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How the refugee crisis is changing a nation’s identity

On a starry night in August 2015, Ranim Alsous and her three children set out across one of the deadliest straits of the Aegean Sea. Alongside fifty other refugees of many ethnicities and sects, Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurdish, they climbed into a small dinghy — really nothing more than an oval of inflatable plastic with a motor attached — near Bodrum, off the southwestern tip of Turkey, and headed for the Greek island of Kos.

The journey started smoothly. Turkish authorities were nowhere to be seen, the waters calm, the air warm. In less than an hour, the family would reach firm ground; in a few days, Athens; in a few weeks, Berlin. There, they would be reunited with Ranim’s husband, Mousa Alzaeem, who had traveled the same route a few months before.

Mousa Alzaeem waters a small olive tree that his family received from Berlin acquaintances after moving into a new apartment, at the edge of the city. When he lived in Idlib, Syria, he and his brother owned around 2,000 olive trees. All photographs by Kaveh Rostamkhani

Mousa Alzaeem waters a small olive tree that his family received from Berlin acquaintances after moving into a new apartment, at the edge of the city. When he lived in Idlib, Syria, he and his brother owned around 2,000 olive trees. All photographs by Kaveh Rostamkhani

Then the trouble started. The motor stalled. Water began seeping into the boat. After several long minutes, the motor came back to life, but it quickly stalled again, this time for good. The refugees had to stand upright in the dinghy as the water rose higher.

Ranim’s oldest son, Ali, a sensitive fifteen-year-old, found himself abruptly forced into the role of family patriarch. He had been the only passenger to keep his cell phone dry, raised high above his head. He alone now managed to dial the Greek Coast Guard and plead for salvation.

They said there was nothing they could do. Unless the dinghy reached Greek waters, its passengers would be on their own.

The dinghy continued to flood. Ali was desperate to save the family’s most important possession: a bag containing their vital documents and diplomas. But then he saw the infant son of a Kurdish family sinking below the surface. Letting go of the bag, he held the boy afloat. “In that boat,” Ali, whose family is Arab, told me, “all of Syria was finally one.”

A few minutes later, the Coast Guard appeared. Had the dinghy drifted into Greek waters? Or had the sailors broken the rules? Ranim didn’t know. What she did know was that her first contact with European officialdom was a painful one: the Greeks welcomed the men and older boys with a blow to the head.

Thankful to be alive, Ranim, Ali, Maya, and Amr were taken to Kos, where they applied for permission to continue to Athens. They purchased a tent in which to spend the week they expected to wait for the necessary papers, and huddled together for their first night in the European Union. Some evenings, as soon as Ranim closed her eyes, the nightmares began. She dreamed of Syria, of death and destruction, of Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters dropping bombs on her family.

Once, startled awake, she realized that the helicopters were real. They were looking for survivors of another voyage from Bodrum to Kos, likely arranged by the same smugglers, which had ended as hers so nearly might have. The next morning, a photographer discovered the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy, washed up on the beach, back on the Turkish side of the Aegean. His picture has since come to embody the suffering of the Syrian refugees.

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.

A number of countries, like the United States, have been multiethnic and multireligious since their founding. In the Hapsburg Empire or the Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire, different cultures coexisted under the rule of a tolerant monarch, yet people mostly ate, lived, and married among those of the same ilk. What much of Europe is currently attempting is historically unique. Never before has a democracy that defined itself by its ethnic or religious homogeneity managed to broaden its self-conception and recognize millions of immigrants as members of the nation. No precedent suggests that it can be done.

Germany has become the most important test site in this grand experiment. For decades, the conditions for membership in the German nation were clear and rigid. A true German was a descendant of those brave warriors who roamed the Teutonic woods and intimidated Julius Caesar’s legions — or somebody who could at least pass for one.

There are some signs of change. Immigrants and their children, mostly invisible in the public sphere a few decades ago, are starting to find success in business, sports, music, journalism, and even politics. In the most mixed neighborhoods of the country’s biggest cities, it is starting to seem obvious that a true German might be Asian or African.

