Those who came



How the refugees changed Germany 

  1. Borders

It was in the heat of Europe’s summer, 2015. Across the continent, people were on the move: some on their own, others with their families. Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Austria. Uncles and nephews, mothers and children, brothers and sisters, trying to escape war, bitter poverty, desperation at home. And they knew where they wanted to go: television news reports featured groups of young migrants chanting “Germany, Ger-ma-ny”, some holding up photos of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. Behind them lay a true odyssey, a long, tiresome, potentially deadly trip out of their home countries and over the sea. Once on European soil, they were frequently stopped by border crossings, trapped before fences, beaten back by police forces, forced to sleep in makeshift camps. Now in Hungary, they had at first been promised passage to Austria, even sold the train tickets for the trip – then suddenly held back on orders of the Hungarian government. After their endless journey, after the squalid conditions in which they have lived so far, after the less-than-welcoming attitudes of the nations they passed through on their way, Germany seemed to many as a promised land.

In theory, a situation as the once that Angela Merkel and her European colleagues faced in the summer of 2015 would never occur: the now-infamous “Dublin regulations” state that any asylum seeker’s request is to be processed in the first EU country they enter. If they leave that country and apply for asylum in another member-state of the union, they are to be sent back. It was, from the beginning, an obviously unfair principle, placing the burden of accepting refugees on the outer members of the EU: primarily Greece and Italy, while nations like Germany, surrounded by EU neighbours, essentially would have no asylum applications to process. But in the summer of 2015, the Dublin regulation was no longer just unfair: under the influx of so many desperate people, it simply became impossible to enforce.

From Germany, all along the ‘Balkans route’ and into the countries of origin of many refugees, a rumour had thus spread: the German authorities were letting people in even if they had come from other EU countries. On 25 August, an already beleaguered German migration and refugee agency, now known to every German by its acronym Bamf, tweeted into the world that yes, at present, the agency was no longer returning Syrian asylum seekers to other EU countries. Dublin, in other words, was dead. On 31 August, Merkel uttered her near-historic “Wir schaffen das” – ‘we can do it’. On 4 September, the refugees stuck in Budapest were sick of waiting, so they began walking the highway towards Vienna, aiming to get to the German border. Why wouldn’t they have? They didn’t want to stay in Greece, so they moved on. They didn’t want to stay in Hungary – and Hungary’s government didn’t want them too, either. For the country’s chief of government, Viktor Orban, the march soon turned into a formidable opportunity of this problem: he ordered buses to pick up the walkers, promised them passage to the Austrian border. Orban and his team were simply going to drop them off there. Let Berlin and Vienna worry about it. It was now that Angela Merkel made a decision: for some, a pragmatic reaction to a rapidly evolving situation, for some, a humanitarian act of compassion that ought to be celebrated, for others, it was her original sin, her fatal mistake. Those people could come, she decided. Germany and Austria provided trains. It was meant to be an exception for some six or seven thousand exhausted walkers. And, indeed, what was the alternative? Orban had Merkel boxed in: the only alternative was to shut the border. The Chancellor and her aides feared that the police would have to use force to prevent the crowd from crossing the border. It would create ugly images: water cannons, batons, pepper spray deployed against tired families. Not an option, they decided. And so they came.


  1. Principles

One of the major German newspapers christened the doubt-filled, anxious hours of 4/5 September 2015 “the night in which Germany lost control”. By the end of the year, some 890,000 asylum seekers were in the country. They met a country unprepared: the last time Germany had faced such large numbers of entrants was in the early 1990s, when large numbers of people fled the bloody Balkan wars. As the world entered the new millennium, the number of asylum seekers dropped significantly. In 2007, not even 20,000 applications for asylum were processed by the German authorities.

Yet a commitment to provide shelter is at the foundation of Germany’s post-1945 democracy. In 1948/1949, the Parlamentarische Rat, the constituent assembly for what was to become West Germany, discussed drafts for a constitution. Many of the council’s members had been silenced and persecuted in the Nazi years. Now they wanted to include the right to asylum in the first articles of the Grundgesetz, or ‘Basic Law’. Some wanted to restrict it to Germans only – they were thinking of those fleeing the Soviet occupation zone, which was setting up a communist satellite state of Moscow. Some suggested limiting asylum to those who were persecuted as a result of their fighting for world peace, democracy, and justice. Others, prominently the Social Democrat Carlo Schmid, opposed such restrictions: who was to define what ‘standing up for world peace’ meant? If protection depended on the asylum seeker’s views aligning with the German state’s positions, how much was such a right worth? Schmid’s side won the argument, and so article 16, Grundgesetz henceforth stated: “Victims of political persecution have the right to asylum”. In those early years after the collapse of Nazism, Germans will have known what being displaced meant: after the war, an astonishing twelve million “Germans” (which included people who happened to have German names, or German ancestry somewhere in their family trees) were expelled from Eastern Europe. The deportations were officially condoned, they were part of the Allies’ Potsdam Agreement. The expulsions were brutal, yet those who left were not always just victims: many were profiteers of Hitler’s expansionism, of his policy of subjugating the peoples whose lands he conquered. Nevertheless: this experience of displacement, of escaping violence, of making a long and exhausting journey and then being treated with hostility (those who lived in Germany were often unwilling to share the few things they had with the newcomers) is not too different from what today’s refugees have lived through.

