Contrary to the headlines, Europe is no novice in the migration business. After World War II, some 40 million refugees crisscrossed the Continent. They were soon absorbed, including some 12 million Germans flooding in from the East. But they were kin by bloodline, language or faith, as were the Poles driven from Ukraine by Stalin or, later, the French pieds-noirs kicked out of Algeria.
Today’s intruder is The Other from Africa and Afghanistan, from the Middle East and the Balkans. Europe hasn’t exactly been welcoming, as revealed by France’s banlieues, those outer-city ghettos offering no future to African and Arab immigrants.
These tired and huddled masses still aren’t really welcome, as the squabbling over quotas for asylum seekers shows. It’s a classic case of buck-passing, with members of the European Union trying to shift the load to their neighbors. And Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is out-Trumping them all by building a wall. Good luck, considering how well the Mediterranean has worked as a supposedly unbridgeable moat.
Hungary is merely a side-show. The starring country, of all places, is Germany. It’s the new Promised Land, and it’s taking in the largest number of refugees. Ironically, Germany doesn’t even allow for legal immigration the way the U.S. and Canada do. A Syrian or Eritrean can’t go to his nearby German consulate and fill out the forms, because they don’t exist. Yet getting in is easy. Mindful of its Nazi past, Germany has the most liberal asylum law in Europe. Once you set foot on German soil, they have to take you in.
Processing takes about five months, and after that the risk of deportation approaches zero. Add to that the country’s full employment, with half a million jobs begging to be filled. Add also the most munificent welfare state in Europe, which grants free housing, food, clothing, furniture and medical care, plus a €140 per month stipend for singles. After a few months, a family of four receives the same financial support as a German family on welfare.
Such magnanimous benefits may explain why the bulk of the refugees are set on Germany. But how to explain this summer’s miraculous Willkommenskultur, or “culture of welcome”? In the past, it was more of a culture of rejection.
Recall that in the 1990s, Germany faced a similar influx. In the first half of the decade, it dealt with an annual average of almost 300,000 asylum applicants, with a peak of 430,000 in 1992, mainly escapees from the Balkan wars. Back then, the public growled “no.” In the polls, almost two-thirds of Germans opposed more immigration, and almost as many wanted to tighten the asylum law.
Today’s mood change is straight out of a fairy tale. Normally governments lead and the sullen populace follows. This time, civil society is marching out front. As is her style, Angela Merkel remained mum for a couple of weeks, testing the winds before joining the parade. Citing the 800,000 asylum applicants expected this year, she spoke of a “great national mission” and promised that “obstacles shall be overcome.” Alluding to Germany’s dark past, she added: “The world sees us as a land of opportunity, which wasn’t always so.”
Public opinion corroborates the turnaround. This year, six out of 10 Germans aren’t afraid of “too many refugees.” Almost 90% of those polled are “ashamed” of the violence against newcomers. A majority wants better protection for them, and fully 95% are cheering those “good citizens,” as Ms. Merkel called them, offering jobs and donating clothes and medical supplies. Did the populace resent Germany’s excessive generosity as an engine of attraction? Surprise: More than half of the respondents opposed welfare cuts. Open arms haven’t yet turned into clenched fists.
How to explain this incredible shift? Germans have lately been confronted by heart-rending images of a drowned Syrian toddler lying on a beach, or news that 71 migrants suffocated to death in a truck stranded in Austria. This was a matter of life and death, not an inundation of “economic refugees,” as a standard line had it in the 1990s.
There has also been a generational change. Today’s Germans have lived with people of different colors and faiths long enough to see The Other as the new normal. Germany is no longer a country of lily-white Lutherans and Catholics. A subway in Berlin looks like the Metro in Washington, D.C.
Yet overload will inevitably set in. Thanks to the unending wars in Africa and the Middle East, the flood won’t subside any time soon. Meanwhile, Germany continues to shoulder the largest burden by far. It may be the new America for those yearning to be free, but the country, and indeed all of the Continent, isn’t designed to deal with the surging influx. It’s one thing to provide shelter and clothing, another to turn foreigners into citizens.
The comparison with the U.S. is instructive. In a country peopled by immigrants, newcomers become American by an act of will. But in Europe, people are born as Germans, Italians or Spaniards. Nationality is grounded in faith, language and custom. Belonging is rooted in the soil and a nation’s mythical past. Hundreds of thousands of would-be citizens are now tearing away at the centuries-old idea of the volk, as the Germans have it.
Willkommenskultur is just Europe’s first step into a modernity where nationality doesn’t depend on race or faith. Now the Continent will have to add opportunity to openness by shaking up sclerotic labor markets, restrictive housing laws and cozy insider networks. There is no better way to dignity and inclusion than “making it.” The real test has just begun.