“When their trains pulled into the gleaming Munich station, exhausted men, women and children were greeted by a sea of signs that read, ‘Welcome to Germany,’ held aloft by cheering citizens lining the platforms,” wrote Marton. Volunteers converted schools and stores into dormitories. “Germans were more than happy — in fact, thrilled — to see themselves in the role of humanitarian saviors,” said Stelzenmüller.
But the refugees had more to offer Germany than a burnished self-image. In an aging country with a low birthrate, they were a useful addition to the work force. The economy, Stelzenmüller said, “was looking for labor before the pandemic, and so there was a real demand and presumably a willingness from the labor market and companies to help people. And of course we have a long experience, a decades-long practice, of on-the-job training that is seen as a model by other European countries and in fact by America.”
Not all the lessons of Germany’s refugee experience will be welcomed by progressives. Merkel, after all, headed a center-right party, and her government took a conservative approach to assimilation. “Refugees have a responsibility to adapt to German ways,” Marton quotes Merkel saying at a meeting of her party in 2015. “Multiculturalism is a sham.”
The newcomers were required to learn German and they were settled throughout the country to avoid ghettoization. Merkel, wrote Marton, “was determined to avoid the dense concentration of immigrants that ring cities in France and Great Britain.”
And in the end, Merkel didn’t leave the border open, eventually negotiating a controversial deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to take in asylum seekers and prevent them from continuing on to Europe. She didn’t remain in power for 16 years by letting emotion outpace her sense of realpolitik.
All the same, in absorbing a million desperate people at a time when others were putting up razor wire, Germany did something great, something the rest of the world could learn from as wars and ecological calamity send many millions more trudging across the globe in search of sanctuary.