But article 16 did not remain untouched. In 1993, amid heated debates, the governing Free Democrats and Christian Democrats (FDP and CDU, the latter being Chancellor Merkel’s party) persuaded the opposition Social Democrats to vote on amending the constitution. The content of article 16 was moved over to 16a, and it was amended by further clauses. From now on, asylum applications would be rejected for anyone coming from a ‘safe country of origin’ or entering Germany from a ‘safe third country’. As Germany was surrounded by ‘safe’ third countries, the Bundestag had thus created a virtual wall that ran all around Germany’s borders at the stroke of a pen, a legal provision that implied an asylum seeker could only lawfully enter Germany landed out of the skies with a parachute on his back, or perhaps stranded on the beaches of Sylt (those needing asylum can hardly ever catch a plane to a safe country, for obvious reasons). The decision remains controversial until this day, it is seen as an erosion of the noble provisions of the Basic Law, and motivated by all the wrong reasons: the asylum reform coincided with a turbulent time in Germany, marked by appalling violence and resentment directed at foreigners. Racist riots took place in Hoyerswerda and Rostock-Lichtenhagen, where asylum seekers and ‘guest workers’ brought in by the former East German socialist government where terrorized in their housing facilities. Newspapers fueled suspicions and stereotypes, questioning whether those who came were truly entitled to protection. Politicians at the time offered more reasoned arguments: the asylum reform was direly needed, communities were overwhelmed with the influx of people, etc. It all sounded a lot like today, and with a quarter century of hindsight, the most disturbing interpretation might just be the most likely as well: Parliament listened to the mob.

The echoes of 1993 were heard loudly in 2015. New names of shame were added to the list: the mobs now ruled in Freital and Heidenau. Temporary shelters for asylum seekers were set on fire. And so the government set out to reform – that is, to restrict – the right to asylum yet again, to deter more from coming, to pacify the crowds whose crude anger and resentment was getting out of control.

There is, of course, a brighter side to the story. There are the welcomers of Munich central station, applauding the incoming trains. There are the masses of people of all beliefs, political orientations, ages and incomes who volunteered – the famed Willkommenskultur. There are the efforts undertaken by Germany’s churches and Jewish communities, who stood up for those arriving here. The donated clothes, the opened homes, the language courses organized, the protests and vigils against racist violence and discrimination. The employers who took risks and gave traineeships to young refugees. My grandmother is among them, a retired high school teacher who has successfully steered ‘her’ refugees through tricky German language exams. This civic engagement is living proof that the spirit of those who wrote our constitution is alive, living proof that many Germans have become democrats over the past seventy years, living proof that there are millions in this country who sacrificed hours, days and weeks of their time to help people in need. It is a show of strength, of commitment and compassion, that allows people like me, who always struggled with the implications of our country’s dark and shameful past, to be proud of this society. Of how it opened its doors in a time of need.

How do these disparate parts fit together? How does Merkel’s open border square with her coalition’s continued efforts to restrict and deter immigration, with the ramped-up deportation policy and the ever-expanding list of ‘safe countries of origin’? How can there be such enormous willingness to help on one side, and a tribal, bitter, virulent rejection of an open society on the other? Because Germany is now divided. Divided along the lines of ‘refugees welcome’ and ‘shut the border’, more passionately and more dangerously than it is divided along religious, ethnic or material lines. The refugees have changed Germany, the way we perceive ourselves.


