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The Roots of German Openness

PARIS – “Germany, Germany,” shout thousands of refugees, faced with the obvious bad will of Hungary’s political authorities, in front of Budapest’s Keleti railway station. They are dreaming of Germany – not any European country, but specifically Germany – the way, more than a century ago, Europe’s poor, fleeing misery – and, in some cases, pogroms – dreamed of America.

This represents a dramatic shift from the past. What a contrast between the photo, taken less than 80 years ago in the Warsaw Ghetto, of a small Jewish child with raised arms and fearful eyes, and one taken a few days ago in Munich of a smiling refugee boy, his head protected by a policeman’s hat. For the first child, Germany meant certain death; for the second, it offers hope for a better life.

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And Germany does not represent just an abstract hope; the country is welcoming more migrants than any of its European counterparts, with Chancellor Angela Merkel having announced that the country will take at least 800,000 asylum-seekers this year. How can a country move so rapidly from darkness to light?

No one can deny the role of schools, civic and business leaders, and, of course, external forces in bringing about this change. But nor should one underestimate the importance of political leadership.

Events can create politicians. Before the Berlin Wall fell, Helmut Kohl was essentially a provincial West German political figure; the likes of French President François Mitterrand looked down on him with a certain condescension. Then, as Chancellor – a position he held for 16 years – Kohl played a key role in German reunification and, together with Mitterand and others, drafted the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union.

Events have similarly transformed Merkel from a cautiously calculating and often-slow decision-maker into a moral force. With firmness and clarity, Merkel has condemned all forms of xenophobia and criticized her European counterparts for refusing to accept refugees. Rather than worrying about offending people or losing the next election, she is following the diktat of her conscience. The daughter of a Protestant pastor raised in East Germany during Communist rule, she is standing up for Christian Democratic values. Indeed, at a time when most European political leaders are lacking in inspiration and direction, if not courage, Merkel has emerged as Europe’s moral compass.

It is time for the rest of the EU’s leaders to get on the right path. When history knocks at the door so powerfully – this time, in the form of hundreds of thousands of refugees – one cannot waste time appeasing or, worse, courting populist movements. That is the surest route to losing one’s soul – and the next election.

Of course, one must not be naive. Politics and morality are not always compatible, and Germany is in a very different situation from the rest of Europe. With its shrinking and aging population, Germany needs more young, motivated people to keep its economy thriving – a need that refugees can fill. By contrast, France and many other European countries face more favorable demographic conditions and worse economic conditions, including high unemployment.

After years of destabilizing economic crisis, which has yet to be fully overcome, most European societies feel wholly unprepared – socially, economically, politically, and even psychologically – to receive the flood of refugees. If Germany behaves in a more dignified manner, it is thanks not just to Merkel’s political leadership, but also to the fact that Germans are more secure than most Europeans. It is easier to become open to others when you are confident in yourself.

But one must not underestimate the endurance of values like tolerance and solidarity within European societies. With this in mind, EU leaders should be working to encourage and harness the generosity of some, while containing and resisting the selfishness and xenophobia of others. To be successful, however, there must be burden sharing. If those whose instinct is to be generous are left alone to shoulder the burden, that generosity will not last for long.

In the long run, a society can advance only through openness and tolerance. Rejecting diversity – whether by suppressing differences at home or cutting off outsiders – accelerates decay. To reverse the formula of former Czech President Václav Klaus, the suicide of Europe will come not from accepting the flow of refugees, but from closing our doors to them and washing our hands of their fate.

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Likewise, Hungary is not protecting Europe by building walls to keep the refugees out. On the contrary, it is not only controverting Europe’s fundamental values; it is also undermining Europe’s interests. After all, the United States would not have become the leading world power in less than two centuries without the successive waves of migrants that landed on its shores.

Europe needs refugees to prosper, and the refugees need Europe to survive.

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