If you’re European, and especially if you’re German, you’ve been living for a year now through an unsettling public debate about what that identity means—and how people born elsewhere fit into it. In late August 2015, the tension over the influx of refugees from the Middle East had grown extreme. Seventy-one people were found dead, abandoned by traffickers, in a locked truck in Austria. Neo-Nazi hooligans attacked the police outside a shelter in Heidenau, near Dresden. When German chancellor Angela Merkel visited the shelter to show her support for the refugees, angry demonstrators greeted her with cries of “We are the people!” She was called a “whore,” a “stupid slut,” and a “Volksverräter”—a Nazi-era epithet meaning “betrayer of the people.”
Five days later, on August 31, Merkel held her annual summer press conference in Berlin. Syrian refugees in Budapest were just then storming trains bound for Germany. As usual, Merkel was unflappable. Her government, she said, was now forecasting the arrival of 800,000 refugees in 2015. (It ended up being more than a million.) The German Constitution guarantees the right to political asylum, she reminded the press, and its first article reads, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” And indeed, many more Germans were honoring those promises and helping refugees than were hurling rocks and insults. “Germany is a strong country,” Merkel said. “We have accomplished so much. We can do this!”
One day those words—“Wir schaffen das!”—may be on her tombstone. In the meantime they have helped make Germany the most compelling stage in a worldwide drama. For decades global migration has been rising faster than population. In 2015, according to the United Nations, the world held 244 million immigrants—people living in a country where they weren’t born. The number of refugees who’d been forced out of their birth country, 21 million, was higher than at any time since World War II. Scientists expect climate change to increase that number, through more frequent drought and rising seas; some say it contributed to the Syrian civil war, which triggered the current exodus to Europe.
The refugees are arriving on a continent that since World War II has become home to a third of the world’s immigrants. Europe’s major countries, which once sent their huddled masses to the United States, now have foreign-born populations comparable to that of the United States. But only some European minds and fewer European hearts have adjusted to that reality. Even in the U.S., which John F. Kennedy called “a nation of immigrants,” immigration is a divisive issue—and always has been. In the 1750s Benjamin Franklin worried that too many Germans were coming to Pennsylvania. He said they had a “swarthy complexion.”
Germans have a word for what Franklin was afraid of: Überfremdung, or “overforeignization.” It’s the fear that home will become unrecognizable, because there are too many strangers in it, talking in strange languages and behaving in strange ways. Most of us, if we look into our hearts, can probably at least imagine the feeling. In Germany this past year it has been on fiery display. There have been large nighttime rallies and flaming rhetoric by right-wing orators in Dresden and Erfurt. There have been hundreds of attacks on refugee shelters, most still empty—although just days before Merkel’s press conference drunken thugs lobbed a Molotov cocktail into a child’s bedroom at a shelter in Salzhemmendorf, near Hanover.
And yet: Quieter but no less vivid, against the backdrop of Germany’s history, were the flutterings of the better angels. Three-quarters of a century ago Germans were dispatching trains full of Jews to concentration camps in the east; now, at the Munich train station, they were greeting trains carrying Muslim refugees with food, water, stuffed animals, and smiles. On one German podcast I began tuning in to last fall, I heard a journalist from Die Zeit tell her listeners it was all right to feel “drunk” with pleasure at that transformation. To which another journalist retorted: The hangover is coming.
“The European Union is in a very, very fragile state,” Michael Roth, Germany’s state minister for Europe, told me in April. “I hope people are aware of that.” The surge of refugees, along with Germany’s inability to persuade the rest of the continent to follow its open-armed lead, was a major reason for that fragility—and the whole world became aware of it on June 23, when the British voted in a national referendum to leave the EU. The refugees weren’t directly at issue—Britain has scarcely admitted any—but polls showed that reducing immigration, from both inside and outside the EU, was the main motive for the “Brexit” vote.
What happened in Britain, and the swelling populist opposition to immigration in other countries too, only raises the stakes of what’s happening in Germany. Can Germans really grow out of their heavy past to become a Willkommenskultur—a culture that welcomes others? If so, then in a world increasingly full of both immigrants and xenophobes, there might be hope for us all.
