Migration Crisis in Germany: “We will manage!” A Chronology of Questions

Angela Merkel’s statement “We will manage!” is the wrong answer to a question she never asked: “How will we manage?”

In his treatise The Prince (1513), Machiavelli argues that “everyone will appreciate how admirable it is for a ruler to keep his word and be honest rather than deceitful.” Indeed, Merkel’s promise “We will manage!” [Wir schaffen das!] sounds admirable. However, as she is facing more and more criticism—from the coalition party SPD, the Bavarian sister party CSU, as well as her own party—, more and more questions are being raised. What does “manage” imply? Who is “we”? When is “will”? In short: What is her plan? And adding one question recently asked by German journalist Roland Tichy during Sunday’s television discussion “Der Presseclub” (October 11): “Do we want to manage? Does the population want to manage the dimension of this crisis?”

Instead of facing these legitimate questions right from the start, it seemed more urgent to discuss the approach of EU member states that allegedly fail to handle the situation properly and humanely. According to a TV comment aired by Germany’s ARD on 4 September, Eastern European countries of the former Soviet Bloc reject binding quotas because, for many years, they were “among themselves,” being unused “to anything foreign.” They simply do not want to take on more refugees. The report’s conclusion: “This does not comply with humanity according to NGOs.” [Humanität sieht anders aus.]

From one moment to the next, the Visegrad Group turns into the target of a Cold War rhetoric. Czech diplomats notice that they “are not called new members anymore, but Eastern Europe,” (qtd. in The Prague Post). An online article published by The Telegraph refers to “dissenters, notably Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic,”—evidently without the intention to refer to somebody who simply holds a different view and despite the fact that “Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, just like Austria, have never been part of Eastern Europe” in terms of the “the great adventure of Western civilization” (Milan Kundera). Kundera made this statement in an interview which was conducted by Philip Roth 35 years ago, published in Roth’s Shop Talk. Nevertheless, a statement like Kundera’s has not died away unheard. In a TV discussion on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Germany’s reunification the former Bavarian “minister-president” Edmund Stoiber points out the necessity to see any country’s standpoint from their historical perspective and not just the German stance. A simple piece of advice, it seems. Unfortunately, the ability to put oneself into someone else’s shoes is something which cannot be taken for granted—even or especially not in international contexts involving the colliding interests and the historical baggage of an organization as heterogeneous as the EU.

As the situation in German refugee shelters is getting increasingly chaotic, politicians begin to realize that refugees did actually arrive, and are arriving every day by the thousands. Verbal attacks on EU partners who are blamed for not being allies are fading into the background for the moment. Merkel’s motto “We will manage!” is being put to the test. Horst Seehofer of Bavaria’s CSU urges Merkel to take her promise back. He foresees a collapse of Germany if she maintains her course. In turn, he is being accused of taking the populist stance and, thus, creating an atmosphere of fear. At the same time, Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier express their concern regarding the increasing number of refugees. On October 10, Germany’s magazine Der Spiegel published a written statement by both SPD politicians entitled “Refugee numbers have to decrease” [Die Zahlen müssen sinken]. Their argumentation starts off with the following questions: “What do we owe to people who are threatened by war and violence?”, “How much are we able to do?” and “When does our ability to help reach its limit?”. The fact that Gabriel warns about the consequences of not limiting the influx of refugees comes as a surprise. In a sharp exchange of words during the weekly TV discussion “Maybrit Illner” aired on September 11, Gabriel criticized Slovak EU politician Richard Sulík, who stated that the influx of asylum seekers cannot go on forever without facing a serious crisis in the EU.

Gabriel and Steinmeier’s analysis of Germany’s options begins with questions; questions which, indeed, are on the public’s mind. However, that is the point: on the public’s mind. What a well-informed electorate expects from a vice-chancellor and a foreign minister is to provide well-informed statements, and not to add more question marks. Nothing is more important to a democracy than the possibility to ask questions and question statements, but in a time of crisis (yes, a crisis, and not just—as politicians like to stress in nearly every interview—a challenge) it takes rules and guidance. Nobody denies that Germany’s leaders are forced to take a path that is not marked, but the responsibility to follow this path is part of the deal once you get elected.

While Gabriel and Steinmeier ask what Germany has to do for refugees coming from war zones, the question should also be “How much can be expected and asked of volunteers who, so far, have averted a collapse?”. Thousands of volunteers set up refugee shelters and support the daily provision of food and medical care. But how much longer will they be able to keep it up? Who will take over once the volunteers have overworked themselves? Where to recruit the necessary number of social workers? And what about the required living space? Talking about property being seized from its owners by city authorities in order to provide living space for refugees does not help to convince the population of an effective and humane refugee policy—humane for both sides. (What does it say in The Prince again? “What most leads to a ruler being hated is seizing and stealing his subjects’ property.”)

