Why is Germany embracing refugees? It's not simply post-Nazi guilt

Germany has thrown open its doors to asylum seekers like never before. And it's thinking about what it can – and can't – do to make that welcome last.

Markus Schreiber/AP
A woman carries a child as she stands between other refugees who were made to unboard a train by German border police officers, at the train station of the southern German border town of Passau, Germany, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. Germany introduced temporary border controls Sunday to stem the tide of thousands of refugees streaming across its frontier, sending a clear message to its European partners that it needs more help with an influx that is straining its ability to cope.
Andreas Gebert/dpa/AP
Migrants and refugees arrive at a tent village at the Donnersberg bridge close to the central train station in Munich, Germany, on Sunday.

Elchingen, in the German state of Bavaria is not used to foreigners. And when townspeople in the village, hemmed in by corn fields, found out in late 2013 that they were going to be hosts to dozens of asylum seekers, many fought back, going door-to-door gathering some 800 signatures to say “no.”

“I felt so ashamed to be an Elchingener,” says Renate Willbold-Vajagic, a local.

So when asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and beyond arrived in this upper middle-class community, she and a group of residents, many retired, created an organization called the “Friends of Asylum-seekers.”

Their grassroots effort has grown into an impressive operation, based in a community center. Newcomers can borrow bikes to get from the village to the nearest city 6 miles away, take German classes, and get maps, orientation, or whatever else they need, from backpacks for children to thick winter coats.

“They do need everything,” says Ms. Willbold-Vajagic.

This is the new face of Germany, where a sense of responsibility, position of strength, and confidence at integrating others before has turned it into Europe’s beacon of humanity amid the largest movement of people since World War II.

And yet, for as much as it is willing – and able – to do, it can’t do everything. On Sunday, Germany shocked Europe by introducing border controls with Austria, from where thousands of migrants have passed into Munich – 13,000 on Saturday alone. The move is seen not just as a response to record inflows into Germany but also a plan to push the European Union into sharing the burden as justice and interior ministers meet today in Brussels.

Germany's new Willkommenskultur, or “welcome culture,” has been celebrated across the country, but it is not universally embraced. Germany finds itself at a fragile moment, where the welcome could wither, as the world looks to how Germany leads amid a crisis that is testing Europe’s union arguably more than any issue since its founding.

Hajo Funke, a professor of political culture at the Free University of Berlin, says it’s a historic moment if Germany is able to maintain this “new mentality of empathy.”

“This wave of hundreds of thousands in each and every city and town is unique in the history of Germany,” he says. “As much as [politicians] really do their job, that empathy can hold.”

'We are Germany. We are welcoming.'

Munich has become the gateway into Germany for asylum-seekers, and ground zero of Willkommenskultur. On Saturday, as a large group of weary asylum-seekers arrived in Munich’s Hauptbahnhof, or main train station, people gathered to clap. “Thank you, thank you,” said one man, holding a toddler in his arms.

The migrants are shuttled to an unofficial reception center that is staffed, at any given time, with anywhere from 30 to 200 volunteers. Many of them are men and women who have taken vacation time to be here and offer what they can, from organizing the mounting bags of food and clothes to translating in Arabic. One woman is turned away from volunteering, told it would be unfair to the others who have placed their names on waiting lists. Another man tries to give the group cash, twice, but they reject it.

The images of Alan Kurdi, the dead Syrian boy  washed ashore, of migrants stranded in Hungary after borders were shut, and of others suffocated in the back of a truck in Austria have washed away apathy and passive observation here. But the shock was felt viscerally, touching a historic nerve.

It is in Germany where a small but vicious group has led the Continent’s most violent backlash to refugees, including arson attacks on refugee centers and demonstrations for the past year by the "anti-Islamization" group Pegida. Such protest has been louder in eastern Germany, with high unemployment rates and less exposure to foreigners. In big cities like Munich, which has a thriving community of Turks, Albanians, and Greeks, foreigners are often seen as a source of cultural enrichment – not as burdens on schools and health systems or as sources of cultural and religious clashes.

But hate-fueled actions have not been limited enough to explain them away as a geographical phenomenon. And Germans across the country have been horrified as they have stirred disturbing memories of the right-wing rise of Hitler, especially in Munich, the birthplace of national socialism.

German political observers say it would be wrong to view the rush of volunteerism as an act of redemption. It is rather a counter-backlash. “When I saw the images of [anti-refugee sentiment], I felt like people had fallen out of time, using arguments and terms and sentences which in my view reflect the ones I know from the 1920s and '30s,” says Magnus Brechtken, deputy director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich.

The Willkommenskultur, then, is a defense of Germany of the 21st century.

Or as Willbold-Vajagic in Elchingen puts it: “Now we have the chance to say, ‘We are Germany. We are welcoming.’”

Filling a need

Even a decade ago, Germany wasn’t able to so easily say that. When waves of southern Europeans and Turks came to the country in the '50s and '60s, they were called “guest workers” because Germany expected them to go home. In the '90s, when waves of refuges came in after the Iron Curtain fell and the Balkan wars pushed so many out, the government’s position – bluntly stated by Chancellor Helmut Kohl – was that Germany is “not an immigrant country.”

Today he would be wrong to say the same. Last year the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released figures showing that Germany had surpassed all countries except the US to become the world’s No. 2 recipient of immigrants.

