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What Germany needs now

Felix Steiner
Felix Steiner
August 26, 2015

Germany is showing two very different sides these days: immense willingness to help refugees on the one hand, violence on the other. It's a good thing Chancellor Merkel is now speaking out, says DW's Felix Steiner.

A poster for a charity helping refugees seen at a bus shelter in Heidenau
Image: DW/B. Knight

For about two weeks now, the rest of the world has finally understood how Germans think. A reputable research institute presented a collection of more than 500 surveys. Some of the results were surprising: Germans like cats more than dogs, prefer wine over beer, and like parties at home more than big outdoor festivals. In many ways, Germans are very different than what the national clichés suggest.

But the responses to one statement were particularly irritating. The statement read: "The current political order in Germany is the best we've ever had." Only in three states did more than half the population completely agree. In three eastern German states, only a third of the population agreed. And in North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, and Baden-Württemberg, which make up around half of the nation's population, only a little more than 40 percent of people agreed.

Failure to internalize German values

The survey failed to reveal whom the majority would rather have leading the country - the Kaiser, the Führer, or the General Secretary of the Central Committee? What is clear is that a substantial number of Germans feel a substantial distance to our government, and as a consequence, share its values only to a limited extent.

That's clearly evident these days in the Saxon city of Heidenau, where right-wing extremists have been throwing stones, bottles, and fireworks at arriving refugees. Ordinary citizens have been silently standing by, watching, unperturbed by what they see - violence against defenseless people, including children, many of whom have fled the hell of war in their home countries.

Citizens who have no problem with this clearly do have a problem with our value system. They have not internalized the first sentence of Article 1 of the German Basic Law: "Human dignity shall be inviolable." It doesn't say that only the dignity of Germans shall be inviolable, even if those who throw stones and those who watch them would prefer it that way.

Felix Steiner
DW's Felix Steiner

The same article states that the German people acknowledge inviolable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace, and of justice in the world. It's a beautiful statement, formulated clearly and simply - and always worth re-reading.

The problem is not just in Heidenau. In the past 48 hours, arsonists have struck refugee accommodation in other parts of Germany. And yet, it is good that Chancellor Angela Merkel is due on Wednesday to travel to the place that has become synonymous with hate and extremist violence. If she is clever, then she won't follow in the steps of her vice chancellor, who lumped all the demonstrators together as one "pack" while visiting the town on Monday. Yes, it's understandable, but not very sensible. Bandying insults only puts people on the defensive. Germany is facing an enormous challenge and it needs its citizens - including those who would otherwise stand by silently and watch.

Merkel must win people over

That's why Merkel needs to speak up and show empathy. Firstly, for the scared refugees. Then, with the helpers, both professional and volunteer. But also with the people living in Heidenau, many of whom are worried about their future.

Hopefully, her visit does have an effect on the people there. It seemed to have an effect on the populist tabloid newspaper, "Bild," which has suddenly stopped using words like "flood" in connection with arriving refugees. Instead, it had a story with the headline: "What you can do to help the refugees." That's the kind of spirit that Germany needs now.

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