Last autumn, when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees, my wife and I decided we would be happy to have some of them stay with us in our Berlin apartment. Mostly they would come and stay for just one night, arriving late and leaving at dawn to register with the city authorities.
One night the voluntary organisation that placed refugees with German families called us after midnight and said it had a Moldovan who needed a rest. So we Googled Moldova. We were OK with Syrians coming for a sleepover. But what about Moroccans, Eritreans, or the citizens of former Soviet republics? Well OK, we thought, why not?
Six months have passed since then. The EU has struck a complicated deal with Turkey that is meant to reduce the influx. It may or may not work. But whatever happens in the coming months, Germany’s Willkommenskultur – the belief that we should welcome refugees with open arms – has arguably come to an end. What’s more, the nation that took in more than a million people seems irredeemably changed by the experience – and not for the better.
Germany is bitterly divided on the refugee question. Neighbours and families are divided. The poisonous atmosphere has been fuelled by rightwing hatemongers. But the adherents of the Willkommenskultur, in my view, are also to blame. Where did it all go wrong?
Looking back, the events of September 2015 seem strangely unreal. Hundreds of Germans gathered at Munich’s central station to applaud incoming refugees. A smiling Merkel posed for selfies with Syrians at asylum-seeker homes, and ordinary Germans opened their doors for “welcome dinners”. I remember feeling both excited and a little nervous. Something extraordinary was happening and we were there to witness it first-hand.
Helping people who’d escaped from a brutal civil war seemed an unquestionably sound thing to do – and Germans embraced their role as moral leaders of the western world. Collective narcissism may have played a role too. Other nations have long respected and envied Germany for its economic success. But we have not exactly been considered warm-hearted or lovable. Now, all of a sudden, millions dreamt of coming here – and we felt flattered. The refugees made us feel good about ourselves.
We also thought we’d benefit economically from our popularity, much like the US did in preceding centuries. Call it Germany’s American dream. A massive influx of young workers was just what the ageing nation needed, we argued. Besides, Merkel wasn’t a crazy idealist. When she made her move in September, we thought she knew what she was doing. She was known to be a cautious, risk-averse politician. So there had to be a plan – and an alternative if the plan didn’t work.
Were we naive? Perhaps. Most of the refugees who stayed at our home were men in their 20s. They didn’t talk much. Some never even said “thank you”. One seemed to feel genuinely sorry for us because we have three daughters and no sons. Another asked, apropos of nothing, whether my wife was “a Jewish girl”. We tried not to read too much into these experiences, limited as they were. But they did suggest that the relationship between Germans and refugees would not be as easy and straightforward as the enthusiasts had suggested.
Some of the broader assumptions we as a nation made also seem wildly optimistic now. Many economists who were initially in favour of Merkel’s policy have changed their minds. They say that, even in the medium term, the costs will outweigh the benefits. And the experiences of companies that hired refugees as trainees have been disheartening. Most people they took on lack even the basics of a high-school education.
Still worse, we’ve lost trust in our institutions. When Merkel said, “We’ll manage”, she appealed to Germans’ pride in their own efficiency. We think we’re pretty good at getting things done; we know how to manufacture luxury cars and other complex engineering products. But when it came to handling the refugee crisis, our government institutions – such as Berlin’s much-criticized Lageso authority – turned out to be anything but well-oiled machines.
Applications for asylum are being dealt with at a snail’s pace, and hundreds of thousands of refugees are languishing in temporary shelters. Last month the head of the migration office admitted that up to 400,000 people had not applied for asylum. Which means we have no idea who they are or where they are from. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that.
Then there’s Merkel. Her decision to open the borders in order to avert a humanitarian crisis in Hungary was a courageous one. Quite possibly, it was also the best option on the table. But in the aftermath Merkel made some mistakes that seem oddly out of character.
She didn’t coordinate her plans with European partners, leaving Germany isolated in its pursuit of a common EU solution. She never asked parliament to vote on her policy. And she didn’t even try to convince all those Germans who were sceptical. “If we have to apologise for showing a friendly face in an emergency, this is not my country any more,” Merkel said somewhat haughtily. She also suggested that Germany’s borders couldn’t be secured by any means, which needlessly alienated conservative voters – and aided the rise of the rightwing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
The mood started to shift in late 2015; and when hundreds of women were assaulted on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, it turned ugly. By then, my wife and I had left Germany for a long trip abroad. Friends told us we’d find the country much changed on our return. And so we did. Germany, a nation with a political culture based on compromise, suddenly felt as divided as Donald Trump’s America. People with different views didn’t listen to one another any more, they just hated one another’s guts.
The rightwing populists bear much of the blame. The AfD ruthlessly took advantage of the Cologne assaults. It also incited hatred towards the left-liberal elites it holds responsible for the Willkommenskultur. Its derogatory term for political opponents is Gutmenschen, which translates as “good people” but means the opposite.
Unfortunately, the Gutmenschen have been just as intolerant, denouncing anyone who opposes an open-border policy as racist and worse. Nazi slurs used to be weapons of last resort in Germany’s political rhetoric. But it’s become common to compare the AfD’s conservative base to the millions of Germans who supported Hitler in 1933.
The nature of political debate has changed, writer Peter Schneider said recently. “When I argue that refugees are welcome but not an unlimited number of them, my opponent will respond by saying that I sound like the AfD and that I’m xenophobic and probably a racist.”
What now? The EU’s borders are pretty much closed, at least for the time being. We don’t have people calling any more asking us to host refugees. And if we did get another call, I’m not sure I’d happily say, “OK then, why not?” That doesn’t mean we’ve turned into barbarians.
Getting the refugee thing right will be Germany’s biggest challenge in coming years, and we want to make a contribution. But the spirit of the Willkommenskultur – taking in people randomly, exuberantly, without getting to know them and establishing a meaningful relationship – doesn’t feel right any more.
Konstantin Richter is a contributing writer for Politico, and writes for the German newspaper Die Welt. He is the author of Bettermann (2007), and Kafka Was Young and Needed the Money (2011).