A demonstration by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), in Dresden, December 22, 2014

A demonstration by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), in Dresden, December 22, 2014

And yet the older, ethnic definition of citizenship remains. It explains why those protesters in Dresden claim every Monday that “We Are the People.” It explains why so many people see immigration not as an economic or social problem but as an existential threat to the German nation. And it also explains why so many immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are of Germanic descent — more than 2 million have arrived since 1991 — don’t spot the irony in resenting refugees. Centuries ago, their ancestors left Germany for the East. Because they remain “German by blood,” they now insist, they have nothing in common with today’s Syrian newcomers.

Can Germany overcome such deep-rooted ideas about who gets to belong? If native Germans finally accept that a liberal society defines belonging by citizenship rather than by blood, and that today’s refugees might turn into tomorrow’s Germans, the country will manage to master the current crisis — and prove that the dream of a multiethnic, multireligious democracy is still achievable. But if they refuse to let go of their exclusive conception of the nation, the country will continue to treat its immigrants and refugees as second-class citizens, and will eventually succumb to the same rebellion against pluralism that has recently spread across North America and Western Europe. If that happens, the experiment of the past fifty years will end in disaster.

Lamya Kaddor is the model of how to be a minority in Germany — the kind of Muslim that German critics of Islam always say they wish for. Born in Ahlen, in northwest Germany, to Syrian parents, she is charming, educated, and successful. She is an outspoken defender of Israel’s right to exist. She doesn’t wear a headscarf.

As a reward for making things so easy on them, Germans have treated her very well. A decade ago, when Kaddor was a little-known graduate student in her mid-twenties, she proposed a children’s edition of the Koran to her favorite publishing house, and was quickly offered a book contract. Soon, news producers were asking for her views on any number of issues related to Islam and immigration. These days, she frequently defends her liberal interpretation of Islam against a radical cleric or argues for her religion’s compatibility with German culture on one of the Sunday talk shows.

The battle Kaddor fights on TV is the same as the one she wages as a part-time teacher of Islamic religion in unglamorous Dinslaken, a working-class town in the deindustrializing Ruhr area that isn’t known for anything in particular, except perhaps for bordering what was once Europe’s largest sewage-treatment plant. As part of their normal curriculum, public schools in Germany have long offered separate, faith-based religious instruction for Catholics, Protestants, and, in a few big cities, Jews. But Germany has been slow to grant its more than 4 million Muslims the same right. Kaddor wants to change that — and simultaneously ensure that her students are exposed to a moderate version of Islam.

When I sat in on one of her lessons, about different forms of prayer, it soon became clear that something about her colloquial yet direct language, delivered in the singsongy cadences of Germany’s northwest, made her students trust her blindly. Her sixth graders asked for advice on everything from how to handle a devout grandmother who pressured girls to cover their heads to dealing with a man on Chatroulette who claimed to be killing a woman live on camera.

Kaddor, whose round face is framed by long black hair, answered all the questions with imperturbable patience (“You should only wear a headscarf if that’s what you want to do”; “No, I don’t think he really was killing her”), even as she gently steered the conversation back to religion. When one student nervously told the class that his mother didn’t want him to reveal that he was Shia, Kaddor pounced on the occasion to emphasize that all religious beliefs were worthy of the same respect. “It doesn’t matter whether you are Shia, Sunni, Alawi, or something else. A human being is a human being. It doesn’t matter one bit whether he is a Muslim or not.”

“That’s right,” shouted Federico, a big-eyed, overenthusiastic boy who kept interrupting class to tell some story or another. “I have a German friend!”

“Do you think the other people around us are worth less?” Kaddor asked. “Or do you think that Yascha Mounk — I don’t know his religion, but I suspect he’s Jewish — do you think that he’s worth less than us?”

“No,” everyone muttered.

“A human being is a human being,” one of the children added eagerly.

“That’s right,” Kaddor said. “We judge people by their actions. By how they treat us.”

As she expounded on the theme of religious tolerance, Federico turned around to me. “That’s cool,” he stage-whispered, and gave me a big thumbs-up.

