Wir schaffen es! (We can do it!) That’s what West Germans said as they invested in the former East Germany in the 1990s. And what they said after World War II when more than 12 million Germans were expelled from Soviet-dominated Central Europe.
Last year Berliners invoked the “Wir schaffen es” tradition as they took in 80,000 asylum seekers. If the inflow continues, they will cope with nearly 7,000 arrivals each month in 2016, which makes Berlin a test case for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy.
If the anti-refugee sentiment registered Sunday by voters in three German states is any indication, the question of whether Berliners should continue to “do it” is in doubt. Merkel swears she will not back down from the ethical obligation to welcome refugees, but should she if honoring that obligation endangers the idealism that inspired it?
On a recent visit to Berlin, I saw a city of contrasts – a civil society bursting with grassroots initiatives and also a city with its celebrated welcoming culture stretched to the limit. Volunteer literacy teachers are frustrated by the lack of textbooks and the boys’ absentee rates and angered by the paucity of girls. On subway platforms, huge ads feature photographs of scruffy teens with message like, “Everyone has the right to become an IT nerd.” But of 30,000 unfilled apprenticeships in Germany, few are in Berlin, and few migrants speak German. Because repurposed gyms, barracks and hangars at the former Tempelhof airport are filled beyond capacity, Berlin will construct 15,000 container homes in 2016, but no one agrees about the location of these “villages.”
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Many volunteers I spoke to are even more distressed by the bureaucratic chaos than by inadequate physical infrastructure. Up to a third of the new arrivals in Berlin disappear without a paper trail. Because computer systems in the 16 German states and the 12 Berlin districts are not coordinated, many refugees register under multiple names in other cities with impunity. Males, who make up 70 percent of the migrant population, are less likely to commit crimes than their German citizen peers, but criminologist Christian Peiffer notes their “rage, frustration and macho culture” predispose them to violence. Every crime and cultural clash makes headlines. No wonder many Merkel defenders secretly welcomed EU commission president Donald Tusk’s advice to asylum seekers in Turkey: “Do not come to Europe.”
With about 10 migrants per 1000, Berlin is not “flooded.” Germany has a budget surplus, low unemployment and a demographic deficit. But 80 percent of Germans believe the government has no solution to the migrant problem. The elections Sunday made it clear that when the sheer numbers of refugees overwhelm host institutions, “capacity” becomes political. In Germany this has meant the return of other sentiments from the past.
For the first time since 1945, “Mein Kampf” is published legally in Germany. The rhetoric of the AfD party, which scored its first electoral successes Sunday, violates Germany’s commitment to diversity by proclaiming, “Our Volk first.” When integration fails, migrants feel alienated, spawning slogans such as “We don’t like people who don’t like us.” The Bavarian leader of Merkel’s own party threatens to take her government to the constitutional court for failing to protect national borders.
Two years ago, Merkel famously pledged to “do what is necessary, no more and no less” to shelter refugees. The time has come to ask what is possible, not only to avert polarization in domestic politics, but to fortify the European Union. For two years the EU commission has called in vain for “permanent obligatory sharing” of the migrant burden. And yet while Germany pays 150 percent of its share, France (the other pillar of the EU) pays less than 50 percent – and resists accepting refugees. A recent German plan to distribute 300,000 refugees to “willing” EU member states failed.
Before the EU summit beginning Thursday, Merkel would be wise to acknowledge the pragmatic obstacles to humanitarianism in Europe and call for massive investment in refugee settlements in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Only when facilities adjacent to war-torn areas provide secure sources of food, shelter and education will refugee flows to Europe diminish. Merkel has the moral force to redirect the “We can do it” spirit from Germany to the Middle East.
Claudia Koonz is the Peabody Family Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.