Ian McAuley. Refugees and German redemption.

Sep 14, 2015

Imagine if Australia were to open its doors to 240 000 refugees.

That’s twenty times our offer to take 12 000 Syrians, or around the same number as our total annual immigration in all categories.

It’s what Angela Merkel’s offer of 800 000 places would come to if scaled to Australia’s population.

Although some may call Merkel’s offer a “brave decision” (a shorthand for suicidal political stupidity in the TV show Yes-Minister), it makes excellent sense on many criteria.

One way to see it is in terms of hard-nosed economic self-interest. Germany, like most European countries, has an ageing population, leading to a high dependency ratio and an emerging shortage of labour. And a cynic may say getting in early gives Germany the opportunity to take the first pick of refugees, seeking out those who will make the highest contribution to the country’s economy.

Germany’s economic structure is amenable to immigration, for even those without specific skills (but enthusiasm to work and learn) will likely find employment, because it has what one may call a “grown-up” economic structure – the structure of a truly country (rather than the structure of a high-income quarry).

It has a thriving manufacturing sector (which is where so many of our migrants, including refugees, found work in the postwar years). By OECD measures, 23 percent of Germany’s GDP is in manufacturing, compared with 7 percent of Australia’s.

And, although housing is expensive in big cities such as München and Frankfurt, German industry is widespread geographically: in small cities and even villages it is not uncommon to find a factory – usually a private (“Mittelstand”) firm – perhaps a component manufacturer for Audi or a distribution centre for DB-Shenker. German authorities have deliberately intervened in the market to keep economic activity geographically spread across the nation, to keep housing affordable and to develop a market favourable to renters – all important considerations for newcomers.

But there is more than economic self-interest behind Merkel’s move. In some ways it is a re-assertion of German power, but in 2015, in contrast to 1937, that power is the “soft” power of leadership by example, an example so strong that it has helped move even our recalcitrant prime minister.  (Notably German armed forces are not involved in Iraq or Syria.)

More basically, it is an act of decency by decent people living in a country still emerging from two generations of division and conflict – a conflict that started in 1914, and ended in 1990 with re-unification. A visitor to Germany is struck by the co-existence of national confidence and a spirit of atonement for the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s a confidence that does not cross the boundary into brash nationalism, and an atonement that makes a dignified matter-of-fact presentation of the Nazi era rather than a wallowing in guilt.

It has not been easy for Germany. In 1945 the occupying forces had to drag civilians out of their self-imposed denial, forcing them to tour liberated concentration camps and to bury the dead. Until around 1970 most Germans tried to turn their backs on the war – not unlike the idea that in Australia we should reject a “black armband” view of history.  But subsequent generations of Germans have confronted the past. The images of millions of displaced people trudging across Europe in 1945 and 1946 are almost as vivid in the German mind as the image of the drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach.

That’s why Merkel’s decision was not so much a “brave” decision as a response to the demand of the German people to be generous to refugees – what they call their Wilkommenskultur, as demonstrated by opinion polls. It is also notable that those countries responding to the refugee problem with razor-wire barriers are those that have still not confronted their own complicity in the murder of Jews and other ethnic groups.

Merkel has also been helped by her country’s political culture. Her own Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) has supported her, and the Social Democrats, her government’s coalition partner, have been even more supportive.

Theirs is an arrangement Australians, so conditioned to a savagely adversarial Westminster tradition, might find hard to understand. It’s as if we were governed by a Liberal-Labor coalition, with other parties of the far right and the far left occupying a few seats on the wings. Even when Merkel’s CDU governed in its own right up to 2013 there was a less confrontationist political culture between the main parties.

Germany has supporters of the far right, but they have their own political parties, even including the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands. The far right has not infiltrated the CDU, and in general the mainstream parties gain no political mileage in taking extremist positions in an attempt to wedge its opponents. Although Germany lacks the multi-cultural richness that we have come to enjoy in Australia, it has not suffered the legitimisation of racism and religious intolerance that can be generated by opportunistic politicians in mainstream parties – the “dog whistle” as we know it. That would be too reminiscent of the Nazi era. Also, Merkel herself, having grown up in the old East Germany – the Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR –remembers how the Honecker regime exercised its system of oppression by having the Stasi root out those supposedly disloyal citizens who were not seen to be part of “Team DDR”.

Australians may also be surprised to learn that the term “die pazifische Lösung” (the “Pacific solution”), a description of Australia’s policy of dumping asylum-seekers offshore, has made its way into the German language. In itself that may seem to be an innocuous translation, until one realizes that it echoes the term “die ende Lösung” (the “final solution”) that has a longer history in the German language. I have seen the term (and its variant “die australische Lösung”) in German papers, and it even has its own Wikipedia entry. The word Lösung stands out – as in English there are plenty of other words that can be used to describe government policies. And, when pollsters ask Germans what they think of die pazifische Lösung, the response is one of strong moral repugnance.

We cannot hide behind distance or token responses. Accepting a small number of Syrian refugees may be a good place for us to start, but we have a long way to go on our own path to redemption.

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