     3. The shock

24 September 2017, 6pm: in between helping set up a school event and moaning over my lack of cell phone reception, I keep and keep refreshing the news site on my phone as the first exit polls of the federal election are released. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a right-wing populist party founded in 2013 by Eurosceptics and later morphed into the voice of opposition to open-door refugee policies, was widely expected to do well – despite the two years that had passed since the heated debates of 2015 and the daily pictures of thousands pouring into the country, questions of asylum and immigration remained on the frontlines of the election campaign. The rise of the populist right was, of course, anything but a German-only phenomenon, and its final result of 12.6% of votes cast is still lower than the support enjoyed by similar parties in other European nations. But in Germany, historical sensitivities meant any significant show of support for the AfD would equal a tectonic shift in the political landscape. And thus the result sent shockwaves across the nation. In parts of the country, support for the far-right was even higher than the average: in states of the former German Democratic Republic, the party won between a fifth and a quarter of votes cast. A variety of explanations for this phenomenon is offered: disconnect with the political elites, and the economic stagnation that afflicts the former East Germany, which was once promised “flourishing landscapes” would develop post-reunification. The party’s voters are described in the same terms as those who chose Brexit and catapulted Trump into the White House: working-class, left behind by waves of rapid change, feeling ignored. Recently, a sociologist made headlines comparing the experience of the East Germans to those of migrants, provoking vehement disagreement from others who pointed out that while both groups had ‘lost’ their countries in a way (the dislocation felt as the GDR collapsed was considerable), the East Germans never had to physically leave, never had to adapt to an entirely new culture and language. This much is clear: the AfD is a party openly hostile to many tenets of modern German democracy, its representatives have attacked not only the right to asylum but also religious freedom and the very notion of minority rights. It gains attention by playing on prejudice, its calculated provocations cause hurt and division (the examples are numerous: one of the party’s leaders, Alexander Gauland, has characterized the Third Reich as no more than a ‘bird’s shit’ in Germany’s long history, or suggested the Social Democrat integration minister of Turkish descent, Aydan Oezoguz, be ‘disposed of in Anatolia’. His colleague Alice Weidel commented on the government’s budget in the parliament that “burkas, headscarved girls, welfare-dependent knifemen and other do-nothings” would not sustain Germany’s prosperity and welfare state). While not all of the party’s voters are appalling racists, and attempts to win them back into the mainstream of democratic policies may be fruitful, it is hard to see how a decent person would be able to look over such examples of hate speech and still justify supporting this party. The party that has brought hate back into German politics.


  1. Aftermath

This is the third summer to pass since they came. But the debate rages on unabated. These days, it is fueled by a number of high-profile crimes committed by migrants and asylum seekers: in June, a fourteen-year-old was raped and killed, with the Iraqi suspect, who had been denied asylum and was in the process of appealing that decision, fleeing the country shortly after her body was discovered with her family. The Wiesbaden murder of Susanna F. ties in with similar crimes in other towns whose names have become loaded words: Freiburg, and Kandel. Despite the tragedy of these cases, and the sometimes outrageous failures by authorities that accompany them, any sober analysis would of course recognize that these are individual crimes, not representative of the vast majority of those who came. But in the prevailing political climate, they’ve become lethally effective recruitment tools for the AfD. Frequently, they blame Merkel and the political establishment directly for such events. It is a measure of how acidic the entire issue of immigration has become. Far from being a reasonable exchange of arguments about the economic or social benefits and downsides of a permissive immigration policy, the AfD and others have descended into base stereotypes and fear-mongering.

The refugee debate has created its own vocabulary, buzzwords that float around the news for a few weeks, policy proposals shot out to fight the populist tide: “transit centres”, “anchor centres”, more deportations. Recently, Germany’s family of political talk shows came under fire for allegedly being hyper-focused on the migration issue and thus boosting the right-wing agenda. Of course an open and honest conversation is needed on this issue. Germans of all political convictions recognize that the arrival of the refugees had a significant impact that needs to be discussed. Yet it is just as true that the debate is drowning out other topics that are equally crucial: the future of Europe, pensions, insecure jobs, climate change. The other key issue is the degree of division, the toxicity that defines the way we now talk about immigration. Certainly, not everyone who comes here has a right to stay. And it’s also true that for a period of time in late 2015, there was a breakdown of control as the German state was no longer able to orderly process new arrivals. However, Germany has a historical commitment to providing shelter, and many Germans of today will have ancestors who themselves experienced the trauma of displacement and flight. The debate we have today should be informed by this. The right to asylum is non-negotiable, it is to be granted regardless of the political considerations of the day. Those who came have changed us, this much is for sure. And the challenge of fully integrating them into society, beyond the immediate needs of housing and healthcare, will not be resolved for years. Because, this seems clear, those who came are likely to stay for a long time. Receiving them properly, with rules and humanity, could give us all an exceptional opportunity to be proud of our country. Because, for all the criticism of Angela Merkel, for all the angry accusations that she failed to act in the Germans’ best interest, what is “We can do it” if not an expression of utmost faith in our country. Isn’t this statement an embodiment of a patriotic confidence, a belief that we have the capacity to help these people? Who, if not this country, can do it? We can do it. And we will.

David Zuther



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