Letter from Germany — From the April 2017 issue

Echt Deutsch

How the refugee crisis is changing a nation’s identity

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In the fall of 1989, East Germans flocked to the central squares of cities such as Dresden and Leipzig every Monday night to oppose the Communist regime. Their trademark slogan had a hopeful dignity: “Wir sind das Volk,” the crowd would chant. We — not the secret police, not the Communist elites — Are the People.

For the past few years, a group that calls itself the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) has been assembling on Monday nights in those same cities. Staking its claim as the spiritual successor of that historic revolt, PEGIDA centers on opposition to the refugees who are making their way to Germany in their hundreds of thousands. When I joined thousands of angry citizens in the center of Dresden for their weekly protest last spring, there was a distinct whiff of counterrevolution in the air. Few protesters were waving the black, red, and gold flag of the Federal Republic, whose tricolor design invokes the universalist values of the French Revolution. Instead they favored the “Wirmer flag,” a black Nordic cross bordered in gold against a red background, which has become popular in far-right circles because it is taken to symbolize the country’s Christian roots, and also because it resembles the forbidden war flag of the Third Reich.

What the iconography of resistance lacked in subtlety, it made up for in variety. I spotted Russian flags (“Putin puts his people first,” its bearer explained), a Confederate flag (“They were true rebels”), and a Japanese flag (“Better to let your population shrink than to let a lot of foreigners in”).

The homemade signs were even more forthright. One declared that Angela Merkel and her government were enemies of the german people who were waging a war of annihilation against us!!! Another said hey, yankee, get the shit out of here and take your puppets with you. A third sign showed a Crusader on horseback, using his spear to repel a pair of Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists, the man wearing traditional dress, the woman covered by a niqab. islamists not welcome, it announced in big letters.

When the rapid influx of refugees began, in the fall of 2015, there was a huge outpouring of support. Around the time that Ranim and her children were setting off across the Aegean, Merkel made a clear commitment to provide safe harbor to any Syrian or Iraqi refugee who arrived in Germany. Integrating so many refugees would pose a significant challenge, she conceded at a press conference in Berlin. But, she vowed, in a sentence that came to define her attitude in the imagination of the German public, “Wir schaffen das!” We can do it!

In those days, activists thronged the railway stations of major cities to greet, feed, and clothe the new arrivals. Many waved white flags that bore the outline of a small family, the man running in front, a woman behind him dragging along a small girl. refugees welcome, its black lettering proudly proclaimed.

That unconditional welcome now feels like a relic from the distant past. As estimates of the number of new arrivals continued to grow, as a crowd of mostly immigrant men sexually assaulted hundreds of women near Cologne’s Central Station on New Year’s Eve, as terrorist attacks rocked Brussels and Nice and finally Berlin, and as Merkel steadfastly refused to name an upper limit to the number of refugees her government was willing to take in, more and more Germans began demanding an end to it all.

In the many conversations I had across the country in the past year, a visceral fear of change was palpable. On a sunny Saturday morning, a well-dressed couple in their early seventies quietly told me that they were not against the refugees; they just couldn’t understand why “our pension gets smaller and smaller while those refugees are given everything for free.” A muscular locksmith in his thirties told me the next day that he wasn’t worried about the refugees: “When something happens around here, I’ll make a couple of Molotov cocktails. That’ll take care of the problem.” In all those conversations, civil or aggressive, replete with bashful allusions or full of open threats, the core anxiety was the same: Germans, people kept telling me, were being asked to give up their identity in favor of a bunch of strangers who would never belong.

Nowhere was that anxiety more evident, and nowhere did it seem more foreboding, than in the beautiful streets of Dresden. All those outrageous banners and flags, it suddenly occurred to me as the protest wound down, were a sideshow. The protest’s emotional center — its core message and its insidious refrain — was a slogan that had not changed in a quarter century. “Wir sind das Volk,” the crowd chanted, over and over, each rendition a little more aggressive. We — not those foreigners flooding Germany, not the politicians in cahoots with them — Are the People.

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is a lecturer on government at Harvard University, a senior fellow at New America, and a columnist at Slate. The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State will be published by Harvard University Press in May.

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