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Farewell to the idyll

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp
January 8, 2017

The tone of the refugee debate is heating up. Kersten Knipp says this is indicative of a fundamental shift. Germany is bidding farewell to old traumas and old certainties. Realism is being added to idealism.

Deutschland Köln Silvesternacht - Polizeipräsenz am HBF
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Geisler-Fotopress

There's still a lot of traffic on the Facebook page of the Green Party chairwoman Simone Peter. Judging by the number of comments, her remarks to the "Rheinische Post" about the police operation in Cologne this New Year's Eve, and her relativization of these remarks a day later, have provoked a lively response. Her initial comments prompted 2,400 reactions from readers, the next almost 9,000. The majority totally reject her criticism of the police.

The number and tone of these comments all suggest one thing: We can expect the debate about refugees and integration to become more heated in 2017. This is presumably to do with recent events: primarily the attack in Berlin, followed by the failed attempt by a group of young refugees, also in Berlin, to set fire to a homeless man, and then by the massive, unprecedented police presence at the New Year's Eve celebrations in Cologne.

A shift in thinking

Of course, it's important to differentiate. As anyone with an ounce of common sense does. The group of people who instigate deadly or serious physical attacks on their hosts is negligibly small. Germans do realize this, if - as has just been documented by the survey DeutschlandTrend - they regard the dangers imported with the refugee movement as containable.

And yet an awareness of the risks of Germany's refugee policy is growing. This is apparent not only in the comments about Simone Peter. The subject is being discussed differently, more openly, perhaps also with less embarrassment than even just a few weeks ago. There seems to be a shift in thinking that implies people have turned their backs on intellectual and, more importantly, psychological concepts which have been taken for granted for decades.

Knipp Kersten Kommentarbild App
DW's Kersten Knipp

A specifically German trauma

There were those who suspected it right from the beginning: Alongside compassion and a tremendous willingness to help, the refugee policy also always had to do with Germany itself. According to this interpretation, the open-border policy was an exercise in atonement for the years 1933 to 1945. It had a latent purpose, too, which was to leave National Socialism behind. To finally bid farewell to genocide and the mass terror of the Nazis - not so much politically (there has already been a lot of work done on that) as psychologically. It was about a final redemption from the legacy of Hitler, about atonement, and about making at least some kind of reparation. When the borders were opened to the refugees in 2015, many people even spoke of the "beauty of politics." And it was German politics.

'Look who's back'

Perhaps it wasn't just coincidence that in 2012, not long before the refugee debate began, a book dramatizing precisely this fear, this trauma, became a literary best seller. Timur Vermes' "Look Who's Back" is a fantasy about a Hitler miraculously come back to life in modern Germany. In Vermes' fiction, he manages to gain new followers in no time at all.

The success of the book, and of the audio book and the subsequent film, demonstrates that Germans continue to both fear and be fascinated by this undead figure - even after 2006, when Germany's glorious World Cup summer suggested a new, unburdened patriotism. Perhaps this was an over-hasty conclusion, for Germans are still struggling in dealing with their own country.

A symbolic gesture

However, keeping the borders open as an act of quasi-exorcism also had substantive consequences. For some time - the first half of 2016 at least - these could still be ignored. Refugees were living more or less segregated from German daily life, so the debate remained broadly symbolic. It was primarily focused on the question: What is Germany? And more: What does it want to be?

The answer that dominated in the media was that Germans wanted a "diverse," "cosmopolitan" country. The subliminal calculation here was that the migrants would contribute to de-Germanization, at least symbolically. There was comparatively little talk of terrorism along the lines of the Christmas attack in Berlin, or tests of strength like New Year's Eve in Cologne.

Beyond the fence

That now seems to be changing. Idealism is losing its German insouciance. The darker sides of migration are being discussed: jihadist recruitment, the dangers of radicalization, social welfare fraud. Questions about the success, or otherwise, of integration are being asked more openly than before. There has also been a political response. Laws have been tightened, and the Federal Criminal Police Office and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution have been given new powers: politically necessary measures, but sobering news.

Germany, it seems, is starting to practice dark thinking, to get used to the idea that other places are less idyllic than here behind the German, or European, picket fence, or in the left-wing, alternative, hip districts in the major cities. Outside these idylls, it's a different world - and by no means a better one. That's not nice. But it's good to acknowledge it. Idealism needs realism: Only then can it find expression.

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