The Germans have surprised me by eagerly welcoming a million migrants originating from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere. They seem to invite many more to join them in years to come. Why are they doing this?
From the perspective of my Dutch upbringing, the Germans were the aggressive tribes of the East, speaking a coarse Dutch dialect, drinking beer made just like it was 500 years ago, too serious for their own good. ‘Blut und boden’ (blood and earth) signified their adherence to German ancestry and their connection to their land. To be German meant having 20 generations of German ancestors, even if that included Bavarian Catholics and Protestant Prussians.
Their experience with millions of migrants from within Europe has been very mixed. Economic refugees from Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe and Greece have been welcomed and have fitted in quite nicely. But millions of ‘gastarbeiters’ from Turkey who came into Germany in the 60s and 70s have still not integrated well. Letting in a million migrants now from decidedly non-German and non-European regions will surely encourage millions more to follow suite, turning Germany into the kind of country that the US was in the 19th century, and that Australia was after WWII: a country that took in the desperate, the poor, and the strange.
Judging from the popularity of this openness, the pronouncements of the politicians, and the touching scenes of hospitality shown, the Germans also seem to realise the historical significance of what they are doing: they are embracing the change in their culture that will come with newcomers from other cultures. The stories of the Grimm brothers will cease to be the story of German ancestors and become the stories of Germany. Goethe will cease to be a Germanic poet and will become the poet of Germany. Christianity will cease to be the religion of most German ancestors and become a contentious inspiration of German culture. German beer and sausages will cease to be the food of all Germans and become the food of the majority. Etc. To be German will cease to be about ancestors and become something connected to a passport and a German education, something that one can attain within 20 years rather than within 20 generations.
What a turnaround! Why on earth?
One can of course point to the economy and the demographics of the land. The economy is doing well, but with low fertility rates, the population is declining, so industry, schools, and villages can use an influx of people to remain at current levels of usage. And the current crop of newcomers seem to be the middle-classes, so many should be able to slot in quite quickly. Yet, there are plenty of other countries with a similar demographic and industrial reality, but they seem happier to choose slow-motion extinction over this kind of gambling with the prior culture. The Fins, Danes and Japanese are cases in point: they are not rejoicing in the street to welcome more migrants flooding in, even though their demographic decline is similar and their economic needs are similar too.
Another story to tell is then that the Germans have gotten used to migrants in the last 20 years and found they are not so bad. Waves of Yugoslavians, Eastern Europeans, and Southern Europeans have come in recent decades, and they have done well, so perhaps it’s time they gave non-Europeans a go? What jars with that kind of thought is that other European countries with similar histories of migration within Europe have not been so keen. The UK is not jumping at the bits, nor is the Netherlands, France, or Denmark, despite the fact that their economies are doing ok too and they have coped with even larger prior waves of migrants.
A final story you hear from the ‘White guilt’ brigade is that the Germans are only doing what they are supposed to do because of the supposed misdeed of Westeners in other parts of the world, where they are either accused of starting trouble or of not solving trouble. This story might more easily be told though about countries more heavily involved in recent military adventures, not the quite pacifist Germans of the last 50 years.
I personally hence don’t think any of these stories is likely: the young students in Munich welcoming the migrants arriving on the train will surely not worry about the demographic decline of their country, nor will they have much own experience with the difficulties of integrating people from very different cultures, nor think they caused the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa. The factors above might make it easier to welcome the migrants, but there is probably a more psychological factor at play that makes young Germans welcome the influx.
My best guess for why the Germans are allowing the recent influx is a combination of a cultural death wish and well-meaning naivety.
The cultural death wish is quite understandable. With all the guilt that young generations of Germans are told to bear because of the brutality of the Germans in the second world war, I can imagine that it must feel great to welcome the destruction of that history and invite in a different culture. A chance for a new history. The bigger the shock, the better, particularly if you squint your eyes and don’t look too closely at the history of the ancestors of the people walking into the door. Becoming a United States of Germany complete with a 19th century American-style attitude to immigration can easily seem a welcome escape from the doom and gloom of Lutheran guilt and the Weltschmerzen that comes from the inevitable difference between reality and utopia.
The second aspect is a quintessential German trait, also seen in its recent (non-) dealings with Greece: a naive trust in the goodness of others and in ones own ability to make the others behave according to how you think they should behave. I imagine the German welcomers are extremely happy to be seen as the promised land by these migrants, and they will trust in the good intentions of the newcomers, confident that German hospitality and reasoning will win them over to accept basic German values for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.
Its the kind of trust and confidence that comes from a desire to do deeds that are great and good.
It is the kind of trust that turns into violent and bitter disappointment if the trust is deemed to be betrayed.
The current situation hence fills me with a mix of empathy and fear: it is amazing and heartwarming to see Germans welcoming millions of people from predominantly Muslim failing states in this World. It is a huge responsibility though …..