Letter from Germany

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charles castaldi, a former NPR correspondent, is a regular contributor to the Review.

Published April 28, 2017


The Stasi headquarters in the former East Berlin stands as a monument to a certain Teutonic penchant for authoritarianism — not to mention as a symbol of the contradictions that abound in modern Germany. A building as imposing as it is plain, it housed thousands of agents who kept track of East Germans at a mind-numbing level of detail. After the Stasi files were opened, the scope of the surveillance was revealed: it seemed almost the entire East German population was spying on itself.

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On the top floor of the principal building, I walk through a metal door constructed to thwart electronic eavesdropping and into the office of Markus Wolf, the mythical spy known as “the man without a face.” Widely considered one of the most effective spies of all time, he was only identified following the reunification of Germany, after which he managed to avoid any meaningful prison time. He subsequently embarked on a writing career that included (along with his memoirs) Secrets of Russian Cooking, in which he drew a parallel between the culinary arts and espionage. Needless to say, both the Russians and the Germans are better known for the latter.

Looking out the window onto the courtyard nine floors below, I can see children playing soccer. They scream for the ball in Arabic and Pashtun: the Stasi building has been turned into a refugee shelter.

The symbolism is not lost on Hartmut Zick, a 50-something ponytailed native of Berlin who manages this center. “We saw the misery, the need,” he says. “To be able to use this building, of all places, made it especially significant.” The building had been unoccupied until a benefactor bought it from the city for one euro and, instead of turning it into a condo, transformed it into a refugee shelter.

der tagesspiegel

We wander through corridor after corridor of offices that now serve as tiny apartments for four. There are classrooms for German lessons, and art projects on the walls. The languages — and the faces — reflect the huge and varied human wave that has swept over a largely unprepared Europe over the past few years.

“Right now we have around 1,000 refugees housed here,” Zick notes. His tone is matter of fact, but it’s clear this is an arduous undertaking. And over the past few years, I’ve run into a surprisingly large number of people prepared to make similar commitments all over Germany. When they were confronted with “the pain and the problems of the refugees, we knew we must help,” Zick says.

While other European countries have been generous, Germany is unique in the number of refugees it has accepted and the scale of the government and volunteer programs created to aid them. Of course, this has generated a backlash. But I was struck over and over again by the number of people willing to step up.

The refugee crisis grew to massive proportions in 2015, after Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany would have an open-door policy and more than a million people took her up on the offer. The pictures of people dying by the thousands in Mediterranean waters spoke of the desperation of those escaping wars and poverty. For many, Germany was the destination of choice for its strong economy and generous government support system. But it was hard to reach, protected by a ring of less-welcoming countries on its southern border.

Germany’s open door came at a steep cost. First, the direct financial outlay ran to $23 billion — just in 2016. And then there’s the political cost. Most polls show that over half of Germans view the refugee issue as the most serious problem Germany faces today. And even though Merkel’s approval ratings have remained above 50 percent, her Christian Democratic Union lost ground in Berlin state elections in 2016 to the Alternative for Germany, a right-wing party headed by Frauke Petry. Petry’s platform, beyond pulling Germany out of the EU, focuses on closing the door to more refugees, particularly those from Muslim countries. Sound familiar?

Merkel, who is sometimes referred to as “leader of the free world” in the wake of President Trump’s election, is, at this point, the key player in keeping the European Union together.

There’s some irony here: a few years ago she was widely condemned for destabilizing the EU by taking a hard line on the fiscal problems of Greece (and Portugal and Spain and Italy). But she’s since been openly critical of Trump’s immigration policies and Vladimir Putin’s efforts to divide the Western alliance, and she offered no solace to Brexit promoters who think they can convince the EU to maintain open trade with Britain once the U.K. jettisons open immigration. Merkel is still favored to be re-elected later this year. One can only hope that German pollsters are more accurate than their American counterparts.

