Being Black in the Bundestag

The official dress down as Chancellor for Angela Merkel is in full swing. Recently, the first significant step that would shape Germany’s policies in the next political dispensation took place in Berlin; that day the parliament swore-in legislators who had been elected few weeks earlier. The legislature in Germany is bicameral consisting of the elected members who belong in the bundestag and the appointed lawmakers who sit in the bundestrat.

Pictures of the just swore-in parliamentarians were in full glare making headlines in the dailies the following day. The joyous momentum, ironically, contrasts the demeaning stereotype some of the new lawmakers had to navigate on their way to the bundestag. Back in March, a Syrian refugee living in North Rhine-Westphalia state, Tariq Alaows, withdrew his ambition to contest a seat in the federal legislature. The 31-year-old lawyer cited racial threats of violence against him and loved ones as reason for terminating his interest.

One expects that the new parliament would come in with some level of new thinking and dynamism especially as it is said to be the youngest if the average age of the members is taking into account. All eyes would be on the Green party in relation to the pursuance of its ambitious environmental agenda.

Talking of the Greens in the Bundestag, the party has already made a huge statement with the election of Awet Tesfaiesus. From a humble beginning as daughter of an Eritrean migrant, the 47-year-old is the first black woman to serve in the German parliament. Awet would be joined be another first-timer in 33-year-old Armand Zorn who represents the Social Democratic Party. Before the two, Dr. Karamba Diaby (alongside Charles Huber) first broke the ice as the first black persons elected into the house in 2013. Karamba, the ‘black German’ who originates from Senegal, came to Deutschland for higher education in Chemistry in the 1980s, stayed back and married a German. He won election to retain his seat in the bundestag. Karamba’s constituency office – in January of 2020 – was attacked in an apparent exhibition of hate by unknown assailant(s) who fired shots into the glass window hosting his photograph. This happened few months after the gruesome killing of liberal politician Walter Lubke, who had campaigned for ease of access to asylum for refugees, by a suspected ‘nationalist’. Violent attacks on worship centres like the one that claimed two persons at a synagogue in Halle in 2019 have also increased in recent times. These occurrences have put the country on the edge socially with many calling the population to reject what is termed ‘reinvention of the evil machination.’

A statistical overview of the new bundestag indicates that 11% of its 736 members are of foreign family backgrounds. The continuity of this tempo would provide a glossier outlook of the society in its new-found status as one which embraces inclusivity and tolerance towards others irrespective of gender, racial, religious, sexual or political perceptions. In the meantime, the growing migrant community in Germany currently constitutes around 26% of her 86million population hence the debate over representative fairness in the political life of the country.

Going into history, one important moment that defined how European colonial empires carved territories in Africa into formal colonies amongst themselves took place at the instance of Prussian charismatic leader Ottoman Von Bismarck in Berlin from November 1884 to February 1885. The Berlin Act bore by the 6-month dialogue became binding on the 14 European hegemonies at the conference as mechanism to reduce tension arising from conflicts of interests (mainly economic) in Africa. Germany took charge of Cameroon, Togo, German East Africa (now Tanzania), and German South-West Africa (now Namibia). The Germans were also in parts on Burundi and Nigeria at the time until the territories were taken and redistributed following a crushing defeat at the end of World War I. As common to other imperial powers of the period, German colonialists were involved in the desecration of humans and pilfering of mineral resources in these African colonies. The 1904-1908 extermination of thousands of rebellious Hereros and Namaqua in Namibia under the command of General Lothan von Trotha is etched in historical accounts as 20th century’s first genocide. Vestiges of that epoch intervention by the Germans are alive till date. Many streets, bus and train stations in the heart of Berlin have names depicting African influence. However, a group of activists with African roots in Germany argued strongly against some of the names believed to be associated with racial slurs. The Berlin state government finally yielded in 2020 agreeing to a proposal asking for one of such names “Mohrenstrasse” to be replaced. Historically, ‘Moor’ was used to describe first generation of blacks that lived in Germany. The term is considered derogatory by the activists. Mohrenstrasse is henceforth to be known as ‘Anto Amo Straße’, in remembrance of Dr. Anto Whilem Amo who – despite being a slave from Ghana – became the first African to bag a university degree in Germany in the 18th century. 

For ages, Germans have been painted as a group of misanthropists who relish loneliness and unwelcoming to non-compatriots. The unfounded ‘blonde and blue-eye’ supremacy theory that largely propelled a string of events culminating in the outburst of a worldwide military conflict beginning 1939 did not help the course of the Germans. The enviable contributions of its scientists and thinkers to human development in disciplines like natural science, literature, music, political economy, and general academic breakthroughs counted for nothing in the eye of the rest of the world when Hitler’s army marched on the eastern fronts, starting with Poland in 1939. 

Two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and by extension the iron curtains, the new Germany keeps battling the demon of her past. Merkel, speaking during commemoration ceremony of Germany’s reunification in 2019, warns thus: “It should never be the case that disappointment with politics, however significant, be accepted as a legitimate reason to marginalise, threaten or attack others because of their skin color, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.” For her status as a known careful, diplomatic speaker, her statement is an explicit jab on the far-right opposition Alternative for Germany (AfD) often criticized for mere coating ultra racial (and immigration) contempt as a political ideology to ‘save the motherland.’ 

In its annual report presented to the public in 2020, the country’s Anti-Discrimination Agency (ADS) records a total of 1,172 ethno-racial related incidents accounting for 33% of all complaints attended to in 2019. Worryingly, the figure had doubled from what was reported in 2015. Bernhard Frankie who heads the ADS expresses concern at the “ongoing problem with racial discrimination,” claiming that the country “does not give enough legal support to victims.” It is however heartwarming to note that the Berlin state’s promulgation of an Anti-Discrimination Law in 2020 is seen as a big positive. One hopes to see a domino effect country-wide if the authority would stay at least one step ahead of individuals bent on re-pathing Germany into the goneby era of dangerously hurting racial isolationism.

While Rassismus remains a grey area in Germany’s socio-political themes, one can almost safely conclude that the country has left Egypt going by conscious attempts towards more pluralism in its social strata. Germany is no doubt experiencing a wind of change socio-economically. It would be stimulating to follow the proceedings of the lawmakers as the country tries to maintain its tag as a leading liberal democracy. For a people who live under no illusion of the painful memories characterized by past misdemeanors, the place of a sincere self-reflection cannot be overstated as core to the future.

Funmilola Ajala
Funmilola Ajala
Ajala, a journalist and researcher on African Affairs, writes from Berlin, Germany