Does Germany Understand Its Own Strength?

A migrant holding an image of Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, upon arriving at a railway station in Munich. Michael Dalder/Reuters
A migrant holding an image of Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, upon arriving at a railway station in Munich. Michael Dalder/Reuters

Sometime during the night of Sept. 4, 2015 — a year ago this weekend — Chancellor Angela Merkel made a simple, historic decision. Because she didn’t want to become responsible for violence and possibly death at her country’s border, she ordered the German government — and by extension, German society — to take in thousands of refugees who had been sent westward by Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.

When the refugees’ trains pulled into Munich’s main station, local residents did not merely greet them. Hundreds of people had come to the Hauptbahnhof to support the arriving passengers with sandwiches, water, teddy bears — and a sense of relief. Any fear of an oncoming horde dissipated in the presence of so many tired, thankful refugees. They appeared puzzled as Germans applauded them as if they were marathon runners who had finally made it to the finish line.

The pictures of these arrivals, and others during the following days, became symbols of the German “Willkommenskultur,” the welcoming culture. Yet they did not actually express a culture. The overwhelming show of help and humanity of those hours, days and weeks, was more a spontaneous demonstration. But a demonstration of what exactly? The answer to this question might give a clue to how long this welcome will last.

In hindsight, the early days of the Willkommenskultur was more about us than them, providing Germans with relief on three fronts: relief from a sense of powerlessness amid such human misery in the Middle East at a time when Germany was finally growing comfortable with its powerful position in Europe; relief from the contemporary belief, born from the Greek debt crisis, that Germans were hardhearted; and relief from the historic suspicion that others viewed Germans as a dangerous, xenophobic people.

Consider the first point: Here was the undisputed leader of Europe, the country that had survived the financial crisis with enough strength to bail out euro partner countries who risked bankruptcy. And there was the worst humanitarian catastrophe in recent history right on Europe’s periphery, ready-made, it seemed, to demonstrate the limits of German power.

The effects of the slaughter, death itself, had swept the shores of the Continent: Only two days before Ms. Merkel made her decision to open the borders, images of the drowned body of a 3-year-old refugee named Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, had shocked the world. His body was an accusation, and it demanded action.

At the same time, the German public was emotionally strained. Although Berlin had effectively lent billions of euros to Greece, the conditions attached to the payment were assailed as the “German diktat.” Greek newspapers depicted Ms. Merkel in a Nazi uniform. Germany was increasingly cast as an unloved, overly strict headmistress seeking to impose her Protestant work ethic on all her charges.

When the refugees arrived in Munich, Germans got the chance to correct this distorted image. Look, the pictures said, we are generous! We are compassionate. Our patriotism is altruistic.

Finally, on the deepest layer, September 2015 delivered the opportunity for another defining moment in Germany’s long movement from being an enemy of the free world to being the new land of the free. Yes, many migrants are attracted to Germany because of its comparatively generous welfare system. But there’s more. Many Germans accepted the mass movement to their country as the strongest confirmation yet that Germany had become one of the most respected and welcoming places on earth. As naïve as it may sound, we saw ourselves as overrun not by refugees, but by fans.

The collective sigh of relief in Germany was palpable. As surely as the hundreds of Muslim refugees chanting “Germany! Germany!” as they boarded trains in Budapest caused anxiety around some German kitchen tables, they delivered a feeling of redemption to many others. Of course, there are those Germans who set refugees’ temporary housing on fire. But these thugs only goaded the majority to push harder to display the helpfulness they regard as typical for their nation.

Maybe the best — and certainly the funniest — expression of this new, self-confident Germanness was a popular music video produced by the comedian Jan Böhmermann. In a Rammstein-esque heavy metal song, Mr. Böhmermann explains what it means to “be Deutsch”: “Wake up, Deutschland, Sleeping Beauty. Can you hear your call of duty? The world has gone completely nuts. That’s why we’re back to help, mein Schatz.”

Germany is once again a world power, he’s saying — but this time, it’s a force for good; a Superman, not an Übermensch.

If you suspect that Germany has quickly moved from relief to self-righteousness, you’re not wrong. If “Deutsch Power” should mean a hard form of soft power — opening its doors to refugees, deploying humanitarian missions — then Germany has yet to work through exactly what this entails.

Humanitarian reflexes alone are not a substitute for the demands of foreign policy, the kind of demands Germany increasingly faces. The next refugee crisis already looms in Africa and, with Germany’s welcoming culture starting to cool, the next wave of migrants will not be greeted with the same applause. Germany changed a year ago. But, a year on, its political leaders have yet to explain exactly what the new Germany looks like.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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