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The Interpreter: How a Sleepy German Suburb Explains Europe’s Rising Far-Right Movements

Mahmoud Ceylan, whose cousin owns the restaurant, stood behind the counter. Right-wing parties sometimes accuse Turkish immigrants like him of being unable to assimilate in German society. Asked whether he’d experienced any harassment, he snorted.

It happened all the time, he said. People would say things to him on the train and on the street.

“People look at you and they don’t know you’ve been here almost 25 years,” he said. “They don’t know you work.”

But asked about the Alternative for Germany, he shrugged. Though the party’s rise had shocked much of Europe, to Mr. Mahmoud it was the Germany he already knew.

As we spoke, a middle-aged customer who had been chatting volubly at the counter, Jakob Raff, grew quiet. He leaned over to offer a warning: “There are right-wingers here,” he said. “You should be careful asking such questions.”


A sidewalk at a shopping area in Buch. There are few migrants in the town, and it has remained overwhelmingly white. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

The Halo Effect

Buch, on the surface, appears to be an unlikely source of anti-immigrant anger.

For one: There are few migrants here. While many nearby parts of Berlin are tremendously diverse, filled with refugees and other immigrants from all over the world, Buch has remained overwhelmingly white, despite the presence of a small refugee center in the middle of town.

Social scientists call this the “halo effect”: a phenomenon, repeated across Europe, in which people are most likely to vote for far-right politicians if they live close to diverse areas, but not actually within them.

Jens Rydgren and Patrick Ruth, sociologists at the University of Stockholm, wrote in 2011 that people in such communities may be close enough to immigrants to feel they are under threat, but still too far to have the kinds of regular, friendly interactions that would dispel their fears.

Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at Birkbeck College in London, has found that rising diversity can push the “halo” outward. East London was a center of far-right activity in the 1970s, but as neighborhoods there became more diverse, far-right support fell and rose in the whiter suburbs just beyond them.

Buch, too, seems to fit that pattern. Despite the arrival of some refugees, there are so few Muslims that the supermarket does not even stock halal meats. But it lies in a district that borders Wedding, one of the most diverse parts of Berlin.

Buch’s white residents, according to this theory, are fearful not because their lives or jobs have been upended by migration, but because they perceive this as happening in areas like Wedding and worry they could be next.

A Negative Identity

Across town, down a road lined with communist-era apartment blocks, I arrived at the church building where Cornelia Reuter and her husband, Hagen Kühne, live and work as pastors.

Ms. Reuter said some of her parishioners were preoccupied with fears that more refugees would be sent to Buch.

She and her husband traced this fear, in part, to a deeper problem: Many within their community, they said, long for a clear sense of identity and belonging, but struggle to find one.

After World War II, celebrating or even defining German identity became taboo, often seen as a step toward the nationalism that allowed the rise of the Nazis. The attitude shifted somewhat with the 2006 World Cup, where the German hosts unabashedly flew their flag and celebrated national pride.

But there is still enough of a void that leaves people with an “inner emptiness,” Ms. Reuter said. This gap in self-definition has left them no way to express their identity except by what they are not — what is sometimes termed a “negative identity.”

“You can say ‘I’m not a Muslim,’ but most people can’t say ‘I am a Christian,’” or otherwise articulate a positive identity, she explained. “There is an emptiness. And I think that’s a societywide thing. It’s not just one group. It’s a very wide problem.”

Taking Control

Germany’s identity taboo is not new. But recent events may have made it suddenly feel more painful.

Immo Fritsche, a political scientist at the University of Leipzig, has found that when people feel they have lost control, they seek a strong identity that will make them feel part of a powerful group.

Identifying with something powerful and capable of bringing about change, like a strong nation, becomes very attractive, he said.

Ms. Reuter said that many people in Buch did feel a sense of lost control. The refugee crisis was perceived as a sign that Germany’s borders had become lawless. And the presence of the local refugee center, though home to just a few hundred people, brought a sense of heightened stakes.

Many of her elderly parishioners, she said, had told her that they couldn’t believe what young people today had to contend with. “And these are people who grew up during World War II! Who were bombed, and experienced the war!”

But they felt lucky to have experienced a kind of agency and identity that young people today were denied, she said.

Source: NYT > World

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