Before leaving the Stasi building, I run into Diab, a 30-year-old refugee from Syria, who’s come to visit a friend. Diab left Damascus alone in 2015 and made his way through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans before reaching Germany four months later. “Even when it looked impossible,” he says, “I always told myself I would make it.”

In a sense, Diab is lucky. He is educated, he worked as a banker, his family pitched in to help pay for his journey, which he says cost “many thousands of dollars.” And he was able to find an apartment, which he shares with four other Syrian men, after spending only six months in the shelter. He studies German six hours a day — “such a hard language,” he says — and hopes to get a master’s in finance.

Diab is also Christian — something he kept secret in the shelter. “Most of the people here are Muslim,” he says in a whisper. “They are very, very religious — very old fashioned.”

Zick confirms this, adding that a great majority are from the poorer, less-educated strata of their respective countries. Indeed, part of what makes the refugee crisis so thorny is that ISIS is drawing recruits from the same strata. And even Germany now faces a very real threat from terrorists. Germans aren’t likely to soon forget the Dec. 19 attack in Berlin by a Tunisian who drove a truck through a crowded traditional Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding 60.


Over the past couple of years I’ve driven thousands of miles around Germany (which, on autobahns — a few of which still don’t have speed limits — takes less time than you might suppose). After a while, the fact that it’s one of the most developed countries in the world becomes manifest, whether in infrastructure that makes the United States look shabby or in renewable energy — wind turbines and solar panel arrays are to be seen everywhere. And just as obvious as what you see is what you can’t see: poverty, which is not to say that it doesn’t exist. But it’s German poverty, a far cry from the American variety, because the German safety net is much more generous and encompassing.

What is less obvious until you travel off the beaten path a bit is that Germany remains a nation of small and midsized towns surrounded by a surprising amount of agriculture. Only four cities — Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne — have over a million inhabitants. Compare that to Italy, which has 10 cities with over a million, yet a total population that’s 20 million smaller, and you get the picture. Indeed, it is a surprisingly bucolic picture, even if agriculture represents a mere 2 percent of GDP.

Interspersed in this mostly rolling landscape are midsized businesses — called mittelstand — that represent the backbone of the German economy. Sure, we all know about the Volkswagens and the Siemenses and their global market dominance. But smaller companies produce half of Germany’s $4 trillion GDP and are credited with much of the robustness of the German economy.

I ran (literally) into an example in Worms, a picturesque town of 85,000 on the Rhine that vies with Trier for the title of oldest city in Germany. The Celts founded it, Romans built it up, Jews turned it into a cultural mecca and Luther took his stand against the Catholic Church here. Jogging out of the old city toward the Rhine brings me to an industrial area where I meet Timo Bernhard, who is monitoring a barge that is unloading ingots of what appear to be metal.

“Plastic,” he corrects me drily, when I ask what the steel is for. Undaunted, I ask what the plastic is for. He eyes me warily and suddenly switches tone — which Germans will do if you appear either interested or completely clueless — and delivers a detailed description of the specialized plastics needed to make precision-machined plastic parts.

Bernhard and his brother own a small company with 34 employees that exports much of its output. “Nobody makes parts with such precision, such resistance,” he says. “We are having to say no to many inquiries.”

Both brothers learned their trade across the street from the docks where we’re standing, as apprentices in Rochling Automotive, a much larger family-owned company that makes — you guessed it — plastic parts for cars. “We learned on the job, starting at the bottom,” Bernhard says.

That is another keystone of the German economy, and mittelstand in particular: apprenticeships to produce a highly skilled labor force. I ask Bernhard if he has any workers who are immigrants. “Of course,” he says. “Very good workers. From Turkey. Not like these ones coming in now, who just want the government to pay for everything.”

When I mention Merkel, he frowns. “A big mistake,” he says. “Letting in all these people. Most of them aren’t educated. How will they get jobs?” I ask whether he’ll vote for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany in the next election. He gives me a look, which I take to be my cue to leave.

