Monday, January 18, 2016

Mass Violence in Cologne: An Introduction

NOTE: Many of the articles and commentary pieces cited in this post contain disturbing content. Trigger warning!

The large-scale violence in Cologne and other European cities horrified the world. Before I discuss right-wing responses to the attacks, I'd like to provide an overview.

Cologne, Germany was thrown into chaos on New Year's Eve when roughly 1,000 Middle Eastern and North African men robbed and sexually assaulted women and girls near the city's train station. Over 100 women have reported their victimization to Cologne police, and hundreds more reported similar crimes in mass attacks across Germany.

Germans (including Germany's Muslims) and resident Syrian refugees were appalled by the mass sexual assaults. Cologne mayor Henriette Reker told Der Spiegel that the violence "threatens the balance in our country".

New Year's Eve sexual assaults weren't limited to Cologne.

  • Other Germany cities were flooded with reports of large-scale sexual assaults. The Local reports that groups of men sexually assaulted women in Frankfurt, Germany on New Year's Eve. According to Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Hamburg police recorded 133 cases of sexual assaults against women during New Year's Eve celebrations.

  • In Helsinki, Finland, security personnel reported extensive sexual harassment and sexual assault of women during the city's New Year festivities. The Telegraph reports that three Iraqi asylum seekers were arrested for committing sexual assaults in Senate Square during the celebration.

  • The Independent reports that three men were arrested in connection with sexual assaults that took place in Salzburg, Austria. In the wake of the attacks, Vienna police chief Gerhard Pürstl warned women not to walk alone at night or venture into "suspicious" areas.

The crisis is not without its heroes, however. The New York Times reports that Syrian refugee men came to a woman's aid during the Cologne chaos, a bright spot in an otherwise horrific night. Syrians and Tunisians have volunteered to provide security at the upcoming Cologne Carnival so as to prevent a repeat of the New Year's chaos, according to IRIN News.

Law enforcement is in the process of tracking down suspects in the mass assaults. German prosecutors are offering rewards of 10,000 Euros for information leading to the arrest of suspects, according to Reuters.

According to NBC News, authorities have identified 32 people suspected of playing roles in the Cologne violence, 22 of whom are asylum-seekers. North Rhine-Westphalia interior minister Ralf Jäger indicated that most of the assault suspects were migrants in a report to his state parliament's Internal Affairs Committee.

When news of the sexual assaults came to light, questions emerged as to why police did not gain control of the situation. According to the Guardian, a police report leaked to the German magazine Bild revealed that Cologne police were outnumbered and overwhelmed by perpetrators outside of the city's train station.

Overwhelmed or not, the police would be called to account for what happened. The Telegraph reports that Ralf Jäger suspended Cologne police chief Wolfang Albers amidst allegations that police responded too slowly and downplayed the scale of the violence. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Cologne mayor Henriette Reker admitted that the Cologne police "did not fulfill their duty in this situation".

A victim-blaming comment from one of Germany's political leaders inflamed public outrage. Cologne mayor Henriette Reker advised women that "It is always possible to keep a certain distance that is longer than an arm’s length", according to the New York Times.

Enraged Germans condemned Reker's comment on Twitter using the hashtag #einearmlaenge* ("an arm's length"). Even German justice minister Heiko Mass criticized Reker's comment in a tweet that read "Von Verhaltenstipps für Frauen wie #einearmlaenge halte ich rein gar nichts. Nicht Frauen tragen Verantwortung, sondern Täter." ("I have a low opinion of behavior tips for women such as #anarmslength. It is not women who bear responsibility, but perpetrators.")

In a country where immigration is already a contentious subject, German attitudes toward immigrants have started to sour in the wake of the attacks. According to BBC News, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed denial of asylum and deportation for immigrants who have committed crimes. Anti-immigration groups such as PEGIDA (an acronym for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, or "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West") are citing the attacks as they slam German immigration policy.

The New Year's assaults were soon followed by outraged protests. On January 10th, demonstrators marched in Hamburg to condemn violence against women, reports the Economic Times. According to the Guardian, three different protests took place in Cologne on January 9th, starting with a flashmob of female demonstrators decrying violence against women. Later that day, Cologne saw a gathering of people who supported PEGIDA, as well as an anti-PEGIDA counter-protest. CNN states that approximately 1,700 demonstrators took part in the Cologne demonstrations, roughly 500 of whom supported PEGIDA. Similar protests and counter-protests took place in Leipzig, according to Euronews.

Outrage and compassion brought forth demonstrations in other countries as well. Broadly reports that hundreds of Dutch demonstrators took part in an Amsterdam march to show solidarity with Cologne's victims.

