War, Corona and divided society

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How polarized is Germany? This question is controversially discussed at the European Police Congress. Result: It depends on the perspective.

Talking? Be silent? To quarrel? Rush? The debate culture in Germany is tense (symbol image)

“Division of society” is the theme. Discussing it: a politician, a psychologist, a police chief and a digital expert. Four people, four opinions? Katrin Göring-Eckardt, member of the Greens and Vice President of the German Bundestag, made the start at the European Police Congress in Berlin: “There is no reason to talk about divisions in society.” Psychologist Ahmad Mansour disagrees: “We are a divided society.”

“Our society is agitated”

Katrin Göring-Eckardt says: “The vast majority in our country is still behind democracy.” But she also registers “very loud groups” such as lateral thinkers, enemies of Ukraine, those who understand Putin and deniers of the coronavirus. Their volume sometimes leads to “we talking about divisions in society”. So everything is not that bad? That's not how the politician wants to be understood. Enemies of democracy must be monitored very closely and punished if they become criminals.

Everyone agrees on that, but Mansour sees another problem: the defamation of those who think differently has become so widespread that one has to say: “Our society is agitated and in need of a massive foundation course in discourse culture.” He considers the development to be a tolerance problem. “The borders, as we are discussing them, have become narrower and narrower in recent years.” That is a very big danger for democracy.

“We're always the buffer stop”

Britta Zur, chief of police in Gelsenkirchen (North Rhine-Westphalia) agrees with Katrin Göring-Eckhardt: “The majority of our society still behaves democratically.” But the police and the well-fortified state must be vigilant and remove the breeding ground for extremists. This includes a transparent, open police force that makes it clear “that we have no place for extremists, either outside or within our organization”. 

Former prosecutor Britta Zur has been chief of police in Gelsenkirchen (North Rhine-Westphalia) since 2019

In order to live up to this claim as best as possible, the agency headed by Britta Zur is very active on social media, i.e. on platforms such as Twitter and Tiktok. But the head of the authorities has no illusions about the role of the police: “We are always the buffer for many, many people who are insecure, who are dissatisfied, who may have also started to become radicalized.” For example during Corona protests: “My colleagues are the ones who stand on the street and then have to deal with lateral thinkers.”

The dispute over heavy weapons for Ukraine

Katrin Göring-Eckardt sees it similarly: Corona, climate crisis, war in Ukraine – all of this puts people “insanely under stress”. That's why she wouldn't speak of a split. In her role as a politician, she often sees herself in a dilemma: the expectation of always having to react very quickly to everything means that background information and motives cannot play any role at first.

Watch video 42 :31

War in Ukraine: will heavy weapons turn the tide?

The discussion about military support for Ukraine is such a case from the point of view of the Greens. You have to be very disciplined, not always saying something straight away, but thinking first and then expressing yourself. She is in favor of the delivery of heavy weapons, but: “It's not an easy decision, it's a very difficult one.” You have to make it clear which arguments and facts led to this.

“Two hours on Twitter, that's exhausting”

In this context, Katrin Göring-Eckardt is critical of communication via social media. “Two hours on Twitter, that's very exhausting.” The Russian side is currently experiencing what fake news can trigger. “We are confronted with statements where you think: You can see at first glance that this is nonsense.” But people are actually in their bubbles – and don't leave them either.

Ahmad Mansour also advocates heavy weapons for Ukraine. “But I also have to endure that other people have different opinions.” He misses this ability in many. The willingness to engage in dialogue decreases when it comes to issues such as refugees, integration, Corona or Russia. The digital revolution – keyword Twitter, TikTok & Co. – did not mean that “we became smarter”, regrets the expert on democracy and extremism. 

Why is media competence not a school subject?

It's not about demonizing social media, Mansour emphasizes. He has long wondered why media skills are still not a central subject in schools. Seven or eight-year-olds are already out and about on smartphones in social media and YouTube “and yet they are not able to distinguish between fake news and the truth”. Police chief Britta Zur sees it the same way: young people have to be trained that there are other information media. “It's a big task for all of us.”

Watch video 05:28

Fight against fake news about the war in Ukraine

And how divided is Germany really? Digitization expert and philosopher Nikolai Horn is just as difficult to answer as the others in the discussion at the European Police Congress. Polarization is part of the “DNA of democracy,” he says. However, Horn is skeptical about the increasing emotionalization, “without willingness to be convinced by a good argument”. However, he is wary of turning social media into a scapegoat: “You are a burning lens of society.”