Welcome or Not?

Connecting with Our Inner Refugee

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany must do more to combat the rise of nationalism, and that begins with seeing refugees as normal people rather than dangerous aliens.

  • Facts


    • Germany took in over 1 milion refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2015 and 2016.
    • In the aftermath of WWII, 10 to 15 million Germans were displaced as a result of Germany’s territorial losses.
    • Germany recorded more than 3,500 attacks against refugees and asylum shelters last year, or nearly 10 assaults per day.
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German nationals leave Polish territory, through the German border fence, not far from Danzig. August 23, 1939. German propaganda picture
Germans are no strangers to crossing borders on foot as refugees. Source: DPA Picture Alliance.

When hundreds of thousands of refugees made their way into Germany over the Balkan route in 2015, it appeared to us as if this country was born again. The phrase “Refugees Welcome” was ubiquitous, and those who could, donated clothing, their time – or at least applauded the arriving refugees.

In joyful excitement, large parts of the population went to the makeshift refugee camps, helped out and showed they cared. Many demonstrating their solidarity with the people primarily from Syria were patriots. For them, welcoming the refugees also had to do with loving their own country. “We” help “them” who are in need.

But after the party came the hangover. In Europe’s largest economy, some started to fear whether we hadn’t taken in too many refugees after all. Our European neighbors were conspicuously less generous and scolded Chancellor Angela Merkel for acting irresponsibly.

Furthermore, many realized that the refugees had brought new problems into the country. Doubts about whether “we can do it” – as Ms. Merkel famously said – grew. And it became increasingly clear that lots of “we” didn’t even want to “do it.” Previously normal, law-abiding citizens didn’t shy away from arson attacks and pogrom-like mobs to stop Germany, as they feared, being overrun by foreigners.

Some 30 million people were displaced across Europe when the Nazi Germany sought to brutally and militarily impose its racist restructuring of the continent.

There’s no need to be well-versed in history to show basic empathy and solidarity towards people in need, or at the very least to refrain from physically attacking foreigners or setting their shelters on fire. But those who go on thumping their chests saying “We Germans” would do well to remember that three-quarters of a century ago, some 30 million people were displaced across Europe when the Nazi Germany sought to brutally and militarily impose its racist restructuring of the continent. After the war, as a consequence of the reordering of Europe, there were also German minorities fleeing in the East – in Poland and in Czechoslovakia – making large-scale displacement a familiar topic in German history today.

Today, however, there is not much left of the “welcoming culture” of two summers ago. Xenophobia has come to be the prevailing order of the day.

A few impressions from early 2017: On February 21, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s stance from the start of the refugee crisis was common sense, agreeing with him that migrants must be prevented from coming to Central Europe.

The Hungarian leader previously said, “Sooner or later the Germans will be fed up” with the asylum seekers being able to move about freely. The Orban-ization of Europe has since taken hold. The refugee camps in Idomeni, Greece, in Calais and on the Greek island of Lesbos will one day be European memorial sites, like Aachen, Verdun, and Maastricht are today.

Also in February, 18 rejected asylum seekers were deported to Afghanistan, including a number of persons from regions designated as unsafe by the German government. In the same way as freedom has been militarily defended for years in the Hindu Kush mountains, Europe is now defending it borders against people who have left their homelands because of conflicts or because they have nothing to eat or because their freedom is under threat.

“We have five million refugees; they live with us, among us like Egyptians.”

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt

While a representative of the United Nations condemned racial profiling against people of African origin in March, which has since become a standard practice of Germany’s law enforcement, Ms. Merkel was taking a tour of Egypt. But her host, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, had to disappoint her: He told her there would be no reception centers for refugees attempting to go to Europe. “We have five million refugees; they live with us, among us like Egyptians.”

Aside from the fact that this means said refugees are forced to live like Egyptians, under an authoritarian regime and without any state support, the casualness with which the locals tolerate them is remarkable. And, by the way, Lebanon – population 4.5 million – has taken in 1.3 million refugees who fled from Syria. There are 2.7 million refugees from Iraq and Syria in Turkey and 650,000 in Jordan. Regardless, Ms. Merkel traveled on to North African countries to negotiate new refugee deals.

More news from earlier this year: A UNICEF study found the situation of displaced women and minors seeking asylum in Germany is often difficult. The women are frequently traumatized; the children spend months – even years – in refugee homes, often under inadequate conditions. Then, Emilia Müller, the Bavarian state government’s so-called “social” minister, said there would be transit centers in Bavaria. Meanwhile the trial of the Freital group, an alleged far-right terror cell from Saxony, started at the Dresden higher regional court.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote, “More than two-thirds of the perpetrators of attacks against refugees, as well as their shelters and helpers, had no prior police records. They are normal citizens (with jobs and families), who have become radicalized.” Meanwhile, another court ruled that two would-be jihadists from Göttingen may be deported to their home countries of Nigeria and Algeria, although they were born and raised in Germany.

And finally, charges were brought in the so-called Burbach scandal after guards abused refugees in the fall of 2014. The perpetrators had filmed their crimes. It remains to be seen where they are going to be deported to: Bavaria or Hungary come to mind, maybe Freital, as well.

“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Walter Benjamin, German Jewish philosopher

Migration is part of the human condition like birth, procreation, and death, but as a rule it’s the experience of losing the ground beneath your feet. The people driven out and fleeing the Third Reich from 1933 onwards, who are a part of the historic, collective “we” – except for anti-Semites – were forced to experience this. Siegfried Kracauer, an author and editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung daily, was one of them. He moved to Paris from one day to the next to avoid arrest in the wake of the Reichstag fire.

For Mr. Kracauer, as for many other exiled Germans, losing the ground beneath his feet meant an existence not worthy of the name. The ground giving way is caused by the loss of one’s homeland, family, traditions, economic position and also one’s active creative work.

Living without the ground beneath one’s feet meant for intellectuals like Mr. Kracauer the loss of all faith, religious as well as secular. It even meant forgoing any fundamental explanation for the catastrophic events of his time. People who have lost their roots are acutely confronted with the fact that they often have less luck than sense. They know that they have become flotsam. They need to master the art of simply surviving.

Mr. Kracauer was forced to flee once again in the spring of 1940 when the Nazis defeated France. And he was not alone. In Marseilles, in the unoccupied but subordinate part of Vichy France, the stranded legions of refugees collected, as if in a limbo on the edge of Europe. Almost at the last minute, he and his wife managed to transit to Lisbon and from there passage to America.

The Kracauers – like so many other Germans as well – then went from being emigrants, to immigrants, to citizens. They liked staying in New York, precisely because it was possible to stay there. Mr. Kracauer became an American writer and died in 1966 in New York.

“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Walter Benjamin, who didn’t make it to safety. In 1940, the Jewish writer took his own life while fleeing across the Pyrenees to Spain. He was driven by sheer hopelessness. After a risky and arduous flight, he was supposed to be sent back to France where the Gestapo was waiting for him.

I believe the connection between both, civilization and barbarism, and the welcoming culture and the iciness towards refugees, has something to do with this categorizing of “we” and “them.” Nationalism, the ugly brother of patriotism, was the worst disease of the 20th century, and not just in Germany. It’s rearing its ugly head again right now.

The alternative would be to view refugees as people like you and I. But if all the talk is that “they” and other foreigners become “too many” or “don’t behave well,” then this country gets chilly – as it does right now.


To reach the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com.

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