German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her traditional summer press conference Monday by noting that – while the suffering is real and the stories are too often tragic – there are positives Germans can take from the refugee crisis now engulfing her nation and all of Europe.
Her words came as other European leaders have cast refugees as a threat to Europe, even at times tying their arrival to the current terror threat facing the continent. She also spoke after a weekend during which several German leaders, for the first time, noted that even last week’s updated forecasts on the number of refugees expected to arrive in Germany this year understate the issue.
Last week, the forecast was as many as 800,000 this year. This weekend, two state governors said they were preparing for 1 million asylum seekers by the end of 2015.
“If so many people brave such hardship to come here, this is a sign of approval for us,” Merkel said. “The world sees Germany as a country of hope and of chances. That hasn’t always been the case.”
She was referring, of course, to the events of the 20th century, when Germany was at the heart of two world wars and a Cold War, when German villains such as Adolf Hitler made this nation synonymous with doom, hatred and genocide. Germany in the last several generations was the source of many of the events and groups that send chills down the spine of the civilized world: the Holocaust, Nazism, the Gestapo and the Stasi.
But Germany has changed. In this crisis, Germany has taken in more refugees than other Europeans nations. But even with the continent’s most powerful economy, Germany cannot deal with the crisis alone.
Right now, 2 million would not be a problem, in this economy. In fact, Germany has a lack of workers, at all levels.
Herwig Birg, a prominent German demographics expert
“The countries of Europe have to share the responsibility of caring for asylum seekers,” Merkel said. “After all, universal civil rights were a founding element of the European Union. If Europe fails to cope with this refugee crisis, it will no longer be the Europe we cherish.”
The chancellor added that the refugee issue will take years to work out and might require bureaucratic standards be suspended. Building standards might have to be ignored. Government employment centers may need to up temporary shops in refugee centers to determine qualifications. She said Germany needs more teachers and teaching methods to help the young refugees now arriving.
“German thoroughness is great,” she said. “But what is needed now is German flexibility.”
A week ago, when she visited a controversial refugee center in Dresden, protesters screamed, “Volksverraeter” and “Schlampe,” meaning traitor and slut, as she spoke.
Monday, she said: “There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people. There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”
Her words came days after two governors, whose states are responsible for housing and processing their fair share of the refugees now flooding into Germany, said the numbers arriving this year will soar past the current estimates.
“Our state government is proactively getting ready for more than forecast to arrive,” said Brandenburg Gov. Dietmar Woidke. “Even so, I’m afraid we’re going to have to resort to winterized tents. We have to have a plan.”
The refugees are arriving in large numbers, most prominently from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, but also in large numbers from the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa. Opinion polls show Germans deeply divided on welcoming the migrants. A number of proposed refugee centers have been firebombed.
1 million The number of refugees some expect could reach Germany this year.
12 million The number of displaced ethnic Germans who returned to East or West Germany after World War II.
But the immediate concern is where to put them. A refugee camp near Dresden, home to the anti-immigrant PEGIDA movement, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, was ringed by neo-Nazis. A camp in Berlin was criticized for offering “Third World conditions” without showers and toilets.
As Germany scrambles to find new spaces, many regret that much of provincial Germany spent the past decade tearing down apartment blocks. Small cities such as Dessau and Hoyerswerda saw their populations drop from more than 100,000 to about 50,000 in 15 years. Officials bulldozed block after block of high-rise apartment buildings to create green spaces and remove the visible evidence that the cities were struggling to survive.
Instead, the housing solutions today include a brothel in Erfurt, a monastery in Dinkelsbuehl in Bavaria, a former concentration camp in Schwerte in the Ruhr, a hotel in Augsburg and a police station in Bad Lobenstein in Thuringia. A recently failed hardware store chain has provided officials with options in cities around Germany.
Berlin has announced plans to convert a jail for use by refugees, and there are now discussions of using the old Tempelhof airport terminal. Tempelhof, known to Americans as the U.S. airbase used for the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49, and therefore home of the much loved “candy-bombers” (U.S. pilots who upon takeoff dropped treats to the German children below), was only closed down in 2008. The terminal today is used for twice-a-year fashion shows.
The current suggestion is that it could house up to 4,000 refugees.
Berlin council representative Mario Czaja said on a radio RBB interview Monday, “I don’t rule out any location, any unused building is a possibility.”
Herwig Birg, a prominent German demographics expert, said Monday that the numbers should not be daunting to Germans. After World War II, 12 million displaced ethnic Germans came as refugees to East or West Germany and were absorbed.
“Right now, 2 million would not be a problem, in this economy,” he said. “In fact, Germany has a lack of workers, at all levels.”
He said Germany is in need of such basic workers as bakers, butchers and hair dressers. Jobs go unfilled in nursing, engineering and agriculture, “and many jobs not attractive enough to Germans today.”
If Europe fails to cope with this refugee crisis, it will no longer be the Europe we cherish.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
He noted that immigration isn’t an answer to the deep demographic crisis in Germany, and Europe, today. Eventually immigrants age and become part of the graying population crisis. But they are a short-term help in dealing with a population that is aging and declining to the point that he notes “ethnic Germans are a thing of the past. They are part of history.”
German President Joachim Gauck struck a similar note in an interview with the General-Anzeiger newspaper that was published Monday.
“To understand the opportunity of immigration, more Germans need to say farewell to their image of a nation that is very homogenous, predominantly German-speaking, Christian and fair-skinned,” he said. “Reality has become much more multifaceted. . . . I think we need to redefine nation as a community of diverse people who accept common values.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews