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The humanitarian crisis at Europe’s doorsteps is producing raw emotions of fear, anger, and especially in Germany, defensiveness.

John Philipp Baesler


The male three-spined stickleback is a fierce fighter. This small fish, which is very common in coastal waters of the Northern Hemisphere, survives because during breeding season, the male builds a nest on the bottom of his habitat and viciously defends his territory against male competitors, whom he recognizes by their red bellies.

In fact, the male three-spined stickleback will also defend his territory against pieces of wood with red spots painted on them, as researchers found in an experiment. That is because instincts that make animals defend their territory are rigid. In nature, as a whole, there is no time to evaluate a threat. If a key stimulus is hit, you better attack. Red spot means war.

Complaints from Germans about the intrusion of refugees from the Middle East and Africa into their territory make me think of the three-spined stickleback. These days, many people attack pieces of wood. Some politicians, intellectuals, and their supporters disparage refugees blindly, angrily, and apparently unwilling to be mindful that humans are capable of questioning their instinctive reactions. Yet the humanitarian crisis at Europe’s doorsteps is producing raw emotions of fear, anger, and especially, in Germany, defensiveness. These responses require us to investigate the key stimuli calling for vigorous protection of “our” German territory.

Discussions of nationhood and territory put Germans on the edge, because they are hopelessly entangled in layers of history and memory, mostly stemming from Nazi Germany’s war of aggression against its neighbors and its ultimate defeat in World War II. The sense that one is touching an alleged taboo permeates various responses toward the question of how to deal with the over one million refugees who made the hazardous journey into the European Union (EU) in 2015. Most of those refugees ended up in Germany, due to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in August of 2015 to unilaterally suspend the Dublin Agreement. This agreement puts responsibility for processing asylum applications in the hands of the country through which a person first enters the EU. For several months in the fall of 2015 Germany agreed to process asylum applications from people already on EU soil (the occasion for Merkel’s choice was the plight of thousands of refugees stuck at the train station of Hungary’s capital of Budapest).

Recently those numbers have declined. Only about 222,000 people were newly registered in Germany in the first six months of 2016. Particularly since February, there has been a steep drop in numbers because East European countries closed their borders and because the German government, along with the rest of the EU, is paying Turkey to keep refugees from reaching Europe and the lenses of European TV cameras. Still, Germans welcomed the refugees with open arms; without the work of untold numbers of volunteers, it would be impossible to even imagine the process of integrating these men, women, and children into German society.

Observers delighted in images of friendly Germans awaiting refugees at train and bus stations with water, food, flowers, and toys for the children, especially after the “ugly German” had seemingly raised his head again during the Greek debt crisis and amid criticism of harsh German demands for austerity from its southern EU partners. This was yet another occasion on which some German commentators hoped to “finally” put the past behind and present a friendly face to the world.

Alas, German attitudes toward the refugees were at no point straightforward. Integrating the newcomers poses challenges. After a series of sexual attacks on women in Cologne and elsewhere during New Year’s celebrations, the German public has become vary, because many of the perpetrators turned out to be newly arrived young men from northern Africa. In a recent poll, 81 percent of respondents still accepted the necessity of taking refugees, making Germany one of the most refugee-friendly countries in the world. Yet 3 out of 4 Germans expected refugees to return to their home countries even if they had been in Germany for several years. Half of respondents anticipated negative cultural consequences from the refugees, particularly Muslims, and three out of four Germans foresaw generally negative repercussions for society. Yet interestingly, the same number did not see themselves negatively affected in their personal lives by the refugees.

Germans still anticipate the current situation to be temporary, but discussions of the long-term repercussions of a potential increase in immigration from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Eritrea are raging with full force. Here current politics join history to create a potent mix of emotions. Frustrations with the Angela Merkel’s ideological fuzziness and unilateral decision-making style inflame the debate. Hence, it was the refugee crisis that catapulted Germany’s contribution to the widespread success of populist right-wing parties in Europe, namely the Alternative für Deutschland, AFD (“alternative for Germany”) to a string of successes in recent elections.

The name “alternative for Germany” is instructive. It harks back to a careless but telling remark by chancellor Merkel during the Euro crisis, when she insisted that her policies were “without alternative.” This remark was of course only an echo (probably unintended by Merkel) of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous TINA (“there is no alternative”) statement justifying her government’s cuts to the British welfare system. As an encapsulation of the technocratic neo-liberal worldview, TINA is hard to beat. Fears of immigration therefore mingle with fears of economic decline. By attacking the scapegoat of the refugee, AFD supporters are fighting pieces of wood, some of them painted by the party they support.

