Michelle Lynn Kahn

“Are you safe?” Emails from loved ones flooded my inbox the first days of 2016. All assumed the worst-case scenario: that I was among the victims of the coordinated sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve at the Central Train Station in Cologne, Germany, where I am writing my dissertation. “Watch out for those Arab and Muslim types,” one warned.

Feminist protesters at the Cologne Cathedral on January 9 balance denunciation of sexual violence with pro-refugee sentiment. (Wikimedia Commons.)

In a post-9/11 Europe and United States consumed by Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment, the media instigated a hostile backlash by emphasizing the perpetrators’ “Arab or North African” descent and that 18 of the 31 suspects were asylum-seekers. Many associated this sexual violence with Islam. On January 9, three simultaneous protests took place at the scene of the assaults. The right-wing, anti-Muslim group PEGIDA condemned Chancellor Merkel’s acceptance of “rapefugees,” while police shot water cannons, and counter-demonstrators shouted “Nazis out!” Simultaneously, hundreds of feminists rallied, “No means no.”

The language of xenophobia and nationalism has long been staged on women’s bodies. Cologne is no exception. Right-wing and nationalist interpretations of the New Year’s Eve attacks drew on longstanding ideas that use images of vulnerable women to express fears of vulnerable national borders. Ethnic and religious pluralization threaten the far-right’s sense of nationhood, and their hostility toward foreigners is the outgrowth of a white, Christian-identifying Europe that has long feared defilement by foreign “Others”—from Jews and “Gypsies” to post-colonial subjects and Turkish labor migrants. Now, scorn has turned to asylum-seekers from the non-western, Muslim world.

Consensual or not, the cross-cultural sexual encounters facilitated by migration have long been fraught with existential concerns about national contamination by predatory, yet often wildly tempting, foreign men. Especially in Germany, fears about uncontrolled immigration have been conflated with fears of sexual violence against German women by unassimilable foreigners. These gendered and racial stereotypes neither address the problem of sexual violence nor assist the victims. They can, however, reveal the profound social anxieties surrounding foreign bodies that have elicited a reactionary populism promoting the subordination of an entire demographic group.

The metaphor of the woman as the nation—as the dutiful and heroic mother of the Fatherland—has survived the tumultuous timeline of modern German history. Facing some of the lowest birth rates in the world, many Germans have subsumed the Cologne sexual assaults within a pre-existing concern about the rising number of “foreigners” within the country’s borders. The tense immigration debates of the last five years have involved not only the quantity of newcomers but also the high birth rates of those already there. The fertility of Muslim immigrants has become an object of fear. In 2010, politician Thilo Sarrazin became a household name upon the publication of his controversial book Deutschland schafft sich ab [Germany is Abolishing Itself], in which he argued that the country’s rising Turkish and Arab populations were diluting its intellectual stock. In a 2013 campaign stunt, the youth wing of Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party offered a eugenic solution: condoms labeled, “For foreigners and certain Germans.” Since the Cologne assaults, this decreasingly marginalized hostility toward foreigners has adopted a language with disturbing parallels to Nazi discourse.

Reproducing “Aryan” bodies and annihilating all others was the core ideological tenet of the Nazi “racial state” (1933–1945), whose leaders imagined a life-or-death struggle for national existence. While eugenic concerns were present in the German Empire (1871–1918) and Weimar democracy (1918–1933), efforts to preserve the purity of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed racial community (Volksgemeinschaft) undergirded Nazi policy. As they purged Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and disabled children, they encouraged genetically pure population growth. “Child-rich” mothers were awarded medals of honor, racially passable Polish children were “Germanized,” and SS men impregnated unwed Aryan women at the state-supported Lebensborn breeding centers.

An undated Nazi campaign poster, "The NSDAP protects the Volksgemeinschaft." (Via Wikimedia Commons.)
An undated Nazi campaign poster, “The NSDAP protects the Volksgemeinschaft.” (Wikimedia Commons.)

