‘Populists are united in their common belief in simple solutions’

In his new book, SPIEGEL correspondent Hasnain Kazim responds to writers of hate mail from the entire spectrum of German society. In his interview with MIA Student Jens Anderer, he provides important insights into the origins of populism and political extremism and tries to give an answer to the question: What should the response be?


The Governance Post: Mr. Kazim, we are living in uncertain times. Europe is experiencing a shift to the right; voters are turning towards widespread populism and political extremism. What drives the people?

Hasnain Kazim: It’s a strange situation: In general, people in Europe – and especially in Germany – are better off than ever. Unemployment is low, economy is growing, and peace prevails. Of course poverty exists; the gap between poor and rich is growing. But those who cheer for populists are by no means just those suspended in poverty. The dissatisfaction certainly relates to the fact that parties and politicians, both established for decades, are stuck within old structures, mindsets and behaviour, unable to provide solutions for today’s problems. However, the subsequent turn to populism is pretty crazy and self-destructive. I’m afraid people behave like this, because they are not reflecting, they believe in simple solutions, and they are looking for scapegoats for any kind of thing. For example, the fact that the refugee issue is still debated in 2018 and that politicians are willing to stir up the public about it, even though the number of refugees has dramatically declined since 2015, shows how little people perceive a true reality. If you ask them, if they are actually in contact with refugees and if they ever had problems with them, they answer: No, never. Nevertheless, they protest. This is frightening and has something to do with the inability to reflect and control one’s fears.

TGP: Is social inequality then the deciding factor?  Do people fear losing something on a material level, even if – for example and with regard to the so called ‘Refugee Crisis’ – they didn’t lose anything directly?

HK: That certainly plays a big role. Even wealthy people vote for the ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD). Professors and lawyers, engineers and doctors often hold appalling racist positions when debating refugees. This has to do with a certain fear of loss. ‘Are the people coming to potentially challenge my job? Maybe, for even less money? Are rents rising since more people need housing?’ I find it remarkable how people adhere to material standards. Out of an objective consideration, they should know about the kind of luxury they are living in, comparing their situation to the greater part of human kind. They think they are entitled to two cars in the garage and two flights to their holiday destinations a year. ‘They worked so hard for it.’ The fact is, billions of other people work even harder and still live in dire poverty. Many of them are now demanding their share, escape is a consequence. A little more humbleness, a little more reflection on our living standards in Germany and Europe, as well as the willingness to share, would be in order. It’s especially strange for me, that politicians who call themselves ‘Christian’ show themselves to be particularly unchristian in the debate.

TGP: As a German citizen and journalist with Indian-Pakistani roots, you experience a lot of hostilities. You decided to write a book called ‘Post von Karlheinz’, which publicises hate mail and enraged letters from readers. How did this project come about?

HK: The protests against foreigners arrived together with the refugees. Pegida was born. More and more people demanded to ‘take the concerns and needs of the citizens seriously’, one had to ‘seek dialogue’ and ‘talk at eye level’ with them. To me, this was annoying, because people wrote me things like ‘We Germans must continue with you Muslims the work we started with the Jews!’ I wouldn’t even call myself a Muslim, but this is just a footnote. What’s behind that? No preoccupations and no needs justify disrespect for human dignity, baseness and racism. Nevertheless, some seriously demanded to talk to these people. So, I decided to answer all my hate mail writers. That was in early 2016. When I published a more or less funny dialogue with a reader named ‘Karlheinz’ on Facebook in November 2016, there was a huge response. Many readers wanted to know, whether there were more such dialogues. Publishers asked whether I wanted to create a book out of it. I hesitated, but decided to do so in mid-2017. Finally, in the spring of 2018 the project was born: ‘Post from Karlheinz. Furious letters from real Germans – and how I answer them.

TGP: Who are the people writing to you? Where does the hate come from?

