REFUGEE REFLECTIONS

In late September I visited Thuringia on an official trip to attend a conference on regional planning. I took a train to Bad Blankenburg, an enchanting small town tucked away in a valley of the Thuringian Forest and regarded as an iconic place by educators. It was here that Friedrich Fröbel founded his nursery school – one of the first of its kind next to those established by Pestalozzi and Countess Theresa Brunswick – on rather original pedagogical principles, and named it kindergarten. The word went on to conquer English and other languages around the world. Indeed, the tiny provincial principalities and duchies of Thuringia often produced feats of astonishing creativity. Passing cattle grazing peacefully in the pastures below the dark-looming forests of the slopes, shreds of fog floating about in the nippy early morning air, I watched and waited eagerly for the ruins of the Paulinzella monastery to come into view around the bend, splendidly as befits the offspring of the grand reformist Cluny Abbey and a vanguard of the great medieval spiritual-intellectual movements of Europe. Then I glimpsed the ruins half-hidden behind a tree-lined alley and a wooden lodge. It is not very often that one sets eyes on such a quintessential vista of picture-postcard Germany in all its stark beauty. The passengers on the train included a group of schoolchildren. Even though my thoughts were elsewhere, I heard their conversation in the back of my mind. The words I understood were spoken in the characteristic local dialect of German; a few other kids spoke in an intensely guttural tone in a language that may have been Arabic. Later at the conference, one of the speakers likened Thuringia and indeed all of Germany to “a sponge waiting to absorb all those migrants”.

I was dizzy with the developments in recent weeks and days. What is happening here? Not that there was an absence of warning signs. The more observant had only to see the writing on the wall if they had a mind to look at it, and from an official German source at that. On 8 October 2014, the Bundesrat (the chamber representing the German states in federal legislation) submitted to the Bundestag, the federal house of representatives body, an initiative proposing the easing of planning regulations for institutions providing accommodation for refugees. The Explanation attached to the proposal states that “Several local governments in Germany are facing the quandary of how to handle the intensely escalating immigration. The current statistics of the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge [Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, an agency reporting to the Federal Interior Ministry] suggest that, this year alone, at least 200,000 refugees can be expected to enter the Federal Republic. The challenge of finding placement for these people, most of whom will be arriving from crisis zones, will certainly aggravate the already tense housing situation in the agglomerations.” Since then, the estimates have been adjusted upwards. This year, authorities reckon with a bare minimum of 800,000 new arrivals, but it is quite conceivable that the actual figure will reach at least one million.

Especially noteworthy in this regard are the German authorities and civil organisations whose unselfish officials and members have spared no effort trying to mitigate all that human suffering. Should the handling of the crisis capsize further down the line, it will certainly not be their fault. Let this inevitable tribute suffice here to deal with the humanitarian aspect of the issue. Let us talk instead about the odd and perhaps tragic possibility that the exceptional level of solidarity and readiness to help that characterises German society may, in the long run, lead to the transformation of German society in ways virtually nobody has foreseen or intended, except perhaps the self-proclaimed Good Samaritans of the professional leftist elite. Nor do I wish to dwell on the immediate causes that triggered this wave of migration which is comparable to a mass exodus in its sheer breadth and magnitude; this has been done by sociologists and political scientists far more competent than I am. Here I am only concerned with two aspects of this very complex problem: the attitude of the German government and consequences for German–Hungarian relations.

What led us here? In the summer and early September of 2015, the number of migrants seeking entry to Hungary at the southern border of the country, an outer boundary of the Schengen Area, escalated dramatically to unprecedented heights numbering thousands a day. The Hungarian government responded by erecting a border barrier. Since that moment, German leftist liberal discourse has been fond of likening the Hungarian border fence to the Berlin Wall, glossing over the hardly negligible circumstance that the Wall had served to keep the citizens of the GDR in the fold or, rather, in the cage, while the fence on the Serbian border was conceived a means of preventing illegal entry into the Schengen Area. Needless to say, the Hungarian government has hardly proved infallible in the situation. For instance, I myself agree with those who decried its anti-immigration billboard campaign as utterly ill-conceived – if only because the ostensible target audience did not understand a word of the messages. It is also true, however, that the Hungarian government is in possession of incontrovertible democratic legitimation.

