The Consequence of Conscience

As the Syrian civil war raged, German Chancellor Angela Merkel boldly challenged her country to welcome 1.3 million refugees fleeing turmoil and devastation in the Middle East. Two and a half years later, Germany is integrating an unprecedented number of newcomers into society. In the long term, how will this massive influx—and the right-wing backlash against it—change the country and its attitudes toward Jews, the Holocaust and Israel?
By | Jan 08, 2018

In July 2015, as thousands of Syrians and others fleeing ISIS and civil war thronged into train stations in Germany, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Rostock, a dingy port city that has seen its share of anti-immigrant violence. There she participated in a routine panel discussion with teenagers on the topic “Living Well in Germany.” Video of the event, which later went viral, shows a 14-year-old Palestinian girl, Reem Sahwil, who haltingly begs the chancellor in shy but perfect German not to deport her family back to Lebanon. She is doing well here, she says, she is finally happy and safe—why can’t she stay in Germany and complete her studies?

The camera swings to Merkel, who interrupts the girl and begins to explain, in an uncomfortable, slightly pedantic manner, the reasons why Germany needs to send back families who don’t qualify for the country’s asylum policy. “There are thousands of Palestinian families in Lebanon,” she begins, “thousands and thousands in Africa, and they’d all like to come here—we just can’t manage it.” As Merkel talks, her expression changes and her words trail off. The camera follows her as she crosses the room and bends over the girl, who has broken down sobbing. Merkel pats her shoulder, strokes her hair and speaks soothingly. She is clearly rattled.

Soon after this encounter, Merkel met with angry German protestors calling for Germany to close its borders just as other European nations were doing. The two events seem to have merged with her own instincts to produce a burst of moral clarity. On August 31, facing demands from her own Christian Democratic Union to close the gates, Merkel declared that Germany would do no such thing:  “We are a strong country, we have dealt with so much—we will deal with this.”  The last three words in German—“Wir schaffen das!”—could also be translated as “We’ll manage this” or “We’ll make it work.” Many noted an echo of Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can!”

The declaration was a dramatic step for Merkel, a politician seen until then as cautious and consensus-driven. Some saw it simply as her strong personal ethics coming to the fore—as also happened, for instance, when, addressing the Knesset in 2008, she declared that keeping Israel safe was part of Germany’s Staatsraison, or national purpose. “She grew up behind a wall,” notes an observer, referring to the chancellor’s East German childhood. “She is never going to agree to build a wall around Germany.”

But her decision also expressed a value that stems directly from postwar Germany’s unique history and its decades-long attempts to deal with the legacy of the Holocaust. In 1948, pushed by the victorious Allies, the federal government of what was then West Germany adopted a constitutional guarantee of asylum for all victims of persecution—a measure explicitly framed at the time as atonement for the murder of millions who perished under the Nazis because other countries would not take them in.

Welcoming the massive influx of refugees from the Middle East in 2015 made headlines around the world. Inside Germany it was controversial; it was immediately evident that it could trigger social and political changes. Less thought of at the time was the profound long-term impact that such changes could have on German society, particularly on the political stability that maintains Germany’s long-standing social consensus on attitudes toward the Holocaust and Jews, as well as its role as Israel’s strongest ally in Europe.

“Wir schaffen das! For those disposed to hear, the phrase sparked  an extraordinary civic outpouring. At least eight million of Germany’s 80 million citizens took part in refugee-related volunteer work over the year following Merkel’s speech: Germans in major cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt, and smaller communities as well, rushed to supply warm clothes and food, and volunteered in “Sprachcafes,” a network of government-supported centers where new refugees could mingle with locals and gain language skills. When some right-wing groups held anti-immigrant demonstrations, large numbers of young Germans turned out for competing “welcome rallies,” demanding that the refugees be allowed to stay.

The emotional embrace of integration, the Wilkommenskultur or “welcome culture” that gripped the German population in 2015, surprised Germans themselves. “A few years ago, I was talking to friends at parties about the latest iPhone. Now, I’m saving lives,” says Holger Michel, a 38-year-old public relations consultant who stopped by on September 4, 2015, to see if he could help in a shelter that was expecting a busload of refugees—and ended up staying two years. Michel wrote a book about his work in Berlin’s largest shelter, located in the Wilmersdorf district, which resettled 3,800 people and became a stop on the itinerary of such celebrities as Susan Sarandon and Ben Stiller. The title of Michel’s book, Wir machen das—“We are doing this”—intentionally echoed Merkel’s slogan. “She changed my life,” he says.