In the mid-1970s, when I was in high school at the German School of Brussels, Belgium, a man named Volker Damm was my social studies teacher. (Though I’m American, my father was frequently stationed in Europe, and I attended German schools until college.) Tall, with curly blond hair just receding at the temples and a chiseled face that belied his gentle, empathic manner, Damm was one of the cool teachers at the school. In his class I first understood about the Holocaust—he filled one memorable period by reading aloud from graphic eyewitness accounts of the concentration camps. Born in 1939, Damm was just six when the war ended. His father, also a schoolteacher, had been the Nazi Party leader in a little village in the German state of Hesse, but I did not know that back then.
We hadn’t been in touch in nearly 40 years, but Damm wasn’t hard to find; a local paper had reported on his volunteer work on behalf of crime victims. We began corresponding, and I learned that in his retirement he was also tutoring teenage refugees, tens of thousands of whom have arrived alone in Germany. Damm invited me to visit Rotenburg an der Fulda, a Hessian town of more than 13,000 near the center of the country, where he’d spent most of his teaching career. So far the town was handling the refugee situation rather well, he said.
And so on a rainy morning last winter, Damm and I climbed the worn wooden stairs of the 16th-century town hall to the office of another former student of his, Mayor Christian Grunwald. Rotenburg is a pretty town; ancient, half-timbered houses cluster around the market square and along the Fulda River, next to the palace and its park. Outside Grunwald’s tall office windows, the bells from the Protestant church confirmed our punctual arrival at nine o’clock. Southeast of town, at Alheimer Kaserne, an army base high above the gentle valley, 719 Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and other refugees were starting another day.
Grunwald is a fast-talking, thoughtful, slim 39-year-old with short, sandy hair, black glasses, and a ready smile. Since being elected five years ago, he has been trying to pump energy and business into the empty storefronts of his town. But the refugees, he quickly admitted, weren’t what he had in mind. When the state of Hesse informed him in early July 2015 that hundreds would be arriving on August 3, “the news exploded like a bomb,” Grunwald said.
Some 700 people filled a college auditorium for a town meeting. There they learned from state officials that the Alheimer Kaserne, which the army had spent 40 million euros renovating, then decided to close, would become an Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung—a facility where refugees would be housed for their first few months in Germany, while they would wait to apply for asylum and permanent housing. Hesse’s main facility in Giessen was bursting, the officials said. People were sleeping in tents outside.
Inside the Rotenburg hall, the mood was testy. Who’s going to pay for this? somebody asked. Will the refugees be allowed off the base? asked another. Are they contagious? “The fears were in the air,” Grunwald said. “But no one dared get up and say, I’m afraid; I don’t want this!” No one, he added, using a common German expression, wanted “to be sent to the Nazi corner.”
Thomas Baader, a state nursing care manager, got the call from the Hesse Social Affairs Ministry in late July, asking him to run the new refugee facility. He arrived on Wednesday, July 29, and in lieu of an office was handed a cell phone. The first refugees were due Monday. Baader called Grunwald, who sent two workers and then came himself. He and Baader set up and cleaned the tables and chairs in the cafeteria. “Two days later there were 600 people out front,” Baader said.
It was all a mad rush—and yet it has gone remarkably well. Elsewhere things were tougher. “No one was prepared, no one in Germany,” Anselm Sprandel, Hamburg’s refugee coordinator, told me. The city had to accommodate 35,000 refugees last year—half as many as the entire U.S. takes from the world. “We never really had homelessness, where masses of people were sleeping outside. But it was close.” Sprandel’s staff placed people in bankrupt home-improvement stores, in stackable modules made from shipping containers, and in heated tents. In Berlin many refugees were housed in school gymnasiums or in a hangar at Tempelhof Airport. Only plastic partitions separated one family or group from another.
