A silent three-year-old, lying drowned on a Turkish beach; the tearful protest of a Syrian man as he, his wife and baby are torn from the tracks next to a locomotive by Hungarian police; desperate families jammed into tiny, leaky boats, hoping to reach Europe alive or, if they do, facing ever new obstacles from weather, hunger, and thirst to barbed wire fences and pepper spray — these pictures hammer at emotions here for one tragic week after another.
In truth, for many months and years such scenes caused those in power more irritation than dismay. British PM Cameron complained of immigrant swarms as if a nasty foreign ant species was threatening his island. He and French President Hollande viewed the miserable “Jungle” of asylum-seekers in Calais, icy-cold, as a problem for truck insurers and police squads. The officialdom of Germany and a largely obedient European Union focused on squelching hopes for true sovereignty, jobs, and an endurable existence of the Greek people — or any others daring to follow their example.
But as more and more human beings fled the bloody fighting, the air raids and ruins in the Middle East, or hopeless poverty in their homelands, events in Europe escalated. Far-right organizers, always present in Germany, took advantage of the growing numbers of refugees to denounce even planless, weak measures to help them and turn citizens’ dissatisfaction and fears for the future into hatred toward anyone weaker than them, suspected rivals for any improvement or assistance. Thousands marched with ugly signs and banners, at first aimed at “Islamists” but soon at anyone with a different culture or skin color. This was officially disapproved of but often tolerated, even protected.
Older buildings or container structures, renovated to house the growing numbers of arrivals, were often faced with mob protests, even riots. When buildings were set ablaze, usually but not always empty, Germany’s reputation demanded a response. Leaders like Vice-Chancellor Gabriel visited and denounced the “mob.” At last, on August 25th, Frau Merkel also visited Heidenau near Dresden, where xenophobia had reached fever heat. Quite horribly for Germany’s so very respected, calm and collected leader, she was confronted with posters and shouts calling her a “Traitor.” Some intoned a slogan, greatly admired in 1989 when directed against East German leaders, but now less welcome: “We are the people.”
It was ironic that Saxony’s police, so numerous and arrest-happy when leftists block Nazi march routes, were too pitifully understaffed to do much; despite barrages of rocks, bottles, and fireworks they made only one paltry arrest. Saxony, the only East German state run by Christian Democrats ever since West Germany took over the GDR in 1990, is known for its lax attitude towards far-right forces, despite pious disclaimers — and that is where there are the most mobs and fires.
But then a change became apparent. The discovery of a truck on an Austrian highway with a hardly conceivable number of 71 corpses inside, refugee men, women, and children suffocated and deserted by the “people smugglers,” was a shock and one key element in much new thinking. Instead of a courageous but limited number of mostly young anti-fascists, large numbers of often less political Germans discovered their humane impulses — and increasingly acted on them. While most government officials on local, state, and federal levels dillied and dallied, tied up with matters like officially registering people and always understaffed, more and more citizens moved in to help, bringing blankets, clothes, diapers, food, water, and toys. They cooked, teachers organized German classes, some simply stood guard against the racists — with posters saying “Refugees Welcome!”
What has occurred is a real split in the German population, somewhere near the middle, with many people taking not only a humane position but often a courageous one, for nationalist grumbling about immigrants, at least as common as in some regions in the USA or elsewhere, has in Germany especially disturbing reverberations from the past and some potentially very violent elements.
It is unexpectedly interesting that German leaders, with open ears to all factors, began to welcome this huge wave, which may reach 800,000 this year, at least in words and with often hesitant steps.
Some media recalled that after World War II Germany, in ruins and reduced in size, absorbed 12 to 14 million refugees from Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia. Of course, they were Germans who spoke the same language. Then, from 1969 to 1972, millions of so-called “guest workers” were taken in, originally to do the rough, dirty work and then leave. But a large number, especially Turks, stayed and settled down, although this time the integration has been far more problematic. But it was possible, and after the Berlin Wall went down there was another big wave, East German and Eastern European, with 700,000 arriving in 1992 alone. None of the waves ruined the economy! Economists point out that the demographic facts of life, with ethnic Germans having ever fewer children, demand many immigrants, especially young people with growing families.
