It could be you or me

Germany’s constitution was born in a period of upheaval in the aftermath of the Second World War, the country divided in two, and conceived as a temporary set of laws, to be replaced when Germany was again united as one country. But years went by and that prospect became more and more remote. The “Basic Law” became permanent and when, over forty years later, reunification finally came about, it was adopted as the constitution of the new Germany. Berlin hosts a cross between a monument and a piece of art on which the constitution is written on a row of large glass plates.


The constitution reflects what was then the very recent history of the Nazis’ setting aside of human rights and the previous rule of law, and it still frames Germany’s attitude towards the world and itself today.

You can hear the echo of the concentration camps in the opening line of Article 1:

The dignity of the individual is inviolable.

Followed not by a caveat, but by ‘It is the duty of the state to protect and honour this.’

Similarly, other principles are outlined in bold statements.

All persons are equal before the law.

Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, are inviolable.

Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum.

This last provision is of course the one most topical, with millions of refugees from Syria and other countries seeking sanctuary for themselves and their families. We have Germany preparing to accept 800,000 refugees and the federal government providing billions of funds to look after these new arrivals. For the German leadership, this is a moral imperative. The Nazi period might lie decades in the past, but it will never be forgotten and shapes Germany’s attitude towards the rest of the world today.

Accepting this number of refugees is a huge step to take and we should not forget that it is not without risk, or indeed its own historical context.

Germany remains a country which even now has not properly decided how to treat the millions of Gastarbeiter and their families, the largely Turkish ‘guest workers’ who came to Germany from the mid-1950s onwards and helped rebuild the country. Contrary to expectations at the time, but entirely predictably, Germany became their home, even more so for their children, but the original workers are still not entitled to German citizenship along side their original Turkish citizenship. And these are people who have been living and working in Germany for the last 60 years.

Even before the latest offer of sanctuary, there was already concern in Germany that, rather than using, and where necessary, renovating existing accommodation – including the building I used to live in in Berlin – refugees were being housed in tents and other pre-fabricated structures, often very separate from where the rest of the population lives. The longer-term question is always how to foster acceptance and integration once the initial rush of generosity dies down, as it always does, and will do in this case. ‘Refugees welcome’ is a wonderful sign of intent, but making that intent something which will be of long term benefit requires early consideration of the practical consequences of immigration on this scale. And as climate catastrophe is one of the root cause of the present humanitarian crisis, this is just the beginning.

There have already been several cases of attacks on refugee accommodation in Germany this year, even before the Syrian crisis really became well known and the scale of refugee movements increased so dramatically. These attacks are perpetrated by a very small minority in the country but they are already reminiscent of similar barbarity in 1991 and 1992 when there was a series of attacks in Eastern German towns against foreign families.

At around the same time, there was a debate in Germany about limiting what had been that unrestricted right to asylum in the country, itself a reaction to the experience of National Socialism and its devastating consequences for the number of refugees both during and after the Third Reich.

The outcome of the political debate in the early 1990s was to add to the previous bold and unrestricted right to asylum several paragraphs of exceptions to the rule. Some of the exceptions were simply designed to aid the practical process of identifying refugees more straightforward and even now, Germany has made it clear that the offer of asylum being made applies only to refugees, not to those from other countries where they are not being persecuted or living in a war zone. Citizens of other EU countries were, for example, excluded from being able to claim asylum in the 1993 change to the constitution . But it was a move which was strongly challenged by refugee organisations at the time and challenged at the constitutional court (which upheld the legality of the changes).

Germany has had a lot of experience with the causes and impact of refugees, not least in the form of the consequences of its own actions in the 1930s and 1940s. But so have all the other countries in Europe at some point. Persecution and migration (for many reasons) have been part of the history of mankind since the dawn of time.

My great-great grandfather (I might be out by a generation) was not exactly a refugee, but certainly a migrant, moving from Ireland to Scotland during the potato famine. I have no idea how he was received when he arrived with what must have been a different accent, little money and looking for work. He changed our surname to make it sound more Scottish than Mahaffy. But within a couple of generations, there had been marriages, children and a sense of being Scottish. A success story then. I am sure there are other stories which did not end so well.

Members of the family I have known longest and best in Germany were also refugees after the war. They were forced to leave Bohemia, then part of Germany, leaving everything behind and walking hundreds of miles, some as young children, to a city which was foreign to them, where the German spoken was different and made them stand out as different, almost foreign. To this day, they can switch back to their native dialect and the cooking I grew up with believing to be standard German fare is in fact largely from that area. Those refugee children were also victims of the Nazi regime and found themselves in a part of Germany that didn’t want them, and found them an inconvenient reminder of the recent past, a past that many would rather not be forced to think about every time the children opened their mouths. But in time the children grew up and their families became part of their new society. Since then generations have grown up in the same city they moved to, creating their own bonds and links with their new home.

But none of that happens by accident, either in the past or now. There has to be a willingness to accept, even embrace, the differences in the newcomers, to share the best of our respective cultures and help them to be able to treat their new surroundings as a home for them and for the children who will grow up there, some knowing the country of their parents’ birth only through stories and pictures of happier times, others remembering all too well what it was they were escaping from and what it had cost to find safety.

In the end, we all come from migrant families. Some of us just got here a little earlier than others. And that difference is nothing more than blind chance. It could have been any one of us trying to escape on a boat or living in a camp, hoping for a better tomorrow, free from fear for their lives and with dreams for their children’s futures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *