There was a time, in living memory, when refugees clamoured to board trains to get out of Germany. Today they yearn to board trains going in. “We want to go to Germany because we will get our rights, we are welcome there,” one refugee told the Guardian’s John Domokos, as he walked alongside a group making the journey on foot through Hungary, en route to what they saw as the ultimate place of sanctuary: the promised Deutschland.
The Syrian refugees massed at Budapest station chanted the word “Germany” over and over. Others speak of the German chancellor as Mama Merkel. One refugee has named her baby Angela Merkel Ade.
If history can offer a more dramatic turnaround in the perception, and perhaps reality, of a nation, then it’s hard to think of it. Seventy years ago Germany was a byword for tyranny and murderous violence: the land of racial supremacism and unending cruelty. That association lingered and has never quite gone away. Hitler, the Nazis and the apparatus of the Holocaust remain lodged in the global folk memory.
But soon there will be a new set of memories. Yes, Munich will be for ever linked with the bierkeller where Hitler made his first rabble-rousing speeches. But now it will be remembered too as the place where in 2015 uniformed police greeted a trainload of exhausted Syrian children with soft toys. In future, the sight of a vast German crowd will recall not just Nuremberg, but those signs held up by football fans declaring: “Refugees welcome.”
This has been no overnight transformation. Germans have spent decades reckoning with their past in a way few nations can match. Nevertheless the embrace Germany is currently offering to the dispossessed of Syria – while so much of Europe closes its doors or quibbles over tiny numbers – has altered perceptions anew. People are speaking of Germany the way they used to talk of Scandinavia, as a kind of right-on oasis defined by its progressive, pacific instincts. One rightwing academic this week slammed the country as “a hippy state being led by its emotions”. That’s quite a change from the caricature of old, the land of Teutonic conformity and rigid, rules-obsessed bureaucracy. So what explains the shift?
Part of the answer is very recent. Not two months ago Merkel came face to face with a Palestinian girl about to be deported from Germany. The chancellor showed sympathy and tried to give the girl a hug, but remained adamant: Germany simply could not take in all those who wanted to come. “We just can’t manage it,” she said.
Then, only a few days ago, Merkel sent the exact opposite message to those fleeing from Syria. She suspended the rules, ushering in an expected 800,000 refugees this year alone. (David Cameron has committed Britain to take 20,000 by 2020, the same number Munich received last weekend.) We are a strong country, she said, and can handle it.
What happened between those two events is telling. It was a picture that changed the calculus, but it was not the photograph of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi. Rather, it was footage from the town of Heidenau, near Dresden, where racist thugs attacked a refugee camp, hurling abuse and worse at new arrivals. TV news showed the refugees’ tents in flames.
According to Christoph Schwennicke, editor of Cicero, a political weekly: “As soon as they saw those pictures, the German people said, ‘That’s not us. Let’s show the world we’re not like them.’” In the images from Heidenau, the echoes of the Nazi past were just too strong. Germans are taught in school the two-word mantra “never again”, says Schwennicke. “That is in our genes.”
And Merkel is no different. Observers say she is ultra-sensitive to anything that hints at Germany’s darkest history, castigating political allies – even, on one occasion, Benedict, the German-born pope – for any failure to stand firm on, for example, anti-Jewish hatred. So when her country appeared once again to be turning on a community of outsiders, she felt she had to act.
Others suspect it’s events of the past five years, rather than five weeks, that have been pivotal. Throughout the euro crisis Germany was cast in parts of the continent as the hard-faced villain, imposing searing austerity on the benighted people of Greece. Not much of that had penetrated German public consciousness until the crisis reached its peak this summer, says Hans Kundnani of the German Marshall Fund. Suddenly Germans saw Merkel depicted on Greek placards as Hitler, cracking down on the poor Greeks. Confronting that image of the “ugly German” was, says Kundnani, a shock. He reckons Germany’s current embrace of Syrian refugees is partly an effort to replace that austere image with a kinder, gentler one. They don’t like to be seen as the continent’s bully, for reasons of history that are obvious.
Still, it’s not all about the shadow cast by the Third Reich. Germany has pragmatic motives for taking in refugees in vast numbers. The country has a serious demographic problem: it has the world’s lowest birthrate, failing to produce the workforce that might provide for an ageing society. By one estimate, Germany would need to bring in 533,000 immigrants a year just to hold steady. In this light, it makes self-interested sense that Germany would only too gladly welcome Syrian engineers, doctors and graduates – all with proven energy and resilience – who are bound to infuse the country with new vigour.
But that argument is rarely made out loud in Germany. Kundnani says Germans prefer to hear policy couched in the universalist language of high ideals rather than selfish national interest. So the euro is exalted as the latest stage in a project to guarantee peace on a continent ravaged by war, rather than a mechanism to keep German exports cheap and competitive. The Baltic states may look at Berlin’s low defence spending and think the country is not doing its bit for European security, but Germany prefers to think it keeps the lid on its military because these days it is a placid neighbour.
Perhaps the sceptics are right. Perhaps Germany’s motives are not always as pure as it likes to think, even when, as now, it is providing a haven for those who need it most. But if that’s true, if Germans can only speak of their national interest in whispers lest they wake the beast of nationalism, then that too is admirable. It suggests a country that is not in denial of its past, but fully conscious of it – and determined to do all it can never to repeat it.