Amid a Crisis, an Opportunity for Support: On the ground in Germany

Germany is grappling with a lot: that’s a message I heard in different ways in different conversations this past week in Berlin.

Having borne the largest share of the refugee crisis in Europe, the German system—which is strong, democratic, and able—is stretched thin, and people are worried. There have been reports that Germany could be a target of terrorist attacks.  As a part of this picture, far-right parties and groups are fomenting antisemitic and anti-refugee sentiment, all while the country struggles to halt a wave of vicious hate crimes and hold perpetrators accountable.

Although the Germans I spoke to projected a strong sense of national responsibility and capability, the multiple pressures of grappling with the inflow of refugees and the dangers of violent extremism are challenging. Several people said the police are underfunded and overworked as a justifiably nervous public expect them to deal with increasing needs for border control, counterterrorism, protection for refugee shelters, and prevention of hate attacks.

Reassuring the public that the situation is under control is of the utmost importance to avoid a swing to the right-wing populist parties that are arguing otherwise. This was a point stressed to me by Dr. Timo Lochoki of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.

A common claim these days is that refugees are importing antisemitic views and therefore post a threat to Jews. Groups working to combat antisemitism, Islamophobia, and to prevent radicalization say there is no data to support this assertion. In fact, the German Interior Ministry reports that 90 percent of all antisemitic hate crimes recorded in 2015 were committed by the far-right. (Of the 1,005 registered attacks on refugee shelters in 2015, the authorities estimate that 901 were motivated by far-right ideology.)

Many Germans grapple head-on with their history and want to ensure that “Never Again” is more than just a slogan. Yet antisemitism persists to a not insignificant portion of German society, and some Muslims—those already living there and those incoming—are surely among those who hold such views. But more research is needed to understand the situation and promote tolerance, not fear. Let’s not have a spiral of assumptions become self-fulfilling.

In the meantime, where hate crimes are committed, they should be fully prosecuted. Comprehensive approaches should be implemented to combat intolerance and promote peaceful coexistence and acceptance of others.

An open question is how entrenched the far-right will become in the political system and what that will mean for Germany. Following recent regional elections that led to gains by the far-right AfD party, Anna Sauerbrey of the New York Times said, “The results express a state of fear and exasperation in German society: It is an emotional reaction, rather than one grounded in political reasoning.”  And calm, rational, steady reasoning is what Germany has been known for over many years at the helm of the EU. The United States has counted on it.

Germany is at a critical juncture. How it navigates through “fear and exasperation” will matter for its own political stability, and more broadly in Europe. Over the last twenty years, Germany has become the economic and political lynchpin of the European Union. Based on my conversations in Germany, which really only scratched the surface of these issues, I believe there is more the U.S. government could do. This should be in the form of bolstering work already being done.

Police are doing their best to protect refugees, prevent hate crimes, and address them when they occur. An offer by the U.S. government to provide a surge of support, perhaps a team to increase  rule-of-law capacity, may be welcome. Civil society has been praised for mobilizing to help the incoming refugees in Germany. The United States should offer support to help with the immense needs of incoming refugees, in particular on integration and tolerance.

These steps are needed not because Germany isn’t doing a good job but because it has so much to do and its ability to do so successfully matters so much—both for the future of Europe and the transatlantic alliance. The United States should make sure Germany has all the support it needs.


Published on April 15, 2016


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