by Max Schwind
In early autumn of last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the traditionally rather conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), took Germany and the world by surprise. In her tenth year as Chancellor and the de facto leader of the European Union, Merkel decided to do something very few people expected – breaking with her policy that has been labelled as ‘Merkelism’. It was a policy characterized by reacting to various crises in a very cautious and slow manner, observing and carefully assessing risks and only coming up with a solution that lastly saved the day until it was almost too late. This controversial way of handling things in German and European politics has brought much criticism on Angela Merkel, both nationally and internationally. However, the German Chancellor seemed to be convinced that this strategy had been very successful so far – and many experts would agree – therefore most people expected her to remain adamant in holding her ground for the remainder of her term. Luckily, even in politics, every now and then comes along a moment that astonishes everyone: Merkel announced to the world that Germany, a country still coping with its dark past, would open its doors to a massive number of refugees and migrants fleeing from war, persecution and despair. This bold move did not come as a surprise because Germany never welcomed migrants before, to the contrary. It came as a complete surprise because it did not seem to fit into Angela Merkel’s conventional cautious, almost riskless way of ruling.
Looking at how the so-called most powerful woman in the world grew up offers a much deeper insight into her decision: The future German chancellor lived the first 35 years of her life as a de facto prisoner in former East Germany’s Berlin, surrounded by ‘the wall’ and ruled by a notoriously oppressive regime, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) which ordered to shoot anyone who attempted to flee into West Germany. Her personal drive for everyone to live in peace and freedom, a fundamental human right denied to Merkel for a large part of her life, finally expressed itself by her opening Germany’s doors to anyone who wished to leave their own individual prisons behind. It also marked the long-awaited embrace of a unified Germany’s role and responsibility as a great power in a globalised world, when Merkel answered the question as to why she decided to move to an open door policy: ‘In many regions war and terror prevail. States disintegrate. For many years we have read about this. We have heard about it. We have seen it on TV. But we had not yet sufficiently understood that what happens in Aleppo and Mosul can affect Essen or Stuttgart. We have to face that now’ (TIME 2015).
In last year’s September, while finishing my MA studies in the United Kingdom, I watched on the news what happened next in Germany, something that I can only describe as one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life: When thousands of Syrian refugees who followed Angela Merkel’s invitation arrived daily on Germany’s train stations, finishing their long and incredibly dangerous journey from their war-torn home country, they were greeted by thousands of cheering Germans who held up signs saying ‘Welcome to Germany’.
(Picture taken from: economictimes.indiatimes.com)
At train stations like Munich or Frankfurt, volunteers welcomed refugees by offering donated nourishments, toys, blankets, medicine and clothing. The countless volunteers brought so much that in order for the food not to go to waste; some local governments and aid organisations had to ask the people to halt their donations, as they already had more than they needed to provide for the tens of thousands of refugees arriving on a daily basis. The dedication and generosity of the German people during the first weeks of this mass migration was the rebirth of the so-called ‘Willkommenskultur’, literally meaning ‘welcome culture’, a term coined a few years earlier to attract foreigners to move to Germany in order to fill the void of skilled workers in some areas of North-Eastern Germany. In September 2015, it became the term that perfectly described the way the Germans welcomed refugees into their country.
German football fans welcoming refugees (Picture taken from: lebuzz.eurosport.co.uk)
By the end of last year, over one million people had arrived in Germany. What started off as a fairy tale-like story quickly became grim reality, when Germany was faced with the question as to how to accommodate and integrate such a massive number of people. In the first weeks of the arrival of refugees, a vast majority of German citizens were in favour of Merkel’s newest policy. The small number of sceptics among citizens and politicians were outshined by the euphoria of the events of September. However, by the end of October, a considerable percentage of the German populace became concerned that Germany might not be able to handle over one million refugees until the end of the year, with even more expected to arrive in the following year. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ revived an organisation that was founded in Dresden, the capital of the eastern state of Saxony, roughly a year earlier: Pegida – ‘Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes’, ‘Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West’. Pegida is a far-right movement that opposes what it considers the Islamisation of the Western world and demands much stricter immigration policies, especially for Muslim people. This movement did not receive much attention or support when it was founded, but Angela Merkel’s open door policy enabled Pegida to exploit the fears of many people who grew increasingly concerned to lose their culture, identity and wealth by accommodating such a vast quantity of Muslim refugees. On 19 October 2015, Pegida organised their biggest rally to date in Dresden, which 20,000 supporters attended. Across Europe, offshoots of Pegida have been founded, also demanding to stop the flow of refugees into their respective countries. The ‘refugee crisis’ has also strengthened support for the 2013 founded AfD – ‘Alternative für Deutschland’, ‘Alternative for Germany’. The AfD is a Eurosceptic, right-wing populist political party that failed to reach the five percent hurdle at the general elections in 2013, but has doubled its support to roughly ten percent according to recent polls. In January 2016, Frauke Petry, leader of the anti-immigration faction of the AfD has gained international attention and condemnation by arguing for shooting refugees at the borders of Germany as a last resort. The incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, where hundreds of women were sexually assaulted and robbed – allegedly by ‘non-Germans’ – have sparked further scepticism and even open hostility against refugees and immigrants in general. Especially in Saxony and other parts of Eastern Germany, refugee accommodations and buses have been attacked by radicalised citizens in some cases. With reinvigorated far-right movements like Pegida, right-wing populist political parties such as the AfD and incidents of open hostility against refugees, one must ask the question: Has Germany’s ‘welcome culture’ come to a quick end? Are refugees still welcome?