In Rotenburg, Baader walked me down long, clean corridors in the three-story barracks, past rooms once shared by soldiers and now occupied by single families. Though refugees are assigned and transported to specific facilities—Hesse gets 7.35890 percent of them, according to a federal burden-sharing formula—the day before my tour, an Iraqi family of six had found its own way to the Rotenburg base. “Word has gotten around about where things are nice,” Baader said.
The refugees have become a fixture on the streets of Rotenburg. You see them slogging uphill toward the army base, pushing strollers and old bicycles and carrying plastic bags. Besides room, board, donated clothing, and other in-kind benefits, they receive monthly allowances of up to 112 euros per adult and 63 euros per child. (The euro has lately been fluctuating around U.S. $1.10.) “The money they’re given, they spend here in town,” said Frank Ziegenbein, proprietor of the Landhaus Silbertanne, a local hotel. “Otherwise you could just turn out the lights in Rotenburg”—an exaggeration, but Grunwald confirmed that the refugees have been an economic plus.
That doesn’t keep some Rotenburgers from objecting, especially on Facebook. Grunwald rattled off ways in which refugees run afoul of the German sense of order. They leave trash in the park; they ride bikes on the sidewalks.
And then there is the fraught matter of toilet hygiene: Many refugees, used to Asian-style holes in the floor, don’t like to sit. Grunwald climbed onto his chair and squatted to help me visualize the problem. At a refugee center in Hamburg I met a couple of maintenance workers carrying toilet seats, who complained that the seats are constantly breaking. At the Rotenburg base, where I saw a bored refugee voluntarily sweeping the sidewalk, all bathrooms are cleaned by German contractors—to make sure it’s done right, Baader said. I watched one crew zip themselves into disposable body suits, with hoods and masks, to clean the kindergarten.
In bathrooms and beyond, Germans and refugees face off across a cultural gulf that for now is usually unbridged by a common language. “The understanding for the emotions and thoughts of the other—we’re just at the beginning,” Grunwald said. “If we could have a better exchange on that, then I’m convinced we can achieve something historic.” He wasn’t a big fan of Merkel’s before, he said, and didn’t choose this problem. Now he’s all in.
With a few glaring exceptions, the German civil service has responded as expected to the crisis, which is to say, well. What’s been more surprising is how many Germans have chosen to invest personally in helping the refugees.
In the Lower Saxon town of Duderstadt, I met a graphic artist and sometime DJ, Olaf Knauft, who last year took in two teenage Eritrean boys. One day, he explained, he happened to meet a woman from the local youth agency who told him about the great need for sponsors and homes for all the unaccompanied minors. Knauft is 51, and his own two children, whom he raised alone once they were teenagers, have left the nest. He was nervous about living with a foreigner—and about how it would look for a single man to take in a boy—but he decided to take a chance on an 18-year-old Eritrean named Desbele, a Coptic Christian The two got on well—so well that three weeks after Desbele arrived in May, he confided to Knauft that he had a 16-year-old brother, Yoisef, who was stuck in Libya. Desbele was in touch with the smugglers. It would take 2,500 euros to get Yoisef to Germany. Knauft gave Desbele the money. In July he and Desbele managed to find Yoisef along a highway outside Munich, where the smugglers had dumped him.
Now Knauft has two new teenagers. And though he sometimes has to fuss about turning out lights, washing dishes, and who’s boss, he has no regrets. He calls Desbele and Yoisef “my children.” A few days before I met him, it had emerged that Yoisef had a twin, in prison in Eritrea. Knauft had paid 1,500 euros to get him out of jail and into Sudan, where he was waiting to cross the Sahara. This was definitely the last brother, Knauft said.
He and I were sitting with Karin Schulte, a retired teacher who tutors Desbele and Yoisef in German three times a week, pro bono. The boys attend vocational school, in a special class for immigrants, and after school they come sit in Schulte’s kitchen. She gives them coffee and cookies—because afternoon coffee is part of being German too. One day, after hesitating for a long time, she told the boys that in Germany it isn’t customary to slurp your coffee loudly. Yoisef admitted that according to his grandmother it wasn’t customary in Eritrea either.