Later that evening I am dining with Jutta Herbert, the pastor of Magnuskirche Lutheran church, where Luther himself is said to have preached. Herbert is a voluble woman in her 60s who explains that the challenge in Worms, which has taken in 400 refugees from Syria and North Africa, not to mention the challenge to the rest of Germany, is twofold: “We’ve had a Turkish community here for many years. They have been assimilating, especially the children. But it hasn’t been easy for all of them.

“I didn’t even vote for Merkel,” she adds, “but after her courageous stand on the refugees, I am prepared to vote for her next time. Here in Worms, as in the rest of Germany, there are people who are against refugees and immigrants. That is why I use my pulpit to get out the word, to stay ahead of the curve.”

But while many churches in Germany have been active in supporting refugees and building relations with mosques, the hard reality is that German natives are becoming less and less religious. And the churches, be they Protestant or Catholic, are struggling to attract young parishioners. “Ironically, I think the refugee crisis has served to get more people interested in coming to church,” Herbert says. “They see this as a place where we can build community.”

martin meissner/associated press
Today, about four million people of Turkish descent live in Germany. It’s a relationship that remains fraught, and serves as something of a litmus test for how newer immigrants will fare.
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The Holocaust is the tectonic horror that underlies any discussion of assimilation or of German identity. What greater failure of assimilation could there be than taking a population of half a million of its own citizens who happened to be Jewish, forcing more than half into exile and exterminating the remaining 180,000?

After the war, Germany and its industries lay in ruins, but the combination of American cheerleading, currency reform and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s careful economic management created what came to be known as the economic miracle. Construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the restrictions it imposed on East Germans crossing to the West created a labor shortage. The German government turned to Turkey — not so surprising, since the Ottomans allied with Germany in World War I — inviting Turkish laborers to come to Germany as “guest workers.”

While they were expected to remain only temporarily, it didn’t turn out that way. Today, about four million people of Turkish descent live in Germany. It’s a relationship that remains fraught, and serves as something of a litmus test for how newer immigrants will fare.

I went to Berlin’s Friedrich Eberts Foundation to talk to Dietmar Molthagen, a specialist in immigration. “Germany has a very complicated history with foreign workers,” he says. “Apart from the terrible things that happened with the Nazis, there have been waves of bringing people in and then pushing them out. In the case of the Turks, there were long debates about whether to let them stay or send them back, but most of them ended up staying.”

Staying, however, does not necessarily mean assimilation. Today, only half of them are German citizens. Molthagen explains that until 2000, obtaining German citizenship was very difficult. “This was a watershed moment,” he says. “Germany accepted being a country of immigrants.

“The Turkish government also made it difficult,” he says, because Turks were not allowed to have dual citizenship. “So there are Turkish guest workers who have lived here for 50 years who don’t have German citizenship because they say they don’t want to give up being Turkish.”

There are plenty of shining examples of assimilation, Molthagen points out, but he sees trouble on the horizon. “The connection to the old country has been growing in the last years, and that can be attributed to Erdogan,” he says, referring to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the strongman president of Turkey.

Over the past few years, Erdogan has made many incendiary statements: calling for Turks in Germany to learn Turkish first, attacking German immigration laws as racist and telling Turks to resist assimilation. He even campaigns in Germany for the substantial bloc of Turkish votes there.

His relationship with Merkel appears to be based more on mutual need than on mutual respect. Last year they negotiated a deal whereby Erdogan would stem the flow of refugees leaving Turkey for Europe in exchange for eliminating visa requirements for Turks and providing his government with over $3 billion to mitigate the cost of housing millions of refugees. But Erdogan periodically threatens to torpedo the deal.

“The Turkish government has always been very involved with the Turkish community here,” Molthagen says. “This was never seen as a big problem in Germany until Erdogan. When he changed the law and made it possible for Turks living in Germany to be able to vote in Turkey, Germany became a campaign battleground.”

