A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Words Don’t Come Easy: “Bedenkenträger”


After the Germans initially greeted refugees with euphoria, one old phenotype of German political discourse has returned, en masse, over the last couple of weeks: the “bearer of reservations.”


Artwork: Dominik Herrmann

Some years ago, an Italian friend who lives in Munich laid out to me his theory on the success of the German economy. “The secret is your pessimism. Your products are so good because you are always ready for failure. Better carry out more tests! For us it’s the other way around – optimism and a good mood makes life in Italy more pleasant, but they’re not good qualities for engineers.”

I was reminded of this over the last few weeks. The mood in this country has darkened. The can-do attitude of the late summer has increasingly been replaced by an autumnal skepticism – can we really cope with the refugee crisis?

The sentimental courage of our Willkommenskultur is making way for an atmosphere of concern in which an old phenotype of German political discourse has re-appeared: the Bedenkenträger – the bearer of reservations. He poses questions such as: how many more are coming? Can we integrate them all into the labor market? Will we be able to organize enough winter accommodation for them?

The questions are justified. But the change in mood cannot be explained by logical reservations. The swing back is as extreme as was the summer’s positivity.

The scenes at Munich train station of Germans welcoming refugees as if applauding marathoners at the finish line, now seem oddly surreal. Talking to politicians in Berlin nowadays about these scenes, one senses irritation. Something about those days was odd, suspect, overblown, they say.

Were we in fact applauding ourselves rather than the refugees? And did these potential immigrants misunderstand us? Are they all on the way here now? Has our explicit openness turned into a curse? There he is again, the German Bedenkenträger.

The word is often laconically translated into “skeptic” in English. But that’s not quite right. Skepticism marks a rational distance from overly ambitious ideas. The skeptic pulls expectations and possibilities into a reasonable balance, to maintain the ability to act and prevent too much disappointment.

A Bedenkenträger is not interested in the ability to act. He issues constant warnings and reminders of danger. His mind creates rows of hurdles and he anticipates failure, in order to avoid having to do anything at all. He is not a singular phenomenon; thousands of Bedenkenträger can be heard not only in response to the refugee crisis, but also in German debates about TTIP, gene technology, and other new developments he finds risky – if not too risky.

The Bedenkenträger finds his thoughts burdensome, and because he wants people to see the efforts he makes, he is happy to carry them in public. He is uniquely proud of his fears. While the Bedenkenträger represents a very particular form of German conservatism, he is completely independent of political direction. He comes in all party colors.

There are many warnings and reminders in this autumn’s discussion of the refugee crisis. It begins with pragmatic concerns over whether enough beds, shipping containers, and clothing can be made available. But these concerns quickly turn to the fundamentals: If this crisis cannot be solved, the Bedenkenträger warns, then, no less, “politics has abdicated responsibility,” “Europe is approaching collapse,” or “the coalition is going to break apart.” Politicians from the ruling coalition even go so far (at least in private conversations) as to say that “democracy in Germany” is in danger.

The actual situation is not that apocalyptic. Certainly it is appropriate to take a more sober look than was the case in the summer. For we face huge challenges: Tens of thousands of additional teachers will be needed, hundreds of thousands of apartments, and training programs for the most varied of qualifications.

But the truth is that the Germany that is supposedly scared and fixated with following the rules, is currently showing a magnificent talent for improvization. A very un-German flexibility is enabling the country to stoically keep on through the biggest crisis it has faced since reunification – without having the perfect solution to all problems. After all: Germany’s mayors and local politicians, police officers, and civil servants  taking care of thousands of new arrivals every day have no time for the concerns of the Bedenkenträger.