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The Newest New German Identity

On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany reunited, disappearing off the face of the geopolitical map and becoming, once again but differently, Germany.

And yet 25 years after Germany’s radical rebirth, it’s easy to see that the country is still shaped by a barbed history of struggle and war trauma.

In fact, you could say that it wasn’t the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but that of Nazi Germany in 1945 that is, in a way, the original sin of modern Germany, and the moment that has left an imprint on everything that has followed. Signs of this can be found in everyday German life, from the police who constantly guard all Jewish institutions to the laws that prohibit Holocaust denial to the fact that some words have essentially been banished from popular parlance because of their association with Hitler.

One of the most noticeable results of this dark legacy has been Germany’s hesitancy to take up its role as Europe’s de facto leader, despite its political stability, size, and wealth. While some countries in Europe would surely be glad to keep it this way (in Greece, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tough approach to the debt crisis has led some to crown her the new Führer), others badly want Germany to come to terms with its past enough that it can lead Europe into the future. Mid-20th century Poland was crushed, in part, by an aggressive Germany, and yet former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski once admitted that he fears Germany’s power less than its inactivity.

But 2015 marks a new pivot in Germany’s reckoning with the rest of the world, and with itself.

Over the past few months, what the United Nations is calling the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II has finally reached a tipping point. Masses of refugees have left their homes and spilled across unsafe seas in search of a better life. Since 2011, some four million Syrians have fled Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. Political and sectarian violence from Afghanistan to Eritrea to Kosovo has uprooted millions more. While these refugees hail from all over the world, the majority of them set out in rickety boats in the hope of landing on Europe’s shores.

Europe’s response to this mass movement of people has been disastrous. After weeks of trying to figure out how to stem the pressure of refugee inflows, the European Union voted last Tuesday to relocate 120,000 refugees among its members. But it doesn’t take a deep dive into this move to see that some of the world’s richest countries are not doing enough to contain the crisis. Take Britain and Denmark, who have opted out of refugee quotas, or Finland and France, who are accepting relatively few refugees, though they’re among Europe’s larger and more economically stable countries.

Germany, on the other hand, has, with time, become explicitly welcoming. Merkel announced last Thursday that Berlin will give its regional states additional funding to better handle the arrival of refugees, as well as 670 euros per new arrival per month.

But Germany’s words have perhaps been more telling than its purse. When asked about a simmering fear of how mostly Muslim refugees might change European culture, Merkel said, “We can’t say that this is a phenomenon that doesn’t concern us...Fear has never been a good guide, not in one’s personal life and also not within society. Cultures and societies shaped by fear will certainly never be able to be leaders in the future. We have this debate about whether Islam belongs to Germany. But when a country has four million Muslims, there’s no debate about whether Muslims are a part of Germany...I find this debate very defensive. European history is so filled with dramatic and brutal conflicts that we should be careful about complaining when somewhere something bad happens.”

Merkel here is revealing a Germany that, over many decades, has gradually become less opposed to shedding its reputation as Europe’s reluctant hegemon, a country that casts itself in a supporting role on the international stage, though its economic power and size position it to lead.

Indeed, Germany has gotten to where it is today through bruising soul-searching in the face of more than a half-century of hard knocks: reluctance to talk about National Socialism in the 1950s, a lack of political will to integrate waves of “guest workers” beginning in the 1960s, mob rage aimed at refugees in the 1990s, and a xenophobic murder spree between 2000 and 2007.

This isn’t to suggest that the Germany of 2015 is more moral than the Germany of the past, but rather, that Germany’s more secure and stronger stance in the world today has been hard-won.

In addition to genuine empathy developed over the past 25 (or even 70) years, Germany’s generosity toward refugees may also be explained by the fact that its rapidly aging society needs them, and young, skilled refugees could help to fill a gnawing demand for labor. Astrid Ziebarth, of the German Marshall Fund, recently argued that Germany’s response is as pragmatic as it is idealistic. What we should really be asking ourselves, she wrote, is how Germany’s political top brass can sustain this momentum, given that there’s no efficient refugee management system in place and that one country can’t solve the crisis alone. There’s also the issue of how mainly non-white refugees might fuel right-wing populist flames, which is an issue that confronts Germany with frightening regularity.

But this is a challenge to which Germany is finally suggesting it can rise. The image of a welcoming Germany stands in stark contrast to what we’re seeing elsewhere: refugees suffocated in the back of a truck in Austria, razor-wire fences in Hungary, and a United States that’s staying quiet on the other side of the Atlantic, despite having the wherewithal, if not the moral drive, to help. 25 years after reunification, Germany is no longer using the bones of history to constrain itself, but rather, to show that it can be more than its history.

25 years ago, the question was how to bring East and West Germans back together in Germany. Today, it’s how to accept more of the world into Germany, and how to bring more of Germany to the rest of the world.


Brandon Tensley is the assistant editor at New America.