A Knifing Inflames Anti-Immigrant Hysteria in Germany

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Riots broke out in Chemnitz, the eastern German city once known as Karl-Marx-Stadt, when far-right supporters went on a rampage after the stabbing death of a local man, allegedly by immigrants from the Middle East. 

The riot was the latest in a series of violent incidents sparked by the perception among nationalists and neo-Nazis that Germany is experiencing an epidemic of knifings by migrants. Although the statistics don’t necessarily back up a sharp increase in these attacks, the epidemic seems real to a small group of people who are primed to take radical action based on information they receive via social media.

In the early hours of Sunday, a 35-year-old man identified as Daniel Hillig by right-wing sites suffered deadly stab wounds in a fight. The following day, an official from the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party started to spread the story to nationalists on social networks. An early tabloid report that Hillig had tried to defend a woman accosted by immigrant men got a lot of attention. The local police denied that narrative was correct; the prosecutor would only say that the stabbing occurred during an altercation. Anyhow, Hillig, brown-skinned and of Cuban descent, was an unlikely martyr for neo-Nazis to unite behind. Still, far-right groups mobilized on Sunday and went a hunt for Middle Eastern immigrants.

A mob of 800 far-right protesters roamed the streets of Chemnitz, allegedly assailing random victims. Two German adolescents, along with an 18-year-old Syrian and a Bulgarian, have filed complaints. There was a second day of violence on Monday, as leftist counter-demonstrators clashed with right-wingers.

The reaction to Hillig’s death likely wouldn’t have been as violent if right-wingers hadn’t already been fired up about Messterstecherei — a supposed explosion of knife crime since the wave of asylum seekers hit Germany in 2015. “If the state can no longer defend citizens, then people take to the street and defend themselves,” Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD legislator, tweeted on Sunday. “It’s civic duty today to stop the deadly ‘knife migration’! It could affect your father, son or brother!”

That kind of rhetoric is based in part on conclusions drawn from official statistics and in part on anecdotal reports in right-wing media and tabloids (“Knife Madness in Germany,” a Bild headline screamed in April).

The statistics, as always, allow different interpretations. In February, a national legislator obtained data from the Berlin Senate showing that 2,737 crimes involving a knife were recorded last year in the German capital. The AfD ran with this, declaring that seven stabbings a day occurred in Berlin; in fact, the total included crimes such as robberies in which victims were threatened with a knife but no one was cut. 

Correctiv.org, a group that Facebook uses in Germany to flag fake news, determined on the basis of state statistics (there are no Germany-wide ones) that knife crime hasn’t grown significantly in recent years. Yet the data the fact-checkers used appear to point in the opposite direction. In five states that have published statistics at least since 2013, the number of knife crimes has gone up to a total of 8,281 in 2017 from 6,700 in 2013, a 24 percent increase that can hardly be written off as insignificant. Correctiv.org points out, though, that it’s likely wrong to add up the numbers since different states have different definitions of knife crime.

Such faulty statistical sources shouldn’t lead to any firm conclusions. Broader police statistics also are somewhat fuzzy. On the one hand, non-Germans suspected of violent crimes accounted for 38 percent of all suspects last year. On the other hand, according to police statistics, the share of foreign suspects remained constant between 2016 and 2017, and the absolute number of foreign suspects dropped by 1.9 percent. Violent crime committed by foreigners isn’t really growing. 

In societies where people get their information by relying on filter bubbles, statistics are endlessly flexible. The only relatively effective way for the authorities to make these networks irrelevant is by investing in police work. In Chemnitz, police quickly arrested two suspects in the Hillig case, a Syrian and an Iraqi, but not quickly enough to stop the far-right protesters from rushing through the streets beating up random people.

Germany is, generally, on the right path: Statistics unambiguously show that police are solving a growing share of every type of violent crime. If that’s not enough to convince the far right that the government is doing more and more to ensure citizens’ safety, the police must preempt and, if necessary, crack down hard on radicals’ attempts to take justice into their own hands. That’s the clearest lesson from the Chemnitz events.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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