The AFD was founded in 2013 by an economics professor named Bernd Lucke, who conceived the party’s platform around demands to abolish the common currency in Europe. The party almost entered the German parliament, the Bundestag, with 4.7 percent of the votes in the 2013 federal elections. However, in 2015 Lucke was ousted in Shakespearian manner by Frauke Petry, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, and Jörg Meuthen, another economics professor. Under new leadership, the AFD moved further to the right and made immigration its political calling card. The party has forged informal associations with the xenophobic protest movement PEGIDA, which, incredibly, stands for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (“patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident”). The AFD’s 2016 party platform declares, “Islam does not belong to Germany,” a statement that sits awkwardly with the roughly four million Muslims currently living in Germany and the fact that the German constitution unequivocally guarantees freedom of religion.

In the wake of the refugee crisis, the AFD achieved some stunning victories, garnering between 12.6 and 24.3 percent in state elections. However, it is quite possible that the clash of ambition that made the current party leadership will also be its downfall. Further, we should not assume that all its voters agree with the party’s rigid ideological platform (for example, the AFD also denies the scientific consensus on climate change and rejects equal rights for LGBTQ Germans). Voting for the AFD allows Germans of different political stripes to express their frustration with what they see, in some ways quite rightly, as a lack of political opposition to the Grand Coalition of the two big Volksparteien (“people’s parties), the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Angela Merkel and the Social Democrats, who since chancellor Gerhard Schröder stripped themselves of almost all of their traditional socialist leanings.

What is truly significant about the AFD is that it has become a carrier of radical ideas into the mainstream. It has filled a political void with “unsayable” statements. Some prominent members giddily break real and alleged taboos, steadily expanding their rhetorical territory.

Take AFD vice-chairman Alexander Gauland. The 75-year old Gauland is a long-time functionary of the conservative CDU, journalist, and jurist. During a stay in Edinburgh in the early 1970s, Gauland acquired a taste for Scottish tweed jackets. His look and demeanor give him the appearance of a thoughtful professor. Yet since his move to the AFD in 2013, Gauland has become one of the AFD’s main rhetorical and ideological fire breathers.

In a recent e-mail to party members, Gauland defended himself against accusations that he had attacked German soccer star Gerome Boateng, whose father was a Nigerian immigrant, when he remarked that many of Boateng’s fans would not want him as their neighbor (who said what during the interview, which gathered a lot of attention days before the 2016 Euro soccer tournament, remains contested). Instead, Gauland insisted, he had simply discussed the “unrestrained influx of people alien to our culture (kulturfremd) and our space (raumfremd).” In a speech in the small East German town of Elsterwerda in June 2016, Gauland approvingly quoted a slogan originating in the neo-Nazi scene: “Heute sind wir tolerant, morgen fremd im eigenen Land” (“today we are tolerant, tomorrow we will be aliens in our own country”). In case there was any doubt about Gauland’s target, he explained in an interview in April that he did not consider Islam as such compatible with Germany: “That’s why we stopped the Turks in front of Vienna in 1683.”

In a typical move illustrating the careful strategy of widening rhetorical space, Gauland and others insist, “we are tolerant.” They say they do not oppose “specific strangers/foreigners” (Fremde) or Muslims, but only Islam and foreignness. Just as most American racists assert that they have “black friends,” Gauland’s rhetoric insists on deniability by separating the reality of dealing with foreigners from an ideological insistence on pure German culture and space, “the country we inherited from our fathers and forefathers.”

Gauland was born in 1941. Two years earlier, one of Gauland’s favorite terms, raumfremd (“extra-regional”) was used by Carl Schmitt, a devilishly intelligent legal theorist who ruthlessly employed his intellect to justify the Nazi assumption of power and war of aggression. Shortly after Germany unleashed the Second World War, Schmitt published a legal treatise called, Völkerrechtliche Großraumordnung mit Interventionsverbot für raumfremde Mächte. Ein Beitrag zum Reichsbegriff im Völkerrecht, (an approximate translation would be: “International Law of Sphere-of-Influence-Ordering with a Prohibition on Intervention for Extra-Regional Powers: A Contribution to the Concept of Empire in International Law”). Schmitt argued against U.S. intervention in Germany’s European war, insisting that the United States was a power alien to Europe as Germany’s sphere of influence, literally “large space” (Großraum). Using the Monroe Doctrine as his guide, Schmitt insisted that local imperial powers had the right to organize “their” large space without interference from other powers.

A jurist himself, Gauland must be aware of the origins of his rhetoric, namely the geo-strategic justification of German imperial dominance in Europe. Therefore, insistence that the AFD is concerned about “European” as much as “German” culture gives little comfort. The party is not arguing for a German empire, much less the resurrection of Nazi rule during the year of Gauland’s birth. But a term such as raumfremd illustrates a view of cultures as naturally alien from and in competition with one another. From this view follows the insistence by many AFD supporters to keep cultures geographically separate in order to protect their purity.

A second instructive term often used by right-wing populist intellectuals is Umvolkung, the moving of a people from one space to another. An example would be the policy of sinicination in Tibet, where since the 1950s the Chinese government systematically pursues the settlement of Han Chinese in the Autonomous Region of Tibet. Some suspect that Angela Merkel is pursuing a similar policy in Germany. Jurist Dietrich Murswiek recently argued that the federal government “is not authorized to dissolve the identity of the people, whom it represents and whose well-being it has pledged to protect, by means of immigration policy.” The German people, according to Murswiek, are “a people of uniform culture and history, uniform language, and uniform attitude.”

