Refugee Crisis A Tale of Two Train Stations

When Germany opened its gates to a flood of refugees from war-ravaged regions, Handelsblatt’s Thomas Tuma fully supported Chancellor Merkel’s slogan: “We can do it!” The deputy editor in chief now explains why he has changed his mind.
The surge of refugees into Germany began as a story of celebration but has turned into one of despair.

I don’t know the exact moment when the change of heart occured. As often happens in such cases, it was a slow, gradual process. The transition in my mind on the refugee question took place, in essence, between what happened at two train stations four months apart.

At the one end was the euphoric welcome in September at Munich’s central station. Naturally, it was a heartfelt outburst of generosity from my countrymen who stood there welcoming the refugees with flowers and teddy bears. But the impression they gave – sorry to say – already seemed a bit on the hysterical side, like an exaggerated demonstration of good conscience.

Those offering help were hardly in control of their desire to do so.

On the other end of the spectrum were the excesses at Cologne’s central station on New Year’s Eve. Since then, nothing has been the same in Germany – or at least not the same as some might have imagined it to be but was never actually the case.

Cologne was just the culmination. But what a culmination it was! It remains unclear whether the assaults and subsequent debate about what happened have made the country more mature and honest – or more radical.

Chancellor Angela Merkel prefers to think about how things end, not how they begin. But because the means to an end are often so difficult and so complex, the chancellor is often accused of lacking decisiveness.

In her decade in power, only twice has she made spontaneous decisions. The first time came in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, when she launched Germany’s energy transition away from nuclear power. Since then, energy giants like RWE and E.ON have wondered if she didn’t think this revolution through, and certainly not to the very end.

The second time was when she announced her open-door approach to refugees at the end of August, “We can do it.” At the time I was willing to follow her lead: because I am Christian; because brotherly love needs to be more than mere yuletide donations; because I'm conscious of my historic responsibility for Germany’s Nazi past; and also because the mob of the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or Pegida, movement and the passionately xenophobic Alternative for Germany political party are so alien and so far removed from the globalized world from which we all benefit.

Germany will become less comfortable. And only few will benefit from refugees, like the construction industry, which will build new housing, and also new jails… Herwig Birg, Demographer

I am a German centrist, a mainstream burgher, perhaps slightly square at times but dependable and fundamentally democratic. I pay my taxes on time, and even Germany’s fee for public television broadcasting. I have never needed an attorney, almost never cross the street when the signal is red, always vote and faithfully separate my trash into paper, plastics and organic waste.

But I have lost my faith in the idea of “We will do it!” when it comes to coping with the refugees.

And I'm not alone. A large segment of the population, according to pollster Renate Köcher of the Allensbach Institute, now has the impression that we’ve “lost control,” that something is completely wrong – which has less to do with refugees per se than with our totally jumbled politics.

My position on the refugee question, as with too many things, is influenced by three factors: upbringing, education and personal experiences. These factors frame the narrative of one’s surroundings and how one reads, hears and sees the world through the media.

But the problem became tangible to me for the first time last spring, when my local city government erected a first container village for refugees in my neighborhood. Fueled by informational meetings and a lot of good will, the belief at the time was: We can do it.

Meanwhile, the number of asylum seekers soared to enormous levels nationwide. Their hardships were depicted in pictures, like that of the young Syrian boy Aylan, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shore, of overwhelmed border controls and of massive numbers of migrants making their way  towards Germany walking on foot alongside highways.

The worsening societal schism over the refugee question reached into my own living room. “The refugees are pulling us out of our warm, comfortable cocoon,” I told my wife. “We must not only answer their call, but also the question of what we actually stand for.” My wife, who is active in a refugee aid organization, asked, “And? Will they better integrate here?”

There was somehow the hope that a kind of premium refugee was coming to Germany: highly trained Syrian academics with loveable children who could perhaps alleviate some of the problems associated with Germany's shrinking population. It was about as naïve as believing, as many did, that Barack Obama was a savior. After accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he then went on to manage old wars and new chaos.

