There are words in the German language that are so idiosyncratic to “German” culture, behavior and circumstance that there is no adequate equivalent in English, therefore rendering them untranslatable and leaving them to be directly borrowed from the original language.
“Schadenfreude” is one of those words, verbosely translated to “pleasure derived from misfortune of others“ or “malicious joy”. Or “angst”, in English as a psychological term, whereas the German original is an everyday word for fear.
And it is fear that also lies at the heart of another idiosyncratic idiom the German language has spawned in recent years: the “besorgte Bürger”, which literally means “concerned citizen”. But hold on: a concerned citizen in Germany, one of the most prosperous free democracies in the world, economic and political powerhouse of Europe, land of free higher education, low crime, compulsory healthcare, comparatively impeccable infrastructure and World Champion of export goods and football? What in God’s name would one have to be concerned about there?
Nothing, if one looks beyond the superficial semantics of this seemingly harmless term and unearths the hidden bigotry and downright racism behind it.
The birth of the “besorgte Bürger”
Urban Dictionary defines a concerned citizen as “a citizen of a country that is extremely concerned about a subject he just saw on TV, even if said subject does not affect his life in the slightest”. The fact that there is an English definition for this human species shows that it is not only a German phenomenon. But in Germany, the concern of the concerned citizen is exclusively Islam and immigration, which would make this person an Islamophobe and a racist.
This wasn’t always the case. The term “besorgte Bürger” is related to its predecessor “Wutbürger”, or “angry citizen”, and was originally used to depict left-leaning people protesting against the construction of a new central train station in the Southern city of Stuttgart, capital of Germany’s industrial heartland, where angry environmentalists were routinely met with brute police force. Like during the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, one protester even lost his eyesight in the police crackdown when he got hit by a water canon.
But the term’s semantic metamorphosis occurred in 2014 after the birth of an anti-Islam movement in the city of Dresden in the East German state of Saxony, when almost out of nowhere, thousands of people, their numbers rising exponentially, began congregating every Monday in the cultural capital of the East, calling themselves “Patriots against the Islamization of the Occident“ (or PEGIDA, the German acronym).
This movement with a complicated moniker whose weapon of choice in its battle against Islam was the exact opposite of complicated, namely crude essentialism, seemed ludicrous at first. But the steady numeric growth of these mass demonstrations quickly began worrying politicians from centre to left, prompting them to invent the now classic catchphrase “Wir müssen die Ängste und Sorgen der Bürger ernst nehmen”: “We have to take the fears and concerns of the citizens seriously.”
Thus, the concerned citizen was born, not an ecologically conscious activist anymore, but an anti-Muslim bigot (even though the two are not necessarily exclusive) and a cipher for socially accepted racism in a country that likes to export the self-image of a tolerant, inclusive and welcoming society.
“Concerned or bigoted citizen?”
Most striking about the term is the casual juxtaposition of the act of being concerned and the religion of Islam, the latter being the monothematic basis of concern. Why is the diverse faith of over a billion people from all corners of the globe concerning to these people? There are so many things to be concerned about, from climate change to cancer: why be concerned about Islam, a generic term for something so utterly non-generic?
The answer is not passive, crippling fear, as the phobia in Islamophobia suggests and as the dominant narrative always goes, but rather active hate, borne not only out of ignorance, but also out of an almost evangelical belief of these predominantly agnostic people in the ideology of white supremacy.
Thus, during the heyday of PEGIDA’s mass demonstrations, between all the German flags one would find the odd red and blue Norwegian flag: a tribute not to the natural beauty of Scandinavia, but to a country which — at least in the mind of the German racist — is considered to be one of the last refuges of white purity. But worst of all, the brandishing of Norwegian flags was tacitly meant to celebrate the white terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 90+ people in Norway’s own 9/11 in 2011.
What does all this show? That the image of the concerned citizen as a peaceful everyman is deconstructed to reveal your everyday run-of-the-mill racist, one who even openly supports mass-murder and mayhem, a.k.a. terrorism.
Furthermore, PEGIDA – now pretty much defunct – was an anti-Islam movement born in a region with the lowest numbers of Muslims in the country: these five Eastern German states that constituted Communist East Germany during the Cold War – except for the big cities like Dresden and Leipzig – have virtually almost no immigrants, albeit Muslims.
Even with the influx of Syrian and Afghan refugees since the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015, this demographic reality still holds true: The Eastern half of Germany is predominantly white and non-Muslim. So what is there for the concerned citizen to be concerned about?
Remember Urban Dictionary’s definition: it is spot on in this case. These are people whose only contact to Islam comes exclusively from TV’s negative portrayal of it and the relentless Islamophobic fear-mongering German media from left to right engages in.
Yet the most concerning side-effect of the term “besorgte Bürger” is that it obscures culpability, subtly inferring that the concerned citizen — who coincidentally is always white — is of an innocent and altruistic disposition, whilst the thing he or she is concerned about — everybody non-white, Arabs, Muslims — is the culprit.
And since the concerned citizen is innocent, he is afforded empathy for his constant neurotic whining, while the object of his abstract worry is unsympathetically vilified.