It is one thing to express concern about the repercussions of large-scale immigration. But Murswiek and friendly journalists who widely distributed his argument insist on a uniform, immutable German identity and accuse Angela Merkel in breathless hyperbole of planning a kind of cultural suicide through her policy toward refugees. In their nationalistic hysteria, AFD supporters often disparage those who help refugees as naive and decry an alleged “Auschwitz complex,” the spouts of bad conscience that supposedly makes some Germans willing to abandon their own to please the expectations of foreigners.

When the right says “culture,” they often mean race. The man who sold millions of books warning that Germans would become “alien in their own country,” is the economist Thilo Sarrazin. In his widely sold (but probably rarely read) 2010 book “Germany abolishes itself,” Sarrazin argued that Muslim immigrants carried lower intelligence in their genes and that immigration, in combination with lower birth rates among Germans, would lead to cultural suicide. Not only did Sarrazin use false data about the significance of genetic inheritance for intelligence, he also misreported the educational achievements of Muslims in Germany and other signs of successful integration of immigrants from Turkey and other majority-Muslim countries. For example, among second-generation Germans of Turkish descent, 70 percent of women and 83 percent of men speak good or excellent German. Yet the widespread resonance of Sarrazin’s claims shows how far the rhetorical space has been widened.

The idea that immigration, even mass immigration, will dissolve or abolish Germany is bunk. Yet the arrival of millions of refugees in Europe is a dramatic event and a cultural and geopolitical crisis, if not in the way the populist right imagines it. In a larger sense, the newcomers in Europe are harbingers of the breakdown of the spatial containment of misery. They represent the collapse of the last barrier of globalization, namely the global movement not just of money and industrial production, but also of humans. The refugee crisis is an expression of the unequal distribution of war and socio-economic devastation since World War II.

In the century between the 1820s and 1914, almost a billion people left their continent of origin. Many embarked on journeys across the oceans to find a new life in the urbanizing and industrializing world. The establishment of nation states and the mechanization of labor in the twentieth century supposedly ended the age of mass migration. But crisis is about to destabilize the global order. Think tank analysts describe an “arc of instability” encompassing almost 100 nations in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and large swaths of Southeast Asia. Here a domino effect could spread crisis quickly. Hence it is here that the Pentagon engages in military intervention and imperial policing, mostly through the use of Special Operations and cooperation with local proxies.

The concept of a geographical arc suggests that “instability”—really meaning death and misery—is inherent in a contained area. As an operational term it avoids a confrontation with the fact that this arc is part of a larger, global system of power. For example, and not surprisingly, the arc encompasses most of the major oil producers in the world. Despite promises to fight terror everywhere, proponents of the arc never suggested military intervention in all parts of the world, say in Germany, where large parts of the 9/11 attacks had been plotted. The separateness of the arc of instability expressed itself in the willingness of the U.S. military to employ force there, but not elsewhere.

Fossil fuels enabled the economic boom in the West after World War II, and it is a major driver of climate change. As Naomi Klein argues, the global climate crisis is contributing to the breakdown of the arc of instability, despite and because of increasing U.S. military intervention. Extraction of natural resources is dirty business and requires “sacrifice zones” that contain most of the misery and destruction that comes with mining or drilling. Therefore these sacrifice zones also require policing. U.S. drone strikes stunningly match the areas of increasing water scarcity. Drought indubitably played a role in the outbreak of the Syrian civil war when record numbers of impoverished farmers entered the city of Daraa, scene of the first uprising against President Bashar al Assad in 2011.

Europeans considering the troubles of the Middle East as far away now have to rethink. Just as ISIS-inspired terrorist cells have brought violence to the heart of Europe, refugees—who are not terrorists but simply want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—are breaking down the geographical order of distribution of these universal human aspirations. On a local level the haves tend to separate themselves from the have-nots with gated communities and private security forces, while nationally, security agencies claim greater and greater powers of surveillance.

Yet, how far can this go? At which point will we reach a paradigm shift toward global governance that treats humanity’s common problems as occasion for the pursuit of common solutions? Sociologists Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck demand Weltinnenpolitik, usually translated as “global governance” but literally meaning “global domestic politics,” a term they use to denote and demand the political globalization they deem necessary to provide for fair, democratic, and therefore legitimate policies addressing the pressing challenges of humanity. Such a global polis requires empathy, which in turn means a new imagination of culture and space as modes of encounter, rather than separation. By seeing refugees as fellow human beings rather than threats, we might learn to develop more empathy. Maybe this time, there actually is no alternative.


John Philipp Baesler teaches the history of US foreign relations at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. A native of Germany, he is fascinated with trans-Atlantic relations in their political, cultural, and military dimensions.

Illustration © Mike Mosher 2016.

Copyright © John Philipp Baesler. All rights reserved.

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