Ben Mauk

Aldekerk is a village near Germany’s post-industrial Ruhr Valley, but it’s all immaculate half-timbered houses and shivering lace curtains. I went there last May and when I arrived – it was a Saturday morning – there seemed not to be anyone outside. Somewhere the mayor’s son was getting married, and I’d been warned that no one would be available to talk to me during my visit. As I wandered past the window boxes of geraniums, the sober war memorial, the parish steeples, a fire engine roared down Hochstrasse in celebration, and I glimpsed a tidy group of people disappearing into a brick Fachwerk inn. The only other signs of life were two old women on their knees scraping weeds from the grout between flagstones. Aldekerk is the sort of village where not even plants may grow out of place, where until recently you might have whiled away your entire life without breaking out of Platt, the Dutch-soaked dialect that renders speech lively and incomprehensible to outsiders. The most recent census gave the proportion of foreigners in the area as 2.8 per cent.

About half a mile from the inn is the former Kaisersaal. Once a standard pub or Kneipe, today it’s a state-approved squat for the village indigent, more and more of whom are refugees. As towns across Germany have accepted their federal allocation of asylum seekers, administrators have fashioned ad hoc shelters out of disused factories, offices, motels and parish houses, usually on the outskirts of town. In this way, they hope to keep neighbourhood friction to a minimum. Even so, at the moment, someone tries to burn one of these improvised hostels to the ground every two to three days.

Around 4 a.m. on the morning of 26 April, acrid smoke rose from the carpet in the rear building of the Kaisersaal. Of those living there at the time a dozen or so were refugees. Two men and a four-year-old child were taken by ambulance to the hospital suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation. When the police arrived they discovered two intoxicated locals, a man and a woman, who gave contradictory statements and were arrested. (In the reporting of German court cases, the names of the accused are almost always withheld.) Firefighters ushered the other residents into a Red Cross tent, where they were given biscuits. Two of the victims returned from hospital; one man was kept in for two days. The damage – a thousand euros’ worth – was cleaned up. Aldekerk moved on. The woman admitted to setting the carpet on fire and, several weeks later, both she and the 24-year-0ld man were charged with aggravated arson.

The mayor of Aldekerk had been defensive on the phone, blaming two drunk idiots who might not even have had an extremist background and suggesting that the case wasn’t worth reporting on; it was an exception, he said, rather than part of a right-wing trend. I’d heard the line before. Apparently, this was a national crisis of exceptions.

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