Now, surprisingly, and despite rightist terror and foot-dragging politicians, Germany has become the main defender of the refugees in the European Union and a Mecca for the majority of them, like those in Budapest’s Main Station chanting “Germany, Germany.” Indeed, the Hungarian government had to trick them into thinking the trains they were crammed into were headed for Germany; instead they were soon halted so their misled passengers could be bussed off to a caged-in tent camp and registered. As I write, hundreds, probably thousands are defying this trick with a hunger strike or by trying to walk, with their elderly and their babies, to the Austrian border 150 miles away. The violence of a xenophobic Hungarian officialdom, at a total loss for any solutions, seems to be worsening, while the barbed wire fence built by Hungary to stop the refugees may recall to some the pageantry involved when it cut its fence to Austria in 1989, setting in motion the downfall of any form of socialism in Eastern Europe.
A few countries, led by Germany and the unwilling hosts to the arriving boats, Italy and Greece, now demand that the refugees be shared out through Europe, with quotas based on size and economic strength. Cameron responded with a vague hint at limited approval, Denmark, the Netherlands, and above all Eastern Europe reject any such plan. At first Slovakia had said, “We’ll take a few hundred — but only Catholics!” Now it and the Czech Republic, with Hungary and big Poland, are so stubbornly opposed that the whole wobbly structure of the European Union is trembling alarmingly.
To complicate matters even more, official Germany’s welcome smiles vanish when it comes to so-called “economic refugees”: many Africans, but mostly discriminated Roma people of Eastern Europe and poverty-stricken people from Albania and all of former Yugoslavia — most of all Kosovo.
Cleo, the muse of history, must again turn to irony. It was the German government (all top parties) that was most active in splitting Yugoslavia into national slivers. Germany hotly encouraged the war to “liberate Kosovo,” joining in the merciless bombing of Serbia and leaving the “western Balkans” in wrecked, chaotic disarray. It promised Kosovo freedom and prosperity; what now reigns, in the presence of German and other UN soldiers, is described as “corruption, gang crime, poverty, and discrimination against the Roma.” Wages average about 300 euro, youth unemployment is at 60%, the health service hardly functions. But desperate attempts to reach the promised and once so grandly promising land in the north are almost hopelessly doomed to fail.
This raises a key question, almost agonizingly avoided in the media, which angrily denounces vicious, greedy “people smugglers” but not those who caused this misery in the first place. Who provoked the wars in ex-Yugoslavia? Who unleashed “shock and awe” in Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands and driving millions from their homes? Who invaded Afghanistan, as vengeance for September 11th, with a “war on terror” unleashing fourteen years of killing and destruction and forcing thousands upon thousands to flee? Who wrecked Libya — to “protect its down-trodden” — opening the way for anarchy and a fleet of deadly cutters and rubber dinghies? And who massively armed the destructive hordes in Syria, in part via billion-euro contracts with Saudi Arabia, the United Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, all to fight Assad, all trying to hold or grab a bigger slice of that tragic land? True, one of those involved, Turkey, is filled with perhaps two million who fled from Syria. Another, the USA, agreed to welcome about 1,000. The Saudis, Qatar, and the UAE, so far as known, have taken none.
These forces, in different countries but all obscenely wealthy, are the real guilty ones, guilty in the long run for the rubble of Palmyra and for little Alan Kurdi, now interred with his brother and mother in Kobane, another city destroyed by the highly profitable weapons of the fanatical, oil-rich ISIS while its erstwhile friend and customer, our NATO ally Recep Erdogan of Turkey, stood by. Alan and his family were not allowed to enter Canada where their relatives had hoped to welcome them.
What is ahead? Let us hope the world is spared from more such blessed freedom battles against “Islamic terror” — and more unimaginable heartbreak! Iran has 75 million citizens. If some current people’s wishes and plans are not prevented we may yet be welcoming many of them, too — or as many as survive!
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).