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Germany's test of generosity and identity

Ideals that unite

After welcoming 1 million fleeing people, Germans now struggle to integrate them. They are being forced to look deep at what binds their country.

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    German Chancellor Angela Merkel and visitor Mohammed Aslan pose for a selfie together as she tours a market in Greifswald, Germany August 30.
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The world is awash in migrants and refugees – 1 in every 122 people on Earth – forcing a test of identity in many of the recipient countries. That’s especially true in Germany, which opened its doors in 2015 to more than a million people fleeing harsh conditions in the Middle East and Africa. This mass generosity was exemplary. It defied Germany’s Nazi past.

Yet now as German citizens try to integrate this wave of uprooted foreigners, they are also struggling to define an identity that embraces the newcomers but also unites the nation under core values.

Many thought it might be easy. “We will manage this,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel last year. She now regrets the words although not the hope behind them.

The political backlash against her “welcome culture” policy has been strong. Last week, a new anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), defeated her conservative party in a local election in her political home base. The AfD has been running stronger in many races, reigniting public debate about German identity being ethnically based. Even within her own coalition, Ms. Merkel now faces pressure not to seek a fourth term in 2017.

Her main political challenge, however, lies in reminding Germans that identity comes not from blood or soil but from an appeal to principles that bind people across cultures. And she is also trying to disabuse many Germans of a belief that rising immigration leads to increased terrorism, pointing out that it is native Germans who have joined Islamic State.

Germany’s economy is strong enough to absorb the new arrivals. And it knows it needs immigrants as workers for its aging society. But can Germany also serve as a model for the rest of Europe by replacing a fear of foreigners with a type of loving but firm assimilation?

Merkel’s welcome mat has come with conditions. She has banned burqas in courts and public schools. Her government has tied welfare benefits to learning the German language. And she warns the country’s large population of people with Turkish ancestry that it must “develop a high level of loyalty toward our country.’’ She is searching for ways to rapidly mix people while bringing out the best of their different ways of life.

At the same time, she is pushed to find solutions to the refugee flow rather than simply to accept the surge. She has arranged with Turkey to virtually end the flow of Syrians into Greece. She has sought deals with countries in Africa to stem migration. And she pushes Russia and others for peace in Syria. Germany, like other countries, cannot remain secluded from the world’s woes.

Merkel hopes Germans can orient themselves around values that have made them successful: freedom, security, and fairness. “Germany will remain Germany, and so will all that is dear to it,” she said after her party’s election loss.

Germany, states this daughter of a Lutheran pastor, puts the dignity of every human being at the center of its identity – and in its work in integrating its new arrivals.

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