Peter Foster, Telegraph, September 12, 2015
The message on the advertising billboard in the small German town of Freital is designed to pluck at the heart-strings: “The biggest catastrophe,” it says in giant letters hovering over four refugee children, “is forgetting”.
That challenge–not to forget Europe’s history and its obligation to help the oppressed–is one that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has laid down to the entire German nation with her decision to welcome at least 800,000 new migrants by the end of this year.
The government suggested that as many as 40,000 could arrive this weekend alone, placing 4,000 troops on alert to “tackle any emergency”.
While much of Germany has risen to that challenge, applauding migrants off the trains at Munich station, the mood is very different in Freital, a mining town of 40,000 people outside Dresden in the former East Germany.
On Thursday night, several hundred demonstrators gathered outside Freital’s town hall, many dressed in the all-black garb of the far-Right, to protest against the presence of 500 migrants who have already been sent here by the government.
As the town’s councillors debated how best to handle the inflow, demonstrators in the square outside waved flags and called for a “new Europe”, with the slogan: “Without us, there is no Freital”.
“We want a rational politics, a Germany where our youth have a secure future without the Islamic State reigning in Germany,” said Christoph Zimmerman, a 58-year-old carpenter who was born in Freital and has lived here all his life. “We are not worried about the migrants in the holding centre,” he added. “The danger is when they become integrated into public life. We are not Nazis, but we demand the law is respected, but the government just takes us for fools.”
In the old East, where the population remains mostly white and shielded from the multi-racial melees of cities like Cologne and Berlin, such sentiments are not universal and perhaps do not reflect the majority–but they are never far from the surface either.
In Freital last June, there were violent protests when a crowd of 160 far-Right and far-Left protesters spent three days blockading the old Leonardo Hotel, where some 250 migrants have been housed since April.
In July, a local politician, Michael Richter, who had organised several pro-migrant demonstrations to combat those who had plastered “refugees not welcome” stickers all over the town, was shaken from his bed by an explosion that destroyed his car. Police now make regular passes in front of his door, said Mr Richter, adding that he had received several death threats.
In the council meeting, the tensions could be felt simmering under the surface, in scenes that some politicians–including supporters of Mrs Merkel–fear will be replicated in town halls across Germany as the reality of dealing with the migrants sinks in.
“It’s a tough situation we’re facing,” admitted the new mayor, as he announced that Freital could expect another 550 migrants by the end of the year–and “an even bigger challenge” in 2016. “We can’t change the situation, so we have to handle it by coming together,” he exhorted the council members. “It is not easy for the asylum seekers; and it is not easy for everyone else either.”
The councillors cover the entire spectrum–from a local economist, Enrico Schwarz, who has set up a scheme to enable migrants to work by cleaning up local playgrounds, to the brooding presence of the councillor from the NPD, a far-right party.
“These people want to work and we have a duty to help them,” said Mr Schwarz. His scheme has been covered by two local television stations in a bid to humanise the migrants, who must soon be incorporated into Freital’s school system and housing projects.
But Dirk Abraham, the shaven-headed NPD member dressed head-to-toe in black, looked unimpressed and asked the mayor to comment on rumours that a disused supermarket would soon be converted into a second migrant holding centre. The mayor ducked the question, saying the state government of Saxony was not providing any information “yet”.
The two sides in Freital’s debate might be irreconcilable, but they do find agreement on one aspect of Mrs Merkel’s apparently open invitation for refugees–too many economic migrants, mostly from the Balkans, are getting in as well.
“Only about 15 per cent of the residents are real refugees,” said Michael Reyher, the manager of the holding centre at the old Leonardo Hotel. “The problem is that the government is not asking people what they want, they are just imposing. There is no war in Kosovo.”
Government figures show that 44 per cent of migrants entering Germany so far this year are from the Balkans.
While Freital might be typical of pockets of the former East, it is not representative of Germany as a whole. An opinion poll conducted for Tagesspiegel newspaper found that 57 per cent of Germans believe the country is right to take in so many refugees.
Less than a fifth of those polled said the country should accept fewer, while 21 per cent said it should take in even more. Even in the former East, 51 per cent said they supported the government’s refugee policy.
The numbers are borne out by scenes across Germany. Crowds of people greeted migrants with songs and applause as they arrived at Munich railway station last week. Bild, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, is handing out badges with the slogan “Wir helfen”, or “We help”.