Alarm over the mass sexual assaults has prompted citizens to form street patrols. According to Deutsche Welle, a Facebook group seeks to organize citizen patrols in the city of Dusseldorf, Germany. In Kemi, Finland, a group calling itself the Soldiers of Odin now patrols the streets to protect Finns from immigrants, according to Reuters.

Unfortunately, outrage has also given rise to violence.
  • Syrian refugees living in Cologne fear that anti-immigration extremists will target them for violence, according to IRIN News.

  • Cologne police stated that on January 10th, 6 Pakistanis were attacked by a mob of nearly 20 people and a Syrian man was attacked by five people, according to the Associated Press. Witnesses claim that an African man suffered an attack as well, reports the Independent.

  • When thousands of PEGIDA protesters assembled in Leipzig on January 12th, according to the Local, the rally was marred by violence on the sidelines. German police arrested 211 rioters who smashed windows, ignited pyrotechnics, and set cars on fire in Leipzig.

The New Year's Eve attacks were probably coordinated, judging from the sheer magnitude of the violence. But coordinated by whom, and for what purpose? Were the attacks the work of a criminal network? Were the attacks meant to instill terror in the populace? Or, most likely, was this someone's sick idea of "fun"?

Whatever the motives behind the attacks, the sexual assaults were rooted in misogyny. We must ask hard questions about the attackers' hatred of women, misogynist attitudes in Germany's minority communities, and rape culture. We must remember that violence against women festers in our own communities as well as Cologne, and that we must fight this pandemic problem wherever it exists.

Also, we must not lose sight of the women and girls who were victimized. The most important tasks in the wake of the New Year's attacks are to bring perpetrators to justice and foster healing among the victims. We must not use their victimization as an excuse to demonize all members of a given community, to ignore the plight of refugees, or to drive political agendas that have nothing to do with the New Year's Eve attacks.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

New York Times: As Germany Welcomes Migrants, Sexual Attacks in Cologne Point to a New Reality  (Trigger warning)

Women's eNews: New Year's Eve Attacks in Cologne, Germany, Spread Aftershocks  (Trigger warning)

Deutsche Welle: Cologne attacks: 'The Muslim faith is irrelevant to these drunken men'

Der Spiegel: How New Year's Eve in Cologne Has Changed Germany

Huffington Post: We Must End Violence Against Women In Germany

* When I searched for #einearmlaenge in Twitter, it brought up several anti-Muslim and anti-immigration tweets in English, suggesting that right-wing observers have adopted the hashtag.


  1. I did not know all of these details so thank you for your excellent research and report, Ahab. It is so strange to me that these assaults we're premeditated, apparently the result of significant planning and coordination. I'd like to know who was behind it and why.

    1. Agi Tater -- If thousands of men gathered in cities across Europe and perpetrated these crimes on the same night, it HAD to be coordinated. I too want to know who was responsible so that they can be brought to justice, and so future mass attacks can be prevented.

  2. Zosimus the HeathenJanuary 19, 2016 at 6:55 AM

    As someone who spent a very pleasant holiday in Germany and Austria at the end of 2014 (and who spent NYE in Munich), the recent stories I've been hearing from Germany make me very sad. During my time there, I found the above two countries very safe and tolerant places (about the only thing on NYE that gave me cause for concern was the huge number of people setting off fireworks in the city centre!), so I hope the incidents you mentioned in your post don't end up changing that.

    Unfortunately NYE where I live can be pretty awful, thanks mainly to the fact far too many people here don't seem to know how to handle their alcohol! I did the whole NYE thing here for a few years, but ended up giving up on it when I came to the sad conclusion that there were far too many dickheads out and about on that night of the year (as I often put it, they're the sort of people who haven't had a good night unless they've ruined someone else's!). Years ago, for example, I remember going to a rave on NYE, wearing something rather flamboyant for it, and then having some charmer (someone who looked like he was trying to emulate an American street gangster) scream, "Faggot!" at me repeatedly when I was making my way to a bus stop afterwards to catch a bus home. Not something that made me feel very safe, and certainly not an auspicious start to the new year! (And yeah, I've gotten the victim-blaming crap myself ie "Well, if you go out dressed like THAT, what do you expect?" Yeah, no.)

    1. Zosimus -- I'm sorry to hear that the "charmer" insulted you like that. Drunks and boors ruin celebrations for everyone else.

      I worry that the New Year's Eve attacks may be a portent of more violence to come. It disgusts me that so many people have been forced to live in fear after this.


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