Later that evening I found myself being guided around Berlin by Luis Carlos Kliche. It was almost midnight as we walked through an eerily deserted Checkpoint Charlie, a more appropriate atmosphere than the usual daytime circus of tourists. Luis Carlos studies international relations at the prestigious Freie Universitat Berlin. His father is German and his mother is from Nicaragua. He is equally at home in the languages and cultures of both countries. But he clearly looks Latino, and this, he says, often marks him as an outsider to Germans.

“Look, it’s not the case across the board, but the fact is that if you’re dark-skinned you’re not really considered German,” he says. “In a sense, for me it’s a bit easier because I do think of myself as partly German, but for immigrants who have no German roots, it’s much harder.”

Kliche is not sanguine about the prospects that immigrants from the Middle East and Turkey have in becoming assimilated Germans. “Sure, it’s possible, but look at what’s happening here in Berlin,” he says. “Many of these people live in enclaves with their extended families. How are they going to assimilate that way?”

He says the one group that has managed more than others is the Vietnamese. “I think I have more Vietnamese in my classes than people of Turkish descent,” he says. In fact, the Vietnamese who came after the fall of Saigon are widely considered an immigrant success story. But those who came from North Vietnam to East Germany, where they were not taught German and largely left to their own devices, have remained much more marginalized after German unification.

The following evening, after a dinner in an Afghan restaurant with Kliche, I walk alone down Karl Marx Strasse in the Neukolln neighborhood, one of the hippest in Berlin. This place has a very different feel from what I’m used to in Germany. Statistically, the neighborhood is supposed to be about half people of foreign extraction — the definition of this is not exactly clear. But at night it seems like the more Germanic—looking people fade away. And when I stop in front of an Arab market to look at the hookahs in the window, I find myself being stared at by three men inside the store.

The store appears to be closed, but probably because I look in wonder at the elaborate hookahs, one of the men comes out to the street to ask if I like them. In short order I am inside; they quickly identify me as an American and begin to load a hookah with intimidatingly dark tobacco. It is as much a dare as an invitation, but many adolescent experiences with bongs delude me into thinking I’ll be OK.

Between coughing fits and the laughter of my hosts, I manage to steer the conversation to their experience in Germany. Mahmoud Shadid is the owner of the store. He’s 54, Egyptian and he’s been in Germany almost 20 years. “I was in Cairo five years ago,” he says. “Horrible. I couldn’t take it. The dirt. The chaos. I was happy to see my family, but I love Berlin.”

Shadid says his business selling hookahs and tobacco is thriving, especially with the arrival of new immigrants from the Middle East. “Even young Germans are trying it,” he says proudly. But when I ask him if he feels German after being here so long, he’s emphatic: “No. I will never be a German. Maybe my children. They only speak German. Very bad Arabic. But it’s hard. Look at us. To Germans, we don’t look German.”

He points to his friends, a newcomer from Syria and a Turk who was born in Berlin. They continue to ply me with different flavors of tobacco, and as I hover between a nicotine high and nausea, the Syrian (named Nizar), who seems younger than the other two, says, “I would like to come to America. I have family. Iowa. Sidrah Rapids. They are Americans. They like it very much.”

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South Berlin

I drive south of Berlin, where I’ve agreed to meet Alexander Belmadi outside Tempelhof Airport, a Cold War icon when it served as the hub for the Berlin airlift in 1948. It was converted into a refugee center in 2015 after having been abandoned for years.

“The term of art here in Germany is not assimilation, but integration,” he says. Belmadi has worked with refugees for two years now. He’s a dual citizen — his father is French and his mother German.

“The concept of integration is a bit of a joke, to tell the truth,” he says. “Politicians talk in terms of ausbildung, meaning you learn a trade as an apprentice and get a job in a factory. We are very proud of this model, but for most it just doesn’t work. Learning this language is very difficult to begin with. On top of that, they’re traumatized. Every day they are thinking of the family members they’ve left behind.” He says only a small percentage actually thrive in the system.

