In an era defined by pervasive mass mediation, what role might intimacy—a relation of closeness and familiarity with another person—play in the realm of politics? Most of us are familiar with the town hall meetings, living-room campaign events, and other highly publicized yet simultaneously face-to-face interactions that now play a prominent role in this country’s electoral campaigns. Most of us also recognize the ways that Obama and other recent Presidents have presented the nation with stories of individual tribulation in order to “give a human face” to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the spiraling costs of health care, or the most recent school shooting. To be sure, cynics might argue that political figures stage such moments of (supposed) intimacy merely to evoke and harness constituents’ sentiments in the service of their policies—or to lend themselves an air of human approachability. There is probably some truth in these claims. But I believe such skepticism also underestimates the varied motives that prompt leaders to mobilize the rhetoric of intimacy. It also skirts the diverse reasons why ordinary citizens might seek out—or refuse—those leaders’ expressions of empathy and solidarity.
I was led to these reflections by last week’s meeting between German Federal President Joachim Gauck and the relatives of the ten people murdered by the National Socialist Underground, or NSU, between 2000 and 2007. The NSU was a small but committed group of violent neo-Nazis that initially coalesced in Jena, a university town in the former East Germany, over the course of the 1990s. In the years that followed, the NSU’s core members ranged across the Federal Republic of Germany to target and fatally shoot nine small business owners of migrant backgrounds (eight of them Turkish, one of them Greek). They also shot two police officers, one of whom later died of her injuries, and injured twenty-three additional people in two separate bombings.
The NSU managed to evade detection and arrest for years due to competition between German law enforcement and security agencies, structural barriers to communication, and the evident negligence of investigators on the local, state, and national levels. Perhaps most egregiously, the Federal Office of Constitutional Protection sought to avoid public scrutiny and censure of its actions in late 2011 by deliberately destroying files that documented its long-standing contacts with another right extremist group closely related to the NSU. During these years of bungling, many of those in law enforcement and public security failed to take the possibility of right-wing political violence seriously. Instead, investigators long operated on the premise that the victims had died at the hands of relatives, drug dealers, or other criminals in the underground immigrant milieu. In this manner, law enforcement officials wittingly or unwittingly bought into reductive stereotypes that link people of migrant backgrounds with violence and crime.
On February 18th, Federal President Gauck invited the victims’ families to his offices in Berlin to express his commitment to the full investigation of the murders and the institutional shortcomings that failed to prevent them. This meeting was a particularly delicate one for Gauck since he has struggled to strike a consistent and publicly palatable tone on matters of immigration. In 2010 he awkwardly defended the anti-immigrant populist Thilo Sarrazin and his book Deutschland schafft sich ab, and later that same year he distanced himself from former Federal President Christian Wulff’s claim that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Gauck also appeared distinctly ill at ease during an earlier memorial gathering with the victims’ families in 2012. On the whole, Gauck’s public statements have tended to emphasize the “foreignness” of Muslims and post-war migrants, not their integral and self-evident membership in German national life.
Perhaps in response to his earlier public statements, last week Gauck promised the families that he would invest his full “personal involvement” in the ongoing government-led inquiry. This striking formulation implied a level of engagement on his part that extended beyond the strictly “professional” concern that might be expected of him as Germany’s Federal President. In addition, Gauck insisted ahead of the meeting that it would be small in scale and familiar in tone, and members of the press would not be allowed to attend the proceedings. These conditions would allow him, he contended, to hold personal and private conversations with all of the attendees. In short, Gauck set considerable store in interpersonal intimacy as a means to engage with the surviving family members, acknowledge their loss and mistreatment, and restore at least some of their confidence in German legal and political institutions. He probably also hoped to rehabilitate his own public image to some degree, but I suspect that this motive was not the overriding one during this particular meeting.
Many of the surviving family members accepted Gauck’s invitation, and several of the seventy total attendees contributed in their own fashion to this performance of political intimacy. Ismail Yozgat, father of murder victim Halil Yozgat, arrived with a photograph of his son as a six-year-old hung around his neck, and when he tearfully called on state authorities to “give me my son back,” Gauck wrapped his arm around his shoulders.
But many of the other attendees pointedly refused to speak at length with the Federal President, and some later expressed irritation that Gauck had not lingered with them, but had instead departed promptly at 2 p.m. to attend to other business. Others were troubled by the fact that Gauck had shared his opening remarks with media representatives rather than reserving them for the families alone. And still others had not accepted the Federal President’s invitation at all and remained distant from the gathering. One family worried that the group would actually be too large for Gauck to have a personal conversation with them. A few others, meanwhile, justified their absence on the grounds that the Federal President’s office had not honored their requests for their lawyers to be present. In the words of Angela Wierig, representative for Ayşen Taşköprü: “true empathy would have recognized that my client would have liked me by her side.”
In short, the families of the NSU murder victims were well aware of the intimacy that Gauck had hoped to invest and mobilize in their meeting with him, and they negotiated his framing of the event in diverse ways. While some consented to the terms of Gauck’s invitation, others detected a distinct lack of sincerity in his proclaimed “personal involvement.” Others feared that the gathering would not in fact be intimate enough, while still others refused the offer of intimacy and instead sought to place the meeting on a squarely legalistic, guarded, even confrontational footing.
All of these responses point to the ways that human closeness is not an inevitable or natural state of affairs, but rather a contingent condition that can only fashioned amid varied and often trying circumstances. Moreover, they suggest that intimacy may not be the only or even the best means to redress moments of pain, injustice, and mistrust.
For no small number of the people affected by the NSU murders, rigorous accountability for law enforcement incompetence—not offers of solidarity from the Federal President—offered the most promising route forward.