Be that as it may, the Hungarian government eventually yielded to the pressure of tens of thousands and, in the wake of German decisions to admit migrants from Syria, allowed free passage to large numbers of migrants, most of whom had been heading for Germany anyway. The scenes that followed at the main railway station in Munich imbued the observer with an eerie sense of déjà vu as the migrants disembarking the trains were met with much the same cheering that had greeted East German compatriots arriving by way of Hungary in 1989. To paraphrase Hegel and Marx, history does indeed seem to repeat itself, except that one would be hard put to tell which of these two situations amounted to a drama with a positive denouement, and which was simply a tragic misunderstanding. In any event, Hungary has earned the epithet of “evil empire” in German discourse. The other day a Hungarian friend of mine, whom I respect for his unbiased and balanced judgement, told me between his teeth on the phone that “it may well be that we made a mistake by letting the East Germans pass through in 1989. If we hadn’t, the Germans wouldn’t have such a big mouth now”. Of course, some of this was obviously in jest. Yet the fact remains that the newfangled German habit of posing as a latter-day knight championing the Holy Grail of political probity is understandably resented by those Central Europeans who have refused to hang up their common sense in the cloakroom of political correctness. These circles particularly frown upon recurrent proposals to sanction those refusing to comply with European refugee quotas by withholding some of the development funds from the most egregiously reluctant – typically East-Central European – member states. Ironically, this would disadvantage the EU itself (considering that these funds are destined to mitigate regional imbalances and, consequently, migration within the EU). Furthermore, such ingenious ideas will hardly go down well in the Baltic states, which have had to deal not only with the trauma inflicted by decades of Soviet rule and extinguished national sovereignty but, more recently, with a rather peculiar brand of immigration: the forceful influx of Russian immigrants.

It is plain to see that Chancellor Merkel’s mantra of “wir schaffen das” (“we will cope”), repeated these days almost maniacally in all conceivable forms and media, will not suffice. Incidentally, the German public has never been asked whether they wish to “cope” with an exigency brought about largely by their own head of government. But let us retrace our steps a few weeks. On 11 September, Angela Merkel sounded the clarion call by declaring that “Germany’s constitutional right to asylum has no upper limits”. Even though Merkel also hinted, in the same interview given to the Rheinische Post, that those merely seeking a better living will not qualify for asylum and will be returned to their home country, her message found a ready audience mainly in Syria, Iraq and other, conflict-torn countries, where it was interpreted as a green light to flock to Germany. The next Waterloo of Merkel’s communication strategy took place at a joint press conference with Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann on 15 September. The principal message here was supposed to be a warning to refugees that they were not in the position to freely choose their European country of destination. Yet Merkel, in an emotional outburst totally out of character, upped the ante, saying “If we now have to start apologising for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations, then that’s not my country”.

There is something strange about these three statements. First of all, it is difficult to say whether there is an objective foundation to the Chancellor’s optimism that it will all work out. As early as in December 2013, the German government’s foreign policy think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik estimated the number of registered Syrian refugees at 2.3 million based on UN statistics, most of whom at the time were staying in four countries neighbouring Syria: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The same source put the number of internal Syrian refugees (i.e. those within Syria itself) at 6.5 million, and at 9.3 million of those in the 21-million Syrian population in need of humanitarian aid. Given the additional heavy influx of refugees from Iraq, not to mention North Africa, it is not unreasonable to expect millions seeking to make a fresh start in Germany in the coming years.

It is unnecessary, perhaps even prejudiced indeed, to lay the looming difficulties of integration at the feet of the refugees’ Islamic religion. Sociology has offered us the interesting and thought-provoking observation that the second- and third-generation offspring of Turkish immigrants from the remote villages of Anatolia, and even those with a secularised urban background who came here from the big cities in the 1960s and 1970s, continue to struggle to fit in. The kids, especially the boys, whose mastering of the German language and schooling somehow derailed, are liable to be seduced by Islamist slogans or even crime in their search for a lost identity. But this is just one facet of the problem. The other, as a Hungarian sociologist friend of mine pointed out, has to do with the fact that all those now arriving here from a premodern social environment are facing much the same predicament as the former “internal migrants” whose exodus from the villages into the cities has continued for the last 150 years on the Continent and for 200 years in Britain. The constitutional right to asylum may not recognise any upper limit, but the capacity of the welcoming country certainly does. Both common sense and Roman law suggest that no person can be forced to perform in excess of one’s own means – this is the principle of ultra posse nemo obligatur. In any event, Chancellor Merkel does not seem particularly bothered by the fact that German authorities, in particular local governments, have reached the limit of their capacity already. Although the German Parliament, on the initiative of the federal executive power, has recently approved aid funds to the local governments as part of a legislative package, many believe this will is unlikely to be enough – and rightly so, given that nobody really knows when the tidal wave of refugees is going to abate.

