The New, Same as the Old: History, Refugees and Germany

This year has been one of change and uncertainty. While Americans and Brits mull over the consequences of recent electoral upsets, the European refugee crisis continues to see an unprecedented inflow of Syrians and others to the continent. In Germany, often the destination of choice, the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has reported a total of more than 1.3 million asylum applications as of October – some 1.6 per cent of the country’s population. Refugees have provoked strong feelings everywhere including: disgust, anger, fear of the far-right, pity inspired by images of the numerous dead, and the enthusiastic if fading greeting of German Willkommenskultur. Refugees have, across Europe, become foils for domestic issues of all kinds – national identity, multiculturalism, the War on Terror, and bathing suits, to name a few. From the BBC to Nigel Farage, many have expressed their take on what to do about Europe’s new and pressing ‘refugee problem.’ This sentiment is itself a problem; outside of Germany, few in politics or the media have addressed the crisis as anything but a singular historical moment, catastrophic and without precedent. This is far from the truth. The crisis at hand must be understood in a historical context; short-term thinking renders current affairs incomprehensible and its observers short-sighted.

With an eye on history we can see that migration is nothing new, in Germany or elsewhere. In the 1950s and 60s, Germany signed agreements with Italy, Turkey, Yugoslavia and Spain, among others, to import some 14 million total ‘guest workers’ for its booming economy. Until the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 it accepted some 3.5 million East Germans, and since 1950 it has welcomed more than 4 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. From the 1990s onward it has hosted more than 2 million refugees from conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. After the United States, Germany ranks as the world’s second most popular destination for migrants; most recently, the BAMF estimated that more than 20 per cent of Germans are immigrants or of immigrant origin.

Bernd Schwabe

Image courtesy of Bernd Schwabe, © 2015, some rights reserved.

A recent article in The Economist remarked on the resilience with which Chancellor Angela Merkel has kept her position. Her August 2015 declaration of an open-door policy on asylum seekers was widely criticized in sometimes apocalyptic terms, yet she recently announced her bid for a fourth term with an approval rating of 55 per cent, up from 44 per cent in August. Mrs. Merkel’s continued political survival and the fact that the open-door policy was possible in the first place speaks to a simple fact: like no other European state, Germany has both qualitative and some measure of quantitative historical precedent for its current situation. Its constitution, itself a product of German experience under occupation and National Socialism, enshrines the ‘dignity of mankind’ and the provision of asylum to the politically persecuted as fundamental rights.

Many refugees, recent or otherwise, have nonetheless found Germany’s unique historical experience to their detriment. The chancellor’s survival comes at least partially because she has been willing to renounce multiculturalism as a ‘failure’ and to promise the swift deportation of rejected asylum applicants. More generally, Germany’s provision of refuge is not permanent or unconditional; Merkel and others have said they expect migrants, including those from Syria and Iraq, to return when the conflicts in those countries end.

While a product of pragmatism, Germany’s welcome mat is merely the latest episode in a long-running saga. Though millions of workers were imported to Germany from across Europe and the Mediterranean, these were always on an ostensibly temporary basis, contractually bound to ‘rotate out’ or eventually return permanently to their home countries. This did not happen; guest workers were allowed to stay and bring their families, securing well-being without the prospect of citizenship or social inclusion. Rather than a humanitarian project, this was the triumph of industrial pragmatism, fresh workers being expensive to train. This led to a persistent contradiction – while state and industrial policy was geared toward incentivising an eventual return, migrants rarely did so. The children of guest workers, many of them Turks, were often taught supplementary courses in Turkish to prepare them for such a return. This created effective segregation seen elsewhere in Europe, most famously in suburbs of Brussels now known for Islamic extremism. Such failures of integration – or perhaps successes of non-integration – have made their mark on German asylum politics, inspiring scepticism by earlier immigrants over the integration prospects of newer immigrants. This view would seem to have much merit – a recent opinion poll found that although upwards of 80 per cent of Germans support admission of refugees, 82 per cent of Germans support eventual repatriation.

Recent German reporting on the crisis has emphasised the feeling of many in the large and growing Turkish minority that although Germany is a country of immigrants, it is not a country for immigrants. Government policy has indeed been slow to change; Germany only allowed those born to non-Germans on its soil to receive automatic citizenship in 2000, and has only made naturalisation and integration a priority in the last ten years. Such bureaucratic and legalistic transformation takes a long time – recent refugees have a long wait ahead before they can hope to be afforded a legal place in German society, if they are to be at all.

Despite this gloomy picture, there is yet hope for refugees in Germany, today and into the future. As has been shown in the past, immigrants of all kinds can prove successful in German society, even if they are not sure they belong. Support for far-right parties like the Alternative for Germany has been growing, but not nearly to the level of Germany’s neighbours. On the part of Germans, seemingly unconditional popular support for the right to asylum remains a beacon of cosmopolitan morality. That courses on German language and culture are to be made compulsory for resident refugees is a promising step for the welfare and integration of refugees.

Looking to history, we can see that German refugee policy has two faces: the first principled, with a desire to atone for history and extend fundamental rights to those outside of the national community; the second, underlying this, has been a hard pragmatism. The stunning success of immigration-led growth in the past and present make Germany Europe’s example par excellence of what economists have long concluded: that immigrants bring economic benefits that far outweigh the cost of accepting them. Germany has lessons to teach the world, to those who would equate refugee, immigrant, and terrorist and to xenophobes and isolationists who would claim theirs a ‘pragmatic’ pursuit of the national interest.