“Aus Schaden wird man klug.”
Those five simple words are a popular German proverb, which translates directly to “Out of trouble, one becomes clever.” It is increasingly evident that many German people are clinging to the hope that this phrase rings true. Germany, only months ago a country that wholeheartedly welcomed vast numbers of refugees, is now a nation in the midst of great “Schaden.” With an alleged cover-up and the growing prominence of xenophobic groups hostile to the influx of over 1 million new migrants, Germany’s policy on asylum seekers continues to be internationally scrutinised. Additionally, the question remains: how does the increasing tension surrounding Merkel’s liberal refugee policy manifest within Germany itself?
Last summer, I spent two months au-pairing in Berlin. The opportunity arose for a friend and I to return during the Christmas holidays. With heavy suitcases and light hearts, we arrived to temperatures of -10 degrees. This represented quite a change from the balmy conditions we had experienced previously. However, the snowy transformation of the city was not the only change that we encountered. The mother of the host-family put it simply to us upon our arrival: “We can no longer afford to be naïve.” She asked if we had heard anything about New Year’s Eve in Cologne. This was the fourth of January. After exchanging glances, my friend and I confirmed that we had not noted media coverage of any happenings in Cologne. We then discovered what had transpired, namely the serious harassment of young women by groups of migrants at Cologne’s train station. We were shocked and appalled then finally confused that this event was not receiving media attention.
The most iconic tourist site in the city of Cologne is the incomprehensibly large cathedral with two spires that pierce the clouds. If you stand in the square in front of the cathedral, among the many hundreds of tourists and turn your head to the left, there stands the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station. It is enormous. Over 280,000 passengers pass through the station daily, and there is an abundance of shops and eateries. It more closely resembles a shopping centre than the Irish definition of a train station.
It is not difficult to imagine the frightening volume of people that would have assembled in the station that night. More than 120 criminal complaints have been filed by women in relation to New Year’s Eve who were sexually assaulted or robbed, including at least two cases of rape. A police spokesperson said at least three quarters of the complaints had a sexual component.
My friend and I took an S-Bahn into the centre of Berlin on our second day. An air of apprehension hung between us. We remained unsure what to expect. As we strolled past a sign that announced our arrival to the Museuminsel, we noted the black graffiti scrawled roughly upon it: “Köln ist Merkels Schuld” – Cologne is Merkel’s fault. This was not the only anti-Merkel sentiment we encountered that day. The frosty atmosphere permeated the air as we passed the Brandenburg Gate. A young man dressed in exercise attire jogged past us. However, his plain white t-shirt had been customised as it read: “Merkel must go.”
Angela Merkel now faces constant attacks concerning her treatment of the refugee crisis from those within Germany, and also European leaders who opposed her open arms approach to refugees from the outset. While her New Year’s Eve address to the nation was broadcast with Arabic subtitles for the first time, a small percentage of the migrants she was attempting to reach were not paying attention to the most powerful woman in Europe.
At that exact time, migrants were in clusters in the train stations of major cities, harassing other passengers while taunting police about how they wanted to be treated. Reportedly one migrant demanded respect as he was “invited to Germany by Mrs. Merkel.” Bavarian state premier and a prominent supporter of Merkel’s government, Horst Seehofer, said he would send the federal government a written request within the next two weeks to restore “orderly conditions” at the nation’s borders and vowed to take legal action if his attempt to take action was ignored. The facts that events in Cologne took four days to be revealed to the general populace and that the first arrest took until 17 January, have spread alarm among many German people.
Meanwhile, for many, the refugee and terrorism dilemmas have become muddled into one large debate. A man who was shot down in front of a Parisian police station this month as he was about to attack was registered under several aliases as an asylum seeker in Germany, and before he travelled to France was residing in a German refugee centre.
Many find it difficult to separate the two major crises that have seized Europe. The remainder who continue to express their outrage are simply those opposed to the influx of outsiders into their society. Predictably, events like those in Cologne have been co-opted by xenophobic far right groups such as the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident in an attempt to legitimate racist characterisations of newcomers.
However, not all Germans disagree with Merkel’s open door policy. Many German people, including those that I have the pleasure of knowing, understand why Merkel’s government have adopted this approach. Even 70 years after the end of the Second World War, the Nazi stigma still continues to haunt the German people.
The family that we stayed with have experienced fellow tourists questioning them about their German nationality while they were abroad. When they confirmed that they indeed were from Germany, on two separate occasions the inquiring party had then responded by carrying out the Nazi salute in front of them. In order to attempt to escape this image, the family revealed that many Germans feel it is best to welcome all so that the country can never again be accused of such heinous acts.
Although Merkel has received criticism for her continued policy of keeping German borders open, it has not particularly affected her standing among the majority of her voters. 44% of Germans surveyed this month still rally behind Merkel’s liberal approach to the crisis. This is only a drop of 5% from October.
On the final evening of our trip, we attended a gathering of college students. There was no talk of migration, only of lectures, of what the plans were for the night and the debate over which techno tune should be played. Apart from the music and casual attire, it could have been Dublin. “How’s university going?” one asked another. He laughed and replied: “It’s going but it’s not the number one priority.” They raised their beers and laughed before changing the subject to the S-Bahn line disruptions over the weekend.
Life in Germany goes on unabated. For many, a strong belief that Germany can and will surmount issues presented by the European refugee crisis is enough to let them continue on as normal. This determined nation, which overcame the odds to become the most powerful country in Europe and rebuild their reputation worldwide, knows that out of trouble, it is possible to become clever.