For a moment, I was tempted to see the lesson as a good sign. If there were teachers like Kaddor, and curious, open-minded students like Federico, perhaps German identity was less immutable than the pessimists said. Perhaps the country had changed since I lived there.

The Alzaeem family in their living room

The Alzaeem family in their living room

Born in Munich in 1982 to Jewish parents from Eastern Europe, I had a lot of advantages over most immigrants. I spoke the language without a foreign accent. Unlike many of Kaddor’s students, I didn’t “look foreign.” And though anti-Semitism was hardly extinct, it was not nearly as virulent as today’s Islamophobia; in fact, on the rare occasions when I revealed that I was Jewish, most people were keen to prove to me how much they loved the Jews. Even so, I came to feel less and less German as I got older. Whenever I mentioned that I was Jewish, I became a curiosity, an outsider, a stranger. Germany gave me opportunities, but it never quite felt like home. When I turned eighteen, I left for college, and have mostly lived outside the country since. Was I simply unlucky to be born before the new millennium?

Perhaps. But then I started to think about small details whose significance had, at first, passed me by. How much could Federico feel like he belonged to his native country if he considered it noteworthy to have “a German friend”? And didn’t even Kaddor mention far-reaching limits on her religious freedom casually, as though they were facts of nature?

At one point, an earnest boy named Kheder told her, with a mix of embarrassment and pride, that he got up at five in the morning on summer weekends to pray. “Whoa, Kheder! At five in the morning?” Kaddor asked. She gently explained that, on religious grounds, it was perfectly acceptable to make up for a missed prayer later in the day. As for herself, she told the class, she generally prayed five times a day. “But of course,” she said offhandedly, “I can’t pray in school.”

“Why not?” a student asked.

“I don’t want to pray in front of all my colleagues. Perhaps they wouldn’t understand. They’d think I’m a fundamentalist or something like that. They might start being afraid of me.”

After a long, expensive wait for the necessary documents, Ranim and her children took a boat to Athens. From there, they traveled — by train, by bus, and on foot — through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria, finally arriving in Berlin months after they set off from Idlib.

On a beautiful fall day, Mousa was reunited with his wife and children at the city’s shabby bus depot. He had asked a friend to record the joyous occasion. But in the video he showed me, the camera steadfastly rests on the face of his technically inept volunteer.

The Alzaeem family was put up in an abandoned government building that had once served as the borough hall of an affluent neighborhood in the city’s west. Hastily converted to house 1,200 refugees, the Rathaus Wilmersdorf still exuded the spirit of German bureaucracy from every nook and cranny. An old sign announced the name of the office their room had once housed: abt. stadtentwicklung und ordnungsangelegenheiten/straßen- und grünflächenamt/schadensfallbearbeitung. You don’t want to know.

Their living conditions were cramped: Mousa and Ranim shared a twin bed by the left wall, Ali and Maya had bunk beds along the right, and Amr, the littlest one, slept on a tiny mattress just long enough to connect the opposite sides of the room. They had been living there for six months when I went to meet them in March 2016. Despite the spartan surroundings, Ranim rustled up a feast: coffee, water, pears, tangerines, sunflower seeds, and a corn cake with chocolate muffins placed atop it.

Frauke Petry, the leader of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, giving a speech at an anti-refugee rally in Berlin, November 7, 2015

Frauke Petry, the leader of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, giving a speech at an anti-refugee rally in Berlin, November 7, 2015

Ranim and Mousa met in 1993 at the University of Aleppo, where they were both studying Arabic literature. He was immediately taken with her, and started to sit in on her classes in the hope of striking up a conversation. She was skeptical, but fell for him after a few months. Their married life in Syria was comfortable. Both worked as Arabic teachers, making a decent salary, but Mousa dreamed of becoming a writer. His aspirations, though, were hampered by his opposition to Assad; a publisher declined to pay for his second story collection to be printed and instead offered to cover the expenses for a book in praise of the Syrian army. Mousa refused the offer. Then the war started, and with it the constant fear of injury, torture, and death. When the high schools in Idlib began to shut their doors, in March 2015, the family decided to leave their hometown for Eretz Almanya.

