Jolted from a Liberal Daydream

RIGONCE, SLOVENIA - OCTOBER 23: Migrants are held back by the police near the village of Rigonce,before being walked to Brezice refugee camp on October 23, 2015 in Rigonce, Slovenia. Thousands of migrants marched across the border between Croatia into Slovenia as authorities intensify their efforts to attempt to cope with Europe's largest migration of people since World War II. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
A new world view, on seeing refugees at the border in Rigonce, Slovenia.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Liberalism in Europe might be in a new critical phase, when only thinking about issues is no substitute for actually doing something, says the author.

  • Facts


    • After a night in a refugee camp, as pregnant women and children slept cold and hungry on the ground, the author asked: Does humanitarianism apply only to Europeans?
    • In November outside a bloodstained Paris café, the Die Zeit writer said she lost the “feeling of living in a stable, secure order.”
    • At a boisterous gathering of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, Ms. Raether wondered how supporters “could wring so much euphoria and political passion from a reality that is so ugly and complicated.”
  • Audio


  • Pdf

“What is water?” asked writer David Foster Wallace in a now famous 2005 commencement speech.

In his talk at Kenyon College in Ohio, the U.S. novelist adopted the perspective of a fish: Water is what surrounds the fish with such obviousness that it is no longer noticed, he said, even though it makes everything possible.

For me water is the peace in which I live, the absence of arbitrary state power, war and degradation.

In this nourishing water, I developed a focus on my inner life — along with on consumption and culture. I was cool even in the face of dramatic events. Generally, I assumed life offers real possibilities.

How can we find a way together after we have labored for years with all our energy on individualism? And how do you fight for something that is supposed to be self-evident?

I don’t mean to sound condescending to people who live the way I do. Why shouldn’t we mull over car-sharing offers, fancy coffees and theater productions? We’ve been lucky: fate has given us these gifts and pretty much spared us from the bad things in life.

Of course, there are fears and exclusion even in a prosperous place that’s socially aware, and if you live in Berlin, you do see moderate and severe poverty.

But something has changed. Politics has become huge. In Syria, dictator Bashar al-Assad is exterminating his own people and the conflict has become a proxy war of powerful nations.

There’s the threat of terrorism.

One million refugees arrived in Germany last year, fleeing violence in the Middle East.

In Vienna, the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria won nearly half the votes in the recent presidential election by making xenophobic promises.

Now, without my permission, world events have intruded, demanding to have a say. Three events changed how I think.


An Evening Meal in Slovenia

Last fall I traveled to the Slovenian border with Croatia. Hungary had just built its fence and refugees were crowding into the border town of Rigonce.

Slovenia claimed to be surprised by their arrival. They intended to register all the refugees as they entering the European Union, but hadn’t organized any accommodation so people had to sleep out in the cold and mud.

I parked my rental car at the edge of Rigonce, a picturesque village with primroses and bright facades. The sun shone on the refugees sitting on the grass. It was cold, otherwise it would’ve been a peaceful scene – if the children were running around instead of resting on jackets spread on the wet ground.

I talked with one of the women, wearing perfect make up and carrying a small handbag more suitable for warm nights in Damascus than a field in Slovenia.

Her problem was that – far along in a pregnancy – she needed to go to the toilet, but there weren’t any toilets. She had been told to wait in the meadow until she could enter the reception camp. There was a row of portable toilets behind the fence for those who had already made it into the camp.

“That’s surely not a problem,” I told the woman. “They’ll let you through.” We headed for the entrance to the camp where there was a police officer on horseback.

“She would like to use the toilet briefly,” I said, pointing to the young woman.

“No,” said the officer.



“But you can see that she’s pregnant.”

He yanked at the reins so that his horse threw back its head, and we stepped back.

“They’re all pregnant here,” the police officer said.

It made me wonder what Europe stands for. Peace and Christianity? Shared values and trade? There are many answers to this question but one seems obvious: People help pregnant women in Europe. There are posters in buses and trains saying to give up your seat – it’s something everyone learns to do.

Do these humanitarian ideals only apply to Europeans? And if so: Why is it called humanitarianism?


I went back to my hotel later on and read a newspaper article in an atmosphere of faded pomp. It said that in contrast to Muslim men, European men always treat women chivalrously.

I thought of the people I saw as I headed to my car, passing the camp, who stretched their arms through the fence and called “Please, I’m cold. I’m hungry.”

That evening, although I was cozy, I didn’t have an ironic sense of guilt. I did have a powerful feeling that something was wrong though.

It seemed obvious that pregnant women should be allowed to go to the toilet, and that people shouldn’t have to sleep in the mud.

It turned out to be far from self-evident. Nor can you go round saying that modern Europe stands for freedom and equality. Because it begs the question, do these humanitarian ideals only apply to Europeans? And if so: Why is it called humanitarianism?

This might sound a bit naïve, like I can’t handle anything bad. Things have never been fair. Welcome to reality.

I’d say we all used to be more naïve. Last year I saw Chancellor Angela Merkel describing how she and other in Germany used to see the world: “The TV’s on and the news is about the war in Syria. Someone’ll take care of it.”

Maybe even she’s become politicized.


