German infamy with racism predates the Third Reich’s institutionalised racism as part of the official state ideology. The Herero and Namaqua genocide in the German-controlled area of modern-day Namibia (1904-08) was one of the most brutal attempts at racial extermination and genocide that laid the template for such concepts as concentration camps, medical experimentation and forced labour.
Later, this genocide influenced Hitler’s death camps, targeting the Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and all ‘others’ (‘Non-Aryans’). The ‘cleansing’ approach via annihilation resulted in the unprecedented Holocaust that killed approximately 6 million Jews. A total of around 15 million were killed in the Nazi genocides and war crimes.
The spillover of racist sensibilities onto the domain of sports was inevitable, and was graphically evident in the build-up and conduct of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hitler fired his first racist salvo in the sporting arena by allowing only members of the ‘Aryan race’ to represent Germany. Spain and the Soviet Union boycotted the games.
The president of the United States Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, had controversially supported the games by stating that, ‘politics has no place in sports’, and had subsequently pulled out two American sprinters (Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman) from running the 4 X 100 relay event, to avoid embarrassing Hitler by having two Jews winning gold medals.
Interestingly, two women and Muslim athletes from Turkey, Halet Cambel and Suat Fetgeri Asani, had turned down the offer of a formal introduction and shaking of hands with Hitler, because of his discriminatory sense of racism.
World War II ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany. A concerted attempt at De-Nazification ensued. The German nation had to countenance a sense of collective shame, responsibility and punishment following the release of horrific race-related footage. The slow and painful process of moral and material reparations, compensations and societal healing led to a more internalised, honest and widespread acceptance of the horrors of racism.
The first signs of the changed narrative were visible in the mid-1950s when an influx of Turkish immigrants made their way to Germany as the workforce.
Soon the famed Wirtschaftswunder (‘economic miracle’) in West Germany necessitated the end of the two-year limitation clause of Gastarbeiter (‘guest worker’) provisions so that the Turkish workers could stay in West Germany for a longer period. Today more than 4 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany, representing 5 per cent of the total population and is the largest ethnic minority.
The integration of the Turkish people into the nationality and stoic order of Deutschland has been a rocky process and susceptible to prevailing prejudices, perceptions and myths. The emotional link that the German-Turks feel towards Turkey is linked to the increasingly conservative politics of Turkey, its controversial constitutional referendum that makes it autocratic and the ever-contentious subject of dual citizenship.
Fragile emotions abound amongst the German-Turks who are constantly effecting a balancing act to justify their emotional connect with Turkey.
Contemporary issues of global Pan-Islamism, a fresh wave of immigrants, growing influence of religion, and economic pressures have given rise to xenophobia and societal reactions. Given the wounded German past of two World Wars, two dictatorships and the holocaust, any slide towards perceived extremism, overt-religiosity or intolerance militates against the zealously guarded freedoms and rationality.
Despite pressures of populism and the socio-economic issues of the asylum-seekers, Germany has been amongst the most accommodative and liberal democracies that was forced to stop its open-door policy, only after the numbers spiraled beyond its capacity to absorb further immigration.
It was only by 1993 that the first person of Turkish origin, Mehmet Scholl, could play for the German football team. Later many more donned the German colours, including Mesut Ozil, who resigned from the German football team after a lacklustre World Cup performance individually, and as a team.
Ozil’s outburst that, “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose”, is symptomatic of the crisis of identities, allegiance and national heritage that regresses into nationalism and pride towards the adopted country. In an insecure and charged world, duality of preferences and individuality are only weighed in black and white with the onus on the individual concerned, to express his position in a sensitive and delicate manner.
Mesut Ozil was denuded from a hero in the 2014 World Cup to a villain in the 2018 World Cup; he was subjected to more flak than he individually deserved, as his team had collectively failed to deliver.
However, as a ‘star’ player and one who had recently been photographed with the Turkish President Erdogan, he was an easy and expected target of collective frustration. But by not sensing the larger societal narrative at play (deliberately or otherwise), Ozil’s untimely reiteration of his cultural allegiance with the Turkish nation (“I have two hearts”) has opened the field for accusations beyond his failing football skills.
A deft acknowledgement of his own sub-standard performance and an unequivocal reiteration of his ‘Germaness’, would have blunted and shamed the unfair racial taunts coming his way. While the world was acknowledging the French triumph as the ‘victory for the African continent’, the players themselves were prudent enough to refrain from their native identities, and instead harped on the ‘victory of France’.
Racism is a deplorable fact, and Mesut Ozil chose to counter the same in a manner that only exacerbated the situation when he said: “I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t”.
The statement unwittingly equated the entirety of the German nation to the fringe elements who gain traction by such counter-negation. The five-time national player of the year, Mesut Ozil, could have nuanced his frustrations and resignation in a more gracious note to the nation itself, whilst, calling the bluff of the racist slurs simultaneously.
Unfortunately, he didn’t differentiate between the two and only added fire to the simmering discontent, perceptions and inequities of racial reality in the 21st century. A gifted footballer who personified a possible thaw and generational shift in the German narrative, has ended his illustrious career in controversial circumstances, both as a victim of, and as a willing participant in, the societal unrest that goes beyond, football skills.
The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.