The refugee crisis is forcing Germans to ask: Who are we?

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Jenny Erpenbeck writes: I recently read that criminality is on the rise in German towns that have accepted refugees. But it’s not the refugees who are responsible for this crime wave: Germans in these towns have been committing arson, damaging property and attacking refugees. In other words, Germans have been making their own worst fears come true. Often the fear of loss leads to the very loss we fear – a principle that holds true not only for jealous lovers but also, it seems, for those who turn to violence out of fear that the refugees will cost them their safety and peace.

The refugees haven’t even all been registered yet, but already they raise questions about who we are. Some Germans can imagine what it means to lose everything – hence their empathy; some can imagine what it means to lose everything – hence their fear.

We no longer have a universal frame of reference. Angela Merkel’s declaration that refugees are fundamentally deserving of protection – hers was the only declaration of its kind in Europe – has two main sticking points in her own country. First, there’s the free-market logic according to which the German government will prohibit neither the export of weapons by German companies to warring nations nor the ruthless exploitation of resources under corrupt systems in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe.

And then there’s the ever-growing violence, both verbal and physical, from part of the German population: those who would like to see their country walled off with barbed wire – as is happening in Hungary – or, failing that, to at least have the Berlin government refuse to accept even the ridiculously low numbers of refugees mandated by the European Union – as Poland and the UK have done.

But which “European values” are best upheld with barbed wire and fences, regulations, harassment and attacks? Liberté, égalité, fraternité? Or is this mainly about our own survival? In eastern Germany, you can once again hear people chanting Wir sind das Volk (“We are the people”). In 1989 that sentence opened a border; now it’s being used to close a border, to insulate this finally unified Volk from the newcomers, who lack any unity since they are fleeing so many different wars. Are other countries’ wars our responsibility? That’s a question you hear a lot these days. But no one wants to hear the answer. [Continue reading…]

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