Germany’s response to the global refugee crisis has drawn international praise — and it’s generated emotional images of Germans welcoming Syrians in need.
These images are powerful, but they’re part of a larger and more complicated story. Not all Germans want their country to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees. Germany has invited outsiders in before, but not made it easy for them to integrate into society.
It’s because of this history that Stefanie Friedhoff, a German-American journalist based in Boston, finds the photographs coming out of Germany so moving and heartening.
“What this is about to me, right now — what we’re seeing — is Germans saying, 'We understand you are different, but that makes no difference to us. We will take you in. We want you here,'” she says.
Friedhoff says she grew up in a moment when this kind of welcome might not have been possible. Starting in the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Turkish guest workers took factory and construction jobs in Germany. Friedhoff went to school with many German citizens of Turkish descent, and considered them to be German like her. But they still often faced discrimination and hostility.
Today, Friedhoff thinks the mood seems different. Although discrimination hasn’t disappeared in today’s Germany, she was surprised to see the warmth that Germans showed to Syrians.
Germans are still extremely conscious of the history of World War II, even 70 years later. After the war, millions of refugees had to rebuild their lives in a devastated Europe. Germany’s role as a perpetrator of atrocity has made the country painfully conscious of the past. “We grew up after the war, but still the war is and was everywhere,” says Friedhoff.
That story is still shaping Germany’s decisions today. By welcoming refugees, Friedhoff thinks, Germans are attempting to learn from the mistakes of the past. “I feel like there’s no other country in the world that wants it so badly — that wants to do the right thing. And that is because of our history.”
A warm welcome won’t be enough, of course. It will take a long-term commitment to get refugees the support they need — and help them integrate into new homes and a new culture, if they so choose.
“My biggest concerns are around how much, or how little, Germans are able at this point to really accept the other into their midst. And to live diversity,” says Friedhoff.
"It’s not about teaching these refugees the right way to do things, and to be German about everything. It’s about respecting what they also bring to the community. That’s what we have to do together."