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Opinion | Elizabeth Schumacher

Germans are worried about immigration policy, but not their own

A migrant girl held a poster of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as migrants walk in Budapest downtown after leaving the transit zone of the main train station, intending to continue their journey to the Austrian border, September 2015.
A migrant girl held a poster of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as migrants walk in Budapest downtown after leaving the transit zone of the main train station, intending to continue their journey to the Austrian border, September 2015. PETER KOHALMI/AFP/Getty Images/File/AFP/Getty Images

COLOGNE, Germany

READING REPORTS on modern Germany from outside its borders, one might easily assume that the immigration issue is tearing the nation apart at the seams, and that the influx of refugees has completely reshaped daily life and paralyzed the government. Indeed, in 2015, some friends back in the United States seemed to be concerned that I might have a family of Syrians camping out in my backyard or, worse, that I was being threatened by roving gangs of violent migrants.

Then, as now, this couldn’t be further from the reality on the ground. Crime in Germany is at its lowest rate since 1992, and if refugee crime is (slightly) up, well, that’s because there are a lot more refugees. Even then, as Germany’s crime statistics bureau was at pains to make clear a few months ago, this mostly amounts to minor infractions like not paying for a tram ticket.

As in most places, the over-reporting of infrequent instances of violent crime committed by migrants plays a huge role in the misperception. A 2017 study found that despite the fact that non-native Germans are less likely to commit crimes and are more likely to be its victims, media coverage would suggest the complete inverse.

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In interviews with US and British media, I am still often pressured to say that the rash of pickpocketing and groping that happened in my hometown of Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2016 makes me feel unsafe, despite the fact that sexual assault in Germany has been dropping steadily since 2008 and is still far lower than US and UK rates, according to all available data.

Germany doesn’t even have as many refugees as its reputation warrants. About half of the migrants who arrived during the 2015-2016 peak have left, applications for asylum are down 70 percent since this time last year, and fellow European Union nations like Sweden and Austria still have more asylum seekers per capita.

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As for the myth of the great Muslim tide (a favorite bugbear of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party) that is going to destroy Germany’s secular culture, impinge on the rights of women, and create a parallel society that will never assimilate – well, you may want to tell that to the millions of Turkish Germans who have already been here for 50 years, since the influx following World War II, managing to be both Muslim and German without setting fire to the fabric of society.

The rumors of Angela Merkel’s political death, too, have been greatly exaggerated. She is still Germany’s most popular politician, according to poll numbers as fresh as this month. The story of a power struggle with her interior minister, an immigration hard-liner from Bavaria, is nothing more than a man making a power play ahead of regional elections in his home state. Germany’s constitution is designed for stability at all costs, and stories like this tend to get overblown merely because German political scandals skew tepid.

Most Germans I’ve talked with in my eight years of living here believe they have a special historical responsibility to accept the victims of persecution and conflict. They may be nervous, but not for themselves or their own immigration policies. Watching footage of children weeping in a detention center at the US-Mexico border, a friend of mine in his early 30s said quietly, “I know I shouldn’t say it, but this is something the SS would have done.”

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Under most circumstances, Germans find comparison with the crimes of the Nazis anathema, considering them a historical aberration so singular in its horror that to draw any modern parallels is tantamount to contempt for their victims.

But this is different, and Germans are worried. Worried about parallels they see about how Nazis changed the meaning of normal words and concepts — like news, art, and Christianity — and twisted them to make their propaganda more palatable. Worried too, as both individuals and media have been increasingly taking note of what seems like the same kind of scapegoating of the “other” to widen the popularity of an ideology that was once the purview of only the smallest cross-section between the most uninformed and those who felt the most hard-done-by.


Elizabeth Schumacher is a US journalist based in Germany.