Beyond the fact that most refugees have very little education, Belmadi thinks German society poses its own challenges. “Unlike the French, the Germans have no colonial history,” he says. “They’ve never internalized the fact that a German can have something other than white skin and blue eyes. So you can be integrated, but you are integrated as a foreigner.”

And in what is quickly becoming a common refrain, he points to the Turkish community. “Most Turks have never been initiated into the German concept of consensus, which is so fundamental,” he says. “Erdogan has energized part of the community here, and that, in the eyes of Germans and assimilated Turks, makes them look like foreigners. They are supportive of a dictatorial regime, which here in Germany, considering the Nazi past, is an extremely delicate issue. It’s like betraying the new Germany.”

So what does it mean to be German? I ask. “It’s a difficult question that in the end means very little,” he answers. “In France, in the U.S., you can ask that question and get lots of different answers. But here the question creates anxiety, and in the end I don’t think there’s any answer beyond living in Germany. It’s about everyday life, going to your job, having friends.” And in another common refrain, after running through the litany of problems Germany faces with its immigrant and refugee community, there’s the upbeat coda. “Of course it’s going to work,” Belmadi says. “There’s no other choice. We’ll all adapt.”

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After running through the litany of problems Germany faces with its immigrant and refugee community, there’s the upbeat coda. “Of course it’s going to work … there’s no other choice. We’ll all adapt.”
Trump’s Shadow

Near the end of my last visit to Germany, I sat with Konrad Litschko, a young journalist who works for the left-leaning Die Tageszeitung newspaper. He covers the right-wing parties including Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Pegida, which is an ultranationalist party founded in 2014 whose less-polished core message is rabidly anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. AfD goes to great lengths to stress it’s different from Pegida, but there has been overlap in membership and discourse.

The right tends to draw more support in areas like Saxony, once part of East Germany, which still suffer from higher unemployment and poverty rates. A poll taken at the end of last year in Saxony showed 25 percent would vote for Alternative for Germany in the next elections. Attacks against immigrants have risen sharply in the past two years, especially in cities, including Dresden and Leipzig. “There are also plenty of places in West Germany where the right has made inroads,” Litschko acknowledges, “but the numbers tend to be quite small.”

One can’t help worrying that this could change. When hundreds of men of largely North African and Arab descent sexually harassed as many as 1,000 women in Cologne’s train station on New Year’s Eve 2015, the reaction was swift — and not just from the right. “What happened in Cologne was a watershed moment,” Litschko says. “All the polling shows a big change in attitude after that. And even though it later came out that some of these men were not refugees and that there are all sorts of sexual harassments done by Germans at Oktoberfest, the debate had begun.”

Even Chancellor Merkel, the architect of the open-door policy, has backpedaled a bit, vowing to limit the number of refugees this year, hurrying the process of deportation for those who don’t qualify and calling for a ban of the burqa. “The full veil is not appropriate here. It should be banned wherever it’s legally possible,” she said last December.

The burqa-ban proposal is likely no more than posturing for her conservative base, since the German media was unable to find any evidence of women wearing a full veil anywhere in Germany. One does see plenty of drab black abayas, but the face is left uncovered.

Now, to further complicate matters, comes Trump. “Petry was one of the first in Germany to publicly congratulate Trump,” Litschko says. “It isn’t just about going against immigrants, but also going against the establishment — what she calls the Merkel regime. Now they look at Trump, and they are thinking their moment has come.

“The right is clearly gaining ground,” he says. “Still, a large majority of Germans say they support liberal democratic values. So even though there is a shift, I don’t see it happening as fast or as profoundly as in the U.S.”

Judging from my recent travels through Germany, I’m inclined to agree. But as we’ve learned, democracy is fickle and unpredictable. Germany, in spite of its past, now serves as a beacon for Western democratic values. Those values were plainly evident in Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, even if the policy fell short on the issue of bringing along public opinion. In the end, the question remains unanswered: what does it mean to be German?

main topic: Region: Europe
related topics: Migration, Workforce