It has gotten here through both learned experience and pragmatics. Mr. Funke says the Willkommenskultur is not simply a reaction to “bad memories” but an authentic expression built over the decades. After the silence surrounding Nazi atrocity in the '50s, the country came to terms with what it actually meant to reject “others.” It learned from failing to integrate “guest workers.” And it learned from the riots against refugees that flared in the '90s. From that history it was able to “start a dialogue” with Islam a decade ago and today recognizes its role as a diverse nation.

Perhaps more important, it also recognizes that its rapidly aging society needs those immigrants.

“The public opinion has been for a long time that additional immigrants are part of the strategy to tackle Germany’s aging problem,” says Thomas Liebig, senior administrator at the OECD's international migration division.

Germany has liberalized its laws for foreign workers and been trying to woo high-skilled ones from as far as China. Now some see hope in refugees, too, especially high-skilled Syrian refugees.  Chambers of commerce have pushed for Germany to allow businesses to more easily hire them – underlining Germany’s views that taking people in can be a boon, not a burden.

And in many towns low-skilled workers are in demand as well, the kind of jobs that Mr. Liebig says “people don’t move for.”

Christoph Karmann, who connects refugees to apprentices for the Chamber of Trade and Crafts for Munich and Upper Bavaria, says that in 2014, 4,700 apprenticeship positions were vacant in Bavaria’s small trades. Jobs particularly in demand include butchers, bakers, and construction workers. Through this year they’ve filled 130 positions with young refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

'We must have good standards'

It is this economic security that has turned Germany into Europe’s leader today. And many Germans are facing the migrant rush with the optimism and confidence that befits a superpower nation.

Mathias Wendeborn closes the windows of his cheerful pediatrician practice in a wealthy community of Munich at mid-day and zips off to the gates of the city’s largest refugee center. Here he has founded the nongovernmental organization Refudocs, after pushing for two years for a full-time “refugee medical practice” founded on more than idealism and goodwill. It needed a “concept,” he says: a professional, paying structure that would stand amid ebbing emotions.

Sara Miller Llana
Mathias Wendeborn (c.), a pediatrician who founded Refudocs, sees his first patient of the day, the child of newly arrived asylum seekers in Munich. A translator (far l.) helps.

Dr. Wendenborn says the will to create this management structure was not there at first. The local government wanted to close its eyes to the problem in hopes it would go away, he says. It did not.

Before Refudocs was running, asylum-seekers here received care when doctors were available – a system that became unworkable amid mounting pressure on service providers across the country. Today some 70 doctors, many retired, share shifts, paid for by the state government, to keep the practice regularly humming.

“Everyone wants to help for a few weeks. But in the long-term that is not enough,” Wendeborn says. “This problem will accompany us for years, so we must have good standards.”

Wendenborn is convinced Germany will cope, just as his practice is amid record arrivals, most of them through Munich. “Seven thousand people can arrive in the Hauptbahnhof at one moment and it’s not a problem now,” he says.  “Now they have a concept.”

And many are convinced Germany soon will as well. “We are one of the richest countries in the world, why not?” says Wendeborn’s colleague Hilda Hadorn, who on this day alone has provided therapy to mothers who have been forced to leave their children behind in Turkey and entire families exhausted and scarred from an interminable trek. “Why not?”

A win-win situation?

But everyone is clear that Germany can’t do it alone, and now eyes are turning to Brussels to see how it responds to Germany’s decision to close its doors temporarily. Will that spur more support for a quota system to redistribute refugees across the EU, seen here as necessary to keeping support for refugees robust?

At the Hauptbahnhof on a recent weekday morning, four trains of asylum-seekers have arrived in the span of an hour. Gunther Wohrle, an engineer, has come by on his bike as he commutes to work.

“The ideal is to make this a win-win situation,” he says. “They need us, and we need them.”

But he admits to a certain skepticism about how to make it work without getting overwhelmed. “One million people, that is a lot of people,” he says of the numbers that could arrive in Germany this year alone.

Those questions loom large in the communities on the front lines. On a recent day, at the “Friends” center in Elchingen, it is clear that camaraderie has bloomed here. Willbold-Vajagic easily lists off the names of wives and children’s ages of the refugees that now call Bavaria home. She says that among her hardest personal challenge so far was Ramadan this summer. Not because she fasted, but because “their faces were white, and we saw them getting thinner and thinner, and it was so hot,” she says. “It was terrible.”

Amar Abo Udeh, from Daraa in Syria and who arrived in Elchingen a year and a half ago, laughs.

Fasting during Ramadan isn’t hard, he says. But such care is one reason that migrants trekking across Europe, by foot or rail, are chanting, “Germany, Germany, Germany.” “In Daraa, every day you wake up and you don’t know if you will go to sleep,” he says.

Sara Miller Llana
Mayor Joachim Eisenkolb (l.) has coffee with two Syrian refugees who say they feel at home in the tiny Bavarian village of Elchingen.

Mayor Joachim Eisenkolb, who fully supports the integration work of the “Friends,” says this town of 9,000 could see 150 more arrivals by the end of the year, or double the current number. When he heard the chancellor’s welcome of refugees, he admits he felt fear. “Until now, we’ve been able to soak up these refugees like a sponge,” he says. “But now the sponge is full.”

His skepticism is not just a political equation. The volunteers here say they can’t cope with more numbers either. Everything takes time, space, and organization, including things one hardly thinks of, like having to bring in local police officers to give lessons on riding bikes on Germany’s roadways.

For now the mayor is looking to the past to reassure the community that they can deal with the present. “In my head, I know we can do this,” says Mayor Eisenkolb. "I try to give people the confidence that we have faced the same challenges before, in harder times, and we can manage this.”

• Sarah Hucal contributed reporting from Berlin.

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