In Rotenburg a group of retired teachers from the Jakob-Grimm-Schule, where Damm taught for decades, have organized German courses in the Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung. One morning I spent a couple of hours there with Gottfried Wackerbarth, a friendly white-bearded bear of a man. Because the population of the base changes every month or two, Wackerbarth had no idea whom he’d be teaching that day. Five male Afghans, ages 12 to 35, followed him out of the sea of eager faces. Wackerbarth would be teaching them the alphabet with pictograms—B is for Banane,E is for Elefant, and so on.
Next to me sat Sariel, 35, a small man in a black down jacket; it was chilly in the room. It quickly became apparent that Sariel wasn’t literate even in Dari. The boys in the class scooted ahead of him in the exercises. As I watched him copy letters stroke by stroke, like drawings; as I helped him spell “mama” and “papa”; as I imagined having to learn the opaque squiggles of Dari that one of the boys wrote on the blackboard, under Auf Wiedersehen, I felt tired on Sariel’s behalf—not for his long road from Afghanistan but for the longer road ahead.
In this class the students were just getting a first taste of German—and a first exposure to a sympathetic native. “When you run into them in town, they say, ‘Hello, teacher!’ and are so happy that you recognize them,” Wackerbarth said. In Rotenburg one afternoon I met a 43-year-old Syrian man who’d been in Germany for two years and had completed a six-month language course. Sitting in his living room, eating cake his wife had made, we had to speak through an Arabic interpreter. At his age, he admitted, he wasn’t much of a student.
Ahmad—like many refugees he was afraid that revealing his last name might get relatives back home in trouble—had been an electrician in Damascus. Egypt, where his family fled first, had made them feel unwelcome. Germany had given them asylum, welfare, and this apartment in the center of Rotenburg. He was deeply grateful. But after two years he still had no work, and that was almost unbearable.
“I go to the supermarket, I take my son to school, and otherwise I don’t go out,” he said. “Because I’d be ashamed if someone were to ask me what I do. I sweep a lot in front of our door, just to be doing something.” He asked whether I thought a nearby retirement home might let him clean for free. He showed me some German language exercises he’d gotten from the Internet.
Listening quietly were Ahmad’s three sons, ages 16, 14, and eight. They’d been in German schools for a year and a half; the two oldest attend the Jakob-Grimm-Schule. Their German was good. The eldest had slickly coiffed hair and wore a tight white T-shirt that said “Paris” in French and Arabic—in solidarity with the victims of the November 2015 attacks, he said. He was hoping to become a hairdresser and was interning at a salon down the street. The 14-year-old said he might stay in school a little longer; his teacher told him he writes better than a lot of the Germans. He’s the center forward on the soccer team.
Since World War II, Germany has received roughly 50 million immigrants. One in eight people living there today was born elsewhere. And yet when Angela Merkel said publicly, on June 1, 2015, that Germany was an Einwanderungsland—an “immigration country”—the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper called the statement “historic.” For decades Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had rejected the description, preferring the Germany of its dreams. “We were an immigration country in denial,” said Martin Lauterbach, who directs an integration program for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, known by its German acronym, BAMF.
The early immigrants were ethnic Germans, some 12 million of them. Driven out of Eastern Europe at the end of the war, they arrived in a bombed-out and destitute country. German or not, they were often unwelcome. Erika Steinbach, a CDU representative in Germany’s national parliament from Frankfurt, tells of fleeing what is now Poland with her mother and baby sister and arriving on a farm in Schleswig-Holstein. “The farmer said to my mother, when she needed milk for my sister, ‘You all are worse than cockroaches,’ ” Steinbach said. “There was not a lot of warmth.”
There was even less for the Turks. In the 1950s and ’60s, with the economy booming, West Germany needed workers. It recruited them first in Italy, then Greece and Spain, but in greater numbers from Turkey. Mostly men came alone and worked in factories or construction. They shared rooms in barracks or dorms. There was no expectation at first on either side that they’d stay—they were Gastarbeiter, guest workers, not immigrants. They would rotate back to Turkey after a year or two, taking the money they’d saved. Other “guests” would take their place.
