How Germans changed their minds on refugees, by Thomas Tuma.
Last summer, our author believed Germany could handle an unprecedented influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Like many Germans, he has changed his mind.
Idon’t remember the exact moment when things changed. It must have been a gradual process. My change of mind on the refugee question happened, so to speak, between two train stations.
First, there was euphoria in Munich last September, when throngs of my countrymen bearing teddy bears and flowers cheered re-fugees getting off their trains. It seemed oddly hysterical even then, like a demonstration of impeccable conscience. Then, on New Year’s Eve, there came violence outside Cologne’s central station perpetrated against local women by immigrant men. Since then, nothing has been the same.
Yet Cologne was only a culmination. And it is still not clear whether the assaults and subsequent debate about what happened have made the country more mature and honest — or just more radicalized.
When Angela Merkel announced her opendoor approach to refugees in late August and promised that “we can do it,” I was willing to follow her lead. Because brotherly love should reach beyond yuletide donations; because I believe Germany’s past gives us a historical responsibility; because racism and xenophobia seem so absurd in a globalized world from which we so obviously benefit.
But I have lost my faith in the idea that “we can do it.” And I am not alone. According to the latest ARD Deutschlandtrend poll, 81 percent of Germans now believe we have lost control. That something is going wrong that has less to do with the refugees than with our botched policies.
When my local city government erected the first container village for refugees in my neighborhood, there was much good will. But as the numbers rapidly swelled and the extent of the mass exodus became clear, our society began to split. The schism reached into my own living room. “The refugees are pulling us out of our warm, comfortable cocoon,” I told my wife. My wife, who volunteers for a refugee aid group, was skeptical. “And?” she asked. “Will that make integrating them any easier?”
Many of us had hoped we’d only get premium refugees — Syrian academics and their delightful children. We were naive. It was mainly single young men that took up residence in our brand-new local shelter.
All the while, our politicians engaged in phantom debates about refugee caps and contingents, the future of the Schengen Agreement on borderless travel, how to define a safe country of origin. As if that had any bearing on the unceasing stream of migrants, for which demographer Herwig Birg foresees two scenarios. In the best case, some of the newcomers find work and pay taxes, offsetting a small percentage of what this mass migration will cost us.
In the more pessimistic scenario, an economically overburdened Germany faces increasing domestic tensions as it loses its social and cultural bearings. “The reality will be somewhere in between and come with a drop in living standards either way,” Birg says. “It will get more unpleasant in Germany.”
Those welcoming cheers at Munich train station marked the end of an often tortuous odyssey. But they can only mark the start of a process that will take generations and could go woefully wrong during the long, hard slog. Can we really do it?
At Munich train station, a refugee clings to a photo of Angela Merkel.
A retired teacher who gives Germanlanguage lessons to refugees in my neighborhood tells me how the men in her classroom at first refused to sit with the women. She told them they could go right back home if they didn’t accept gender equality. I admire her courage. By now, her group has adjusted and is eagerly learning. But she, like everyone, also knows different stories now: of the homophobic, misogynist, testosterone-driven and often anti-Semitic mob that has no intention of integrating.
The problems did not begin in Cologne, but have long been suppressed in the German debate. As German-Iranian sociologist Armin Nassehi told the Berlin daily Tageszeitung: “One side refused to accept that we’ve been an immigration society for decades. The other side preferred to ignore the fact that immigration can produce problems. And so we don’t have any culture of discourse on immigration.”
Instead, Germans have discovered selfprotection. Absent a gun culture, the nation is gearing up with billy clubs, knives, air pistols and pepper spray. Refugees aren’t the reason for this. Rather, it is the eroding trust in the protective power of the state. First comes the loss of control, then the loss of trust. Can we still do it?
No, says Hans-Jürgen Papier, former president of Germany’s Constitutional Court, who in a recent interview with Handelsblatt bemoaned the“blatant failure” of the German state. No, says a Turkish-German entrepreneur I ran into recently. Like many Germans with immigrant backgrounds, he advised tough love — to send the riffraff packing. I didn’t bother mentioning the Geneva Conventions. To him, half-jokingly, Germans veered between Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler, with little in between.
Others, too, find us a little odd these days. Other liberal democracies such as Sweden and Denmark are already shutting their borders. Eastern European leaders mock our naiveté. Other European neighbors accuse us of trying to force our own sense of moral rectitude on them.
Everywhere in Europe, the political forces offering the simplest answers are gaining ground. That usually means the right — in Poland, Hungary, France and Denmark. “We’re doing everything in our power to make it unattractive to come to Denmark,” that country’s minister of migration said in January.
Far from giving us such simple answers, Germany’s politicians aren’t giving us any answers at all. Our decision makers seem as deeply uncertain as they were during the darkest moments of the 2008 financial crisis.
Obviously, there aren’t any easy recipes. Everything we’re experiencing at this moment is new. But words are no longer enough. Since Cologne, a chorus of politicians has called for tougher laws and harsher crackdowns. But these empty phrases are less convincing than ever. I have become afraid of a hyperventilating government stuck between party squabbles and European discord, accomplishing nothing.
In November, after calling off a soccer match in Hanover amid fears of a possible terror attack, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière offered no details, saying only that “part of the answer would unsettle the populace.” So it isn’t just we voters who mistrust politicians; they mistrust us more than ever too. But we are neither stupid nor especially fragile. We can be trusted with reality.
Coming up with a real action plan for Berlin and Brussels should not be that difficult. It would include improved control of the European Union’s outer borders, better management of the asylum process, more police.
Recently, another neighborhood in my city was planning a new camp for 4,000 refugees. That shocked even the most passionate local defenders of Germany’s refugees-arewelcome culture. That would be 4,000 people who neither speak our language nor understand our values; 4,000 people who will need childcare and schools that do not yet exist.
My wife smiled a victorious smile as I confessed these worries. She had warned me months ago. Surprisingly, since Cologne, she has become more optimistic than I. “At least now we can discuss these things openly,” she said. I, on the other hand, have grown more silent. Words are no longer enough.
Our decision makers seem as deeply uncertain as they were during the 2008 financial crisis.
The Balkan route is the main corridor from the Middle East to Germany. Here, a train brings refugees across Serbia.
Thomas Tuma is a deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt.
Europe bound: Refugees and migrants board a ferry on Lesbos Island, Greece.
A line of migrants makes its way to the Austrian border.