I had just emerged from the office of the international network of journalists, Reporters Without Borders, on Berlin’s Friedrichstraße. While walking to the Metro station, I passed a group of middle-aged men who could be of West Asian origin. They were talking to a blond young man.
“But where exactly do you want to go?” the latter was asking them solicitously when I passed. He was trying to help them, it appeared. To try and communicate, he spoke to them in perfect English; they, apparently, did not know German. Nor, it turned out, were they fluent in English. They did not seem to follow him, and their responses were somewhat impatient. “We go Berlin Wall,” one of them said, a little loudly, as if to a backward child who really should have got it by now.
“Yes,” the blond young man replied gently, “But the Berlin Wall was all round the city. Where exactly would you like to go?” He then realised that they wanted to see what remains of the gate that used to be popularly known in the West as ‘Checkpoint Charlie.’ It was just a little farther up that road. He explained the way patiently.
Over the past few years, I have always found young ‘White German’ Berliners helpful if asked for directions. Generally, though, they would be quick and efficient about it. Although they would help politely, they appeared eager to get on with what they had been doing — including putting earphones back into their ears!
This summer, there appears to be an added niceness.
Not only do young people help when asked, they occasionally volunteer help. More remarkable, they sometimes meet one’s eye and smile while passing on the street. Even older persons sometimes seem willing to help or say ‘Hallo’ to a passing ‘Black’ person.
Not all, to be sure.
There are those who might purse their lips or look away darkly, but that sort of behaviour could have to do with having a bad day, totally unrelated to the presence of a ‘Black’ person. And, of course, there were always those who looked unhappy to see an outsider. One wonders about the extent to which this apparent trend towards an overall welcoming attitude may be related to the influx of ‘refugees.’ The migration of more than a million refugees to Germany, mainly during a six-month period which lasted until about February this year, is certainly the most politically and socially salient issue in the country. It dominated the media for months. It has been high in people’s minds.
The nationalist (some call it xenophobic) political party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), has gained ground rapidly. Some surveys now give them the party the support of about 12 percent of the popular vote — mainly concentrated in some pockets of the country. Most analysts attribute these rapid gains to unhappiness about refugees.
However, although 12 percent is huge compared to the AfD’s marginal past, it is still only 12 percent. As significant is the graffiti one passes, criticising it — one wall, for example, was spray-painted: ‘Alternative for Thinking’ (denken, the German word for thinking and for Germany both begin with the letter D).
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) dominates the Centre of the political spectrum. Even if AfD grows to become CDU’s main rival, few analysts imagine that it would become as strong as the Social Democratic SPD — although the latter appears to be getting squeezed in the absence of a charismatic leader.
Despite the growth of the AfD — a favourite conversation topic — the majority of Germans seem to be quite happy with their government’s policies regarding refugees over the past year. A large number of Germans seem to think that their country did right to welcome so many refugees, but that they should not take in more. They focus on the logistical problems of absorbing so many, seeming confident that these problems are being sorted out, and that the country will get on quite well — as long as the inflow ceases.
Indeed, the flow has stopped since Macedonia built a wall in the winter, and cracked down on refugees trying to enter Europe. In tandem, Turkey has been taking back refugees stuck in Greece — part of a complex deal which Merkel is said to have worked out.
The mainstream approval of Merkel’s “every Syrian refugee is welcome in Germany” and “we can manage” policies (as well as her deft maneouvres to stop the inflow this year without actually saying ‘stop’) would seem to explain the warmth on the street — the helpfulness, the eye contact, and the smiles.
“I am seeing it — to an extent,” said young Mazen El-Sari, who was born in Berlin to a previous generation of refugees — Palestinians who went there from Lebanon during the 1980s. Mazen is training to be a chartered accountant. His acknowledgement of the trend is significant, for the 24-year old strongly asserts his Arab identity and has in the past had reservations about mainstream German behaviour towards migrants.
Most Germans are cautious, even if they do acknowledge such a trend, but that caution itself signals sensitivity and introspection. There can be little doubt, however, that the overall response to what has been called the ‘refugee crisis’ has been far more welcoming in Germany than in most of the countries that border it.