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Refugees’ impact ‘more profound’ than German reunification

Maja Hiti, AFP | A poster reads "Welcome to Germany" at Dortmund's train station on September 6, 2015

Several German media outlets have made a startling comparison between the country’s present refugee intake and German reunification, in some cases claiming the former will have a more profound impact on the nation.


A record 13,000 Syrian refugees entered German territory on Sunday, part of the 800,000 asylum seekers Germany has said it will take in this year – far more than all other European countries put together.

On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the "breathtaking" flow of migrants into Germany would "occupy and change" the country in the coming years.

Her government has freed up 6 billion euros to prepare for their arrival and announced it would speed up asylum procedures.

German media have likened the extraordinary situation to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent German reunification, which saw a huge westward flow of migrants from the former East Germany.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung has published extensive coverage of the enthusiastic greeting refugees received in Munich and other German cities, comparing it to the scenes of jubilation that followed the collapse of the Wall.

Weekly newspaper Zeit went so far as to claim that the consequences of the present refugee influx “will be more profound than those of German reunification”.

‘Successful integration’

Thomas Faist, a sociologist and expert on migration at Bielefeld Univeristy, called for a little perspective before rushing to make comparisons.

“Reunification brought about swift and profound changes to German institutions and society, which has not been the case with the present arrival of refugees,” he said in an interview with FRANCE 24.

But harking back to such a defining moment in recent German history is understandable, according to Dietrich Thränhardt, a professor of political science at Münster University.

“Reunification is a positive symbol for Germans, who see it as an example of successful integration,” he told FRANCE 24, adding that the German people were keen to “fit the current situation into the same dynamic”.

Thränhardt stressed the media’s role in defining how the inflow of asylum seekers is perceived.

“Most articles are very positive and depict the migrants’ arrival as an opportunity for the country,” he said.

The press is thus fuelling the sense that Germany is now experiencing a moment of national unity and solidarity worthy of 1989.

Another Germany

Like German reunification, the migrant crisis offers an opportunity “to reflect on what it means to be German today”, according to Bielefeld University’s Feist.

When the two Germanys were finally reunited in 1990, the debate focused on what – aside from language – defined German identity.

“This time, the question is how Germany wants to be perceived abroad,” said Faist, pointing to a “desire to prove that German identity is not merely about the country’s economic model”.

Earlier this year, Berlin’s intransigence on the Greek debt crisis left many Europeans with the impression that Germans were more concerned by their economic interest than by European solidarity.

But the recent outpouring of generosity towards migrants, at a time when others in Europe have been reluctant to make gestures, has presented a very different image of Germany.

Thränhardt said postwar Germany offered the best precedent for this image of a welcoming country, ready to give shelter to displaced people.

“The real reference is the post-World War II welcome of hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict and the many Germans expelled from countries who had been occupied by the Nazis,” Thränhardt said.

It is a view shared by Faist, for whom “because of the precedent of 1945, most Germans claim they can understand the people who feel chased out of their lands by war”.

‘Germans don’t fear for their jobs’

Both analysts conceded that German solidarity towards refugees is also a result of the country’s economic health.

Without this, “we might have witnessed spontaneous involvement from the people, but political and economic decision makers would probably not have rushed to express their readiness to welcoming all these migrants,” said Faist.

The German professor noted a significant difference from the situation in 1990, when the country was not as prosperous. After the euphoria that followed the Wall’s collapse, public opinion “was far more critical of reunification and former East Germans were seen as competitors on the job market,” he said.

“This time, Germans do not fear for their jobs. In fact they see the refugees as an opportunity to rejuvenate the workforce,” Faist added.

Both in 1945 and 1990, Germany succeeded in integrating hundreds of thousands of people amid much harder economic conditions, Thränhardt noted. Being generous today should prove a lot easier.

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