After Cologne – The new Chronology after the 2015 New Year’s Eve Assaults

Cologne and Rhine river, Germany
The incident happend at the beautiful Dom of Cologne. RilindH-RooM@gettyimages.de

In Germany, or at least in German media, there is a new chronology after December 31st, 2015. There is a “before Cologne” and an “after Cologne”.

If this doesn’t ring a bell or if you ask yourself: Why Cologne? Let me fill you in. On said New Year’s Eve, an incoherent group of men (the official numbers vary, but one specific number that stuck in the media is 1.000 men) assaulted a large number of women.

There was sexual assault, groping, violence, and robbery. This horrible incident in close proximity to the Cologne Central Station was the first mass phenomenon of this kind ever recorded in more recent German history – meaning at least the last 70 years. Most of the perpetrators reportedly had a migrant background. As the huge crowd around the Central Station was amidst the New Year’s Eve celebrations, the majority of the offenders escaped and the investigations did not bring too many of them to justice so far. Similar, but a lot smaller, events were reported from Hamburg and Stuttgart. But the police did not find any evidence for coordinated attacks.

The incident in itself is terrible enough and had deep consequences for the victims, serious trauma being just one of them. Moreover, the reputations of the City of Cologne and its police force, which clearly didn’t handle the situation well (even they could not have been prepared for this specific kind of event) suffered heavily.

But, what made the incident so evocative is its context.

Happening on the preliminary height of the refugee crisis, the immediate inclination of “migrant offenders” fueled the nationwide discussions and played in the cards of right-wing opinion leaders. Further, the events rekindled debates on feminism, gender and racism in the German media and among the people – asking for new answers and new questions on these highly complex issues.

We are, of course, not saying that there is a “good side” to the Cologne assaults, as we are not downplaying the terrors that the victims went through (or are still going through). We are just glad to see that some media players drew necessary conclusions from the incidents and opened up to discussions that are long overdue (at least in the mainstream media). The aftermath of the assaults took the German discourse of racism, sexism and their connection to a new level – one that we hope the media manages to stay (if not rise further) on when it comes to content as well as terminology and attention.

The overall situation in Germany was (and is) a complex and troublesome one. Due to its wealth, power, and safety, the country became the natural image of a safe haven for refugees. At the same time, Germany was pretty much the only European country taking in more refugees than quotas and allocation keys suggested. 

Fueled by the media and social media, as well as politicians, not only from the right wing, a lot of lower class citizens were angry and afraid and as such easy targets for extremist populists from the right. When the Cologne Assaults hit the news, the police, as well as many politicians, handled the situation very poorly.

Without any solid proof, the Cologne municipality spoke of “northern African offenders”, immediately linking the events to the refugee crisis and handing ammunition to those who aimed at demonizing and vilifying refugees. Numerous media outlets jumped on the train, using alarming language, that rapidly ended up in a discussion that was in itself racist. Furthermore, the legitimization of racist language and topics through politicians and the mainstream media gave right-wing demagogues the opportunity to use (quasi-) feminist arguments against the refugees and to further their means. Suddenly, old school feminists and right-wing parties found a common enemy in the “barbaric” refugees. 

At this point, the debate, fortunately, was lifted to a broader plane, when activist groups voiced their concerns for the debate and tried to clarify the links between sexism and racism and stated that their feminist and anti-racist causes should not be misused.

The assaults are still under investigation and as of now not many perpetrators have been sentenced. Most suspects that are linked to the events are really recent arrivals from northern African countries. But that should not make anyone question the necessity of taking in refugees from war-torn countries or give anyone the right to any social or ethnic group under general suspicion