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Pulling Up the German Welcome Mat?

BERLIN – This is Berlin’s summer of discontent. Exactly one year ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s principled decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees stranded in Hungary impressed millions of people around the world. As ordinary Germans flocked to train stations and border posts to greet people seeking shelter from war, distress, and misery, Germany’s “Welcome Culture” was saluted as a truly inspiring example of humanitarianism.

One year later, the tide has turned – above all against Merkel, now in her 11th year in office. Her credo, “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”), inspired thousands of volunteers to open their hearts – and often their homes – to refugees. Now, however, her assertive optimism is confronting a dramatic political backlash.

Sunday’s election in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – widely seen as a test run for Germany’s federal election in September 2017 – was devastating for her Christian Democratic Union. While all mainstream parties suffered severe losses, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) finished second, winning an unprecedented 21% of the vote and relegating the CDU to third place.

The Mecklenburg result was not an isolated outcome. In March, the AfD, founded in 2013 as a Euroskeptic party critical of the Greek bailout, sent shockwaves through the country when it finished second or third in regional elections in three German states. Germany’s position in the refugee crisis has transformed the AfD into a staunch anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movement, supported by disillusioned voters from across the political spectrum.