“It was terrible at first—people screaming at night, babies dying. We couldn’t do anything. We’d cry with them, we’d charge their phones.”

I meet Michel and his colleague Peter Palmreuther one late afternoon in the courtyard of the Wilmersdorf shelter, a vast whitewashed space that was once the city hall for this part of Berlin. Its hundreds of offices were made into temporary living quarters for families, spaces that offered more privacy than typical shelters, which were improvised in school gyms, in churches and in Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. Palmreuther, like Michel, had stopped by to help during the first tremendous wave of refugees and just stayed on. An IT professional who works across the street, he got an email asking if anyone could come help assemble a truckload of donated beds. While they were putting the beds together, he recalls, buses drew up with 179 desperate people. “It was terrible at first—people screaming at night, babies dying,” Michel recalls. “We couldn’t do anything. We’d cry with them, we’d charge their phones.” Once word got out, though, help poured in—15,000 boxes of donated clothes and linens, laundry detergent, volunteer interpreters, even midwives.

What drew the young men in was the sheer inadequacy of what the local government had to offer. In one classic bureaucratic tangle, migrants couldn’t simply be given beds in a shelter; they needed a residency permit from the city. But the office that issued the permits kept regular business hours, so anyone who showed up after 5 p.m. was stuck. Many people ended up living on the pavement outside the agency, some for weeks, until they were processed—dependent on the kindness of passersby who brought them blankets and food.

“We’d fight every night with the authorities,” Michel says, “just to give people a bed for the night. The authorities would say, ‘Send them away, you can’t house them, they’re undocumented,’ and we would say, ‘OK, they need to be documented by 10 a.m. tomorrow or we’ll call the press.’” Eventually, the shelter established relationships with the press and the authorities, which functioned as shortcuts. This, too, was something new in a society long notorious for impenetrable bureaucracy.

Shelter volunteers struggled with the knowledge that whatever they could do for the new arrivals would only be temporary. The next big challenge was where the refugees would go after the shelter—no small matter in a country where housing is expensive and scarce. Even with a government subsidy, most refugees can find housing only in poorer, far-flung neighborhoods, which tend to be less foreigner-friendly. “My mother and I ended up in container housing in a neighborhood full of skinheads,” one young woman tells me. “They don’t like my headscarf, and my mother won’t leave the house.”


A Syrian family arrives at the train station in Saalfeld in central Germany on September 5, 2015.

With local governments overwhelmed, a forest of non-governmental organizations sprang up—in cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt and across the country. “For a while,” says a young Berlin entrepreneur, “if you put the words ‘to help refugees’ in your proposal, no matter what it was, you would get funded.” One major focus was integrating refugees into German society. It helped that many of the Syrians were secular and middle class—doctors, lawyers, teachers. Susanne Kappe, a Heidelberg native, came to Berlin a few years ago to run a leadership institute called Meet2Respect. “Most people just don’t know any refugees—we have to fix that,” she tells me. Meet2Respect is best known for sending a rabbi and an imam around the streets on a tandem bicycle to demonstrate peaceful coexistence (they also visit schools), but its main mission is to create opportunities for locals and refugees to meet respectfully on neutral ground—walking groups, discussion groups, even choir groups.

In Kreuzberg, a once-gritty, now diverse and trendy neighborhood, students from two Berlin universities turned their project from a class on entrepreneurship into a fast-growing nonprofit called Ueber den Tellerrand or, in a puckish English version, “Making the World a Better Plate.” In a cheerful brick studio with a kitchen that has brass coffeepots adorning the walls, the group trains refugees to lead cooking classes. German customers, including corporations hosting employee retreats, flock to the classes to learn to cook Syrian food. Lisa Thaens, the executive director, recalls that at first the group didn’t know what to say to or do for the refugees. “So we thought, let’s get some groceries and cook together, and we won’t have to talk about the bad stuff.”

