The fear of foreigners doesn't exist at Pedgida demonstrations only. According to a 2014 representative Leipzig study, nearly 30 per cent of Germans are afraid of what they consider to be a dangerous infiltration of foreigners. Nearly 25 per cent of Germans are even of the opinion that foreigners must be sent back when jobs get scarce.
The official psychological term for this fear is called xenophobia. “A phobia describes an exaggerated fear. In this case that fear is of foreigners”, says Borwin Bandelow, fear researcher at the Universität Göttingen. The phrase stems back to the beginning of the 20th century. The successful Jewish general Alfred Dreyfus had been accused of passing on information to the Germans. In a trial that shook the nation, he was wrongly condemned, as it later turned out, despite scant evidence. The trial accompanied a wave of antisemitism and hostility toward foreigners; newspapers began only ever speaking of the “Jew Dreyfus”, and his expulsion from the military came on the heels of an angry mob comprised of 20,000 people. Anatole France, the French Nobel Prizewinner in Literature, described the phenomenon in 1906 through the term xenophobia. This historic example shows that hostilities can quickly emerge out of fear. That’s why it’s important to trace back its roots.
Bandelow provides a very simple explanation: our ancestors are to blame. “It’s like the fear of spiders.” Many centuries ago, we required fear as a defense mechanism. But today, dangerous spiders no longer exist in Germany. When we were still cave-dwelling nomads migrating through nature, resources were scarce, and the struggle therefore of the utmost importance. Foreigners were seen as competitors. Because of this, we would still fear people from different cultures. The situation today is of course different, but, “we are still born into this redundant xenophobia, this old defensive attitude”. For this sobering realization, the professor prescribes a simple remedy: directly facing it. One has to face one’s fears. After hundreds of harmless encounters with a particular fear, those who possess it will come to realize their fear was unfounded.
Rolf Haubl, by contrast, doesn't believe that facing fears can act as a remedy to overcome them. “Research shows that this doesn't always work”. The social psychologist from the Siegmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt explains describes the fear of foreigners as being the symptom of an insecure sense of self. “If I see myself as a second-class citizen, then I will project this onto foreigners”. According to Haubl, that’s why the causes are very difficult to generalise. People who had a fear of that which is foreign often felt marginalised in one form or another. “But that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality,” clarifies the professor. Society must counter this sense of marginalisation through facts. But even Haubl knows this isn’t an easy thing to do: “Anyone who cries ‘Lügenpresse’* doesn’t even believe themselves”.
For to whatever extent the fear of foreigners is normalised and widespread, it must not become a maxim for conduct. “Xenophobia is exploited by demagogues”, laments Professor Bandelow. Irrational fears of foreigners thereby become conflated with legitimate concerns. “Fear is an awful advisor”, says social psychologist Haubl.
Translated from the German by: Daniel Stächelin
You can read more about prejudices in our Fact Check.
*A phrase commonly used during the Third Reich to decry publications and media which attacked the rise of fascism. Translated literally: "lying press".