WiG Yearbook 32 (2016) Feminist Conflicts “nach Silvester” and “Cologne[ialism]” | Maggie McCarthy

Not long ago my teenage daughter and I went to the Agrippa Bad in downtown Cologne, one of my favorite indoor/outdoor public swimming pools in Germany. After lolling around with her in one of the larger pools, I headed to the whirlpool bath, where adults are permitted for twenty minutes at a time. Over the years and after many summer trips to Cologne, its warm, bubbly water has become the reward for and official end point of another school year. This summer, however, something else drew me—four young men stretched out on the pool’s underwater bench, talking in exuberant voices. Their appearance made me wonder if they had arrived in Germany over the course of the past year, along with roughly a million other refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa. So I swam over and took up a spot beside them, made like I was relaxing, and listened.

Since arriving in Neukölln a few weeks earlier, I couldn’t help but discretely look around me on the streets and subway, particularly at women whose dress suggested Middle Eastern origins, and wonder the same thing. On the way there, my family and I got stranded overnight at Gatwick Airport in London, where we channel-surfed in our hotel room before finding a documentary about Syrian refugees. Watching in rapt silence we saw cell phone footage of dinghies jammed full of people, sometimes slowly filling up with water. My need to watch and wonder about the young men at the Agrippa Bad, however, was only partly inspired by such empathy-inducing footage. After researching in Cologne at the FrauenMediaTurm (FMT)—the largest archive for gender concerns in Germany—I had the buzz words “after New Year’s” (“nach Silvester”) in my head as well. At the FMT I read many articles by journalists, law experts, feminist academics, and scholars of Islam, all concerned with the assaults that occurred on New Years’ Eve, 2015, at Cologne’s central train station.

In June an official report by the Bundeskriminalamt was released to provide statistics, which also documented similar crimes that occurred that night in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Stuttgart, among other cities. Roughly 881 sex crimes were reported, 650 of which took place in Cologne. 239 of these assaults involved robbery, and altogether there were 1,200 victims. Of the 2,000 young men involved, only 120 faced charges. Roughly half of them were determined to have been in Germany for less than six months, and most had come from North Africa. Almost none of the men were from Syria. No evidence was found to support the notion that the attacks had been planned, as many had assumed in their aftermath.

Cologne “after New Year’s’” was particularly compelling to me because I’ve spent large chunks of my adult life living in this city. As an eight-year-old on a family vacation I climbed the 533 steps to the top of the Cathedral. When I was an au pair in Darmstadt at seventeen I made a day trip there with some girls from Iceland. In the early 1990s I received a grant to study at the university for a year, and since then I’ve kept coming back on a regular basis, mostly for extended stays in the summer. To cite the name of a popular soap opera filmed in Cologne, I’ve experienced my share of “gute und schlechte Zeiten” (good and bad times), from marrying my husband at the City Hall in 1996 to nearly getting crushed on the Ring a year later during the Pop Com Festival.

For better or worse it has become my German home, a place I brag about a lot, even if for the most part I’m citing the things that Kölners express about themselves with pride. These include the city’s multicultural ethos towards the “Immis” (short for immigrants) its citizens have long embraced; a Christopher Street Day parade that draws huge crowds, including the “Fußbroichs,” the working-class family featured in a hugely successful reality show from the 1980s; and the Kölners’ generally upbeat demeanor, which Amis (short for Americans) like me appreciate. Even the loss of an art scene that once rivaled New York’s—now mostly migrated to Berlin—is endearing. It reminds me of my hometown Philadelphia, which a New York Times journalist recently described as the “rough-around-the-edges” stop between “the glittering poles of Washington and New York.” Indeed, after more than twenty-five years of re-conceptualizing and rebuilding, Berlin-Mitte positively gleams compared to Köln’s increasingly grubby post-WWII architecture.

When news accounts of the attacks on New Years slowly began emerging, my first response was incredulity. I couldn’t imagine why Germany, which took in vastly more immigrants in 2015–16 than other European countries, would be the place where such large-scale criminality could occur. I remember asking my husband how the men responsible could be “so dumb.” In reading through initial responses to this event, I discovered that Alice Schwarzer’s was more or less in line with mine: “I just couldn’t imagine how someone could be that dumb, hoping for hospitality and asylum, and then acting like that” (“Ich konnte mir einfach nicht vorstellen, dass jemand so dumm sein kann, auf Gastfreundlichkeit und Asyl zu hoffen – und sich dann so benimmt”) (20).

Of course incredulity, both as affective response and marker of disbelief, is not the best launch pad for rational analysis. It too easily lends itself to polarizing frames, as in comparisons to war that cropped up in various right and left wing responses to the attacks that I will trace below. More to the point, highly emotional responses, including my own and Alice Schwarzer’s, already betray the activation of polarizing, “us vs. them” frames. In this case, incredulity arises from a sense that Western magnanimity was met with Muslim aggression. How could “they” react so ungratefully to “us?”

