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Merkel's silence is golden no more

Polina Garaev

clock 5 min read

Angela Merkel
TwitterAngela Merkel

Chancellor's tendency to wait and see which way the wind blows no longer accepted after anti-refugee riots

Only when the clouds of tear gas settled after a weekend of clashes between police and far-right activists outside a refugee center near Dresden, did Chancellor Angela Merkel appear in front of the cameras to condemn the riots, in which at least 31 policemen were injured. “Repulsive and shameful,” she called the events, but her silence until that point spoke louder than her words.

Merkel's lack of response while the violence was raging in Heidenau drew much criticism, which was not easily mollified by her subsequent statement, nor by the announcement that she would visit the battle-weary town on Wednesday.

Upon her arrival, Merkel was greeted by around 150 far-right demonstrators booing her and shouting "traitor, traitor" and "we are the mob".

The new hashtag #Merkelschweigt (Merkelsilent) has become one of the most popular in Germany in recent days, appearing more than 7,600 times alongside photoshopped pictures of Merkel with a butterfly covering her mouth, à la "The Silence of the Lambs" movie poster.

Twitter'Merkel is Silent'

A twitter account called #merkelschweigt, which gained 200 followers in a day, contains mostly empty tweets of just dots, to illustrate the procrastination of the chancellor. Germany's most popular news program Tagesschau also tweeted screen captures with denouncements from four politicians, including Merkel herself – whose citation remained blank.

On Facebook, a new community titled “Merkel, say something” (#Merkelsagwas, also on Twitter) promoted an online petition urging the silent chancellor to express support for a “colorful Germany”, to visit a refugee home and to “outlaw the hate and incitement”. The petition was introduced last week, first attracting only a few hundred signatories. Following the riots, almost 45,000 people joined the call within a day.

Merkel was already mocked recently on social media after she brought a Palestinian refugee girl to tears, trying to explain to her why Germany can't accept all asylum seekers. After what was construed as a half-hearted attempt to comfort her, critics tweeted pictures of Merkel “stroking” various individuals in times of need, under the hashtag ‪#‎Merkelstreichelt‬ (Merkelstrokes).

The chancellor's tendency to remain silent during national debates, to first see which way the wind blows before announcing her stand, is no secret – but so far it was seen mainly as a peculiar leadership style, rather than a liability. “Merkeling” (Merkeln, in German) even entered into popular usage among youths, describing the act of doing nothing, not making any decisions or comments.

Merkel delayed until Monday, three days after the rioting began. First it was her spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, who in the name of the entire government condemned “the violent rampages and the aggressively xenophobic atmosphere in the strongest terms... It is vile how right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis try to spread their hollow, hateful messages.” / DPA / Arno Burgi / DPA / Arno BurgiPolice clash with far-right activists protesting the opening of a new centre for refugees on August 21, 2015 in Heidenau, eastern Germany

Soon after, the Chancellor herself echoed the same words, at an unavoidable press conference after her meeting with French President Francois Hollande to discuss the refugee influx to Europe as well as the crisis in the Ukraine. Merkel stressed that “it's repulsive how the far right and neo-Nazis are trying to spread their hollow messages of hate,” and described the “aggressive and xenophobic atmosphere” as unacceptable.

“Finally she speaks!” declared newspaper headlines, praising the long-awaited clarity of her statement, while pointing out that it was much overdue. More so, Merkel made her remarks after Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) had already made a personal appearance in Heidenau on Monday morning, changing his holiday plans due to the events.

Merkel is scheduled to meet with refugees, volunteers and security staff in Heidenau, where the violence broke out on Friday in front of a refugee center, already prepared to house 320 asylum seekers. Hundreds of demonstrators, organized by the far-right National Democratic Party (NDP), threw stones, bottles and firecrackers at policemen, who responded with tear gas. The clashes continued sporadically till early Monday morning.

“The hesitancy of Angela Merkel, to find the right words here, I can not understand," criticized Green party faction leader Katrin Göring-Eckhardt. The chancellor's planned visit to Heidenau also didn't appease the opposition party: “This is a much-too-late première,” added its co-chairperson, Simone Peter. The vice chairman of Merkel's coalition partner SPD, Ralf Stegner, used even harsher words to express his disapproval of the chancellor's initial hesitation: “Angela Merkel is, and will remain, a fair weather chancellor,” he told the Spiegel Online.

Now, observers say, Silence is no longer an option. “The chancellor has come a long way doing politics like this,” wrote a political commentator for the Spiegel, who stressed that at least on the refugee issue, she must take a stand. “It involves an explosive force that should scare all democrats in the country,” he added, “Merkel must not continue to hide behind her cabinet colleagues.”

Polina Garaev is the i24news correspondent in Germany.