That was the idea, but reality intervened. Employers didn’t want to lose workers they’d trained. Lonely workers imported families. Fatih Evren’s father brought his wife and three children—and then had Fatih in Germany. “After a certain time he settled down,” Evren said. “Making good money in Germany was fun.” In Bebra, a working-class town five miles down the road from Rotenburg, Evren is now secretary of the Turkish-Islamic community center and mosque that his father helped found in 1983.
The guest-worker program was shut down in 1973, when the Arab oil embargo triggered a recession. But today there are nearly three million people of Turkish descent living in Germany. Only half are German citizens. Some have ascended to prominence—such as Cem Özdemir, co-leader of the Green Party. What struck me about the conversations I had with ordinary Turks, however, was the consistent note of ambivalence toward Germany.
“To be a ‘guest’ in a country for decades—that’s insanity,” said Ayşe Köse Küçük, a social worker in Kreuzberg, the Berlin neighborhood where many Turks settled. She came to Berlin when she was 11 and has lived there 36 years. She still doesn’t feel accepted, and her children don’t either. “My children, whom I never told, ‘You are Turkish,’ started saying, ‘We are Turks,’ after fourth grade,” she said. “Because they were excluded. That hurts me.” And yet Kreuzberg is her beloved home.
“We came as workers, and as workers we’re integrated, but not as neighbors and fellow citizens,” said Ahmet Sözen, 44, who was born in Berlin. He can’t fully integrate, he explained, into a society his father doesn’t belong to. In Bebra, on the other hand, everybody knows one another, and Turks stage an annual cultural festival in the town square, Fatih Evren said; integration has worked. Still, although he was born and grew up in Germany and has many German friends, he expects to be buried in Turkey.
Feeling fully accepted in Germany has never been easy, even for some Germans. Christian Grunwald’s maternal grandparents were refugees—ethnic Germans from northern Serbia who ended up in Rotenburg after the war. His mother told me the story one afternoon at the Alheimer Kaserne. We were in the old guardhouse, surrounded by jail cells full of donated clothes; Gisela Grunwald coordinates a Red Cross operation that supplies clothing to today’s refugees.
Gisela’s mother is in a nursing home now, she said. Her ancestry is German, she has lived in Rotenburg for 65 years, her grandson is the popular mayor—and still, Gisela said, one day not long ago “someone came to her and said, ‘You’re not German.’ ” It seems she hadn’t quite shaken the accent she’d brought along with her from Serbia.
Germany has learned from the experience with Turks and other immigrants. Over the past 16 years it has relaxed its citizenship laws. Until 2000 you generally had to have German blood—at least one German parent—to be a German citizen. Now if you’ve been a legal resident for eight years or were born to such a parent, you can become a citizen—and in some cases keep your other nationality too.
What’s more, under a law passed in 2005, the German government now gives integration courses—a minimum of 600 hours of language instruction and 60 hours on German life—to people granted or likely to be granted asylum. Even as the BAMF hires thousands of new staff to process a backlog of hundreds of thousands of asylum applications, it’s investing more than half a billion euros this year in integration programs. The agency estimates that 546,000 people will take the course in 2016.
At the center of German politics there’s now a consensus that the country needs immigrants. Deaths exceed births in Germany by nearly 200,000 a year, and that number is rising. Without immigration, the population would be shrinking. The Berlin-Institute for Population and Development, a think tank, estimates that to keep a constant working-age population—the people who finance pensions for the growing pool of retirees—Germany would need a net immigration of around half a million a year through 2050.
But many of the refugees aren’t the trained labor the country needs—or even prepared to enter its famous apprenticeship programs. Estimates suggest that upwards of 15 percent are illiterate. Many of the others aren’t educated to German standards.
