Sometimes German words end up having an international career.Kindergarten is one of them, Blitzkrieg another. Willkommenskultur could be next. With its uniquely German ring of bureaucratese and poetics,Willkommenskultur means “welcome culture” and is a word not born of custom but created to establish one.
Coined by politicians a few years ago, it was originally meant to be the siren call that would attract people from other countries to come toGermany and compensate for a big shortage of skilled workers in vast, sparsely populated areas such as Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
These days Willkommenskultur is used to encourage help for the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Germany. And thousands of Germans have pitched in; they take food and clothes to the camps, take refugees to meetings with the authorities in their own cars, pay their fares, foot their medical bills, teach German, translate forms, share couches and bikes, act as nannies, open up soccer clubs, schools and kindergartens for refugee kids, and go on demonstrations against rightwing attacks across the country.
Those with a particularly sensitive ear may detect an air of passive aggression in the manner in which Germans seek to highlight their goodness these days. The public mood is so empathically pro-refugee, you’d feel guilty if you didn’t at least do the bare minimum, such as offer your spare bed to a Syrian. It’s as if a year after the World Cup triumph in Rio, Germans desperately want to be world champions again – this time as the globe’s most welcoming country for refugees.
And yet, there is something new to all this. The last time there was a major spike in immigration into Germany, in the 90s, refugees were largely left to their own devices. Only the radical left, the churches and a few engaged private individuals offered organised help. All the while they were coming under direct attack from neo-Nazis in Hoyerswerda or Rostock-Lichtenhagen. This became a worldwide symbol of the new “ugly German”. With overseas prestige under threat, the majority reacted: even middle-sized towns got their own Rock Against Racism gig and the government organised candle-lit demonstrations. For all that, in 1993, the Bundestag de facto abolished the right of asylum. When that occurred, it was left once again to leftwing activists, the churches and immigrants to protest. The plight of the other had once again become a niche concern.
Many refugees organised themselves to fight for their political agenda, but they were often hamstrung by the reality of their lives in the migrant camps. Finding a job, and thus integrating into society, and living in constant fear of deportation was exhausting. For at least a decade afterwards, the numbers of refugees coming to Germany dropped. It’s around that time that the detached discourse aroundWillkommenskultur was established.
But here we are in 2015, watching TV reports of refugees arriving to applause in Munich or those still in transit in Hungary chanting“Germany! Germany!”, for the country where they hope to find conditions for a dignified life. Whatever way you look at it, this is a turning point.
Indeed, another word that is frequently popping up in civil discourse these days is Wende: “turning point”. The term might imply that the rules of the EU today can’t be the rules of the EU tomorrow. But the refugees haven’t time to wait for “us” to work out whether Dublin III or Schengen need to be overhauled . The breakdown of these agreements is already happening.
But as the Germans share their bread with the refugees, Angela Merkel made clear in her speech on Monday that she won’t accept Italy, Greece or Hungary not pulling their weight and opening their borders. She also made clear that all the refugees from theBalkan states will be send back immediately, as they are not in need of protection.
As a child of a “guest worker” who grew up in Germany in the 90s, I can’t claim to be completely impartial about this debate. Phrases such as “Germany can’t take all refugees in the world” or “They can stay, but do they really need an apartment on their own?” give me the creeps. I hear them from conservative politicians. I hear them from colleagues and friends, none of them racist. Butsuch comments remind me of those flung at my father, whose family was killed by the Nazis in Yugoslavia. Even after 30 years of living and working in Germany he had to listen to people telling him: “Isn’t it nice that we let you work here?”
Maybe my fears are as arbitrary as the resentments of rightwing Germans who demonstrate in front of refugee shelters in Dresden or Heidenau. But when I listen to the “good Germans”, I often ask myself: what is going to happen, when the new refugees demand more than a tent, a bottle of water and a slice of bread? How will German society deal with this next turning point? What if it turns out that not every refugee has the skills to equip them for the “made in Germany” brand? Will Willkommenskultur end, when it involves not just singing Hallelujah together, but helping people to become autonomous and articulate their own wishes? Will the liberal segment of German society that is drawing so much praise right now have the determination to fight their own government and abolish Dublin III and Schengen? Or will “Willkommen” be just a slogan on the doormat again?