Achtung, how can we help?

Photographer: Christof Srache/AFP/Getty Images

Why Germany Welcomes Refugees

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The phrase "German moral leadership" may sound strange to many ears, what with the role the country played in two world wars and more recent indignation over the tough stance it took towards Greece's debt woes. Yet anyone witnessing how the nation has responded to this summer's flood of refugees would have to acknowledge that leadership as a fact.

Why such a transformation has taken place is a tough question to answer, not least because as recently as the 1990s, Germany responded in a far less heroic way to the wave of refugees who fled the war in former Yugoslavia.

Back then, Frank Diettrich would have been far from typical. He spends his time as an unpaid volunteer, handing out plastic cups of water to young olive-skinned men at the edge of a trampled lawn, where refugees arriving in Berlin wait to register at a dedicated office.

"I just sat on the couch and watched TV" before, says Diettrich, who sold his small business last year. "We can see the government is having problems handling the situation around here, so it's up to us to help."

The lawn is an encampment. Hundreds of people are sit around, lying under trees in sleeping bags, huddling in a couple of large tents, guarding beaten-up luggage or kicking soccer balls around. To get in, one has to line up from the wee hours of the morning. The registration process takes more than a week, so people keep coming back. Between January and July, Germany accepted 218,221 asylum applications, more than in any full year since 1994. The 1992 record of 438,191 applications will probably be overtaken this year. 

The Facebook page whose request for help got Diettrich off his couch belongs to a group called Moabit Hilft, dedicated to welcoming refugees to the area. Local shops have signs in their windows saying they collect money for the organization. The Facebook group has almost 11,000 members. This is nothing out of the ordinary in today's Germany: a lot of people want to lend a hand. Chancellor Angela Merkel has all but guaranteed that Syrian refugees fleeing the war in their country will be accepted, and they are responding to the call.

Ordinary Germans have backed the government, turning out to do their bit where the thorough and slow-moving bureaucracy fails to resolve bottlenecks. According to a recent opinion poll commissioned by the TV channel ARD-DeutschlandTrend, 88 percent of Germans have donated clothes or money to refugees or are planning to do so. 

The same poll showed that 38 percent of Germans (a higher percentage in former East Germany) worry there are too many refugees coming in. Yet that doesn't mean some of those people aren't sympathetic or willing to help. Here and there, extreme right activists have set refugee hostels on fire and dark-skinned people have been attacked on the street. But any attempts at open agitation against refugees are meeting resistance.

On Wednesday, a rally of the far-right NPD party was scheduled for noon in front of the Berlin registration office. Local volunteers warned the refugees to stay on the lawn, and police massed in the vicinity, putting up barriers and keeping riot helmets at the ready. Half an hour after the announced time, it became clear that only a handful of the nationalists would show. Using a loudspeaker mounted on a truck, they shouted insults at "fake refugees," but were drowned out by about 200 anti-Nazi protesters, who screamed "Go away" and chanted: "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here."

"It didn't used to be like this," says Harald Gloede, a board member at Borderline Europe, a nongovernmental organization that collects and disseminates information about the European refugee crisis. "I think even the government is surprised people are so welcoming. In the '90s, when the right wing burned down refugee camps, a lot of ordinary people applauded them."

In 1993, that sentiment resulted in a change to Article 16 of the German constitution, which had guaranteed an absolute right of asylum. The new version cuts off applicants from countries deemed by the German authorities to be "safe," and requires asylum seekers to prove they have been persecuted. After those amendments came into effect, the inflow of refugees started drying up. Yet when growing instability around the world increased it again, Germans were ready: This time it was they who had changed.

Asked to explain the new attitude, German academics often mention the country's history. "German citizens know that the regulations of the Geneva Refugee Convention stem from the historical experience with Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust," says Petra Bendel of the Central Institute for Regional Research at Erlangen, in Bavaria. "Also, after World War II, many Germans were refugees themselves." It may seem hard to believe that history lessons trumped by xenophobia in the 1990s have finally sunk in, but that's the consensus.

It appears to have taken a three-pronged attack from government, civil society and the media to get German sentiment to where it is today.

In 1999, the authorities adopted a law granting automatic citizenship to the children of migrants born on German soil, and in 2005 immigration rules as a whole were softened and simplified. In addition, for the last 10 years successive governments have worked to educate voters about immigration.

"Germany's conservatives do not play the race card like in France or Britain," says Dietrich Thraenhardt of Muenster University. "Anti-immigrant positions like those of [U.K. Prime Minister David] Cameron or [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy would be considered extremist in Germany. Merkel never used immigration as a controversial issue."

Neighborhood activists -- a numerous group in Germany -- gained experience working with immigrants. "The constantly rising influx of immigrants brought a broad willingness to assist refugees to the fore," says Stephan Duennwald of the Bavarian Council for Refugees, which unites various volunteer groups. "Around many refugee camps and housing, local volunteers gathered in groups to offer language classes and assistance in dealing with authorities or medical services."

Finally, the German press -- even the tabloid kind -- has been sympathetic, in stark contrast to some other countries. Bild, the country's most popular tabloid, known for its hardline stance on aid to Greece, now publishes information sheets in Arabic for refugees. Asylum seekers outside the registration office were snapping them up on Wednesday.

"We had 12 million German expellees after World War II, 3.5 million 'guest workers' and millions of refugees, but Germany's status as a country of immigration has always been denied," says Olaf Kleist of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrueck. Now, for all of the above reasons, Germans accept that they live in a cosmopolitan country.

There's an economic side to this, too, says Kleist: "Germany's economic strength, a demographic decline and the need for labor all contribute to the welcoming of migrants including refugees." Indeed, one reason the refugee influx is fine with German voters is that Merkel insists the country will still balance its budget without new debt, and that taxes won't need to be raised to deal with the refugee crisis.

It's hard to say, however, whether the German change of heart is permanent and based on entrenched values, as Merkel insists. Duennwald points out that although there is a lot of sympathy for "true" refugees from Syria -- that they're fleeing war makes sense -- Germans have little time for "bogus" asylum seekers from the Balkans, who include many Roma.

Indeed, if the current charitable sentiment lasts, it may be because Germans have become keenly aware of the leadership role their country has taken in Europe lately. Germany, says Gloede of Borderline Europe, has become "the focus of international attention, it says what has to be done and is therefore obliged to be the first to do something."

This resolve of Germans to give refugees the best welcome they can isn't just an example. It's a challenge to the rest of Europe, and even to the U.S.: Come on, match this if you can.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net