anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 a commemorative event has been held every 9th of November in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt.footnote This year Ignatz Bubis reported on some of his experiences during a visit to Rostock, and this provided the theme for the main speaker of the evening, the Tübingen philosopher Manfred Frank.

Hatred of the Jews has again become visible behind the phenomenon of xenophobia. Frank avoided drawing any false parallels, but he saw one idea running as a red thread through the historical record in Germany. Since the wars of liberation against Napoleon, the quest for national identity and self-assertion has continually thrust itself into the foreground, in comparison with the achievement of democratic freedoms. And right up to the present day this has hindered the development of an adequate understanding of democracy. ‘The dominant conception of democracy,’ Frank argued, ‘finds expression in the requirement that politics should bow to pressure from the streets.’ Frank supported his thesis by referring to topical statements that could recently be heard right across the political spectrum, the tenor of which is that the constitution must be adapted to the mood in the country. And then he chose the comparison which drove outraged burghers from the hall: ‘Goebbels’s populism knew all about the effects of adapting to uneducated popular sentiment. “We thought in simple terms because the people is simple. We thought in a primitive way because the people is primitive.”’ Frank by no means places democratically elected politicians on the same level as Goebbels; rather, he criticizes the ideas underlying the current debate on asylum—ideas which are closer to the political existentialism of a Carl Schmitt than to the constitutional consensus that used to prevail in the old Federal Republic. ‘Since actual majorities are always fallible, an appeal to majority expressions of healthy popular sentiment cannot have a straightforwardly legitimizing effect. A democratic decision acquires provisional legitimation only from the fact that it remains open to (in principle) unlimited review in which better reasons can win through.’ In reality, the asylum debate of recent months has strayed so far from the procedural rationality of properly democratic will-formation that Hans-Jochen Vogel’s unwavering voice sounded like one crying in the wilderness.

Frank’s speech was illuminating—also because of the scandalous reactions triggered by the supposed scandal. For the highly official agitation which gripped the city and its parliament for two weeks cannot be shrugged off as a local farce. The zealous dissociation of all parties (including the Greens), the mayor’s buckling under pressure, the defamation of Frank himself: these emotions showed that the climate had suddenly changed even in one of the most liberal towns in the Republic. The columns of the local press were brimming over with resentment, which the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 24 November summed up as follows: ‘What Schoeler’s speaker [i.e. Frank] provided was shameful in a similar way to the behaviour of the extremists in Berlin. While they pelted the representatives of democracy with stones, he hurled rhetorical filth at the Federal government and leaders of all major democratic parties. Is the mayor really capable of assuming his responsibilities?’

The csu has long operated in accordance with the principle that if Schönhuber is successful we’ve got to do the same as Schönhuber. The asylum debate can be understood only as a sign that this maxim has become accepted beyond the borders of Bavaria, even deep in the ranks of the spd. When a sympathetic population sets up sausage stalls in front of the blazing homes of asylum-seekers, the majority builders think that what is called for is not an offensive to convince people but a kind of symbolic politics—a politics of constitutional amendments which cost nothing and also change nothing, but which send into the dullest minds the message that the problem of xenophobia [Fremdenhaß] is a problem of foreigners [Fremden].

Even after Rostock there came no sign from Bonn of moral indignation and empathy, no democratic anger at the return of hatreds that cannot but destroy any community. The Federal Chancellor reacted with anger only to the trouble-makers who tarnished Germany’s image at the mass demonstration in Berlin: that, in his eyes, was ‘the real crime’. Even after Mölln all the Frankfurter Allgemeine could think of was ‘love for one’s country, which should not be exposed to shame’ (24 November).

It was the reactions to the right-wing terror—from the political centre of the population on the one hand, and from the government, the state apparatus and the party leaderships on the other—which revealed the true scale of moral political decay. The main concern was not for the victims or with the threat to our civilized society, but rather for Germany’s reputation as a location for industry. Still after the murders in Mölln, which triggered feelings of horror among the local population and spontaneous sympathy with the Turkish victims, the government spokesperson excused the Chancellor’s absence by saying that he had more important business than to engage in ‘sympathy tourism’. The problem was not the skinheads but the police, who either stayed away from the scene or looked on without intervening; it was the prosecuting authorities who, unless they were dealing precisely with Jewish counter-demonstrators from France, proceeded in a hesitant manner; it was the courts which handed down judgements full of understanding; it was the Bundeswehr officers who lobbed their practice grenades at the accommodation of people seeking asylum; it was the parties which, with their unspeakable asylum debate, shirked the real problems of a miscontrived unification process and made themselves accomplices of an obtuse, resentment-laden section of their electorate. Behind the veil of smoke provided by this hypocritical asylum debate, the mentality of the old Federal Republic has undergone faster and more far-reaching changes in the last three months than in the previous decade and a half.

The insincere way in which the asylum question has been handled in public political life begins with its false definition. Talk of ‘abuses’ of the right to asylum obscures the fact that we need a policy which opens up other legal possibilities for immigrants. Questions of political asylum and immigration form a single package. But no one dares to touch on the discussion about the size and character of immigrant quotas which, as the churches rightly demand, should not be limited only to ‘people with welcome skills’. Even those who broach the taboo subject prefer to speak of ‘restrictions on immigration’— which reminds me of the ‘skimmed fresh milk’ of my youth. The birth defect of last weekend’s asylum compromise is that an immigration policy is promised in the preamble but is not discussed in the text. A country of emigration is undergoing the painful transformation to a country of immigration. Objectively we have been that for a long time already; but we must recognize the fact before we can handle it in a rational way.