Since arriving in Berlin, Mousa had tried to focus on his writing. He started to publish short stories in Almadina, a local Arabic-language magazine, and hoped to finish a novel based on his family’s escape from Syria. But his productivity suffered from having to share a room with his wife and children, and also from a nagging feeling of helplessness as he waited for the papers his family needed to remain in Germany. As a writer in exile, and one whose German remained thin, he knew very well that his art was unlikely to feed his family.

The language barrier was a problem for Ranim as well. She was on the waiting list to enroll in a German course but was trying to learn on her own. With no active vocabulary, it was difficult for her to participate in German society; for now, her life remained restricted to staying in their apartment and looking after the children.

Ali and Maya were enrolled in an integration class, which effectively shielded them from German children. Progress was slow. Many of the students in his class, Ali complained, came from Afghanistan and were functionally illiterate. And so eight-year-old Amr, who went to a normal school a few days a week, was the only member of the family who regularly interacted with Germans. As is so often the case in immigrant families, it was the youngest child who spoke the language most fluently and had the keenest understanding of his new surroundings — and probably the best chance to succeed.

As anger against migrants has risen, so have the fortunes of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Frauke Petry, the party’s leader, is known for her fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric, and has advocated using “verbal provocations” as a P.R. strategy. True to her word, she has called on the German police to avert illegal border crossings by any means necessary, even shooting at refugees. She urged native families to have at least three children to ensure that “Germany, as a population and as a nation, does not disappear entirely.” With public opinion turning in her favor, Petry — a well-spoken East German chemist in her early forties, with a square face, short black hair, and lively gray eyes — has become less and less guarded about her worldview: “It is a fact,” she declared last June, “that the tenets of Islam directly violate the German Constitution.”

Since the end of World War II, no far-right party has managed to get 5 percent of the vote and enter the Bundestag. Polls for the upcoming national elections, scheduled for this fall, suggest that this is about to change. Under Petry’s leadership, the AfD is on course to garner more than 10 percent of the vote, becoming the nation’s third-largest party and casting into doubt Angela Merkel’s ability to cobble together a governing coalition.

When I first attended an AfD campaign event, it instantly reminded me of my youth. Everything about it seemed to be inspired by the provincial German towns in which I lived in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was held in a dreary all-purpose event space in a middle-class suburb of Offenburg — the kind of place made up of family homes that are not identical, exactly, but whose walls all have the same color and whose roofs are all at the same angle. Including the predictable fact that it skewed old, the audience, too, was unremarkable. Looking for seats, old acquaintances were delighted to spot each other in the crowd; others seemed to make fast friends amid a general spirit of solidarity. If a manufacturer of orthopedic products had assembled an unusually large focus group, the scene might have looked much the same.

Mousa and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Maya, on their way to pick up Amr, his nine-year-old son

Mousa and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Maya, on their way to pick up Amr, his nine-year-old son

When the speeches started, the friendly mood quickly turned angry. Frequently accused of stoking the fire of prejudice, Petry insisted that “fear and envy are an important part of politics.” Germans, she said over a massive round of applause, should no longer refrain from invoking historically charged terms like “das Volk” with pride.

After her speech, Petry fielded questions from her audience. I joined the line to ask whether she was worried that some of the party’s supporters had advocated setting refugees’ homes on fire. “People should protest against the government’s refugee policy in front of town halls and ministries, not in front of the homes of asylum seekers,” she insisted. Then she pivoted, garnering raucous applause: “The resentment and the violence we now see in the population only shows that the government has left people alone with their problems. The things we are seeing are terrible symptoms — but they are symptoms, not the cause.”