One of the most imaginative initiatives German citizens have dreamed up to reach out to refugees is a program called Multaqa (Arabic for “meeting point”), which trains Syrian and Iraqi refugees to become Arabic-language docents for the museums’ collections of fabulous objects drawn from their cultures—the Ishtar Gate from Babylon in Iraq, the Mshatta Frieze of stone lacework from 8th-century Jordan. The docents give tours in Arabic that serve as magnets for other refugees to attend, fostering social connections and a much-needed shot of cultural self-respect. I tag along on one such tour, which pauses in the majestic upstairs display hall of the Pergamon Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island, home to one of the world’s greatest collections of Islamic art. Two small Syrian girls in matching pink T-shirts and white leggings are staring enchanted at a huge, antique Syrian tapestry, gazing at the intricate patterns and pressing two identical plaid teddy bears up against its protective glass case. Behind them is their mother, who fled Syria five years ago. She’s misty-eyed as she talks with the tour guide, Narine Ali, an art student from Aleppo who can’t go home, either.

“I wish they could hold onto their heritage,” the mother laments in German, watching her daughters. “I want them to study Arabic, but the classes are in the mosque, in Tubingen where we’re living now, and my husband doesn’t approve.”

“That’s all right,” soothes Ali, also in German, “it’s all inside them, somewhere.”

Ali tells me that the museum tour project has opened up unexpected new vistas of common ground. She discovered one when she branched out from the Islamic art tours and began leading groups of refugees on Arabic-language tours of the nearby Museum of German History. “When they come to the post-World War II galleries and see Berlin reduced to rubble, like Aleppo,” she says, “and then they look around them and see Berlin reborn and thriving, that’s when they cry. I cry, too.”


A march by the group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (known as PEGIDA) in Cologne on January 9, 2016.

The German constitutional guarantee of asylum for all victims of persecution is not a guarantee of citizenship, merely of protection. And in practice, applying for asylum is a bureaucratic maze. Once a refugee is registered, those deemed likely to qualify get certain privileges, while others are tracked toward quick rejection; but nearly all can stay in Germany until a decision has been made on their case. Even those granted asylum are required to get it periodically renewed—and their permanent status is up in the air.

  At the same time, the broader culture has been slow to embrace, or even to acknowledge, the obvious consequences of letting in a lot of refugees—a more diverse Germany. In the 1990s, during an upsurge of violence against foreign workers, then-chancellor Helmut Kohl notoriously declared that Germany was simply “not an immigration country.” Yet Germany today is in fact a strikingly heterogeneous nation. According to the United Nations Population Fund, it is second only to the United States in its proportion of immigrants. Twenty percent of German residents have a “migration background,” meaning either they or their parents were born abroad.

The German government is the first to admit that the previous migrations that produced this diversity were poorly handled. In the 1990s, Bosnians fleeing the Balkan wars and Africans escaping famines were dispersed to small villages across the German countryside with no access to language classes—a recipe for hostility and violence. Economic pressure and the tensions of German unification created similar pushback against the people who flooded into West Germany in 1989 as the Berlin Wall fell, including Poles, Russians, tens of millions of ethnically German “Volga Deutsch” and, of course, 70,000 Russian Jews—many of whom have never learned German or found jobs. 

Then there were the Turkish “temporary” guest workers who, along with their descendants, make up the largest ethnic minority group in Germany at four million. The guest workers were brought to Germany in the 1950s and 1960s to work in heavy industry, fueling the West German economic miracle. Since they were “temporary,” no effort was made to offer them a legal way to stay or any language classes or integration services. Only after 2005 with the passage of a new law did large numbers become citizens, and the effects of cultural isolation and persistent discrimination have lingered.

This time around, the German government doesn’t want to make the same mistakes. Integration is the official policy. Federal officials in the housing ministry, the health ministry and the interior ministry insist they have learned from the bungled handling of the Turks and previous refugee migrations. From language classes to job training to family reunification projects, introducing Muslims and other newcomers to the ideas of a diverse democratic society, and making them part of that society with jobs and homes, is the constant aim. The industrial sector that once imported Turkish guest workers without a second thought is today a mainstay of this consensus: A handful of the biggest corporations, including Volkswagen and Bertelsmann, have joined forces to fund a think tank called the Expert Council on Migration, which works closely with the government.

