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How A Teenager's Death Became A Political Weapon In Germany's Immigration Debate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, you'll find a story about Germany that opens with an account of a sickening crime - a 14-year-old girl, Susanna, never came home from a sleepover. Her body was eventually found in woods not 10 miles from her house. She had been raped and strangled. German police were quick to identify a suspect - a 21-year-old named Ali Bashar who lived in a nearby shelter for refugees. He and his family fled back to the family home in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

The case from last May has activated fault lines across Germany. Yascha Mounk wrote The New Yorker story and joins me now in the studio. Hi, Yascha.

YASCHA MOUNK: Hi.

KELLY: Your Letter From Germany explores how this one teenager's death became a political weapon.

MOUNK: Yes. This is obviously a very tragic murder case, but what's most striking about it is that as I was travelling across the country from north to south, from east to west, she kept popping up, as it were. So I was at this huge far-right rally in the eastern city of Chemnitz - 8,000 people marching against Angela Merkel's relatively generous refugee policy. And in the first row was a poster of Suzanna's face made up like a funeral notice with the place and the name of her death prominently displayed on it.

KELLY: As you reported this, you traveled all over the country. And you found a very different reaction and level of tolerance for immigration and refugees in different parts of Germany. Explain.

MOUNK: Yeah. So one of the fascinating people I spoke to for the piece helped to organize that big far-right protest in Chemnitz. And he essentially said, look, from our perspective, west of Germany is already lost.

KELLY: Lost?

MOUNK: If people in Cologne or Munich went on the streets to protest against the country's immigration policy, and I quote, he said, "hordes of Arabs would beat up the children in school the next day. But here in Eastern Germany, there's still few enough people with migrant roots that we can keep them out if only we create a sufficiently hostile atmosphere to them."

KELLY: There are a lot of layers to Susanna Feldmann's story, one of which is that her mom, Diana Feldmann, is herself a Jewish immigrant from Moldova. And her father was a Kurd who grew up in Turkey. Is that right?

MOUNK: Yeah, that's right. So one of the really fascinating pieces of the story is that this family is itself a representation of Germany's multi-ethnic future. The murdered girl's mother said, look, I didn't have a problem with her going and hanging out at this shelter for refugees because she'd been friends with her murderer and his family for a while. You know, in school, they always tell people, go and make friends with kids who are from somewhere else. And it wasn't really very political.

But she has been radicalized as a result of this experience. And so when you look at her Facebook page today, it very clearly blames Angela Merkel for the death of her child. She calls for very restrictive immigration policies, and she sympathizes with the far-right.

KELLY: How about for you? How has reporting this story changed your view of the country where you were born and grew up?

MOUNK: Well, I think it made me very worried about the strength of the far-right in the country. I did not expect the people who want to exploit crimes like this one to be so sophisticated and so effective in what they do. I also was a little taken aback by some of the complacency from the local authorities.

So when you look at this murder case, the suspected murderer had committed a string of other crimes and nothing had ever really happened to him. And so I think one of the ways to respond to this ferment is to make sure that the authorities do their job in order to give the bulk of German citizens, who are not xenophobic, the confidence they need that they're going to be safe.

KELLY: What is the status of the suspect's case, by the way? Has he been charged, convicted?

MOUNK: He has been charged. And his trial is going to take place in the coming months.

KELLY: I'm curious - as Germany wrestles with these questions about immigration and national identity and the far-right, to what extent does German history - does World War II hang over this?

MOUNK: Very strongly. So at one point, I was at a different protest in the southwest of Germany. And the lady holding the speech there said, look, the German mainstream wants us to feel guilty for the past. And they're using that in order to justify a policy that would change this country radically. Well, we shouldn't feel guilty in that kind of way anymore. We shouldn't allow them to use this against us.

So the debate between the part of Germany which takes the lessons of World War II seriously and thinks that it has to be at the root of what it means to be German today and the people who angrily reject this reading of history is at the core of Germany's debate today.

KELLY: Yascha Mounk. He is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the Letter From Germany in this week's New Yorker. Yascha Mounk, thank you.

MOUNK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.