Perhaps not surprisingly given her long-running critique of misogyny in Islamic culture, Schwarzer provided one of the first official responses to the attacks. On January 5th she posted an essay on her website called “Die Folgen der falschen Toleranz” (The Consequences of False Tolerance). In it she referred to the “gang bang party” at the Cologne Train Station as the means for immigrant men and their sons to be heroes “like their brothers in the civil wars of North Africa and the Middle East” (“wie ihre Brüder in den Bürgerkriegen von Nordafrika und Nahost”). The only difference is that they now wage war “mitten in Europa.” As the benefactors of false tolerance, she argued, these men embody the traditional, ingrained anti-Semitism and sexism of Arab culture that Schwarzer has long decried. Along now familiar lines, her rhetoric of “fathers, sons, and brothers” conjures an intergenerational ballast of patriarchal power seemingly impervious to liberal western mores.

Younger feminists Stefanie Lohaus and Anne Wizorek soon after published an article in English called “Immigrants Aren’t Responsible for Rape Culture in Germany” in which they pointed to the yearly assaults and rapes at Oktoberfest celebrations. According to a statistic they cite, thirteen percent of German women have reported experiencing sexualized violence, with many such acts never recorded at all. In essence, Lohaus and Wizorek challenged the notion that cultural beliefs “programmed” the attackers in Cologne, while critiquing the German legal system for the challenges it presents women who have been assaulted. In a later discussion with Schwarzer published in Spiegel Online International, Wizorek also admonished male politicians otherwise uninterested in sexism for “instrumentalizing” it in order to stigmatize a particular group.{1}

The many other reactions to the Cologne assaults can be situated in relation to the two poles here—misogyny within Islamic culture as threat to Europe or as the culturally specific form of a problem that extends across East and West. For those who subscribe to the first argument, an emphasis on rape culture across the globe constitutes a form of relativizing; for those who subscribe to the second, an emphasis on Islamic misogyny alone constitutes a form of racism. As a Germanist, I tend to equate “relativizing” with self-serving impulses, i.e. what the left-wing factions of the Historian’s Debate of the 1980s critiqued about a right-wing understanding of the Holocaust. Yet in this instance, to relativize is to recognize that Germany is not immune to misogyny in criminal forms. It bespeaks the need to repair one’s own identity before projecting its underside elsewhere. Schwarzer’s response to the Cologne attacks betrays a collectivizing impulse in which Arab men function as the inverse of an oppressed, to greater or lesser extent, female gender. Lohaus and Wizorek represent the kinds of sensitivities that inhibit the urge to speak for all women or at cultural others. In his regard they reflect the trajectory of feminism from second wave solidarity through the identity politics of the 1990s to a contemporary awareness of whiteness as its own highly particular perspective.

What informs and enables Schwarzer’s perspective is a binary in which, as Fatima El-Tayeb has argued, Europe is threatened by “anti-Enlightenment migrant fundamentalisms (xvi).{2} What gets “instrumentalized” in the process is not simply sexism as the justification for an anti-immigrant stance. Additionally, an image of the fundamentalist Muslim immigrant serves as stand-in for Europe’s longer, suppressed history of anti-Semitism, racism, and gender inequality (xxvii). Consequently, a larger contradiction emerges between the “racelessness” of Europe’s Enlightenment ideals and a “not so subtle racialization of Europeanness as white and Christian and thus of racialized minorities as non-European […]” (xxix).

Given this frame it should hardly surprise that metaphors of war cropped up in analysis of the Cologne attacks. Schwarzer’s edited volume Der Schock—die Silvesternacht von Köln (2016) begins with observations from the Cologne Cathedral’s Dombaumeisterin about fireworks thrown against the church’s portal during a mass early that night. For her, this constituted a conscious attack on the church as symbol of both Christianity and the city of Cologne (8). Schwarzer also viewed the attacks as a conscious attack on a particular place with symbolic resonance: “It has gotten around that North Rhine-Westphalia is a particularly liberal state and Cologne a citadel of tolerance” (“Es hat sich […] herumgesprochen, dass Nordrhein-Westfalen ein besonders liberales Bundesland ist und Köln eine Hochburg der Toleranz”) (27). Subsequent descriptions of what followed repeatedly invoked a battlefield, including the statement “it was the beginning of an inferno” (“es war der Beginn eines Infernos”). Elsewhere Schwarzer observes about the men involved: “They’re playing at war. And on this evening they’re deploying what for them is a very simple weapon: sexual violence” (“Sie spielen Krieg. Und an diesem Abend setzen sie eine für sie ganz einfache Waffe ein: die sexuelle Gewalt”)(16).