At a vocational school in Bad Hersfeld, near Rotenburg, I visited four classes of immigrants who were being given two years to gain the language skills and knowledge needed for a 10th-grade diploma, which might then lead to an apprenticeship. Most were old for 10th grade. In one class I recognized Mustafa, a sad-faced 17-year-old Afghan I’d met the day before at the home for refugee boys, run by the Stiftung Beiserhaus, where Damm tutors. Mustafa had told me how glad he was to be in Germany, not only because he was safe now but also because he could go to school; in his little village in Afghanistan, where he’d tended sheep and donkeys, he’d been taught only the Koran.
Most immigrants at the Bad Hersfeld school, said director Dirk Beulshausen, “see it as a gift that they’re allowed to learn. Many Germans see it as a duty, and duty is always bad.” There’s a limit, however, to what even a great willingness to work can achieve. One social worker there, Joanna Metz, guessed that nearly half the immigrants in the program might fail to earn a diploma. “The problem is they have an unbelievable amount to catch up,” she said. “Basically they need 48-hour days.”
The refugees who are young enough to adapt quickly, like Ahmad’s children, are likely to be a net economic plus for Germany. For the refugee population as a whole, it’s too early to say. The Federal Labor Agency estimates that half the refugees will still be unemployed after five years, a quarter after 12.
The argument for taking them in, though, was humanitarian, not economic. Much of the public remains unconvinced. The few people who are willing to throw Molotov cocktails at refugee shelters or obscenities at the chancellor are just the tip of an iceberg of peaceful and mostly silent Germans who in their hearts don’t want so many immigrants in Germany, especially Muslim ones.
A large majority of Germans accept immigration and Islam intellectually, said political scientist Naika Foroutan of the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research—but emotionally, not so many. Foroutan’s team surveyed 8,270 German residents in 2014, before the Paris or Brussels attacks or the surge in refugees. They found that nearly 40 percent believed you can’t be German if you wear a head scarf. Forty percent would limit the construction of conspicuous mosques. More than 60 percent would ban circumcision, an essential ritual in both the Islamic and Jewish religions. Finally, some 40 percent believed that to be German you must speak German without an accent. (Gisela Grunwald’s mother must have met one of those.)
Even before the terrorist attacks, even before a bizarre series of incidents outside the Cologne train station on New Year’s Eve, when immigrants, more than half from North Africa, harassed and molested hundreds of women, many Germans perceived Muslims as a threat. That feeling has fueled the resurgence of the political right. “I don’t believe such a mass of people can be integrated,” said Björn Höcke of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the populist party that after elections in March is now in half of Germany’s state legislatures. Höcke leads the delegation in the eastern state of Thuringia. Immigration, he thinks, has undermined the “community of trust” that once existed in Germany. The AfD, he has said a little menacingly, is “the last peaceful chance for our country.”
Höcke scares and disgusts many Germans. “Good God!” Damm exclaimed, when I mentioned I was going to see him. In person, Höcke is cerebral and almost mild; a few years ago he was a history teacher. But when he strikes the mystic chords of nationalism at the AfD rallies in Erfurt, when he leads the crowd on the cathedral square in chants of “Wir sind das Volk—We are the people,” meaning the German one that Merkel is allegedly trying to “abolish” with immigration—it reminds many Germans of the Nazis. “Sportpalast, 1943,” said Christian Grunwald, referring to an infamous speech by Joseph Goebbels.
Yet many Germans share at least some of Höcke’s unease—and a spate of attacks by refugees this past summer only increased it. In county elections in Hesse last March, one in eight Rotenburg voters chose the AfD; in state legislative elections in Saxony-Anhalt the following week, it was one in four. It would be hard to shove that many people into the Nazi corner. What are they afraid of?
In a word: Parallelgesellschaften, or “parallel societies.” “The parts of cities where you wouldn’t know you were in Germany,” as Höcke puts it. The term is a bogeyman even among moderate Germans. To an American, it may evoke a more benign image—of a Chinatown or a Little Italy or even one of the hundreds of Little Germanys that once existed in the U.S. Why can’t Germans take in immigrants now, in the same spirit? I put the question to Erika Steinbach, who, in spite of being a former refugee herself, has been a controversial critic of Merkel’s policy from the right flank of the CDU.
