(Photo: Raul Rognean, 2010 Wien – “Turmbau zu Babel” – Pieter Bruegel dem Älteren, Öl auf Eichenholz, 114 cm × 155 cm – Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)
In Germany, there is a new dictum, word-of-the-year-to-be: “Willkommenskultur”. It refers to the way that (in a historically remarkable dimension) “the Germans” (whoever that is), have reacted to the (not surprising, but surprisingly massive) influx of refugees to their country, from places less fortunate than their own. These Germans have welcomed and continue to welcome them with open arms, open minds, open hearts. Germany, the new paradise, a refuge where people understand, listen, help, help, help. Wherever they can, whenever they can, however they can – even at their own expense, pecuniarily, temporally, emotionally. Germany, the eye of the world’s storm for so many battered, shattered and scattered men, woman and children. A place where all is calm, all is bright. A Western Mekka with an angel(a)ic halo.
But, unfortunately, Mekka is not that far away from Babylon, never was. It’s a thin line between the land of milk and honey, where all is understanding, same language, same beliefs, same values, and the place where nothing is understood, where languages are world’s apart, beliefs and values just as much. Where a lingua universalis does not exist, where decent English is merely the fragile foundation of Babel’s Tower, rudimentary knowledge of German vocabulary and grammar nothing but an inevitable beginning, yet never a remedy. Language alone cannot bridge gaps, refute misconceptions, overcome prejudices. Misunderstandings generally go deeper.
Indications of the gauzy fragility of our newly discovered Willkommenskultur are omnipresent for dialecticians, and I fear the tipping point is soon to come…
Scene #1: Sitting at McD’s a couple of days ago, I overheard a discussion between an elderly couple, cracker-barrel philosophising about the refugee crisis. Sentences like “Die sind doch selber schuld, wenn sie aus ihren Ländern fliehen!” and “Wir sollten die alle wieder zurückschicken” fell amidst fat big mac munchs, nutritious cornerstones American foreigners had brought decades ago, those foreigners that helped put an end to this couple’s own fellow countrymen’s flights.
Scene #2: For the first time in months, anti-islamic, right-wing Pegida movement has managed to active 8.000 supporters for its recent rally, its Facebook presence states an increase of almost 4.000 page likes since September 20, with 62.341 talking abouts. Just highlighting one random comment makes you shomit (shiver and vomit): “Wir sind nicht alle Asylantenfreudlich.Viele,sehr viele Deutsche wollen das Pack hier nicht haben und stehen hinter jedem, der sich gegen die Parasiten wehrt.” Willkommenskultur? Hmmm. The only consoling thing: the ignorant female writing this comment only has 39 friends herself, serves her right. Still: She is not alone, and the engagement rate on Pegida’s Facebook page is alarming, amazing, and incredibly credible to those prone to reactionary German protectionism.
Scene #3: A zeit.de interview with Thilo Sarrazin, German politician and writer, clear-cut enfant terrible who in 2010 published a controversial book called “Die Deutschen schaffen sich ab”. He’s back in town, in search of scandalous limelight, provoking with statements like “Wir müssen unsere eigene Bevölkerung und unser Gesellschaftsmodell vor äußerer Bedrohung schützen. Dazu gehört auch ungeregelte, kulturfremde Einwanderung im Übermaß.” or “Die allermeisten trauen sich vermutlich gar nicht mehr, ihre Ängste und Meinungen offen auszusprechen. Ich kann nur eines sagen: Es gibt eine ganz große unterdrückte Wut und einen ganz großen Frust, der sich keineswegs auf Sachsen beschränkt.” (in: zeit.de from September 13).
Sounds detestable, refusal is the natural reflex.
But: What if he’s right, even if just a little bit? What if the infamous election slogan of Bavaria’s CSU from decades ago “Das Boot ist voll!” may indeed be nothing but the truth very soon? After all, the recent influx of refugees seeking for asylum (however justified or not every individual plea may be) is not even comparable (not in size, not in drama) to the imaginative storm clouds of otherness that were apparently dooming over last century’s Wohlstandsdeutschland, its gardens in Grünwald and kindergardens in Bogenhausen. Now it is indeed a sheer oppressive mass of people, a veritable tsunami smashing its waves on our own front door. What if the first asylum seekers who get accepted begin their eager integration process, willing to become full, respecting and respected members of their new homeland, not only learn our language and customs, but also start applying for and even getting the jobs you or your friend wanted, get the crèche place you thought was reserved for your daughter? “Fachkräftemangel” is yet another IT-word of German society, and certainly many a qualified refugee will help fill this gap, but: “weil sich der einfache Mann nicht durch Ärzte und Ingenieure bedroht fühlt, sondern durch Menschen, die stark sind, Muskeln haben, einfache Tätigkeiten machen können und damit seinen Lohn senken oder ihn vielleicht ganz überflüssig machen” (from same interview with Sarrazin), tolerance and helpfulness might quickly turn into reluctant and coy doubt, which again might turn into open resentfulness, rejection, maybe even uproar and rebellion.
hiSTORY repeats itself with (more or less) instant karma
Might and maybe are dominating words here, and I’m not saying Sarrazin is right, not at all agreeing with most things he says and the way he uses societal developments for his own populist fame (and fortune), BUT: hiSTORY teaches us that people love to help other people as long as it doesn’t interfere with their own lives in a sustainably negative way. So: what, if…what, if…what if…???
During my summer holidays, when the first refugee streams were mere abstract news in digital feeds, so not that long ago, I read a remarkable and highly recommendable book called “Die zerissenen Jahre 1918-1938”. In words understandable to historical laymen like me, author Philipp Blom circumnavigates the macro perspective, historical dates, and hashed and re-hashed highlights that made us detest school history lessons. Blom rather makes use of impressive, very well-dosed storytelling that makes macro developments come to life in micro worlds, spans the perspectives from heroes all over the world, and accountably explains (not justifies) why the darkest chapter of the 20th century was practically inevitable. The book’s 500 pages make this pretty apparent. I read about the seemingly little things that made big things happen, about little misunderstandings that led to massive catastrophes, about manipulated, ill-informed and emotionally ignored people(s) that blew off steam in the face of the innocents and unprotected, but also about power-obsessed, fanatic men (men, NEVER women!) who brought so much pain onto their people that these had to flee their homes, Jews, Russians and Germans being just a few to be named.
And while I read these stories with awestruck incredulity, I frequently felt compelled to draw parallels to what is happening all around the world today, 100 years later: While Europe is certainly a better and safer place to be, so many countries are not: Syria. Afghanistan. Iran. Somalia. Russia, you name it, even China, if we’re honest.
One of the sentences concluding Blom’s hiSTORYcal book puts my thoughts into words:
Für diejenigen, die glauben, dass wir aus der Geschichte lernen können, ist diese Parallele zur Zwischenkriegsgeschichte alles andere als beruhigend. (bpb Edition, p. 507)
To be honest: Looking at the state of the world today, aware of the fragility of Europe’s freedom, peace, and stability, and also of the thin line between Willkommenskultur and Pegida, aware of how quickly moods can change, I am not really beruhigt.