Many male refugees travelling on their own took up residence in our brand new lodgings, as well as homeless Germans. We needed to mix it up a little, people said. But we can do it.

All the while, politicians engaged in one pretentious debate after another, revolving mostly around semantics and seldom reality. Should there be a cap on refugees or quotas? What’s the future of the Schengen Agreement that has long made it possible for passport-free travel across most of the borders of the European Union? How does one define a safe country of origin so that asyulm seekers from those safe countries can be sent home?

As if such concerns have any importance in the face of the unabated influx of asylum seekers, for which demographer Herwig Birg predicts two extreme outcomes.

Under a best-case scenario, many refugees could integrate passably. They could find jobs, pay taxes and contribute to Germany’s economy. As a result, they could pay back some of Germany’s expense for extending them asylum, “and the world maybe sees us rather as a shining example and somewhat less as former Nazi pariah state.”

Refugees in Europe-01

But Mr. Birg is more of a professional pessimist: “The worst-case scenario is that Germany will face severe economic burdens as the refugee crisis spins out of control and society faces additional burdens through an increase in domestic tensions, all of which could be exacerbated by a departure culturally from its intellectual underpinnings.”

On balance, the social scientist concludes rather bleakly: “The reality may well lie somewhere in-between those two extremes, and one way or another it will be accompanied by a drop in standards of living in Germany. Germany will become a less comfortable place. And only few will benefit from refugees, like the construction industry, which will build new housing, and also new jails…”

The one side did not want to accept that we have been a country of immigration for decades. The other side preferred not to talk about the problems immigration can induce. Armin Nassehi, German-Persian sociologist

The “Welcome Refugees” signs at the Munich train station marked the finish line of an often-agonizing odyssey for many refugees. But they also mark the beginning of a new process that will take generations to unfold and could go woefully wrong during the long, hard slog. Can we do it?

A retired teacher in my neighborhood who gives German-language lessons to refugees tells of how the men in his classroom initially hesitated to sit with the women. She told them that if they didn’t accept gender equality they could just go home. I can imagine how this quickly becomes a matter of principle – in her lessons and in thousands of similar cases everyday across the country – and I marvel at this woman’s courage.

Finally, she says, it seems to be working. But she is frustrated with the shortcomings of a state whose values she is tasked with instilling. The reason: Her German course is directed at absolute beginners. The two-dozen women and men in her class have been waiting for two to three years for any kind of progress – on their asylum process, on a job, on a life, on cultural integration.

On the other hand, she’s having fun with her pupils, who are very eager to learn, she says. But she, like everyone, has also heard the other stories: of the homophobic, misogynistic, hormone-driven, anti-Semitic mob that has no interest in integration.

When former West Germany began to experience problems with the “guest workers” from southern Europe and Turkey that it had invited to help keep its post-World War II economic boom growing, author Max Frisch summed up: “We called for a workforce, and people came.”

The 2016 equivalent could go: We expected victims, and perpetrators also came.

Successful integration is quiet and inconspicuous. It is invisible. What I see instead is Cologne, or reports, such as recently appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, about two teenage girls allegedly gang-raped by young men of “Syrian origin” aged 14 to 21 – also on New Year’s Eve – in the southern German town of Weil am Rhein.


I also see the backgrounds of criminals like the axe-wielding man recently shot dead by police in Paris. It's now since emerged that for years he was able to jump from one German refugee residence to the next, always with a new identity, because he never registered.

Even the reliable German bureaucracy is failing us now.

The problem did not start with Cologne or even today’s refugee crisis, but it has been suppressed for a long time. As German-Iranian sociologist Armin Nassehi told the Tageszeitung newspaper: “The one side did not want to accept that we have been a country of immigration for decades, and refused to have this discussion. The other side preferred not to talk about the problems immigration can induce. Accordingly, we have not developed a culture of discourse.”