It was very clear from the beginning that the euphoria of September 2015 was not going to last, which is a good thing, because euphoria blinds you to the challenges and problems of whatever project you are euphoric about. You have to be aware of these issues in order to solve them. According to recent polls, a vast majority of Germans are still in favour of welcoming refugees into their country in order to offer them a life in peace and dignity. Investigations on the Cologne attacks clearly show that only four out of one hundred offenders were actual refugees (Guardian 2016). However, many of these offenders had an immigration background – they should and will be brought to justice and most likely be denied the right to stay in Germany. Immigrants who commit severe crimes have to be treated this way – anyone can easily agree on this. The recent tightening on German asylum law focuses on dealing quicker and more efficiently with such offenders. This reform does not show that Germany is becoming increasingly xenophobic, it rather illustrates the government’s efforts to deal more efficiently with immigrants who violate German and European law. It is crucial to emphasise that the Cologne attacks – as shocking and despicable as they were – were committed by a relatively small number of refugees and immigrants compared to the massive total sum of their respective groups. To condemn and expel an entire group of people because a few of them did something wrong would quite literally be insane and incredibly unfair to those, who genuinely seek peace and a future. Why most attacks on refugees are happening in Saxony can be explained by the state’s continuous struggle with its own identity, which has been going on for centuries. Combined with the failure of Saxony’s governments to deal with the spread of far-right ideologies in the same effective manner as other German states, one can easily conclude why Saxony above all German states is particularly vulnerable to xenophobic ideas.
As someone who works as a refugee relief volunteer, I see proof every day that the recent attacks on refugees which understandably paint a nasty picture of Germany, do not represent the vast majority of the German people. For every refugee that arrives in Germany there is at least one German citizen who volunteers – without payment or any other kind of compensation – to help in one of Germany’s thousands of refugee accommodations. These volunteers help out in all areas of the integration project, whether it is in the cafeteria, German language tutoring, helping out with bureaucratic procedures, recreational activities, cultural seminars and so on. The number of volunteers has not decreased, but rather increased and is still growing half a year after Germany was firstly celebrated for its ‘welcome culture’. Speaking to other volunteers and staff of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, I always get the same answer when asking them whether or not refugees are still welcome: ‘Yes, refugees are still welcome. Germany does not have an immigration crisis, Germany does not have a racial or cultural crisis.’
As a volunteer myself, I am admittedly biased and therefore obviously share the same opinion. As far as I can see, Germany has always been a country of immigrants. From the vastly heterogeneous Germanic tribes who travelled across all Europe, mixing with other local tribes and finally settling in Central Europe during the pre-Roman Iron Age, the massive migration into the Holy Roman Empire in the middle ages and early modern period, the 12 million expellees of Germans living in Eastern Europe resettling into Germany after the Second World War, to the immigration of millions of Eastern Europeans and Turkish people who originally came as ‘guest workers’ since the 1960s, Germany as experienced thousands of years characterised by immigration. In 2005 – long before the current ‘refugee crisis’ – Germany finally embraced its status as an ‘immigration country’, significantly easing its immigration law. In 2014 – still one year before Chancellor Merkel opened Germany’s doors to refugees – more than 16 million people with an immigration background were living in Germany, accounting for every fifth inhabitant. In the same year, Germany was already the second most popular migration destination in the world after the United States (Bloomberg 2014).
Yes, the number of refugees arriving in Germany last year was a huge number even for an immigration country. However, if there is a country in the world that can cope with such a ‘refugee crisis’, Germany is the most likely to succeed considering its history and experience as a country of immigrants, its wealth – fourth largest economy in the world and richest country in Europe – eager government and ‘welcome culture’. This will obviously not be an easy endeavour and Angela Merkel’s and Germany’s biggest challenge since the reunification in 1990.
In conclusion, I am arguing that refugees are still welcome and I am certain that the success and failure of this ambitious project will ultimately depend on whether or not Germany’s ‘welcome culture’ will last over the next years to come – so far it has. I will therefore end this article with the words of Germany’s Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who responded to the recent attacks on refugees with this statement: ‘I am very glad that the vast majority of Germans opposes xenophobia and racism. I see proof of this every day. Our signal is: We will not let our country be run down by those, who despise democracy and strive to spread xenophobia and hatred through false propaganda based on fear. Our country stands for a culture of open-mindedness, tolerance and genuine helpfulness. And it will remain this way!’ (German Foreign Office, 28 February 2016).
Final remarks from the author: Dearest reader, if you are interested in an in-depth report through the eyes of a refugee relief volunteer about the integration of refugees into society, how they live in a typical refugee accommodation in Germany and the work of social workers and volunteers, you are cordially invited to read part II of my article on the refugee crisis in Germany, which will be featured in next month’s issue of The Priori.
Feature image courtesy of foreignpolicyjournal.com