“I don’t want that,” she said simply. “We should preserve our identity.” Steinbach limned the threat with anecdotes. Her secretary in Berlin had been groped at the train station by a man she “could tell” was a refugee. Her hairdresser’s son in Frankfurt was one of only two native Germans in his elementary school class. A CDU staffer there said that gangs of immigrants walk down the main shopping street belching in people’s faces. “My goodness,” Steinbach said. “What is it all leading to?”
By the time I talked to her, I had met some of the new faces of Germany. There was Ahmad, sweeping in front of his door in Rotenburg. There were the two boys at a shelter in Berlin, who cry themselves to sleep, their father Mohamad told me, when they can’t reach their mother back in Damascus. There was Sharif, a restaurant owner from Aleppo, who saw Germany as a last chance; his kids hadn’t been to school since the fighting began in 2011.
And then, at the same gym in Berlin, there was an anguished 20-year-old, visibly pregnant, her face a smooth oval framed by a white head scarf. Soon after she started talking, she burst into tears—at how much she missed her family in Syria, at how kind the Germans were, but also at how scared she’d been one night when an angry crowd of them gathered on the street outside. If she could, she said, she’d tell those Germans she wasn’t there to take anything away.
The hate was appalling, but I could understand the apprehension many Germans feel. Even Ahmad could. “Germans are right to be afraid for their country,” he had told me. “Germany is used to security and order. People are afraid that will change.” But the encounter with him and the others had affected me. I asked Steinbach whether she’d had any personal contact with refugees.
“No,” she said.
A Haven in Europe
Fleeing war-torn lands in search of safer, better lives, people have been leaving their native countries and entering Europe for decades. These waves of humanity have helped shape the character of modern Europe. The continent’s most recent challenge comes from the unprecedented numbers arriving in 2015. Many of these refugees seek asylum, a protection under international law, meaning they cannot be expelled to face the dangers they left behind.
Hostility toward immigrants in Germany has been strongest where the fewest of them live, in the former East German states. They remain poorer than western Germany. The widening gap between rich and poor people in the country as a whole may also promote anti-immigrant sentiment—and yet there’s no material basis for angst about the refugees, said Naika Foroutan. The German economy is strong, unemployment is low, and the government ran a 19.4-billion-euro surplus last year. Germany could afford to integrate the refugees while still investing in infrastructure to benefit all Germans. “It’s not a real panic,” Foroutan said. “It’s a cultural panic.”
Foroutan, 44, whose mother is German and whose father is a refugee from Iran, puts her hope in education. “You can educate people to see integration as self-evident,” she said—just as Germany has tried, with limited success, to stamp out anti-Semitism. Since World War II a generation of hardened anti-Semites has died, and new generations have grown up confronted by television and also in school, by teachers like Damm, with what the Nazis did. Foroutan’s survey suggests a similar change is under way with respect to immigrants. Young Germans are much more likely to accept circumcision and mosques.
But the refugees have arrived in a country that’s still groping for a new identity—“a new German ‘we,’ ” President Joachim Gauck called it in a 2014 speech. That more inclusive “we,” Foroutan said, is part of what it means for Germany to be modern: open to the world and to change. German conservatives, however, aren’t the only ones resisting that vision; many Muslim immigrants aren’t exactly open and modern either. Some 30 percent of them, according to a 2013 survey, are fundamentalists: They believe that Islam should return to its seventh-century roots and that its laws take precedence over secular ones. At the Mevlana Mosque in Kreuzberg I met a bearded young teacher, Serkan Özalpay, who spoke, as other Muslims did, of the hostility he gets from Germans. Sometimes, when he passes in his turban and ankle-length robe, they spit. Then Özalpay surprised me by talking like the AfD. “The refugees don’t belong here,” he said. “Muslims don’t belong in this country.” He tells his flock to go back to Turkey if they can, that it’s just too hard to live by the Koran in Germany.