The atmosphere in refugee camps has become toxic and combustible. Those organizing the asylum seeker homes are facing clashes among refugees. Attacks on Christian refugees by Muslim fundamentalists have been reported, which in turn has led to a discussion about how to separate refugees according to their religious background. To make sure what the term “refugee” means is, therefore, inevitable. By definition, a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country, because there is a war for political or religious reasons. So how to respond to those who claim to be refugees but do not respect other beliefs and traditions? All in all: What are the criteria for deciding who is a refugee, an asylum seeker, or a migrant? Refugees who destroy their documents in order to not get registered, or who buy fake Syrian passports on the black market— hoping to get accepted as the “category” of refugees who are believed to get preferential treatment in Germany—add to the confusion.

The main question remains unanswered: How many refugees does Merkel intend to let enter the country? Her answer is concise: the law of political asylum does not know any limit as far as the number of asylum seekers is concerned. In an exclusive TV interview on October 7 conducted by Anne Will, Merkel reaffirmed her position: “Yes, we will manage. I am convinced of it.” When asked whether she had a plan, she replied promptly: “Yes, I have a plan.” What her plan looks like, she did not say.

Meanwhile, countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary take first steps to secure the borders. While this constitutes a means of “isolation,” even “provocation” according to the general tenor in German news reports, the number of urgent letters (so-called “Brandbriefe”) addressed to Chancellor Merkel increase. In these letters, members of the German parliament (CDU), mayors, and other representatives of administrative districts blame Chancellor Merkel for implementing a “policy of open borders” at the expense of public safety.

One might try and turn to the head of state for more clarification in this matter. On the occasion of Germany’s reunification, President Gauck made a speech at the official celebration in Frankfurt am Main on October 3. Despite the festive context of the event, Gauck presented his thoughts on the ongoing crisis: (a) Germany has been an immigration country for quite some time and, therefore, it is an immigration country. (b) The migration crisis is an unsolved issue that will keep future generations busy. Those parts which, up to now, have not belonged together will eventually grow together. He stated: “We are once again faced with this task of achieving inner unity.” (c) Germans will have to get used to the fact that Germany is changing. His conclusion: “It takes time for locals to get used to a country in which what has been familiar can sometimes be lost.” (d) Women have equal rights. And these rights are, as he stressed, “not questioned.”

Instead of clarifying the situation, Gauck’s speech put up further aspects up for discussion— and again, raised more questions. Why do ‘native’ Germans have to get used to change if integration was supposed to be the magic tool? And what are the criteria for a successful integration anyway? Learning the language,

abiding by the law and constitution? If that is all it takes for a seamless integration, why does President Gauck emphasize the fact that women have equal rights? What are hard-working and independent women of the 21st century supposed to make of this remark? Be thankful?

By now it has become clear that Merkel’s statement “We will manage!” has never been a promise. It is the wrong answer to a question she never asked: “How will we manage?” Her motto may comply with the requirements of a pragmatic Yes or No question (Will we manage?—Yes, we will.), and it may be useful to maintain a façade of peacefulness and unity, but it does not keep up with reality. And bear in mind: “Being generous just to be seen to be so will damage you” (Machiavelli). Since necessary answers have not been provided yet, time will tell if Germany is going to cope with 800 000, 1 million, or maybe 1.5 million refugees …in 2015.

At the same time the question should be: How many refugees have already entered the country? According to German newspapers on November 12, the government is not able to say how many asylum seekers are staying in the refugee camps. Given the fact that some of the migrants have not been registered, this statement did not come as a complete surprise. However, it is a statement that cannot be ignored—especially not after the Paris attacks which took place on November 13. CNN reports that one of the terrorists may have entered Europe as a refugee—a thought that makes things more complicated. The latest developments in France will change the dimension of the ongoing discussion about the migration crisis, and the question is: How long can Germany keep up its open-door policy?

Simone Kraus

Simone Kraus is an experienced translator and university lecturer. She earned her doctoral degree from the Translation School of Mainz University, Germany, where she taught for ten years. In 2017, the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference of Middlebury College—the oldest writers’ program in the U.S.—accepted her as contributor for creative nonfiction. She is also the recipient of a Katharine Bakeless Nason Grant—a scholarship for emerging writers—for the renowned Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. Simone was born in Germany; her family originally came from former Czechoslovakia. She is the author of “Prag in der amerikanischen Literatur: Cynthia Ozick und Philip Roth”, a book focusing on the literary representation of Prague in the works of Ozick and Roth. She is currently living and working in Plzen, Czech Republic.

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