“We know what works and what doesn’t work,” says Thomas Bauer, the council’s head. “People get extreme and radicalized if you don’t integrate them. The only problem is that it takes time, five to eight years.” Only 20 percent of the refugees who arrived in 2015 and 2016 now have jobs, according to national figures, so there is a long way to go. Some features of the German system, particularly the employment system, make integration even more difficult than it might be elsewhere. The German apprenticeship model, for instance, mandates that to be hired for nearly any job—not just professionals but bakers, mechanics, artisans—an applicant must complete a set course of study and present a certificate. Even setting aside the ironclad requirement for documents, “and you don’t very likely have documents,” says Bauer, “after you swim the Mediterranean and walk over half of Europe,” this doesn’t leave much room for a refugee to get work except for the most unskilled and low-paid labor.

The council is exploring new ways to measure refugees’ skills. “For instance, if someone comes from Syria and says he is a car mechanic, but he hasn’t been through the apprentice system, how can you measure what he knows?” asks Bauer. An American might put the mechanic to work and see if he can fix cars, or suggest he open a shop and try his luck. Bauer sounds shocked at these suggestions. “That wouldn’t work at all,” he says. “But we’re developing a system. We’ll get there.”   

Government officials see integration as critical to security. A key member of Merkel’s government, who didn’t want to be identified, warns that radicalization could be a problem if Muslim refugees can’t integrate smoothly into the existing network of Turkish Sunni mosques, which are mostly moderate and apolitical. Such new arrivals, left adrift, can fall prey to extremists.

Maria Boettche, a physician who runs a center for victims of torture at the Free University of Berlin and has helped bring trauma specialists to the shelters, worries about the mental health of many of the recent arrivals. She estimates that at least 30 percent of refugees suffer from PTSD or depression, yet only one percent are in treatment. “You see different kinds of long-term problems developing,” she says. “The single men there without families, falling prey to aggression; the ones with families, taking out their aggression on their children.” People in that state, she says, can be easily criminalized or radicalized: “They start out badly injured, body and mind, and these groups will convince them to do things they don’t want to do.” She adds: “It’s the same with neo-Nazis. They’re all in different kinds of pain.”


A mural in support of refugees in Berlin.

Most observers can cite a specific date when the euphoria of the “welcome society” began to vanish: December 31, 2015. That night, news reports spread that gangs of men of North African appearance had surrounded and robbed or sexually assaulted hundreds of women on the plaza in front of the Cologne Cathedral. Although  exactly what happened is still not clear (31 suspects were eventually detained on a variety of charges), this seeming incursion of chaos into an iconic public space became a powerful force in shifting the public mood. It amplified a media counter-narrative that existed from the start, a drumbeat of stories linking foreigners to Islamism, terrorism and general criminality.

“It made people feel that integration would be much more difficult than some people said,” says a member of Merkel’s policy team who didn’t want to be identified. “The right-wing parties seemed attractive overnight. It’s very dangerous for anyone in a democracy to convey the message that they can’t cope.”

Merkel’s government scrambled to counter that message without altering its commitment to the guarantee of asylum for all. It tinkered with the definitions of persecution and the list of countries seen as unsafe—key elements in who could qualify to stay. It cut the time it took to get a new arrival in the system (no more languishing for weeks on the pavement outside the residency office) and the time it took to actually evaluate a refugee’s right to asylum, after which those ineligible would be deported. It even began high-profile returns of planeloads of would-be refugees to their points of origin—ruling, for instance, that some of the 100,000 asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, the second largest group after Syrians, could be sent back to parts of the country deemed safe.

Significantly shortening the evaluation time meant that refugees with only a flimsy claim to asylum, or those just seeking a better life, could no longer count on spending months or years in Germany. (This was the situation of the family of Reem Sahwil, the young girl whose tears had touched Merkel’s heart, though, atypically, they had actually come seeking medical treatment for Reem’s injuries in a car accident.) By mid-2017, the new measures had slowed the influx. But the political backlash was just getting started.