One precept that brings traditional Muslim men into conflict with Germans, whose constitution guarantees equal rights for women, is their rule against shaking hands with one. Another is their intolerance of homosexuals. In a studio in Neukölln, the day after I met Özalpay, I shook hands with a different kind of Muslim—a chain-smoking, vocally lesbian DJ named İpek İpekçioğlu. She grew up in the Berlin that he considers godless, and she loves it.
She didn’t always. When she got out of high school, she said, her German was poor and she had no emotional tie to the country. She took an au pair job in London, unsure when she’d come back. Then one day she happened to pull a book of Goethe’s poems off the shelf.
It was the West-Eastern Divan, in which the famous poet—famous also for his Weltoffenheit, his open-to-the-world-ness—celebrates Islam. The poems spoke to İpekçioğlu. “Man,” she remembers thinking, “this really is a beautiful language.” She went back to Berlin. Now, besides performing at clubs around the world, she sometimes speaks abroad for the Goethe-Institut—a representative of the new Germany.
The old Germany, İpekçioğlu said, has a lot going for it—Goethe, for example—but it still “has a fundamental problem saying, I’ll open my culture and allow it to change.” Once not long ago she was doing her thing on a stage in Leipzig, spinning her Anatolian house music; the dance floor was packed. A guy came up to her and demanded she play “German” music. So she dialed up the ethnic even more.
She wanted him—and all of Germany—to get the message: “We’re here. We’re not going back. We’re going to shape the city to fit our lives.”
Fear of otherness is something we all have,” said İpekçioğlu. “It’s not just Germans.” But Germans not so long ago carried that fear to its most vicious extreme. As a result, many of them still feel its reflection: fear of themselves.
“If I’d been old enough back then, I feel sure I would have been in the SS,” Damm told me in the car one day. “I just hope I wouldn’t have been a camp guard.”
“The ice is thin,” said Gerd Rosenkranz, a political analyst in Berlin, speaking of the rightward lurch in German politics. “We can still break through. And beneath it lie the old days.”
On November 9, 1938, when Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, came to the rest of Germany, it had already come to Rotenburg and Bebra. The mobs there had shattered the windows and trashed the houses of the Jews two nights earlier. Goebbels himself praised the region, said Heinrich Nuhn, a former history teacher and colleague of Damm’s. Nuhn maintains a small museum dedicated to the lost Jews of Rotenburg in a house on the Fulda that was once the women’s mikvah—the ritual bath.
One afternoon Damm and I went to the Bebra town hall to call on Uli Rathmann, 56, a muscular man with close-cropped hair who directs the town’s kindergarten and youth programs. Rathmann grew up in a village nearby, where he never saw an immigrant—a “parallel society,” he now calls it. When he became a social worker in Bebra, he started working with immigrants all the time. Now he feels that if Bebra were to become 90 percent foreign, so what?
Toward the end of our conversation Rathmann took me to the window to look down on the semicircular brick wall that bisects the town square. He pointed out the bronze plaque that lists the names of 82 Jews from Bebra who were murdered in the camps. A smaller plaque commemorates the vanished synagogue.
“It’s an exciting time in Germany,” he said, as we returned to the subject of refugees. “I have to say, I was overwhelmed by the tremendous willingness to help that Germans showed. And it really still hasn’t ebbed.”
Damm, who had been listening quietly, jumped in. “It’s the first time in my life …” He stopped, excused himself. I looked over at my old teacher; his eyes were teary. “It’s the first time in my life,” he went on, “that I can say I’m proud of Germany.”
I looked back at Rathmann. His eyes were glistening too. We talked about how hard it had long been for Germans to feel a healthy national pride, one that transcended World Cup soccer but didn’t feel strutting and dangerous. Maybe, Rathmann said, Germans could be “proud that we took in the refugees.” Maybe pride comes from “lived democracy,” from the feeling that “this is my country, I’m going to move my ass and do something for it.” He turned to his computer to look up the number of someone he thought I should talk to, a guy who had helped him lay the floor at the new youth center. It was Fatih Evren, over at the mosque.
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