One Million Strangers or One Million Fellow Citizens?
Germany struggles to renew itself in facing up to the refugee crisis
By Philip Barnstorf, TAM ’16
Welcome to Germany – Willkommen in Deutschland or something along those lines was written on the sign at the side of the road. I could not read it properly because the bus I was sitting in was driving fast through the tunnel in the Alps. Only a few minutes later – as the bus was going along the lakes in southern Bavaria – I got an SMS informing me about my phone’s German tarifs so I was certain that we had crossed the border from Austria to Germany. It was the end of August this year, I was back in my country, heading home to Berlin at the end of a two week vacation under the Mediterranean sun in Croatia.
“All available federal police to Bavaria: Germany is closing its borders,” That was the headline of “Focus,” a famous German weekly magazine on September the 13th. The news was everywhere. “Bild,” Germany’s biggest daily paper, called it a dramatic turn in refugee policy, and I was shocked. The very border that only two weeks before had been so open to me, that I had hardly noticed crossing it, was now guarded by armed police in uniforms. To my surprise there was almost no protest against the government’s decision. Even the left party “Die Linke,” and the Green Party, were comparably modest in their criticism. The numbers over the last month had been just too extreme. Up to 10.000 refugees every day in September. More than one million people are expected over the whole of 2015. But reinstating border controls marked not only a turn in refugee policy, also the discourse on refugees changed in the following weeks.
Let me start a few month earlier in June. In the face of record-breaking numbers of asylum seekers a few hundred people mostly in small towns and villages took to the streets, set refugee homes on fire and got in violent clashes with police. An outcry of protest from the population against those riots ensued. People organised welcoming parties in front of refugee houses, others volunteered to accomodate asylum seekers in their private homes, and friends of mine here in Berlin started meeting with refugees weekly to play football together. The photos of burned down gymnasiums, which were to house refugees, on the one hand, and pictures of dozens of people holding up Welcome to Germany signs in train stations where refugees arrived, on the other hand were in almost every paper and on every TV station. Joachim Gauck, the federal President, spoke of a dark Germany, which rallies against immigration, and a bright Germany, which welcomes refugees. Now almost everybody wanted to be part of the bright Germany. An optimistic vibe towards immigration swept through the country. There was a feeling that if everybody could contribute something, be it money, goods, voluntary work, we could, against all odds, master the situation together and thereby even somehow renew Germany, overcome its old and whitebread character, reenergize it as a friendlier and happier country.
Germany’s most influential news show, the “Tagesschau,” told viewers several times every day, where they could donate money to help refugees. The “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” one of Germany’s biggest conservative daily papers, put a link on their webpage Refugees in Germany. How citizens can help. Studies were published, that claimed the economy would benefit from the influx, since refugees could take vacant apprenticehips, work, pay taxes and thereby even save the welfare state from a rapidly aging society. “We will accomplish that” said Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 30th, further increasing the enthusiasm and assuring the nation that although it was facing “a massive national challenge” the government was still on top of things. She spoke of an obligation to help and passionately condemned the right-wing protestors “with their hearts full of prejudices, cold and even hate.” She suspended the Dublin II treaty of the EU, which allows Germany to send back asylum seekers to the country where they first set foot on EU-soil, and promised everybody who comes to Germany an asylum process here.
This was remarkable, because Germany is not keen on changing socially. Apart from few exceptions it does not officially allow double-citizenship. Birthright-citizenship has caveats as well. The country for a long time did not try or even intend to integrate the millions of guestworkers, who came 40 to 60 years ago, and the conservative CDU won the last federal election by a landslide. So in a country like that I was surprised by such an open and optimistic attitude towards an influx of people that according to many will change society fundamentally. Facing international criticism of Germany’s unforgiving stance in the Greece issue, many people once more felt they were seen as the stereotypical German cold-hearted bureaucrats. Maybe that is why they wanted all the more to show the world a surprisingly friendly face by welcoming refugees.
But only two weeks after Merkel’s encouraging words, the government sent more than 2000 policemen to control everybody crossing into Germany from Austria. Apart from a few exceptions, for example for this year’s G7 summit, that Austro-German border had been open since Austria joined the Schengen area in 1995. And now after more than 20 years of open-entry the German government suspended the Schengen agreement, one of the EU’s prime achievements. That action shook the newly built optimism of many. To them the government did not seem so confident anymore that Germany could “accomplish that” if it meant infringing on such a strong symbol of European integration.
Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel added to that feeling when he told the “Spiegel” on October 2nd: “We are approaching the limits of our capabilities.” The optimistic vibe from the warmer summer months gradually faded and more grim and sceptic looks on the situation are now to be read in the papers and seen on TV. The chairman of the social-democratic SPD went on to say: “We should make clear to the refugees that we have things here that are non-negotiable. The constitution, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equal rights.” I do not mean to say that Gabriel is wrong, but it is noticeable that he is not talking anymore about the positive change refugees could bring but rather of their potential to cause social conflict. The studies that claimed the economy could only benefit from a bigger and younger work force are now acompanied by a good amount of scepticism. “There are 600.000 open jobs known to the authorities, more than ever before”, said Raimund Becker, head of the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees, to the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”. But he also added: “Refugees are the hardest group to integrate. International experience shows, after five years only half of the refugees have jobs.”
From her “we-will-accomplish-that” speech in September to October, Angela Merkel, usually one of the most popular politicans in Germany, lost nine percentage points in her approval ratings taking her to a three year low. The number of citizens scared by the number of refugees, rose from 38 percent in September to 51 percent in October of this year, as ARD, Germany’s first public TV station, showed in a poll. In September, 45 percent believed immigration to be generally beneficial for the country. This number dropped to 35 percent this month. “We will accomplish that! becomes Will we accomplish that?” is how the ARD summarized the change in opinion.
Apparently the dream of a more friendly and generous society has lost momentum. And some now dismiss the enthusiasm from the last months as naive, a short-lived phase of emotion that stands no chance against rationally cold analysis of the grim reality. I too think scepticism should be part of the debate and problems should be named. But I do not like the optimism being buried completely under all the concerns over too few winter-equipped housing facilities, rising costs of integration and society being undermined. It leads to people slowly but steadily closing their hearts towards the newcomers. They should not do that. Germany has an obligation to help people in need and that means welcoming refugees not just on a material level with food stamps and housing but also being open emotionally, because the discourse about refugees is to some extent performative. If Germans start feeling suspicious and reluctant towards refugees, because the media and politicians only portray them as a burden to society, then refugees are less likely to integrate. If nobody thinks you can contribute, why would you even try? In this way the negative expectations might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore politicians and the media, as powerful discursive forces, should of course not abstain from discussing problematic aspects of the situation, but should develop an awareness of such negative dynamics.
If Germans see immigration not as a chance but as a problem, “We will accomplish that!” might not just turn into “Will we accomplish that?” but could even become “We do not want to accomplish that!” I hope that will not happen simply because we should help people in need, but also for reasons in German history. Less than 80 years ago it was the other way around. Between 1933 and 1945 hundreds of thousands of Germans fled their country because they feared for their lives. Many of them found refuge abroad. We should not forget that when facing the future.