Public fears were on the rise. On Bastille Day in July 2016, a terrorist drove a truck into crowds celebrating along a beachfront promenade in the southern French city of Nice, killing 86 people and injuring more than 400. Then, that December, in Germany itself, a terrorist rammed a truck into shoppers at a Christmas market in the heart of Berlin, killing 12 and injuring dozens more. German politics and public discourse swung sharply: Fears about terrorism made Muslim refugees seem suspect to many. “When ISIS sent people to Europe to attack, they wanted the narratives to merge—of terrorism and of refugees,” says the Merkel government official. “Alienation serves their purposes. If the refugees feel suspicion and a cultural gap, so much the better.”

For a time it seemed that the government had successfully contained the anti-refugee fallout. But the other shoe dropped this past September 24, when Germans went to the polls and dealt Merkel’s coalition a stunning punishment. Both Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and its coalition partner, the Social Democrats, lost ground, dropping to electoral levels last seen in the 1940s. Shockingly, the third-highest vote-getter was the extreme right-wing party Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which gained enough votes to join the federal parliament—the first time a far right-wing party had done so since World War II. The AfD began in 2013 as an anti-Europe party, raging against a bailout of the Greek banks. But it gained momentum when it switched gears and focused on anti-refugee sentiment and the fear of terrorism and Islam.

“When ISIS sent people to Europe to attack, they wanted the narratives to merge—of terrorism and of refugees. Alienation serves their purposes.”

Although the result was a political thunderclap, its message was muddled: Merkel’s party remained dominant, but in the months since the election she has struggled to form a government. Her first attempt, to create a broad-based alliance with a smaller party of pro-business liberals and the Green Party, failed after prolonged negotiation, mostly over issues having nothing to do with refugee policy. Since the mainstream parties agree they won’t invite the AfD into a governing coalition, their only other choice is a “grand coalition” of the center-right and center-left, which the parties have reluctantly agreed to begin negotiating. This strategy could fail, but if it succeeds, the AfD’s disruptive potential should remain largely rhetorical. 

While the German government is drawing on what remains a fairly deep reserve of stability, the new status quo resembles in broad outlines what is happening in other nations: a weakened middle, with heightened passions on the fringes. Both left and right in Germany have become emboldened on issues of diversity and immigration. But the middle still commands a significant following: In December, the mayor of a small town in central Germany was stabbed in the throat by a man who railed against the town’s support for refugees—it had even invited extra refugees to use housing that was vacant. Despite the attack, the mayor declared that he “would do the same thing tomorrow.”

Germany’s Jews have been particularly rattled by the AfD’s political success. Along with its aggressively anti-immigrant vocabulary, the AfD has called for restoring Germany’s volkisch pride (a word with Nazi overtones), demanding a “U-turn” from the painstakingly built social consensus that Germany must bear moral witness to the memory of the Holocaust, and questioning Germany’s long-standing support for the State of Israel.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘afraid,’ exactly, but of course we are conscious of the challenges we face now,” says Sergey Lagodinsky, a Russian-born Jewish journalist and scholar.  “Germans are quite conscious of language, of how we talk about the past, and the AfD is shifting the boundaries of that consensus. And if we start demolishing the special sense of history and responsibility, then of course, eventually, that could affect the special relationship with Israel also.”

Jews, who numbered 525,000 before the Nazi period, make up a far smaller fraction of Germany’s population today. About 125,000 Jews are officially registered, including 70,000 or so who came from the former Soviet Union after German reunification, and another large cohort, not officially tracked but possibly as many as 10,000, have arrived in recent years from Israel. Some of the Jewish communal institutions in Berlin and Frankfurt, the two largest communities, have been active and visible in welcoming refugees, including the many who are Muslim. In the early months of the influx, many of the country’s synagogues channeled their assistance through monthly “mitzvah days,” when volunteers “visible as Jews”—and sometimes wearing Israeli T-shirts—flooded into the shelters, entertaining the children with arts and crafts, painting their rooms, staging holiday celebrations and helping adults with the endless paperwork. The American Jewish Committee in Berlin joined in the effort, pairing with a trauma center and with an Israeli first responders’ network called IsraAid to bring Arabic-speaking psychotherapists—mostly Israeli Arabs and Druze—to work in the shelters with trauma victims.

“It’s all normal. Assad tried to kill you, the Saudis didn’t save you, the Germans took you in, and now the Jews are here to help you.”