Instead, Germany is arming itself. It’s about self-protection, which is why so many people are now gearing up with batons, knives, blank-firing guns and Mace sprays. In the past year, the number of certificates for such small weapons has jumped around 30 percent in Berlin.

Refugees really aren’t the reason for this. Rather, it is the eroding trust in the protective power of the state. First comes the loss of control, then the loss of trust. Can we still do it?

No, says Hans-Jürgen Papier, former president of Germany’s Constitutional Court, who in recent interview with Handelsblatt bemoaned the “flagrant failure” of the German federal government.

No, says the New York Times, advising Chancellor Merkel to step down.

No, says German economist Isabel Schnabel, who cautioned against economic expectations “that cannot be fulfilled.”

That’s three big no’s just this week.

An entrepreneur of Turkish ancestry whom I met before Christmas also says "no." Like many Germans with immigrant backgrounds, he advised more tough love. Out with the riffraff! When I timidly countered that deportations aren't as easy as it might seem, he said ''Why is that?'' I didn’t bother to point to the Geneva Refugee Convention.

We Germans really can be rather strange at times, vascillating between Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler, he said with a dark laugh.

Meanwhile, liberal democracies such as Sweden and Denmark now are barricading their borders. Eastern European heads of state mock our naivety. Other European Union countries berate us for wanting to foist our political correctness upon them.

Everywhere in Europe, the political forces delivering the simplest answers are the ones winning ground. In Poland, Hungary, France and Denmark, it’s the right that is winning.

“We're doing everything we can,” said Denmark’s migration minister, “so that it is not attractive to come to Denmark.”

Germany’s politicians, however, aren't able to deliver answers. Our decisionmakers are fraught with deep insecurity.

Obviously, there aren't any simple recipes for success on this issue. Everything we are experiencing at this moment is new -- the sheer masses, the daily pictures, the excesses in Cologne and hatred spewing from the far right.

After Cologne, even leftists are calling for stricter laws and harsher crackdowns. But just because their catchphrases are becoming shriller does not mean they are becoming more convincing.

Germany's Refugees-01 asylum seekers

German journalist and talk-show host Jakob Augstein recently wrote that the true lesson of Cologne has “much less to do with groping and thieving foreigners than with Germans themselves. …It’s not the extremely horny Muslims we must fear, but rather ourselves.”

I do not fear myself. I fear a hyperventilating government that – between party squabbles and European discord – gets nothing accomplished, does nothing to protect me and instead wants to protect me from myself.

In November, after a soccer match in Hanover was cancelled amid fears over what was thought to be a looming terror attack, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière declined to go into detail, saying only “Part of the answer would unsettle the populace.” So it isn’t just us voters who mistrust politicians; they mistrust us more than ever.

The German government needs to be a bit more English: tougher, more consequential, more active. Matthias Horx, Futurologist

But we are neither stupid nor especially fragile. We can be trusted with reality. Futurologist Matthias Horx thinks so too. In a recent interview with Handelsblatt, he said the German government ought to be “a bit more English: tougher, more consequential, more active.”

I agree. We can do that by securing the borders of the European Union, better controlling the asylum process, and providing more police presence. Coming up with a real action plan for Berlin and Brussels should not be that difficult.

Since the start of the year, the influx of refugees into Germany has advanced at a clip of 2,500 people per day. That’s less than last year, but still far too many.

At some point, my city government conceded they are planning to place 650 new asylum seekers near our existing refugee housing. But if there was outrage, it was mostly because city officials attempted to bury the facts. They actually are planning a camp for 4,000 refugees. That shocked even the most passionate purveyors of Germany’s new “welcome culture.”

That’s 4,000 people who neither speak our language nor understand our values, 4,000 people who will need childcare and schools that do not yet exist.

My wife smiles. She warned me this would happen months ago.

Surprisingly, after Cologne she has become more optimistic than I. “At least now it is openly discussed,” she says.

By contrast, I have grown more silent. Words are no longer enough.

Thomas Tuma has been a deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt since 2013. To contact the author: [email protected].