A good example for this unfair role reversal happened in the East German town of Clausnitz in early 2016 when a bus carrying refugees to their refugee center was intercepted by a mob of angry white (and drunken) residents. A Lebanese boy, clearly trying to defend himself against this vicious mob dynamic, kicked one of the agitators blocking the bus.
The police, instead of arresting or charging the agitators, arrested and man-handled the petrified youngster, sparking outrage on social media and thus highlighting the racist law-enforcement culture in East German states like Saxony where it is the non-white victim who is routinely criminalized instead of the white perpetrator.
And our politicians? Instead of renouncing the deplorable ideology of these racists they actually sympathize with these bigots. And by demanding the subjective concerns of xenophobes to be objectively taken seriously, our elected officials are shockingly disregarding the concrete concerns of non-whites in this country who are victims of racist bigotry and attacks on a daily basis. Especially in Eastern Germany where structural racism in state and society is endemic.
The statistics are unambivalent: 47 % of all racist attacks in Germany were registered in its Eastern wing, even though it is home to only 17% of the overall population. Resulting in the unfortunate fact that I myself, like many other non-whites who were born and raised in West Germany and witnessed the political reunification after the Cold War with East Germany, still avoid visiting the Eastern wing due to security reasons.
Who takes these legitimate concerns of us people of color seriously? Nobody.
The concerned citizen goes national: The rise of the AfD
As mentioned earlier, PEGIDA has pretty much vanished by now, but the “besorgte Bürger” remains, finding his new political homeland in Germany’s first mainstream right-wing party, the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD), our German version of the French Front National (in 2018 renamed Rassemblement National to sound less militant and more inclusive). The AfD — which began its career as an anti-Euro-currency party founded by an economist with a pathological nostalgia for the old national currency Deutschmark as well as an almost childish grudge against Greek bailouts and paternalistic dictates from Brussels, ultimately flew out of the Pandora’s box of its creator, incorporated PEGIDA’s regional Islamophobia and went national with it.
And since the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015, the concerned citizen once again gained further currency, prompting the AfD to include anti-immigrationism as a whole as its top priority on its death list of a party manifesto, next to the usual suspects of Islam and the EU.
The AfD steadily gained momentum within the German electorate, successfully stealing votes from all established parties, from Angela Merkel’s centrist-left leaning Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to the leftist DIE LINKE who – after the first landslide victories of their political antithesis – were shocked to learn that for years their most trusted voters were not only not leftist, but unapologetically right-wing and – with their switch to the AfD – ultimately turned out to be shockingly disloyal.
In 2017, the AfD was already sitting in 13 of the 16 state-legislatures and in September of that year, became the unofficial winner of our national elections, making it into the Bundestag in a post-war historic first. This prompted famous German comedian Jan Böhmermann to compose a song which includes the chorus “Deutschland ist wieder im Reichstag zurück, Deutschland will wieder wer sein” (Germany is back in the Reichstag, Germany wants to be somebody again), sung with an outdated German/Hitler accent.
And the simple secret of the AfD’s electoral success: taking the concerns and fears of Germany’s citizens seriously. Meaning: successfully playing devil’s advocate to a racist electorate.
While the traditional parties from center to left are still desperately trying to cash in on the concerned-citizen-fad by shamelessly pandering to these mainstream racists in order to galvanize the votes of this large electorate, other concerned citizens for whom the bigotry of the AfD is not bigoted enough, have chosen alternative organizational means to vent their pent-up racism: such as the so called “Identitäre Bewegung” (Identitarian Movement) — a right-wing, vigilante version of Greenpeace — whose direct-action tactics included chartering ships and going off to sea in order to stop refugee boats on their way to European shores.
Or the 10,000- strong “Reichsbürger” (Citizens of the Empire) who do not accept the Federal Republic of Germany as a legal entity, but consider themselves citizens of the bygone German Kaiserreich, issuing own ID-cards and brandishing flags of an empire that was central in sparking the flames of World War I which turned Europe into a mass graveyard. Both groups represent German identity politics in its most reactionary and white supremacist form.
Calling a spade a spade, and a racist a racist
Being concerned is a human trait: we are concerned about money, our children, growing old, health, security, the climate, etc. But it is when concerns turn into bigotry that they lose their moral high ground, thus reducing them to sole means to an end, and a very dangerous end at that.
Unfortunately, the “besorgte Bürger” as a fixture of German society is here to stay, just as public discourse on immigration and Islam is. Until the concerns of many a concerned citizen are not unmasked as the racist dispositions they are, these toxic merry-go round debates will truly be a never ending story.
We in Germany — and elsewhere — need to see racism not primarily as a reaction to external factors (e.g. immigration or Islam) but as an active political stance: a willful ideology based on the supposed supremacy of whites, and not on social or political happenstance for which the poor racist holds no responsibility.
Like the aphorism “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, one chooses to be a bigot. Therefore, the monopoly of decision-making lies entirely and exclusively in the bigot’s own hands and cannot be outsourced to third-party scapegoats like immigrants or Muslims.
Thus, so-called concerned citizens should be rigorously exposed as the frauds they are: not concerned citizens, but racist pricks.