On September 4, Angela Merkel transformed herself into a kind of German Rosie the Riveter. Deploying the slogan used in a US wartime advert featuring a woman in a headscarf and overalls, the chancellor said: “We can do it” — and opened the borders of Germany (and Europe) to refugees. The nation has whiplashed between elation and panic ever since.
Berlin says 800,000 will seek asylum in Germany this year alone. Informal estimates put the number at 1.5m. This influx of traumatised human beings was not caused by Ms Merkel. But opening the doors was a daring political and social experiment, the most consequential act of her 10 years as chancellor.
Success and total failure are both within reach. Either way, the result will be an utterly changed Germany and Europe.
There is no denying the past few weeks have brought out Germany’s ugly side. The number of recorded attacks against refugees has reached the hundreds. Rightwing populist movements such as Pegida are spewing bile on social media and on the streets.
Tension is rife in Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, too. Horst Seehofer, head of her Bavarian sister party, is leading the revolt; his poll numbers have risen as hers have fallen. In opinion polls, the rightwing Alternative für Deutschland party is registering more than the 5 per cent needed to enter the national parliament. Even a cabinet member has pandered to rising anxiety.
At the same time, tens of thousands of Germans are taking a stand against hate crimes and speech, or the indecisiveness of overwhelmed authorities. Students work in soup kitchens, pensioners teach languages and skills. A friend who works long hours in a government job is volunteering in a refugee home. Another says his synagogue in Berlin is participating in an aid programme at a Catholic hospital. Pragmatism, they say, is the order of the day: if the rules do not solve problems, so much for the rules.
So society is changing before our eyes — but the truth is that it had already changed. Two decades ago, an interior minister vowed that the country (then mostly white and Christian) would never be a destination for immigrants. It is only a few years since Ms Merkel declared Germany had failed to integrate its migrants. By then it had taken in millions of “guest workers” and war refugees. About 10m became citizens. Today, more than 20 per cent of the population are migrants or migrants’ children. Germany is a multicultural, multireligious and multicoloured country.
The nation needs large-scale immigration to help secure its welfare state and its economy. But many German families remember having been refugees themselves. After 1945, 13m deportees from east Europe resettled in West Germany; 3m came from the Soviet Union in the 1990s. On October 3 1990, 16m East Germans woke up in a new country. These were big challenges. If there is one lesson from all these experiences, it is that history is not destiny, and identity is a matter of choice. In the refugees who choose Europe, and Germany, Germans recognise themselves.
Yet the German example also shows that social change needs time, money and wise policies. It took 50 years to acknowledge the full horrors of the second world war. Reunification cost an estimated €2tn. Decades of indifference created Turkish ghettos — until Berlin made it easier for migrants to become citizens. Fresh polls show a majority of Germans now fear the nation might not be able to absorb all the latest refugees.
Ms Merkel seems determined to stand her ground. To make her experiment work, she will have to make difficult compromises. Building walls on the border is not an option, but there will be holding areas and repatriation for migrants from countries held to be safe.
Turkey is securing privileged access to the EU for cracking down on traffickers. Germany also needs a foreign policy that addresses root causes of conflict in the Middle East, and supports vulnerable host countries such as Lebanon. Above all, it must adapt its humanitarian unilateralism to legitimate needs of more vulnerable member states.
Failure could mean that Ms Merkel finds she has presided over the destruction of the European project. But if she succeeds, she might yet become a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize that rightly eluded her this year.
The writer is Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
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