Opinion

opinion | Stefanie Friedhoff

Germany’s leap of faith in migrant crisis

Refugees selected food and drink offered by volunteers at the Schoenefeld regional railway station near Berlin.
AFP/Getty Images
Refugees selected food and drink offered by volunteers at the Schoenefeld regional railway station near Berlin.

The moving pictures are broadcast around the world: Germans waving posters, chanting “refugees are welcome here!” in soccer stadiums throughout the country. Germans handing out food, offering language sessions, and helping refugees fill out paperwork in Munich, Berlin, Hamburg.

As a German-American, I long to be in Berlin, not Boston, to take part in this watershed moment for my generation.

Here we are, the grandchildren of Hitler’s regime, extending a hand to the exhausted masses, for the world to see: We are not our nation’s past. Things have changed. #refugeeswelcome.

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It is an image-makeover as history has rarely seen.

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Who would have thought: Germans are giving the world hope. Hope that the rich and the poor could get better at sharing. That the tricky problem of migration driven by wars and inequality that has bedeviled our times can be met with unwavering compassion after all.

To be sure, the real heroes of the crisis are in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, nations that have taken in the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees. Also, while other major economies such as France and Britain are much slower to welcome refugees, in 2014 Germany was still only number eight among European Union nations when it came to who takes in the most refugees relative to its population (Sweden welcomed more than three times as many per capita as Germany.)

By allowing in 800,000 refugees and immigrants this year, and opening up to taking another potential 500,000 annually, Germany is in some ways just catching up with a trend. It is also a self-serving move, since the country needs young, productive people for its economic survival.

But none of what is unfolding in Germany right now has to do with numbers or political calculations. It has to do with memory, and that makes it all the more powerful.

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I don’t know what Americans see when they view images of desperate refugees in overfilled trains and boats, but I see people fleeing Germany in the 1930s.

It is the same with recent images of an asylum center being set aflame in Thuringia. In German collective memory, these images trigger one reaction: Not again. Not under my watch.

Germans were once evil. Suddenly, there is a chance to stand up collectively to stop the vicious cycle of declaring the “other” dangerous.

To see historic memory initiate such redemption instead of revenge is what many crave, on both sides of the Atlantic. In the post-9/11, post-Afghanistan-and-Iraq-war world of ISIS and European nationalist movements, the German public’s approach suddenly makes the world a slightly warmer, less scary place.

With the international spotlight on this new Germany comes great responsibility. A public conversation about how this difficult role can be shouldered is emerging in the country just now, alongside a conversation about the logistics and cost of it all.

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Some are excited. Others weary. Many share both hope and concern.

The overwhelming question is whether the Germany the world is idealizing right now, the Germany refugees are thinking they are reaching on trains, in buses, on foot — whether that country exists, or whether at least it can be built from the shared dream of a truly inclusive nation.

Because the Germany I visited this summer was not that. It was a country full of friends and family wanting to help, yet explaining how refugees and immigrants “don’t speak our language,” “don’t have proper education,” “will not find work,” or are “just too different.”

The Germany I visited this summer was a nation still deeply conflicted about its identity as a homogeneous country that happens to have, well, lots of diversity pouring in through its borders.

Ever since Hitler succeeded so terribly in driving diversity out of the country, Germany was for the Germans. A perception that largely prevailed even as the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey was settling in our midst (started in Berlin by guest workers in the 1960s). Or as more than a million refugees from the Balkans arrived since the 1990s.

It took Germany until 2005 to pass a law finally acknowledging and framing immigration and refugee intake. Government initiatives have been playing catchup ever since.

Only people, not government, can turn immigration into integration.

The central challenge for Germany going forward will be for the public to embrace migrants not just because they have suffered and deserve empathy, but because, in all their diversity, they are a necessary driver of economic, political, and cultural success.

By stepping out on the streets in support of refugees, many Germans have just taken a tremendous leap of faith to see if they can get this done.

Stefanie Friedhoff is a German-American journalist based in Medford. Follow her on Twitter @stefanie2000.

Related:

William Lambers: Send food aid to starving Syrians

Editorial: Peace in Syria requires better Saudi-Iran relations

Timothy Snyder: Warnings from another refugee crisis

Stephen Kinzer: Today’s refugee crisis is the price for yesterday’s interventions

The Internationalist: A daring plan to rebuild Syria — no matter who wins the war