Germany’s moment of truth as migrants provoke identity crisis

Mastering the crisis forces Germany, after decades of evasion, to face certain questions

Germany's Merkel says that the German federal government will lay on 40,000 additional beds for migrants. Video: Reuters


British architect Norman Foster once described Berlin’s Tempelhof as the “mother of all airports”.

One of the world’s largest buildings, with a curved stone facade running 1.3km, Tempelhof has been closed to air traffic for a decade. But now it is to be reopened to another kind of traffic – the tens of thousands of people arriving each week in Germany from Syria, Eritrea, the Balkans.

As thousands of cots are delivered to the mother of all airport’s vast hangars, Europe is facing the mother of all crises.

At the weekend, this slow-motion humanitarian tsunami finally broke over Germany, causing Berlin to suspend its participation in the Schengen open borders agreement.

For Chancellor Angela Merkel it was a capitulation in deed to a word she has, for months, studiously avoided: overwhelmed.

The German leader’s decision prompted surprise, dismay and criticism around Europe, but nowhere more so than at home.

Here, the decision to pull the emergency brake on Schengen is viewed as a direct consequence of Merkel’s decision to set aside, for fleeing Syrians, the Dublin principles requiring asylum applications to be filed in the EU country of arrival.

Pragmatic response

“Germany is a strong country,” she said. “We’ll master this.”

But her green light to Syrians triggered a humanitarian knock-on effect equivalent to Ireland’s bank guarantee of 2008. Instead of inward capital flows, it was unchecked inward flows of desperate people in addition to the existing wave. First Hungary was swamped, then Austria: two weeks ago German police in border towns lying on migration routes, such as Bavaria’s Rosenheim, had capitulated.

Pronouncing their emergency facilities full, and their police overwhelmed, smaller Bavarian towns simply allowed undocumented travellers to continue on to Munich.

Last weekend, after two weeks in a state of emergency, Germany’s final dam broke.

After more than 12,000 people flooded into Munich central station on Saturday alone, city mayor Dieter Reiter went on public television that evening to break a political taboo.

“At some point the limit is reached, and that point is this evening,” he said.

As he was speaking, Merkel was holding a telephone conference in Berlin with her top officials, ministers and coalition allies.

They agreed to back the proposal of interior minister Thomas de Maizière to suspend Schengen, allowing Bavaria to reintroduce border checks with Austria.

As well as a practical attempt to halt population flows, it was a political attempt ahead of Monday’s crisis meeting in Brussels to create a Zugzwang situation – forcing movement from the refugee-resistant European bloc, stretching from the Baltics down to Poland and the Czech Republic.

Distribution deal

Berlin officials say the suspension of Schengen is about pausing an asylum system where applications were being filed far quicker than they could ever be processed.

In reality the German decision halts a politically corrosive game of beggar-thy-neighbour, where federal politicians in Berlin announced migration policy for which front-line implementation and financing lay with overstretched federal states and exhausted municipalities.

The Schengen suspension is an attempt, too, to quell a growing backbencher revolt against Merkel in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and an even greater risk of mutiny among her Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union (CSU).

For months, politicians in the southern state bordering Austria have echoed the EU’s southern member states’ complaint that they have been left alone on the front line.

When Merkel decided to open Germany’s borders to Syrians, Bavaria’s CSU state premier Horst Seehofer warned that “every sensible person” could see that it created an unsustainable situation.

Merkel’s decision to set aside the Dublin provisions, he warned darkly, was “a mistake that will preoccupy us for a long time”.

The German chancellor’s U-turn is a political triumph for the Bavarian leader, but it has staunched – not halted – the flow of people into Germany.

Despite the border closure, about 1,000 people still arrived in Munich on Monday from Austria and Hungary. Hundreds of others were taken from long-delayed cross-border trains. On autobahn crossings, German police have not rolled out barriers but are conducting a huge number of spot checks.

Germany’s daily challenges remain so great that few seem to have even begun to think of what happens next.

Ordinary Germans have done themselves proud with their pragmatic “refugees welcome” response, with thousands of volunteers filling the many gaps left by swamped state-authorities, from welcoming teams to management of emergency accommodation. But this surge of spontaneous solidarity won’t last forever and Germany’s goodwill facade – equal parts reality and projection – masks a real fear of failure.

This is postwar Germany’s fifth major wave of immigration. First came the ethnic Germans expelled, with often brutal force, from eastern territories after 1945. Two decades later came the huge “Gastarbeiter”, or “guest” contract workers for industry: the basis of modern Germany’s three million-strong Turkish community.

Two waves have come since unification in 1990: Russian Jews escaping the collapsing Soviet Union and, soon thereafter, people fleeing the Balkan war.

Despite decades of inward population flows, Germany’s political mainstream, in particular Merkel’s CDU, insisted for decades that theirs was “not a country of immigration”.

Now, almost overnight and with little debate, the same CDU politicians have gone from denying the reality of immigration to embracing it as the answer to ageing Germany’s demographic time bomb.

‘Gastarbeiter’ era

They have yet to present Germany’s long-term offer to these new arrivals – or the strategy for the country as a whole.

Given its history as a belated nation, a 19th-century conglomerate of loosely-allied kingdoms, Germans have always been less sure than other Europeans of what defines them as a people and a nation.

Nazi-era attempts to address these questions, and impose the answers on the rest of Europe, has left many postwar generations doubly sure they should never try again. But mastering the current crisis will force Germany, after decades of evasion, to answer two questions: what do we as a nation want of ourselves, and what, in turn, should we expect of new arrivals?

The pressing question is, in short: what is German?

Asked the question a decade ago, Merkel’s tortured answer was: well-insulated windows. A lot has happened since then. Two World Cups – one as host, one as victor – have seen a more positive German identity embraced by younger Germans who have no memory of unification, let alone the second World War.

Yet for their parents, for whom national questions were often conflated with nationalist notions, a palpable tension is growing that nationalist taboos of the past are stifling constructive debate in the present over Germany’s new future.

Just one disaster – senior German officials are concerned Germany is overdue a serious terrorist attack – could send this debate in the wrong direction.

As Germany struggles to find emergency beds for new arrivals, and battles with its EU partners to share the burden, this country faces, with itself, a long-delayed moment of truth.

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