“We were already involved from a tikkun olam perspective,” says Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, the Masorti (Conservative) rabbi of one of Berlin’s largest synagogues. “But we also wanted to show a different face. Even many Germans still associate Jews only with the Holocaust.” Ederberg passes along a treasured snippet overheard in one shelter, where a refugee child asked a security guard, himself a Palestinian and 20-year resident of Berlin, why Jews were coming that afternoon. “It’s all normal,” the guard replied. “Assad tried to kill you, the Saudis didn’t save you, the Germans took you in, and now the Jews are here to help you.”

But Jews, despite ample historical reasons to identify with a railed-against minority, have not been immune to anti-refugee sentiment. Some Jews see a coming demographic nightmare in which Germany, like France, grapples with an unassimilated Muslim minority that attracts extremists, weakens its cultural heritage and increases its vulnerability to terrorism.  There are those, especially among the former Russians—whose integration didn’t go smoothly and who fear Islamic fundamentalism—who support the AfD. A Russian Jewish candidate in Frankfurt even ran for election on the AfD slate, though he didn’t win.

In an implicit acknowledgment of this tendency, the official head of the German Jewish community, Josef Schuster, and his opposite number in France, Francis Kalifat, published a joint opinion piece in the German newspaper Die Welt just after the September 24 results came in. In it, they urged both German and French Jews to reject far-right parties. That these parties are anti-Islam, the authors warned, is no guarantee that they will not turn on Jews: “There has already been a party in German history that presumed to define what counts as German and what does not, who may live and who may not. Never again will we allow a similar development, no matter which minority is affected!”

There is debate in the Jewish community over whether such a large Arab population can be assimilated safely. Rabbi Ederberg says that the mass of refugees should not automatically be dismissed as incapable of embracing German values.  “The idea is that the hostility toward Israel in their home countries might transfer,” she says. “But these are people who wanted to get away from there—so we should not assume.”

Certainly, the refugees, if and when they can vote, could change the balance of power among Germany’s political parties. Turks with German citizenship have turned out to be politically moderate for the most part, voting with the center-left Social Democrats or the Green Party. The more important short-term question is whether continued friction over unassimilated minority groups will feed the growing strength of fringe political parties on the left and right, weakening the moderate parties that sustain the postwar consensus: pro-Atlantic, pro-European Union, pro-Israel.

“Three-quarters of voters in this election still voted for parties of the political center,” says one Washington-based observer, Bastian Hermisson, the North America executive director of the Green-affiliated Heinrich Boell Foundation. “I don’t see it as a crisis. But even if the populists are nowhere close to getting a majority, they have managed to dominate the discourse. If that continues in the long term, you could have a populist surge without a populist majority. And the number one issue driving that is immigration.”

Migration expert Thomas Bauer believes that if the civil society vision of integration comes to fruition, Germany could be the one European nation that solves its demographic problems. “You can attract immigrants to be health care workers, or you can take the Japanese route and build robots to take care of you when you are ill,” he says.

In the very long term, a Germany with successfully integrated Muslim minorities might have to accommodate a broader range of views on foreign policy in the Middle East. “For decades, German politics never gave Turks a sense of partnership, but now they are heard more,” Hermisson says. “The same will happen with Syrians. But along the way, the discourse shapes them too. That’s the line that politics has to walk.”

Meanwhile, the refugee flood in Germany is basically over, and asylum applications are on track to be below 200,000 a year, the “benchmark” even Merkel’s political opponents say they can tolerate. This past September, Reem Sahwil, along with her parents, was granted permission to stay in Germany indefinitely, and could eventually be eligible for German citizenship. And the Wilmersdorf shelter is slated to close soon.  At the end of my visit, standing in the courtyard, I ask Holger Michel and Peter Palmreuther if they think the fear played to by the right wing will be resurgent.

“Fear is easy to spread,” Palmreuther says. “All you need is three people in front of a camera saying, ‘I’m so afraid because terrorists have come to our little village.’” Michel, for his part, thinks that Wir schaffen das will have more staying power in the end. “After all this work, I still don’t know exactly what schaffen means—what we have to do,” he says. “But I think we have learned a lot about who ‘we’ is.”

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