A Café in Paris

A few weeks later, I was sitting in Paris, on November 14 at noon. Right next to me on the sidewalk there was a huge pool of blood that had dried and turned brown. It was real, I had to remind myself, because I’ve never in all my life seen a real pool of blood and specially not that big. Next to it there was a pot of flowers by the door of the laundromat whose windows had been shattered by gunshot.

This could have been an art installation. It was easier to imagine that than the reality that there had been a terror attack the night before, killing and injuring hundreds of people.

Not many people were out that night as I sat at the Paris street café – the police had discouraged it and the Métro was only partially running. But I felt like fear might get the better of me if I didn’t go out, so I sat there nervously, trying to distract myself.

It turned out to be a pleasant evening as we sat, chatting about youth culture in the U.K. or something. To be honest, I was happy to be alive, a rare feeling of gratitude. The sister of a girlfriend of mine was in hospital with a bullet wound.

But I lost something that night and haven’t found it since: the feeling of living somewhere safe.

When I was at school, we were given copies of Germany’s Basic Law. I dipped into it now and again, reading sentences like, “Personal freedom is inviolable. Censorship does not occur.”

I liked how sober the book was, so sparing with words, each of which had been fought for with tears and blood.

The attraction was mostly aesthetic. I read it like a piece of literature, a complete work accomplished without me doing anything.

I’ve always felt that the events that matter took place before I came along. The sense was enhanced by the post postmodern, how art forms struggle to invent anything new beyond references to what’s gone before. Even Communist dictatorships had disappeared in Europe. It was like the end of extremely long, exciting film, with the continent cruising happily into the sunset.

Our debates were only about details: what do I think about “vegetarian day” in the cafeteria? Do I pay my cleaner cash or register the payment?

Then the refugees came.

Now there are marathons, benefit balls and scarf knitting charity campaigns – they’ve become part of our society of minute distinctions. I’ve handed out winter coats to freezing people for clothing banks, and served food in makeshift dining rooms in gyms. It gives people like me, cool and slightly bored, a philanthropic feeling.

But humanitarianism isn’t enough. These debates only became so passionate because really, Germans are talking about themselves.

On the right, though, refugees became the main protagonist in their story. The right wing is obsessed with immigration. It lets them create a new idea of what’s normal: Foreigners are foreign, we’re normal.

Our debates were only about details: what do I think about “vegetarian day” in the cafeteria? Do I pay my cleaner cash or register the payment?

But if you generalize about Muslims, you probably do about Germans too. If you see immigrants as a mass, likely you also see Germans that way, rather than as a community with particular, contradictory but justified interests.

People who think in authoritarian terms prefer people to be what they are and no surprises. Movement and change means chaos, whether it’s Muslims fleeing their countries or women flying planes or men wearing skirts. They’re threatened when individuals are freed from their fixed roles and relationships.


A Party in Vienna

Last year was pretty good for the right wing – the world went crazy but populists had a party.

I was in Vienna last Sunday at an election celebration for the Freedom Party of Austria, or FPÖ, the right wing populist group. Back then, it wasn’t clear who would become Austria’s president. The Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer of the FPÖ were neck and neck. Whatever happened, it was the best result ever for the populists.

People in a beer garden danced on benches to the “Macarena,” with Austrian flags pinned in their hair. A song played that night whose refrain was “Austria, Austria forever, my Austria” – as if the country were a beloved woman. A few young men sang along and waved AfD flags, for Alternative for Germany, another European far-right party.

Mr. Hofer, the Austrian populist party leader, spoke a few words then greeted the merrymakers in person.

He was embraced. Women kissed him, grabbed the back of his head and pulled him towards them, they took his face in both hands and snuggled into his neck. Men reached out, fought tears. One tenderly pressed his hand to his cheek. Mr. Hofer didn’t draw back until his bodyguards pulled him away.

I stood with an Austrian journalist at the edge of the beer garden. We probably looked like morose singles at a wedding party.

We wondered how these people could wring so much euphoria and passion out of such a reality that is so ugly and complicated. Why can’t we, who aren’t rightist nor xenophobic, feel the same passion and euphoria for what’s important to us?

It’s ironic. Liberalism has become so deeply part of western European societies that people don’t feel its presence anymore. In Germany, for a long time, being liberal meant keeping out of things and concentrating on your personal affairs.

That was fine before political movements came along that reject the democratic principle of compromise. It worked while you could count on institutions like the European Union acting in line with humanitarian principles.

A friend of mine sighed recently, “When will things be simple again? I want everything to be easy.”

Another friend said: “But what should we do?”

Indeed, what shall we do, after all these years of individualism? How do you fight for something that is supposed to be self-evident?

Maybe we should abandon the idea that nothing new happens any more. We also don’t have to be so late-to-every party cool. Attentiveness and anger are worth a lot.

We should think about our arguments first instead of believing we’re always right. But we have a sense of what’s right and it goes beyond coffee beans – we can spot discrimination, arbitrariness and inefficiency.

We wouldn’t want to be governed by right wing populists. It isn’t hard to trample upon the weakest, on those who have no voice and no rights. But we’re tougher and becoming aware of our own strength would certainly be a good start.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!