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“The Germans Have to Admit They Need Their Neighbors”


Refugees arriving at Munich’s main train station in summer 2015 were greeted with applause. The whole nation seemed to embrace the newcomers. Then the mood changed. Sociologist HEINZ BUDE explains why.


© REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The mood in Germany changed markedly around the turn of the year. How did we get from a cheery atmosphere of Willkommenskultur to hand-wringing and fear? The crucial event was New Year’s Eve. [Women celebrating on the streets of Cologne and a few other cities were attacked, robbed, and sexually assaulted by large gangs of men of mostly “North African appearance.”] Three points came to a head with this event.

First, a lot of people realized that we have to think a little bit more about the people coming to us, how we view them. Most of the refugees and migrants have escaped very dire situations and are now trying their luck in Germany. Now we have seen that some of them are doing so in ways that are rather unimpressive.

Second, there is a difference between people coming from Turkey and those from Arab countries. Germany is experienced as far as migration from Turkey is concerned – there is a sizable group of Germans of Turkish descent now. But do we have experiences with people coming from Arab countries? We realized this was a new challenge.

Third, we started asking why we were so isolated in Europe as far as our position on refugees was concerned.

Those thoughts were rarely articulated openly. People had doubts. And something very interesting happened. Those who had been silent before – those who were anti-Willkommenskultur, but convinced that there was a majority who thought differently about the newcomers – started saying: “Now you see what’s happening; the newcomers are exactly what we feared.” The German pollster Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann used to speak of the “Schweigespirale”, the spiral of silence. People are reluctant to voice their opinion if they think theirs is the minority position. But now those in the Schweigespirale form new communities online, and they are no longer silent; they are still not very loud, but they have turned up the volume.

You mean those of a welcoming disposition got quieter, and those who had always harbored doubts became louder? Exactly. And from that, the political questions arose: Did Chancellor Angela Merkel really do the right thing? More and more people have started to ask: Is it okay to be dependent on Turkey? Why do the French behave so differently? Why do the Swedes behave so different? Suddenly the Germans felt very alone. It was something we had experienced when we were dealing with Greece and the eurocrisis, but this time was very different.

It felt like a huge mood swing. Does it suggest that the Willkommenskultur wasn’t very well established, and was perhaps a fleeting phenomenon? It might stem from the fact that many in Germany think: “Maybe we are the reluctant hegemon of Europe; maybe we are the country that rules Europe.” We did show the Greeks how to solve their problems. And if we are the new leading country in Europe, then we have to be a little more open-minded, a little more generous. This was the original feeling.

But once doubts set in – well, we have a weakness for having doubts. And that changed “the mood”; I would actually prefer the German word “Stimmung,” because Stimmung is subjective and objective, both mood and atmosphere. It transformed into something more unstable, which means that today it really is impossible to say what the dominant Stimmung in Germany is. We are somewhere in the middle between Willkommenskultur and a culture of doubt.

What are the components of this culture of doubt? Is it also fear of change in general? Globalization is hitting us in different ways; modernity is constantly changing society. At the same time, we are experiencing a rise of contempt for elites, for those making decisions “over our heads.” No, it’s something different. The whole German narrative has radically changed. Our whole model of production changed, and the composition of the population changed – and not only in a quantitative sense, but also in a sense of who has a voice and who shapes the debate.

But while the story of the majority of Germany’s middle class is a success story, there are pockets of bitterness – especially within that middle class, among people who aren’t necessarily disadvantaged economically but who feel that their voices are no longer heard. They think the story told every day is no longer their story.

And that is where hate comes in. Hate has something very special; it’s an affect that gives you a sense of autonomy, having a voice. Those people don’t subscribe to the notion of a success story. They are thinking along the lines of: “I couldn’t say that everything is wrong with my life, but I don’t share the story that says that we are now the leading country, everything is going well in Germany, that’s not my story.” They haven’t dropped out in the sense that they’ve lost their jobs, but they have lost the recognition they were accustomed to. You’ll find them in Eastern Germany in particular, where you can identify them very precisely. Social scientists speak of “relative deprivation.” And our findings are that they stand for about ten percent of the German population.

What could turn the Stimmung in Germany again? Almost everything depends on what steps Angela Merkel takes, because she is the new figure of hate for many people.

Is she good at reacting to moods? Yes, in a way. One of her recent interviews was very interesting. It was a sort of reaction to the Stimmung. She said something like “I know we do have a polarization of Stimmung in Germany. And I know it’s a huge task. But look at me, I’m trying to do what is needed and I’m not feeling weak. I’m calm, I’m doing my job.”

But now she has to admit that it is a little bit more complicated. She has to communicate to the German public not necessarily that she has made mistakes, but to say something like: “I cannot do it alone. You have to help me.” That would be a very good intervention addressing the Stimmung. I don’t know whether she is able to do that, because many in her party will be ready to act on that and put her out of the game. But she needs to demonstrate stability and to be seen closely cooperating, especially with her Christian Democrats’ sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) led by Horst Seehofer, her sharpest critic in the refugee question. It’s also about reassurance. If she fails to do this, I cannot see her winning the next election.

How about on the European level? Do we need, in order to change the Stimmung a bit, a European reassurance that we can make it on a European level, that Europe stays united and will do its best to find a solution? I fully agree. I think the Germans have to admit that they need their neighbors. I think – and people in Germany are feeling it, too – that the EU’s problems are severe. The United Kingdom may be leaving – it’s a real possibility. And there’s a feeling that something is going wrong in France; and Greece was a farce, to tell the truth.

Therefore, Germany has to try and establish a new European policy, saying that Germany is aware that it is dependent on its neighbors. It seems the other European countries are waiting for something like this; it would lead to a new atmosphere of cooperation in Europe, making it easier for Germany to take the lead.

Wouldn’t Germany also need to learn to distinguish between legitimate criticism that you should take into consideration, and criticism that is sometimes harsh but expresses something else – in short, a much more relaxed attitude toward criticism from other European nations? Yes. At the same time, it should be our duty to point out our existing problems. We have real economic problems in Europe. We have real problems with the organization of a collective will in Europe, and maybe it’s time that we returned some competences from the EU to the member states. Why not? But such initiatives have to come from Germany; that, I believe, is the prevalent feeling around Europe.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – May/June 2016 issue.