When I returned to Berlin recently after a few months away, a friend asked me to try a new Chinese restaurant in Kreuzberg, a hip multiethnic neighborhood in the city. “It’s close to the subway station Kottbusser Tor,” he texted. “But take a cab, otherwise it’s too dangerous.”
I would have thought he was joking, but he is not the type. I asked the cabdriver, a young man of Turkish origin. Had Kottbusser Tor suddenly become a no-go zone? To my shock, he replied, “Yes, now that all these people from North Africa are here it has become really dangerous.”
I got out of the cab and looked around. Tourists strolling, a few people on bicycles in spite of the cold, women in head scarves pushing strollers. Had the city changed? It looked the same to me. But my friend is not prone to hysteria, and the cabdriver didn’t seem as if he was either, so the friendly scene suddenly seemed ominous.
That’s how one often feels in Germany these days. One tries to constantly make sense of the latest news and the seemingly contradictory reality.
Last year, a friend from Vienna had a business meeting in Munich. Traveling from Vienna to Munich used to be easy, either four hours on a comfortable train or three hours on the highway, the border crossing noticeable only to those paying attention to the change of train conductors or the welcome signs on the highway. But now Munich had suddenly become impossible to reach. Train service had been suspended because the trains couldn’t handle the high number of refugees and the old border checkpoints on the highway had been put back in place for the moment, armed by police officers checking every single car and passport. After waiting in line for three hours, my friend turned around and drove back to Vienna.
We all became so used to Europe’s open borders that it seemed unimaginable to turn back the clock. As long as civilization was working it seemed as reliable as a force of nature, so it is baffling when we suddenly see it disappear.
And then, the terror. Germans are deeply disturbed by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, and everyone expects it to be Germany’s turn sooner or later. It is confusing to figure out how to live under these newly frightening conditions. It’s not really helpful that reason tells us that terror works only because we are afraid of it.
Until the humanitarian situation of the refugee crisis became unbearable, Chancellor Angela Merkel had always been an aloof pragmatist of power. But when dead children started to wash up at the shores of the European Union, she decided that the moment had come to offer desperate people refuge.
She made that decision when she was riding a wave of public approval and her popularity was quite high. Now many seem to have turned against Ms. Merkel’s welcoming embrace of those fleeing war zones. Part of the reason is that, in some areas, life in Germany is considerably less comfortable. Friends who work in the government on the refugee crisis profess helplessness in the face of the challenge.
Ms. Merkel’s detractors may have a point: Her choice possibly put the safety of her country at risk. Her impractical humanism will likely cost her the chancellorship. But, at the same time, her actions saved the soul of Europe.
Of course, her decision had a lot to do with German history: Not only had Germany been the cause for tens of millions of people being displaced in the 20th century, but it is also the country that murdered millions, many of whom may have been saved if they could have found a state that would have accepted them as refugees from the Nazi regime.
The question of the interplay of humanism and the law has deep roots in the intellectual history of Germany. Goethe’s “Iphigenia in Tauris” describes a king letting go of his political prisoners in a moment of unexpected deep empathy. Immanuel Kant explained in his “Critique of Practical Reason” that no law of any state should ever overrule the personal conscience of the individual. “The Prince of Homburg,” written by Kant’s admirer Heinrich von Kleist, tells the story of a military officer who disobeys a direct order, thereby winning the battle, and is condemned to death anyway for his disobedience.
German thinking has always been preoccupied by the question of whether moral causes can be more important than the well-being of the state — a question that looms large in the works of German writers, but also a question that every citizen had to confront in Germany’s darkest moments. The complex relationship of law, state and conscience is of course important in every person’s life, but nowhere has it been more important than in the country of Martin Luther, Kant and Adolf Hitler.
If there is ever a terrorist attack in Germany, and if refugees play a role in carrying it out — exactly what terrorists would be expected to do — chances are high that the new German openness will end. When I am on the Berlin subway now I cannot avoid thinking of what happened on the subway in Brussels, and my knowledge of statistics doesn’t keep me from nervously looking around. Terrorism is extremely effective, and terrorists can usually rely on us to react in a way that ends up doing their bidding.
“It’s weird,” my friend said that evening at the new Chinese place in Kreuzberg. “I completely disagree with Angela Merkel’s policy. And the more she pursues it, the more I respect her.”
Daniel Kehlmann is the author, most recently, of the novel F.