With crucial regional elections in Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s third-most-populous state, only days away, Freddy Stiegler — a childhood friend of mine who now heads up the Social Democratic Party’s chapter in the southwestern city of Pforzheim — was doing his best to fight back against Petry. On a freezing spring morning, he set up a little stall at the local farmers’ market and began defending the government’s open-door policy to the people of his city. The public was unreceptive. There was the man who thought that things were better in the G.D.R. The man who blamed America for all the evil in the world. And, inevitably, the man who did not understand why Social Democrats like Freddy cared more about refugees than they did about native Germans.

Pforzheim, a town of 120,000, is not economically depressed. And yet, Freddy told me, it is troubled. Long known for its jewelry — an industry that continues to net profits yet provides fewer and fewer jobs — the city boasts its fair share of the superrich, and attracted high immigration in the postwar boom years, but now has the highest unemployment rate in the state. As a result, tensions are high: between rich and poor, natives and immigrants, left and right. But Freddy remained optimistic. “In the end we’ll at least manage to stay ahead of the AfD,” he said, before heading out once more to argue for the ideal of a multiethnic society.

Twenty miles to the east, in the center of Stuttgart, that society already seemed within reach. Muhterem Aras, a fifty-year-old immigrant from a remote part of the Turkish countryside, was running for reelection to the state parliament. Aras, a charismatic woman with dark hair, a broad nose, and big, smiling eyes, might be seen as the embodiment of the German dream. After all, Germany — a country she loves proudly, unabashedly, infectiously — has afforded her the opportunity to achieve everything an immigrant might hope for. She got a good education, started a family, became financially secure, won elected office, and made a lot of friends along the way.

Aras told me that her position was owed not to some unique personal quality or to some special providence but to an environment in which any immigrant should thrive. Sure, back in 1978, when she had just arrived in Germany from a small village in Eastern Anatolia, locals refused to believe that a twelve-year-old with her name and complexion could ever come to be German. But that was a different time, Aras insisted. Today, immigrants have a place in the heart of Stuttgart. And who could better bear witness to that transformation than she? Wasn’t her face smiling on posters all over town? Weren’t her constituents brimming with good vibes when she went canvassing door-to-door? And didn’t it seem inevitable that the rest of the country would soon follow suit?

Two days later, on election night, Aras saw her optimism vindicated. The people of Stuttgart reelected her with the highest vote share of any politician in the state.

“What will Germany look like in twenty or thirty years?” I asked her at the Green Party’s election celebration that night. “More like Stuttgart or more like Pforzheim?”

“Stuttgart,” Aras answered without hesitation.

When I called Freddy to see how the night had gone for him, he was walking home from a desolate election party. His wife had been driving him home, but he made her stop the car at the bottom of the steep hill on which they lived. He needed the fresh air. He needed to be alone.

In Pforzheim, he told me, the election had gone worse than he could have imagined. Support for the Social Democrats had halved since the last election. The AfD had not just overtaken the S.P.D.; it drew more than twice as much support, winning a plurality of the vote for the first time in its history.

I asked Freddy the same question I had put to Aras.

“Pforzheim,” he said.

Although Merkel has kept to the letter of her promise not to introduce an upper limit to the number of refugees that Germany will accept, she has struck a series of deals to subvert its spirit. Because Macedonia, Croatia, Hungary, and Austria have fortified their borders to stop refugees from entering, and because Germany has agreed to pay Turkey billions of euros to take back Syrian refugees who made it to Greece and stop the crossings, the flow of people has slowed significantly. In 2015, 890,000 refugees arrived in Germany. In 2016, the number was 280,000.

The most acute phase of the migrant crisis has ended, at least for now. But the political and cultural fallout is still spreading. Germany’s courageous decision to provide safe harbor to hundreds of thousands is one of the great achievements of its postwar transformation. Even the tens of thousands of Germans who helped to house and clothe the refugees in those chaotic first months, when the state was struggling to provide necessary services to new arrivals, couldn’t have imagined the can-do spirit it mobilized. The qualities for which so many people outside the country admire Germany — its moderate government, its booming economy, its vibrant civil society — had suddenly served a larger purpose.

