Will Germany succumb to hate?

BERLIN • Amid the staccato ping of news generated by Europe's migration crisis, perhaps nothing is more jarring than what is playing out in Germany.

The country - which expects up to a million refugees to arrive this year and whose chancellor has been Europe's most outspoken advocate for accepting refugees - saw over 200 attacks, mostly arson, on homes for asylum seekers in the first six months of the year, says the Homeland Affairs Ministry.

Watching this bounce between humanitarianism and terrorism is like staring at a strobe light. Many Europeans, especially Germans, are watching with a sense of helplessness: Will our urge to help let loose our darkest demons?

The good news? There are issues with Europe's immigration policy, but the fixes are clear.

First, the European Union has to fix the so-called Dublin mechanism - under this system, the member state where an asylum seeker first sets foot has the responsibility for processing his claim. This is a recipe for disaster. Most of the refugees are coming from Africa and the Middle East, so their first stops are usually Italy, Greece or other economically weakened southern European countries.

Pro-refugee demonstrators near a migrant shelter in Heidenau, near Dresden, on Aug 22. The day before, police clashed with right-wing extremists who tried to block a road leading to the shelter. Violence against refugees has been mounting - there were over 200 attacks on homes for asylum seekers in the first half of the year, according to Germany's Ministry of Homeland Affairs. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Also in need of fixing is the quota system that determines how refugees are spread around. Many states are shirking their duties.

And Europe needs a common standard for what countries are counted as "dangerous" or "safe", so we can all agree on who counts as a refugee and who doesn't.

Individual countries have problems too but, at least in Germany, they are being addressed. Its federal government has increased assistance to state and local administrations struggling to absorb the migrants. Regulations and procedures are being reviewed. Many things still don't work. But there is a political willingness to adapt to new demands.

The psychological dimension is harder to tackle. Refugees are on everyone's mind. A few days ago, at my son's favourite playground in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin, a German boy, aged about seven, was carrying a younger child on his back. "We are refugees," he explained to his playmate. "We must cross the Mediterranean." There's not an after-work or dinner-table conversation that doesn't turn to the "refugee question" sooner or later.

In a way, this is surprising. It's not as if homeless refugees are scattered about the streets, or pensions have been cut to feed them. If you don't live next to a temporary refugee home, migration is an abstract problem.

So why do Germans still feel personally affected? Over the past decade, many Germans have taken a siesta from politics, drowsing in economic growth. German soldiers have died in Afghanistan, but not many. Now, bodies are washed ashore almost every day at Germany's favourite beaches in Italy and Greece, brutally interrupting our oblivion.

Reactions are twofold. The outpouring of civic engagement is unprecedented. Retired teachers are helping Syrian students learn German. Physicians are treating refugees free. Families are taking in families.

However, some believe we face an apparent apocalypse. When I write about the topic in my newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, I get angry calls from readers arguing that we will be "overrun", that our prosperity and culture will be swept away by "the surge".

The line between those who are simply afraid of change and those who happily greet the chance to give in to hatred is often hard to draw. Talking about a "surge" of refugees expresses the understandable (though unnecessary) concern that the costs of absorbing them cannot be met.

Still, regarding the refugees as an anonymous, threatening mass bears the nucleus of Menschenverachtung (which roughly means "contempt for humankind"). The term is unique to the German language and a discipline of thought that this country excelled at in the past - and not only under the Nazi regime.

Even so, we have to put this, the darkest aspect of the current crisis, in perspective. It is not a force of nature. Although violence is on the rise, and surveys show a decline in the willingness to accept more immigrants, the overall mood in Germany still favours the refugees.

Moreover, the hate speeches and riots are at least partly organised or supported by the National Democratic Party, a right-wing extremist group that has been losing members and that apparently views the increase in migration as its last chance for survival. It is not the demons of the past rising, but contemporary political criminals at work.

Whether Germany's psychological condition remains stable depends on how well the practical dimension will be managed, but also to a great extent on how well our politicians will handle the balance.

They have performed admirably. Unlike in the early 1990s, when many picked up on and amplified anti-immigrant sentiments, this time, national leaders from across the political spectrum have taken care to express a common, welcoming concern. They have to walk a thin line - it requires skill to make those afraid of change feel they are being heard, while at the same time leaving no room for even the slightest echo of racist ideology.

After taking her typical, cautious time, Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged her fellow Germans to welcome the refugees. While acknowledging the scope of the challenge, she has denounced anti-immigrant extremists and insisted that, together, "we can make it".

So far, most Germans agree.


  • Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2015, with the headline 'Will Germany succumb to hate?'. Print Edition | Subscribe