The Welcome Society?March 30, 2016 by Thomas Tatum
For observers from abroad, and for many Germans as well, the images of such a warm welcome toward this gush of desperate humanity fleeing the horror and hardship of a gruesome civil war seemed oddly out of place in a world in which much of Europe and other wealthy industrialized nations were digging in their heels, bickering among themselves while struggling to maintain an illusionary status quo. Intentional or not, Ms. Merkel’s stance cast a light upon two distinct fault lines in both Germany’s reality and its perception of itself.
First, this act of simple courage and compassion displayed by opening the door to those in dire need was a reminder that Germany itself was a very different society not long ago, itself the reason why many millions of people were killed or displaced. The majority of Germans today understand and accept this basic truth, acknowledging at least a minimal moral responsibility toward those in harm’s way. Because of this (and even if it is sometimes a bone of loud contention over who should benefit from it and how), the right to asylum was even woven firmly into the Grundgesetz, the country’s basic law, a constitutional framework ratified in 1949. Secondly, a less obvious effect can be discerned, a consequence which one might assume someone as rational as Ms. Merkel would weigh into her deliberations: that a successful integration of those refugees who choose to live and work in Germany would be a windfall to an aging society struggling to maintain a high standard of living and relatively comfortable level of benefits for an ever-growing number of retirees. But it is precisely this effect which highlights the mindset of a population both uneasy with and enchanted by populist sentiments and a resurgent nationalism riding on its coat-tails.
As in Marie Le Pen’s France or even in DJT’s version of America, those eager to circle the wagons tend to attract the most attention. Germany is no exception: in regional elections, the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has achieved impressive results despite having little in the way of a practical party platform other than deep mistrust of foreigners–especially refugees–as well as a now-familiar disdain for both a free press and much of the democratic process as a whole. In its nascence, the AfD came to be the political home of a small segment of the population piqued at financial crisis bank bailouts and, later on, by the EU’s efforts to stabilize Greece and subsequently the union itself. But it was 2015’s swell of refugees heading to Germany and Scandinavia which ignited its already xenophobic tendencies into a full-blown conflagration. The AfD’s leader and spokeswoman, Frauke Petry, even suggested in an interview that opening fire on refugees streaming across Germany’s borders was a suitable option to manage the so-called refugee crisis (she later back-pedaled a bit, admitting that shooting at refugee children might not be completely acceptable).
Ironically, the biggest groundswell in the AfD’s favor can be seen in the part of the country which in Cold War times called itself the German Democratic Republic and whose own citizens themselves were either welcomed as refugees in the West or, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, subsidized by the remainder of Germany to renew or rebuild its decrepit infrastructure and industries. Over twenty-five years after reunification, working Germans today still contribute a 5.5% tax surcharge on their earnings toward the reconstruction of former socialist East Germany. This enforced generosity has since its inception been tinged with ambivalence: while the necessity of bringing the East’s infrastructure up to par with the requirements of a modern export-oriented manufacturing economy was never hotly disputed among Germans, there has been unease, and sometimes resentment, over the slow pace of adaptation in former Eastern Germany. While the workforce in these five new states has been vocal in demanding income parity with its Western German counterparts, productivity and achievement levels in this part of the country are still comparatively low–be it entrepreneurial or educationally–with the result that there has over the years been a quiet exodus among the more talented Eastern Germans and especially among better-educated women toward the West. A large swath of the country is thus populated by a surplus of less-educated men working for lower pay in less attractive jobs, firing a broad perception that they’ve somehow been “short-changed” through reunification and fueling a heightened sense of vulnerability toward outsiders. But while political populism and xenophobia are most pronounced in this section of the country, it’s not restricted to the East: the AfD’s categorical rejection of refugees sufficed to earn it respectable election results recently in the wealthy southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg while its ideology has also begun to spill over into the conservative political base of neighboring Bavaria’s Christian Socialist Union, junior partners in Angela Merkel’s coalition government.
Perhaps most unsettling is the fact that the AfD, like populist parties and ideologies elsewhere, appears to gain much of its acceptance through tough-talk rhetoric rejecting many of the vital institutions which have helped Western democracies attain an unparalleled level of political freedom and, along with it, immense economic success. And, lest it be forgotten, an unparalleled period of lasting peace. Free press, independent judiciaries, schools of higher learning, established political parties and even parliamentary government itself have all been assailed as being tools for a self-serving elite to perpetuate its grip on power and society as a whole. It is not without irony that it was the corruption of such institutions or the absence of them altogether in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya which ignited or exacerbated the mass flow of refugees now at the focal point of populist anxieties.
The already difficult task of integrating refugees and other foreigners into German society will only become harder if the value of these institutions is not unambiguously upheld and respected. A party or movement whose rhetoric suggests otherwise is signaling both its own domestic political base as well as thousands of refugees that it is not only possible but also acceptable to opt out. This is a false message and a dangerous one as well. The lion’s share of these refugees hail from Islamic societies where fundamental values of their religion often doubled as the law of the land. In secular Western societies–Germany included–values serve as a moral measure, a kind of social compass, but are unencumbered with any kind of actual or implied judicial relevance. Settling here thus requires a huge leap of faith on the part of people who have often left everything behind or lost it on the way, including loved ones. The very same independent institutions viewed with such disdain by followers of populist parties have served as guarantees, at a minimum, of at least some vestige of fairness. Democracy and its institutions are not always perfect but they are the best which we, and indeed all of mankind in its history thus far, have ever had at our disposal. They are what gives a nation and its citizenry a distinct identity, not flags and parades. They deserve to be respected.
Arguing otherwise is delusionary; it does no one a service. Countries like Syria or Libya fall apart for many reasons–one of the chief reasons why problems never seem to get fixed, though, is that all accountability is invariably deferred to the thug at the helm of government. Or it rests with God. It is real schools, free speech, independent courts, an open political process and economic growth which empowers people and enables them to identify with their country.
On this note, it is understandable that Germans, with a view toward some two million Turks living in the country, are uneasily registering Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate his party’s hold on power, professing Islamic values as he muzzles the Turkish press, clamps down on political opposition and alternates between waging war with or marginalizing his country’s Kurdish population. Mr. Erdogan’s hysterical response to a recent satirical TV show in Germany–demanding that the German government “erase” the show and punish those responsible, citing defamation, and thereafter vowing to pursue the show’s host with all available legal means–aptly illustrated the divide between an open and democratic society on the one hand and an increasingly autocratic regime on the other. Because the reaction out of Ankara was so nonsensical, Germans took note. It was surely an awkward moment for Angela Merkel, who prudently stepped aside to allow Mr. Erdogan to address the issue in a German court of law, if he so desired. He lost.
Today, the mood which the majority of Germans continue to broadcast is cautiously optimistic even though the status quo is fragile. Schools work frantically to make language training available to refugees while legions of volunteers continue to organize food, clothing and shelter for the roughly one million refugees who made it to Germany while Europe’s borders were still wide open. German companies are today banging the drum, evaluating the skills and talents of a whole generation of unexpected immigrants, many of whom are already either reasonably well-educated or possess vocational skills sufficient to facilitate a fairly rapid assimilation into Germany’s workforce.
And who knows? Given the high degree of motivation and the young average age of these refugees, it is conceivable that Germans might one day look back and quietly laud Angela Merkel’s own version of an economic miracle–a kind of modern day wirtschaftswunder–courtesy of one million new consumers also serving as contributors to Germany’s demographically top-heavy social security system.