The welcome to the refugees summons a deep memory of post-War history, when more than 12 million refugees fled to East and West Germany from former Nazi-occupied Europe, according to Andreas Zick, an expert in conflict and migration at Bielefeld University in Westphalia. For many, the scenes of the past week have been reminiscent of 1989, when tens of thousands of refugees fled the then communist East through Hungary posing as tourists.
“Many Germans have a history of escape and migration, so solidarity is an issue for them,” said Prof Zick. “Historians may record that in 2015 Germany again became a society of refugees–something which was forgotten after the Second World War.”
While Mrs Merkel’s decision to take in so many refugees may enjoy public support, it has divided her coalition government.
The Christian Social Union (CSU), a Bavarian sister party of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats, has opposed the policy in unusually blunt language. “It’s mistake we’ll be dealing with for a long time,” said Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader and state prime minister of Bavaria. “I see no way of getting the stopper back in the bottle.”
Other senior party figures went still further. Hans-Peter Friedrich, who served as interior minister under Mrs Merkel until 2013, described the move as “an unprecedented political blunder” which will have “devastating long term consequences”.
There is no prospect of the CSU walking out of the coalition over the issue–and even if it did, this would not endanger Mrs Merkel’s majority in the Bundestag. But such a falling out between the two parties, which traditionally vote as a single bloc, shows the sensitivity of the issue.
The anti-refugee protests in places like Freital may have inadvertently contributed to the outpouring of support for the migrants.
“This is a stand against far-Right populism,” said Julie Hamann of the German Council for Foreign Relations. “For historical reasons Germans are more sensitive about the far-Right. In this case, you can say the far-Right have caused the opposite of what they intended.”
Guilt over the Second World War is an issue that is never far away in Germany. This is what made Til Burchwitz, a 31-year-old trainee teacher, welcome a refugee to stay in his flat in Berlin when the influx began a year ago.
“It’s a feeling that’s always there, guilt for the terrible things that Germany did,” he said. “It makes you want to do something to help people who are suffering today.”
Earnest and shy of attention, Mr Burchwitz is typical of the other Germany, the one you do not find in places like Freital. He and his two flatmates signed up last year with Refugees Welcome, an internet service that matches refugees with willing hosts.
They got on so well with Saidou Nouhou, the refugee who came to stay, that he still lives with them as a regular flatmate, paying his share of the rent and, a year on, Mr Burchwitz is helping him look for an apprenticeship.
Demographic reality also helps to explain why Germans are more open to refugees than many of their neighbours. With 80 million people, Germany has the biggest population in Europe. But that number is expected to shrink to 67 million by 2060, according to official projections, meaning Germany will have been overtaken by Britain, which is expected to have 70 million people by 2020.
Worse, Germany is growing older and its working-age population is expected to fall even faster, from 49 million today to just 34 million by 2060.
The question is whether the refugees can help plug the gap. A study by the Nuremberg-based Institute for Employment Research found that 58 per cent had no occupational training at all.
“Unlike integration efforts in in the past, the politicians and the population are now very much aware of the need for refugees to have access to work, to schools and education,” said Ms Hamann of the German Council for Foreign Relations.
Back in Freital, that desire for education and training is shared by Huda al-Taweel, a 32-year-old Syrian who ended up in Freital after a perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya.
She fled the city of Homs after her house was destroyed, but admitted that she felt lost in Freital, where she lives in a council house with her husband, Gyath, and their three-year-old son, Mahmoud. “I want to work. If I could work I would,” she said.
Mrs Taweel is taking German lessons, but she is frightened to go out wearing her headscarf after another Syrian family told how they were abused on a bus.
This highlights perhaps the biggest flaw in Mrs Merkel’s refugee policy–and indeed the idea of European-wide quotas. They assume that migrants will accept they have no choice over where they go.
In the meantime, Freital’s civic leaders must prepare for the arrival of more refugees, and there are those who believe that, one day, the arrivals will receive a warm welcome.
“It will change, but slowly,” said Maja, a Freital resident dropping off gifts of toiletries at the Leonardo holding centre. “Perhaps when our children start to share schools and kindergartens and people will learn it doesn’t matter what country you are from or language you speak.”