Germans are worried. Fear of change increases in times of massive refugee immigration, says opinion pollster Thomas Petersen from the Allensbach Institute in an interview with DW.
Deutsche Welle: Not long ago we were a self-satisfied people with very little social tension. Calm was our trademark. Suddenly, all that has changed, why?
Thomas Petersen: I'm not so sure that calm was ever our trademark. In reality, our trademark was always anxiety, and it was actually unusual that Germans had settled into a phase of relative calm for a while. That was never the case before. The reason that the calm that we had just a year ago has vanished is undoubtedly because of the refugee crisis. People are naturally very concerned about the large numbers of refugees that have arrived here, and therefore they are a little scared that the peace and safety that we once enjoyed is now in danger of disappearing.
Are we once again succumbing to German "angst"? It is no coincidence that the term is used internationally. Do we react more skittishly to change than others?
Previously, I would have said yes. Meanwhile, I think that has changed. People here react with shock and uncertainty, but no more skittishly than others. I don't think that a similar situation in France or the UK would evoke a different reaction.
What unnerves the Germans so much about this large influx of refugees?
There is a general feeling that the societal anchors that one could hold onto in turbulent times are suddenly gone. There is a general feeling of uncertainty. I don't think that one can actually pin it down. It is a strange feeling that everything is being swept away, and suddenly, one peers into the future with uncertainty because one fears that the situation has become incalculable.
Is it fear of terror, or concern about rising crime, or diluting the culture?
A few things come together here. People are naturally very scared about crime and an increased risk of terror, but that is always the case after major attacks, so that is nothing unusual. The fact that 80 percent of those polled said that they are scared of rising crime is of course an echo of the events that occurred in Cologne on New Year's Eve, but that's not really it. There is a feeling of disorientation behind that fear, one that is about more than everyday events.
Are we being overcome by a fear of the future?
When we are bothered in the present it is always because we are worried about the future. People are generally satisfied with the present. That is probably at the core of the current phenomenon. If you asked people if they think everything is fine in Germany, and if it would be best if nothing changed, a great many would likely say: yes. The concerns are not about whether the present can be mastered, but rather that the future may not be.
Is there a typical anxious German?
The tendency to cling to that which already exists becomes greater as one ages. That is understandable. Young people tend to be more dynamic, they want to attain something. They are also more flexible. The older one gets, the more important it becomes to maintain what one has achieved. That is typical for any aging society. And in an aging affluent society, more value is placed on the maintenance of that which has been achieved, and less on the pursuit of the new.
Fear, it is known, is not a good guide. Currently, those who are anxious are gathering around the AfD (Alternative for Germany). Is the political landscape in Germany fundamentally changing?
I don't think you can really say that. Of course the AfD is benefitting from the current uncertainty. Whether it can establish itself as a lasting political force will depend on whether or not the refugee and other crises in Europe can be mastered. I could imagine that if people get the impression that the government has somehow gotten a handle on things, support for the AfD will recede. It will also depend on the AfD itself; for instance, how the party develops internally. There are a lot of factors at play. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that the relative strength of the AfD is certainly a result of the politics of the day.
Dr. Thomas Petersen is a publisher and communication scientist at the Allensbach Institute on Lake Constance. He is the author of the current Allensbach study on Germans and their fear of change.
This interview was conducted by Volker Wagener.