Perhaps more surprising is war-like rhetoric among those who emphasized rape culture across national boundaries as the larger problem. In an article infeministische studien entitled “Speculum: der andere Mann. Acht Punkte zu den Gespenstern von Köln” (Speculum: the Other Man. Eight Points about the Ghosts of Cologne) numerous authors documented Western forms of sexism that emerged after the attacks, which included a cartoon of Angela Merkel being sexually assaulted. In response to critiques that feminists were initially silent in the wake of the attacks, presumably reluctant to appear racist, the authors document early responses that went unnoticed by the media. These occurred, they argue, on the streets and outside of official channels of communication. They associate this aporia, as well as the attack on feminists, with a “hunting down of feminist witches” (“Jagd auf die feministische Hexen”). The driving force, they assert, is always the same: “The attempt to liquidate feminism and feminists by declaring they have lost and by distorting and disparaging their position” (“Der Versuch, den Feminismus und Feministinnen zu liquidieren, indem erklärt wird, sie hätten verloren, und durch Verzerrung oder Herabsetzung ihrer Position”) (126).

While war metaphors on both sides attest to extreme forms of rhetoric that binaries (East vs. West, Male vs. Female) inspire, responses to the attacks did include more differentiated perspectives. In fact the authors of “Speculum” underscore the problem of feminists not having the right be to differentiated, of always being seen as either hangers on of the right or left. Schwarzer’s responses to the attacks merely bolstered this notion since she repeatedly critiqued “left wing” feminists for their misguided “political correctness.” Strikingly, EMMA’s dossier on the events that night attempted its own brand of differentiated representation by including the account of a Syrian man who had gone out of his way to protect a young American woman. If intended to mitigate the notion of all Islamic men as brutal misogynists, this account nonetheless reinforced, via the “good Syrian” as the exception to the rule, the larger generalization.

By contrast, Missy Magazine’s own dossier, which included the voices of women of color in Germany, provided far more useful perspectives capable of complicating otherwise bifurcated frames. Their observations included the fact that sexualized violence only becomes visible when white women are the victims, whereas women of color are often not sure where to go when they’ve been assaulted, including by white men and during German events likeKarneval. Blogger and Missy Magazine coeditor Hengameh Yaghoobifarah emphasized that a women’s movement has existed in the Middle East for over two hundred years, yet in public discourse women of Middle Eastern background are only presented from the perspective of victims. It can be extremely difficult for them to write about their experiences of sexual violence when the result is a reifying of clichés or racially motivated instrumentalization. She observes:

If you write about your body as a Kanakin [derogatory term for a Turk] you get torn apart in the public sphere. That’s clear, for example, in a comparison between Lady Bitch Ray and Charlotte Roche, whose dealings with sexuality prompted completely different responses

(Wenn du als Kanakin über deinen Körper schreibst, wirst du in der Öffentlichkeit auseinender gerissen. Das zeigt zum Beispiel der Vergleich zwischen Lady Bitch Ray und Charlotte Roche, die total unterschiedliche Reaktionen auf ihren Umgang mit Sexualität erfahren haben.) (57)

Beyond feminist responses, Friedenspreisträger, scholar of Islam and Cologne resident Navid Kermani co-authored the “Kölner Botschaft,” a document whose rhetoric and strategies take a related but different tact. Signed by roughly 100 male and female authors and celebrities from Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Bonn, it was published in the Kölner Stadtanzeiger on January 21st. The “Botschaft” consists of four demands: 1) no tolerance for sexual violence, regardless of which culture it originates in; 2) the need for more police protection from the kinds of criminality in Cologne perpetrated by men of Moroccan and Algerian backgrounds (whom they argue are not necessarily part of the 2015 wave of new immigrants); 3) Consequences for the security forces that failed to hinder the events on New Year’s Event and to provide clarity about what had transpired; 4) A recognition that sexual violence does not occur in Islamic cultures alone and should thus not justify racism. Significantly, they cite the massive rapes of Muslim women in the Bosnian War, which were never automatically associated with Christian or Western values.

Speaking from a position of shock, uncertainty, and anger, the document’s authors attempted to describe their initial speechlessness, but also how they simply could not ignore what had happened. In this sense the “Botschaft” acknowledged the emotional brunt that no doubt preceded responses across the political spectrum, while underscoring what all parties could necessary agree upon: the unacceptability of violence. Strikingly, the silence that Kermani alludes to may reveal not so much the difficulties faced by those on the left when confronted with events that challenged their views. Rather it becomes clear how much easier it is to respond when events appear to confirm what one already believes.

