On September 4, 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel and the Austrian chancellor at the time, Werner Faymann, agreed to let some 7,000 refugees enter their respective countries from Hungary. The refugees, most of them from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, had been stranded for days at a Budapest train station, which had become a de facto refugee camp with abysmal conditions.
Much has happened since then. Hundreds of thousands more refugees have arrived in Germany. Small towns have had to figure out, with barely any advance notice, how to accommodate more refugees than their own population. Some schools had to cancel athletic programs because the gyms were being used to house refugees. Thousands of volunteers have spent their free time helping refugees learn German, navigate paperwork, and find housing. A right-wing party has gained steady support, and blamed the attacks in July that left ten people dead on Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy before anything was known about the perpetrators.
Clearly, Germany has faced challenges of historic proportions this past year. However, this is not the first time Germany has absorbed huge numbers of migrants. After World War II, 12-14 million people from pre-war German territories in Eastern Europe streamed into the remaining, smaller Germany. Some 4 million people came from Southern Europe and Turkey during the 1950’s and 1960’s as part of a guest worker program. Three million people came in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Joachim Gauck is Germany’s president. Unlike the chancellor’s, his is largely a ceremonial post, but one that can offer direction in important societal debates. When recently asked whether he thought Angela Merkel’s now famous remark “We can handle this” was a mistake, Gauck responded: “What if she had said “We cannot handle this”? Is that the country I want to live in?” He went on to emphasize the importance of close study to understand the situation.
For instance, the attack in Munich that killed nine people had nothing to do with ISIS or refugees, and must be considered in the context of bullying, social isolation, mental disturbance, and Nazi ideology. The closing of borders would do nothing to address these risk factors.
President Gauck strikes a note of encouragement, using the German word Zuversicht - an attitude of faith in a positive future. Using a maritime metaphor, Gauck remarked that while German society is being shaken up by strong gusts, it is not a sinking ship.