Quantifiable demographic concerns accompanied fears of the foreign contamination of the nation through the sexual violation of its women. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws prohibited marriage and sexual relations between Jews and persons of “German or related blood,” and media caricatures of rapacious Jewish men preying on German women were ubiquitous. Most notorious is the 1940 anti-Semitic propaganda film, Jud Süß, in which a depraved Jew rapes the innocent Dorothea, and she then commits suicide. By representing the national body as a woman violated and driven to death by a foreign enemy, the box office hit perpetuated the wartime dread surrounding the Third Reich’s biological and military annihilation.

This 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws Chart depicts Nazi biological categorizations of Jews. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)
This 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws Chart depicts Nazi biological categorizations of Jews. (Wikimedia Commons.)

These fears survived the transition from Hitler’s rule to postwar democracy. As a Soviet invasion became increasingly imminent, the Nazi propaganda ministry disseminated images of Asiatic and Mongol barbarians penetrating both its borders and its women. This nightmare became a reality at war’s end in May 1945: up to two million German women in the Soviet occupation zone endured repeated sexual assaults. The collective experience of mass rape shaped the postwar memory of Nazism. Both East and West Germans used the rapes for nationalistic purposes to corroborate a victimization myth that excused the German public from the crimes committed by Hitler and his bureaucrats. Contemporary right-wing groups such as PEGIDA draw on this national trauma by emphasizing both female and national victimization at the hands of Muslim migrants.

Sexual scripts about vulnerability to foreigners were adapted to the postwar period as Germans encountered new “Others” with the recruitment of foreign laborers. In capitalist West Germany, the guest worker program (1955–1973) invited primarily men from Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia, and Yugoslavia to work in industrial sectors. Official and media sources expressed concern that these sexually frustrated guest workers (Gastarbeiter) might seduce German women. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder captured this anxiety in his 1974 film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf), in which an elderly German widow endures public shaming for falling in love with a mid-30s Moroccan guest worker. The film criticized West Germans’ hypocrisy: despite distancing themselves from their Nazi past, they had yet to overcome the stigma surrounding the foreign penetration of female and national bodies.

Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), a 1974 film featuring the love affair between an elderly German woman and a Moroccan guest worker. (Wikipedia.) Watch the film on YouTube.

In the 1980s, Turkish migrants took the place of the new non-German “Others.” The country’s largest ethnic minority appeared unwilling to assimilate into a modern and democratic notion of Germanness. Amid rising global attention to gender equality and human rights, West German feminists condemned Turkish men as oppressive. Concern veered from cross-cultural sexual encounters to the gender relations of Turkish migrants and, by proxy, to all Muslims. Disdain surrounding headscarves, honor killings, and women’s isolation at home leads to the stigmatization of Muslim men as patriarchal. The perceived identity of the Cologne perpetrators thus escalated the assaults from a matter of personal trauma to national panic.

The intensity of the Cologne backlash also has roots in the surge of anti-foreigner sentiment (Ausländerfeindlichkeit) in the 1990s. The 1990 reunification of the divided Germany forged a renewed ethnic conception of national belonging that excluded individuals with migration backgrounds (Migrationshintergrund). Many East German youths, who had no contact with migrants in the west, turned to Neo-Nazism. Today’s right-wing populism remains concentrated in the east, far away from Cologne, which is renowned as one of Europe’s most progressive cities and will soon house Germany’s central migration museum. The events in Cologne would have received far less attention had the perpetrators not been identified as Muslim migrants.

By no means does this analysis discount the trauma suffered by the up to 500 victims. It aims only to place the public outcry into long-term perspective. Real instances of sexual assault often receive international attention only when they corroborate a pre-existing xenophobic narrative targeting a minority group long deemed threatening to both women and the national demographic future. The media’s fixation on the right-wing backlash has silenced the feminist protesters fighting against all sexual violence. Feminist efforts to redirect attention to this broader goal must work to detach myth from reality. A petition towards this end can be signed here.

Michelle bio picMichelle Lynn Kahn is a doctoral candidate in Modern European History at Stanford University, with a PhD Minor in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her work examines race, gender, Islamophobia, and the transnational history of Turkish immigration to Germany. This year, she is living in Cologne as a German Chancellor Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Michelle tweets from @michlynnkahn

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