Lest we forget, history is important in Germany

To leave hundreds of thousands of refugees to an unknown fate would be a repetition that the German moral fibre cannot accept

Updated - November 16, 2021 04:13 pm IST

Published - September 15, 2015 01:08 am IST

Just a few weeks back, Germany was living up to many people’s worst-case-scenario for it: neo-Nazis running amok in the clean and orderly towns, burning shelter houses and pepper spraying refugees. Now, we have cheering crowds and teddy bears at train stations welcoming refugees. Did the heartbreaking image of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on the beach cause a massive change of heart in a matter of hours?

P.J. George

No. These are more than just evolving responses to the current crisis; they tell the broader story of Germany’s post-war history. It is a story of alienation for some and of guilt for others.

A large number of the attacks on refugee shelters are happening in areas that were once the German Democratic Republic — East Germany. And that is not by chance.

Germany may not be the only country to be still haunted by lines on the map drawn by Western powers, but it is the rare Western country to suffer the fate. Of course, right after the defeat of a regime that almost took over the world, it seemed like a good idea.

However, what is now a thin line on the Berlin pavement had once not just divided the country; it had been the clashing point of two ideologies. The Communist East and the Capitalist West danced to different rhythms for so long that by the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, they were completely out of step. Everything from work culture to food habits and views on working mothers had evolved in different directions.

Germans take pride in an incremental policy implementation, correcting errors and closing loopholes as they go. The integration of the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall was anything but. It created massive unemployment in the region as companies folded up in the face of competition from the West. The situation is improving now but the heartburn lingers. And those who gained the most from this heartburn have been rightwing parties like the National Democratic Party, which now has a strong base in the former East German States.

To compound this, the free movement of labour in the EU brought cheap East European labour, triggering chants of the foreigner “here to take our jobs.”

Culturally, too, the Iron Curtain ensured that East Germany had very little to do with “others”. West Germany fared better, inviting Turks over as “guest workers” in the 70s; though some would argue that it added a little more to German multiculturalism than a taste for Döner kebab. The concentration of major German companies in the western region also means foreign workers still flock there. A search for Indian restaurants in Germany on Google Maps serves to prove this point.

If that explains the hatred, what about the love? Ideally, there shouldn’t be any reason. All human response to crisis should be on the lines of what was seen at Munich and Frankfurt train stations: hundreds lining up to welcome refugees with clothes, shoes and toys. But Germans also have a point to prove.

One of the largest memorials in Germany is neither housed in a building nor does it stand on a town square; it is a four-square-inch block inlaid in sidewalks. It bears a plaque with an inscription that begins, “Here lived…” These are stolperstein , or ‘stumbling blocks’, a project that commemorates victims of the Nazi regime by placing these blocks with their names and details in front of buildings where they once lived. Thousands of these ‘stumbling blocks’ are now on the sidewalks of many German cities.

This is a nation that is hell bent on not forgetting. In fact, mahnmal , the German word for memorials of the Holocaust and World War II, doesn’t simply ask people to remember — it is a warning to generations not to repeat the mistake. To leave hundreds of thousands to an unknown fate would be a repetition that the German moral fibre cannot accept.

There are less lofty thoughts from a more recent history also at play. To say that the German image has suffered over the last few years over the EU financial crisis is to put it mildly. Chancellor Angela Merkel must have had some redemption also in mind when she opened up the borders. To be seen coming to the aid of Greece with no strings attached is a welcome change of headlines.

This wave of refugees is an epochal event for Germany. Ms. Merkel recognised that when she said, “what we are experiencing now… will occupy and change our country in coming years.” It will change the demography, the economy and society in predictable and unpredictable ways. What we can be sure of is that the history of the country will play a major role in deciding how that change happens.


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