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‘Let the hag burn’: Rise in attacks on refugees fuels German debate on racism

The Oststadtkrankenhaus refugee accommodation, a former hospital in Hanover, Germany, that houses some 720 refugees from 33 countries, pictured on Aug. 13. (Julian Stratenschulte/European Pressphoto Agency)

BERLIN — A surge in xenophobic attacks and hate speech targeting asylum seekers in Germany is igniting a firestorm in the nation where the Nazis taught the dangers of intolerance.

Prominent personalities have condemned the attacks as well as a recent rash of public vitriol on social media and elsewhere. Anja Reschke, an anchorwoman for German public broadcaster ARD, for instance, touched off a national debate after an on-air commentary blasting refugee bashing. Soon after airing, the segment went viral, with 15 million hits and counting.

[Germany unnerved by scores of xenophobic attacks against refugees]

In it, Reschke bluntly said what many others here have feared to — condemning the haters as well as calling out those Germans who have remained silent. To make her point, she used the terminology of the Nazi era, earning a bravo from some while angering others.

“If you’re not of the opinion that all refugees are spongers who should be hunted down, burned or gassed, then you should make that known very clearly,” she said in her commentary.

The spot, she said in an interview with The Washington Post, provoked an outpouring of support — but also a flood of even fouler comments aimed at her.

“I received e-mails saying, ‘Let the hag burn’ and calling me a ‘negro-gypsy-whore,’ ” said Reschke, a white ethnic German. “And then there were the people who said, ‘Look, I’m afraid our race is getting polluted by all those evil people from the whole of Africa, but no, I’m not a Nazi.’ ”

As Europe faces a refugee crisis, Germany this year is set to accept a record number — more than 500,000. Yet Reschke's commentary came as acts of aggression against refugee homes in Germany are rapidly rising, reaching 202 so far this year compared to 198 during all of 2014.

But it’s the fact that social media here is awash in ugly comments, many of them no longer anonymous, that spurred her to warn against the public acceptance of intolerance.

Refugee basher Udo Halfkann, for instance, recently posted a photograph on his Facebook page that appears to show a Syrian asylum seeker at a camp on the Greek Island of Kos alongside a quote attributed to him complaining about the lack of water and toilets and calling the conditions third-world. User Eduard Gerlitz posted a comment filled with expletives.

Another man, Markus Wenzl, wrote: “I want to … kick his dirty fake asylum seeker face in.”

Reschke isn’t the only one speaking out. The hugely successful German actor, Til Schweiger, who appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” announced plans to convert a former military barracks into a new refugee home as well as launch a new charity for young, traumatized refugees.

German news anchor, Claus Kleber of ZDF television, welled up as he told the story of a Bavarian bus driver who welcomed 15 refugees on his bus with this announ (Video: The Washington Post)

But some people quickly took to Twitter and other social media to mock him.

Some German politicians appear to be fueling public skepticism. In an interview Thursday with German television, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said that a reduction in pocket money paid to refugees should be considered. He also suggested that while the regular benefits paid to refugees could not be legally reduced, some could potentially be replaced by non-cash benefits.

The German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday ran an article in reaction to a flurry of social media comments demanding to know how so many refugees could afford smartphones. It was not a luxury item for them, the paper explained, but a necessary tool to fulfill basic needs.

Instead of paying expensive roaming fees, asylum seekers were using free WiFi in public places to keep in touch with their families via free services like Skype, Whatsapp or Viber, it said.

Other politicians, however, are voicing alarm. Integration Commissioner Aydan Özoguz, in an interview with the daily Die Welt, said that Red Cross staff had been attacked last month as they sought to set up a tent camp to aid refugees in the city of Dresden.

Less talked about but also very common, though, are the acts of kindness undertaken by Germans to help the record number of asylum seekers coming from Syria and other war-torn nations. On Tuesday, another German news anchor, Claus Kleber of ZDF television, welled up as he told the story of a Bavarian bus driver who, when a group of 15 refugees boarded his bus, made the following announcement in English:

“I have an important message for people from the whole world in this bus: Welcome!” Kleber’s voice cracked while translating the driver’s message into German, adding: “Sometimes, it can be so simple.”

Kleber later tweeted apologetically: “Sometimes I react more emotionally to small positive details than to big stories. Not very professional. But okay? The next show is waiting.”

The reaction on social media was massive and overwhelmingly positive. In another tweet, Kleber expressed surprise about the flood of reactions.

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