Kermani deliberately circulated the “Botschaft” among those who signed it in order for it to be reworked and thus a product of consensus. Though broadly conceived and thus less likely to offend the left or right, the text also grounded itself in what was subsequently critiqued as “Kölntümelei” (roughly: Cologne-ialism, though with a sense of superiority based on a multicultural population rather than a hierarchical, exploitative divide). The authors emphasized the importance of not only loving one’s city, but also being responsible for what happens there. Indeed, the text begins with the sentence “Wir lieben Köln,” citing its diversity, “Lebenslust,” “chaotic” but never “domesticated” hospitality, and its openness towards forms of life, cultures, and languages that at first seem strange but then become part of everyday life. The city’s wounds and imperfections, they declared, only strengthened their love. These wounds include the collapse of the city archive as a new subway route was built beneath it, which killed five, and the November 2015 stabbing of mayor Henriette Reker the day before her election in response to her stance on refugees.

What constitutes a different and to my mind useful approach is precisely the document’s attempt to stoke Cologne residents’ pride over the city’s reputation for tolerance.{3} At a moment in time when tribalism motivates racism in both European and American contexts, the “Kölner-Botschaft” activates its own “Lokalpatriotismus” (local patriotism) as precisely the force to combat an “us vs. them” mentality. This approach shrinks the broader divide between East and West to the contours of one particular place, its history, and how that provides a highly specific filter on contemporary circumstances. It shifts the emphasis from “problematic” foreigners to Cologne’s ability to continually re-imagine itself in ways that preserve a larger whole as circumstances continually shift. And rather than harkening back to some pre-foreigner, originary core it understands multiculturalism as a long-standing given. Finally, the “Kölner Botschaft” perceives Arab culture not as the undifferentiated underside of Europe’s identity as enlightened, nor does it ignore cultural differences altogether. Instead it recognizes, attempts to understand, and seeks solutions for highly specific examples of crimes committed by some but far from all immigrants. In this sense the document combines patriotism with pragmatism that again addresses always fluid circumstances.

Which brings me back to the young men in the whirlpool bath. The first thing I registered after sitting beside them was their fluent German, spoken at a clip that made me strain to understand what they were saying. Soon, however, it became clear that their conversation revolved around sexual escapades, rendered in graphic terms, which prompted words like “boys’ club,” “Herrenriege” and “pashas” to float through my head. If nothing else my gut response, I’m pleased to report, thus activated labels from across an East/West divide. Then I looked around me to the other people there, who simply continued their slow-motion underwater gait around the pool, seemingly oblivious to the swagger. I’m not sure they provide a potent image for an essay that extolls an enlightened form of Lokalpatriotismus, but somehow their “live and let live” vibe rubbed off on me and I relaxed. Eventually, of course, I got out of the whirlpool bath and back to my readings at the archive, where the intellectual search for an understanding of Köln “nach Silvester” continued.


1 She observed: “When I see the kinds of people that are now jumping into the debate over women’s rights, it also includes, among others, the same politicians who, during the #aufschrei [outcry] debate in 2013, said that women shouldn’t be so demanding. Now that men with immigration backgrounds have committed sexual assaults, it is being instrumentalized in order to stigmatize them as a group. I think that is racist.”

2 She observes: “[A]nti-Enlightenment migrant fundamentalism […] places the continent in the position of victim, occupied with defending its values rather than imposing them on others. The imagery of a European culture faced with possible extinction or at least dilution invites a binary rather than an interactive view of cultural exchange and has become a familiar feature in European discourse in particular on the continent’s Muslim population […].”

3 To be sure, right wing factions exist as well, including the organization “Pro-Köln.” And thousands of Turkish-Germans attended a pro-Erdogan demonstration in the city in August of 2016.


Bocchetti, Alessandra, Ida Dominijanni, Bianca Pomeranzi, and Bia Sarasin. “Speculum: der andere Mann. Acht Punkte zu den Gespenstern von Köln.”feministische studien 34.1 (May 2016): 117-27.

El Tayeb, Fatima.European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012.

“A Feminist View of Cologne: ‘The Current Outrage is Very Hypocritical.’”Spiegel Online. 21 Jan. 2016. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/german-feminists-debate-cologne-attacks-a-1072806.html

“Die Kölner-Botschaft.” Kölner Stadtanzeiger. 21 Jan. 2016. http://www.ksta.de/koeln/koelner-botschaft-sote-wir-fordern-nach-silvest…

Lohaus, Stefanie and Anne Wizorek, “Immigrants Aren’t Responsible for Rape Culture in Germany.” Vice. 8 Jan. 2016. https://www.vice.com/read/rape-culture-germany-cologne-new-years-2016-876

Schwarzer, Alice.Der Schock – die Silvesternacht von Köln. Köln: KiWi, 2016.

Weiner, Jennifer. “Philly is Hillary’s Kind of Town.” New York Times. 25 July 2016.