But if Merkel’s decision to welcome the refugees was a moving embodiment of the belief, deeply ingrained in a certain generation of German politicians, that the country’s moral obligations can at times trump its self-interest, it may also turn out to be its apotheosis. Over the course of the past year, there have been hundreds of attacks on refugee homes. The AfD has established itself as a major political force. Once seemingly unassailable by her opponents, Merkel is now hated by a large number of Germans, both across the nation and among the base of her own party.

In her fight for political survival, Merkel has slowly begun to disavow the stance that won her admirers around the world. Speaking at the Christian Democrats’ party conference in December, she promised that a return to the period of open borders for refugees “cannot, must not, and should not happen.” At times, Merkel even seems to emulate the populists — as when, calling on immigrants to “show your face,” she advocated for a burka ban.

It is not only Germans who are torn as to whether they can ever come to accept Syrian refugees as members of the nation. Many Syrians are just as torn, between their desire to build a decent life in Germany and their hope that they might one day be able to return home.

In Maya’s family’s tiny room back in the Berlin refugee home, I asked her what she liked best about Germany. Her answer took me by surprise: “The Brandenburg Gate,” she said. “And Schloss Charlottenburg.”

“You’re interested in architecture?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said quietly. “When I grow up, I want to become an architect. And then I want to go back home and rebuild my country.”

Ranim, Mousa, and their kids recently moved from the crammed quarters in which I first met them to a modest apartment in the Neuköln section of Berlin. As ever, they are keen to count their blessings. “My family’s doing well,” Ali told me. “Maya is at the top of her class. Amr speaks German like the local kids.” Ali, too, is happy with the life he’s built for himself. Finally placed in a normal class, he is on the path to college and has started an internship in electrical engineering.

And yet his thoughts keep returning to the wider world. Last November, at the height of the siege on Aleppo, he messaged me in the middle of the night. “I can’t sleep,” he wrote. “I’m thinking about my life, and about Syria.” A few days later, after the U.S. presidential election, he messaged me again: “Hello,” he wrote. “I am shocked. Trump as the president of the United States! May you choose the right policies.”

Does Germany’s future lie with Stuttgart or with Pforzheim, with Merkel or with Petry, with Kaddor or with the protesters in Dresden claiming that “We Are the People”?

For now, a real hope remains that the backlash against the refugees will one day come to look like the last rearguard battle in a doomed rebellion against pluralism. But it is just as possible that historians will look on these two years and conclude the opposite. The attempt to establish liberal, multiethnic democracies in the heart of Europe, they may write, was doomed all along.

As a cruel year slouched toward winter, even the most infectious optimists I met last spring started to sound despairing. Debating Frauke Petry on Germany’s most watched talk show, Lamya Kaddor lost her friendly demeanor for a moment. “If we didn’t have any mosques, if we didn’t teach Islam in schools, if we were no longer allowed to perform ritual slaughter, would you finally consider us sufficiently integrated? Would you?” “You know, Frau Kaddor,” Petry responded with palpable disdain, “people who actually want to integrate just do it. They don’t need to be told by the law.”

In her latest book, Kaddor worries that “our democracy is in danger.” To survive this difficult moment, Germany needs to adopt an expanded understanding of what it means to be a true German — and the creation of that new collective, she argues, requires efforts by the long-standing majority as well as the recently arrived minority.

For much of her career, Kaddor had criticized right-wing extremists or trained her sights on the failings of Germany’s Muslim community. Once she dared to write about the steps that ordinary Germans would have to take to make integration work, many reacted with fury. Leading AfD politicians went on the offensive. So did a host of far-right sites. One author falsely accused her of lacking both “a theological education and the necessary qualification to teach.” Another was even blunter: the “self-enamored Mrs. Kaddor,” a well-known journalist wrote, “is genuinely dumb.”

Faced with a mountain of death threats, Kaddor decided it was no longer safe to teach her class. Publicly, she remains as combative as ever. But privately, she admitted that the past year had left her downcast. “I’ve lost some of my fighting spirit,” she told me at the beginning of 2017. “It’s sobering what strangers can do to you.”

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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April 2017

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