I came into this world during the height of the American crime epidemic. Fortunately, much has changed in my home country during my lifetime. The '90s saw the historic reversal of the crime wave of the '70s and '80s, followed by the return to post-war crime rates in the 2000s. But, while America is a much safer country than it was when I was born, many people have been scarred by the experience of growing up in a very violent country, and, as a result, a question has become commonplace for many before a move to a new town: “Where shouldn’t I go”?
This is the exact question I asked a friend of mine when I decided to move to Berlin six years ago. I’d been to Berlin before, lived in Prenzlauerberg, ridden the U-Bahn across half the city, but I was still worried that I might get off at the wrong stop and find myself in a really uncomfortable situation. My friend had lived in Berlin for several years at that point and knew the city like the back of his hand. He hesitated a bit before answering, probably because, as a fellow Chicagoan, he knew where it was coming from. Then he said, basically, that there weren’t any neighborhoods that were even rough approximations of neighborhoods like Englewood in Chicago, where shootings are a daily occurance. Berlin wasn’t perfect, and there were definitely unsavory areas, but you really couldn’t think of it the same way as Chicago, a city of approximately the same population but with very different problems.
In general, the crime rate in Germany is far below that in the United States. According to the United Nations, the murder rate is approximately 1/5 that in the United States. Gun violence in the United States is particularly worse. Regardless of which criterion of violent crime you consider, Germany is much safer than the United States.
That being said, Germany is no paradise. Crime is endemic to poorer areas of big cities like Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne, and is a major problem in large swaths of the post-industrial regions in the west and the economically depressed cities of the east. In recent months, clashes have been instigated in several cities in Germany by radical Islamist groups, and the problem of right-wing violence has been brought to light by several high profile incidents in the past few years.
But despite these problems, Germany is a very safe place to live. This is especially true for students, because they usually live close to their universities, which tend to be either located in “Universitaetsstaedte,” far removed from the problems of the metropolises, or in city centers. Most of the rougher areas of the bigger cities aren’t located in the city centers, but instead are found on the outskirts, which means that students are unlikely to wander into bad neighborhoods accidentally.
As a student, it's essential to always be careful, and this is especially true when studying abroad in a country you aren't intimately familiar with. Events like the recent murder of a student in Offenbach exemplify the sometimes tragic randomness of violent behavior. But it's important to remember that despite this unfortunate reality, living in Germany is still very safe, and while there might be some places you wouldn't want to go here, you should feel secure in moving here to live and study.