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Perspectives—Letter from Berlin. A Heavy Debate about the Refugees Has Germans in a Severe Identity Crisis. (1/20)     Print Email

By Markus Ziener, Berlin Professor of Journalism

In Cologne on New Year's Eve there was no terrorist attack and no one got killed. But the massive assaults on women by a huge crowd with many asylum seekers has sent a nation into shock. The shock is multi-dimensional and deep: Germans are rubbing their eyes about a helpless police that was incapable to upholding the law. They are shocked about the criminal behavior of people Germany had welcomed and opened the doors for. But most of all: Germany is wondering about the values the country stands for – and whether they can be defended.

That's why Cologne signals much more than a mere violation of law. Cologne has the potential to open dangerous flood gates. For years or even decades Germany has established a code how to deal with nationalism. With rare exceptions all political parties and leaders had formed a united front when antisemitism, nazism or xenophobia were on the rise. This created a solid firewall against a return of the ghosts of the Third Reich. At the same time this unity made it next to impossible to call certain policies into question – for instance, whether Germany should actively participate in wars, whether Germany is permitted to criticize Israel – or how Germany should deal with refugees knocking on the door. With the backdrop of Germany's history the answers were clear: No wars. Israel stays sacrosanct. Foreigners are welcome – no matter what. Whoever tried to challenge those positions had to be prepared to be labelled right-wing.

Now, after Cologne, this ring of defense has collapsed. Not only are national-minded Germans speaking out against the refugee policy of the Chancellor, but now it is the moderate, tolerant middle-class that gets confused, angry and articulate. They are exactly the people Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) always could count on in elections. But now they have difficulty understanding the Merkel strategy. They are afraid that the uncontrolled inflow of foreigners mainly from the Middle East and the Maghreb countries is fundamentally changing the German society. They see a clash of cultures in the making.

Why did it take the events of New Year’s Eve to ignite this fire? Because seemingly there was an attitude prevailing at the police department in Cologne - and probably also at the regional ministry of interior - that deemed it politically incorrect to blame refugees. But the truth is: Not talking about the negatives that are associated with the one million refugees that came into Germany in 2015 is making the political right stronger, not weaker. The self- proclaimed patriots can claim to be the only ones telling the truth. Unfortunately, the events in Cologne add grist to the mill.

Generations of Germans after the war have never learned to self-consciously talk about or even defend their country, their achievements and values. To the contrary: Germans exercised tolerance verging on self-denial. Only a few years back even displaying the German colors was considered fascist.

Angela Merkel, in a passionate speech at a recent party convention she once again tried to convince the skeptics within the CDU that there is no alternative to her policy. She made clear that shutting down Germanys borders would not only produce a human catastrophe. She told party members that the whole European project is at stake if Germany ceased solidarity.

Merkel only tepidly addressed something at least equally important: That refugees are only welcome if they play by the rules; that they have to accept the norms and standards of their hosts. And if they don't – they are out. And she should encourage Germans to be steadfast in asserting that it is not fascist to tell asylum seekers what is right – and what is wrong. Merkel seems not to understand that by downplaying the troubles, she is about to destroy the good that has been done last year under her leadership. Even more: By ignoring this cultural debate she is leaving the field wide open for those who are true right wing nationalists.

Markus Ziener is a Professor of Journalism in Berlin and a former Correspondent in Washington, Moscow and the Middle East

Perspectives is an occasional forum of The European Institute reflecting member and guest views on topical issues