This last weekend saw my fourth visit to Berlin over the past two years. Although I had previously been to the city a couple of times pre-unification, these had been more ‘passing through with work’. It has only been over the last four visits that I have really come to like the city in a similar way to my existing love of Paris.
However, it is certainly my view that Berlin has changed quite noticeably in those visits. This weekend, I became aware of a strong and growing social resentment. At the risk of falling into a Fawlty Towers cliché, this is, in my view related to Germany’s psyche and specifically its continued sensitivities about its wartime history.
If you visit Berlin, the city carries these scars quite obviously. The Jewish memorial is justifiably prominent, deeply moving and thought provoking. However, arguably, it has become the singular physical representation of the nations consciousness. There is an emotional and sometimes a physical blanking out of the war years. The equally striking and emotionally charged Russian war memorial is comparatively unknown.
If you are lucky enough to visit the revamped 1930’s Olympic stadium you will notice the almost Egyptian chiselling of historic symbols from the fabric of the building. Hardly surprising as nobody least of all me would want to see Swastikas retained for historic integrity. However, this has served as a strong symbol reflecting the ongoing sensitivities.
Within the rebuilt German Parliament, you will read a brief summary of the war years and an explanation that this history gives Germany a ‘special responsibility’ towards minorities and victims of religious or political persecution. This can appear to a non German national who wasn’t alive during the war to be over-compensation. Nobody would equate modern Germany with the days of the Nazi regime. Few consider the German people responsible for the actions of its political ruling class at the time. I have certainly seen nothing but a progressive, friendly, open and very welcoming country. I believe the rest of the world has come to terms with the actions of 1940’s Germany – I for one would like Germany to do the same.
The current mass migrations from Syria led to a reiteration of this special responsibility with an open door policy announced for any Syrian refugees. It was notable on the day before I left that the definition of refugee in German media was becoming an issue. Should it be limited to the UN or legal definitions or more broadly move to what others would refer to as economic migrants.
I hasten to say that I have great sympathy and an natural impulse to accept genuine refugees (those with a genuine fear of loss of life/persecution). The current position with mass migrations across Europe is an appalling one, however, does that make all concerned refugees? The knee-jerk instinctive reaction from German political leaders means these questions were simply not addressed.
This weekend, in Berlin, I was amazed at what appeared to be a vault face based on atypical political naivety.
In an amazing demonstration of surprise, Germany changed it’s approach on border controls stating it was surprised at the number of refugees arriving. Munich was reported by the German press as failing to cope with 30,000 people having arrived in 2 days. I wonder what was expected when you effectively announce an open door policy? Whether you agree with the policy or not, surely you can and should hardly be surprised when people offered a place in Germany head to Germany.
More worryingly, I detected a change in tone among the German public (at least those reported in the press and in the café society of Berlin. Demonstrators took to the streets in Freital, Germany demonstrating against the provision of accommodation being provided to refugees. It appeared this was a criticism of the unstructured nature of the governments policy. Whilst protestors accepted refugees and those seeking asylum they strongly resisted economic migration on such a scale.
Alarmingly Rhabbi Barkhan, Director of one of Germany’s leading Jewish support charities spoke out publically about the concerns of the German Jewish community being able to accommodate and integrate upwards of 800,000 people with what they perceived to be a natural hostility towards them.
“We as Jews have compassion for the refugees… there are children from war-torn countries. But on the other hand, we’re afraid they may be terrorists. As Jews, we are supporting Israel and our people. Here, they don’t need us,”
Whether or not you agree with these concerns, many in Germany clearly believe these internal frictions could have been avoided with a little more thought and reconsidering what Germany’s special responsibility means in the current climate.
What I noticed during my most recent visit was the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets. Many of the budget hotels were being used to home migrants without any obvious support or assistance to integrate or even understand their surroundings.
When travelling back from an evening out in Berlin, I was amazed at the sea of bodies on either side of the river. Sheltering under boxes, blankets and plastic, these refugees whilst safer than in Syria had found a far less favourable Germany than they had anticipated.
During the day, numerous migrants were collecting discarded bottles, cans and plastics to sell in order to support themselves. A few days after announcing a welcome to all, Germany had closed it’s borders, reinforced it’s most porous borders with the military and called on the rest of Europe to accept mandated immigration quotas to help support Germany’s special responsibility. As a visitor in Berlin, it didn’t look promising at this point. Following Hungary, Austria and Serbia announcing that they were not bound by Germany’s open door policy all border controls in those countries were strengthened.
On my last day in Berlin, the news covered the border closures. A German couple at breakfast surprised me by saying ‘It won’t be long before they start shooting at them’. Prophetic words indeed. After landing back in the UK I remembered these words as Hungary deployed water cannon and CS spray to disperse those seeking to cross the border to Germany.
So how much has a default and instinctive belief in a special responsibility helped those attempting to cross the continent. I for one am uncertain that it has done much to solve the underlying issues.
I hope that Germany will reconsider it’s position. Seventy years after the end of World War II the special responsibility is no longer appropriate as a default position. The impact has been much wider than Germany itself and continues to impact neighbouring states. Ironically, it may already have increased the likelihood of conflict within existing minority communities. A more controlled implementation, (which need not mean fewer people accepted) may allow the impact of a generous humanitarian policy to be more measured and less challenging for all concerned.