HK: The whole spectrum of society is writing to me, young and old, poor and rich. In general, more so men than women. Roughly, the hate letter writers can be divided into three groups:

First, people who are frustrated because of a family quarrel or a confrontation with their partner, people who got into trouble at work, or who were drunk and now have to vent their frustration with someone. Some of them thought I wouldn’t read their letters – they thought my mailbox was a sort of a garbage dump. ‘Sorry, I did not know anyone was reading my mail’, someone wrote me. Or ‘I am sorry, I was drunk last night and did not know what I was writing.’

Then there are, secondly, people who get upset about a concrete political issue. They cannot deal with the sudden amount of refugees in their village, are annoyed by high price increases or their low remuneration. But instead of articulating their fears objectively and appropriately, they demand to ‘send refugees back to the Mediterranean in a rubber boat, preferably with a hole in it’ or to ‘shoot all politicians’. For these people, I feel like a special education teacher, who has to take them by the hand and teach them how to articulate themselves appropriately.

And then, thirdly, there are the true racists, for whom anyone who is not white remains an ‘alien body’ or a ‘foreigner’, who can ‘never be a true German’. Such people are rarely reached with words.

TGP: In 2016, the Turkish authorities denied the renewal of your press credentials, which forced you to leave the country as Der Spiegel’s Turkey correspondent. Isn’t there a connection? Are populists unwilling to hear your opinion because they pursue opposing goals or are you just not understood?

HK: No, I am understood quite correctly. But populists do not like being criticized and contradicted, they do not like when their solutions are exposed to be illusions. This is why they fight press freedom and call journalists enemies. Populists all over the world are the same, whether it’s Trump in the US or Orbán in Hungary. The German AfD and the Turkish AKP, the party of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are very similar. The AKP is the Islamist version of an AfD. Populists are united in their common belief in simple solutions. They think in a friend-foe-schematic, they defame any kind of opposition as enmity; they desire a strong leader and cherish omnipotent fantasies.

TGP: In your opinion, the problem of racism and political extremism is not a new one. In the digital age, the threshold can be even lower. What can we do against it?

HK: The most important thing is to not keep silent. If we remain silent, we accept racism and extremism as something normal, as an equal voice in the range of possible opinions. But it’s not. Racism and extremism are a major threat to democracy and freedom. Thus, we have to raise our voices; we can’t look the other way. We shouldn’t talk down the problems and we shouldn’t look for cheap apologies and justifications. This applies to all of us. Nobody should say they didn’t know anything about any of this. By the way, this goes to those who claimed they didn’t know anything between 1933 and 1945 in Germany. How blind must one have been to not have seen anything?

TGP: The attack of Solingen 25 years prior, Chemnitz today. Where do you see the duty of politics to prevent and anticipate social discrimination and the construction of stereotypes?

HK: I’m afraid politics has contributed much to today’s discrimination and prejudice. Back then in Solingen, Chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU) did not want to attend the funeral service, because he did not want to engage in ‘condolence tourism’. In August 1992, neo-Nazis chased Vietnamese people through the city, and thousands of people stood by the roadside, watched, and even applauded. A politician in Berlin quite seriously warned against a ‘domination by foreign influences in Germany’. Back then, I found the incidents as scandalous as the German Minister of the Interior’s silence after the incidents in Chemnitz. He didn’t say a word for one week, only then to declare that ‘migration is the mother of all problems’. It’s unacceptable and unworthy for a member of the government. The first step would be for politics to stop with such nonsense. If politics stopped creating an atmosphere with cheap solutions in the search for consent, a great deal could be achieved.

TGP: Thank you very much for the interview.

Hasnain Kazim is a German journalist and author. From 2009 to 2013 he was based in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he was working as the South Asia correspondent for Der Spiegel. Later, from 2013 to March 2016 he was the Turkey correspondent, and today he is based in Vienna, Austria. For his journalistic reconstruction of the terroristic attack on Mumbai in 2008, he received the CNN Journalist Award in 2009. He can be followed on Twitter @HasnainKazim.

Jens Anderer is currently studying his Master of International Affairs at the Hertie School of Governance. He graduated with a twofold Bachelor of social and economic sciences from University of Erfurt, Germany and Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina. He has been working for several institutions at home and abroad, such as trade unions, research, consultancies, network agencies and an environmental and human rights NGO.