Nor do I believe that any head of executive has the authority to pontificate about what constitutes his or her country. Quite possibly, the reverse should be the case: should it not be up to the people, fully aware of the supreme condescension of power, to decide whom to elect as its leader of government? The Chancellor’s remark thus inevitably brings to mind Brecht’s aphorism: “Would it not be easier / In that case for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?” I have no idea how others might see it, but this message of the Chancellor affected me personally in a very bad way. In one possible reading at least, it attests to the arrogance of power – something I have not experienced coming from any responsible German politician in recent memory.

The most sober take on the refugee issue I am familiar with came from professor of law Kay Hailbronner who claimed, in the 12 October 2015 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that the crisis had been brought on by a series of ill-conceived incentives adopted by German and European refugee policy-makers over the years. According to Hailbronner, “perhaps the most important incentive was the more or less well-founded expectation that maintaining residency was a given as soon as one has surmounted the obstacles of travel to the desired target country in the EU courtesy of human trafficking. Indeed, this assumption lies at the core of any organised form of flight. This process was underpinned by a mutation of German asylum rights into the right of application for refugee status. […] Whenever an application was rejected upon having been examined in the most scrupulous and time-consuming manner, the applicant was hardly ever expelled or returned home of his own accord. Instead, it all petered out in the humanitarian tolerance of stay. The low number of […] expulsions was a combined result of an increasingly complex EU and national legislation and of the inability or unwillingness of politicians to enforce the law. The media and ‘civil society’ played a major part in the process whereby what was originally a permit to stay for the duration of the official process came to be construed as virtual refugee status. […] Closing the gap between the temporary permit to stay and mandatory deportation provided [migrants with] the incentive to realise hopes of residency upon illegal entry and a subsequent asylum process.”

To avoid confusion, I would now like to add a few definitely subjective details to this problematic. In November 1979, about a generation ago, I arrived at the railway station of Hamburg with two suitcases in hand. Although I came, luckily, as a postgraduate on a grant rather than in the capacity of refugee, I instantly felt this would be my next homeland. Indeed, when my scholarship expired the following year, I decided not to return to Hungary – I became a “dissident”, in the peculiar sense of the word favoured by the Communist powers of the day. All of a sudden, I found myself without a job and a place to stay, so I do have some first- hand experience of what it feels like to be a refugee. Thank God, I had somehow managed to preserve a sense of foresight while living the high life of my late lamented youth in Hamburg. The officers of the local planning authority that had dispensed the grant were gracious enough to offer me a job if I had the inclination. I accepted, and made an honest effort to produce some value in return. I quickly began to build a network of relations and even attained German citizenship on the fast track owing to my background. Even so, it took me a good couple of years to strike root. Comparing all the advantages I enjoyed – the same linguistic and cultural background, the absence of any external obstacle to integration, legal or otherwise – to the situation of those now arriving in Germany in droves, without a command of the German language but with an upbringing predominantly obeying premodern social norms, I feel fully justified in asking the question: How are these people going to cope?

To sum up: for the first time in my life, I am much pained and dismayed by the intense political conflict unfolding between the two countries I call home. For the first time, I find myself torn in my emotional loyalties. The German press has been on a frenzied political correctness campaign against Hungary, and Germany as a whole has succumbed to the fad of railing against Hungary, when Hungary is only after enforcing effective European regulations. All the while, Germany seems to be losing all grounding in common sense. At the very least, it is facing a massive internal upheaval in the 25th year since its unification. We would be well-advised not to supply an excuse for the extreme right for instigating unstable citizens to violence against the migrants. Let us give back the rule of law to Germany and all of Europe! We should welcome those who truly need our protection, but we should also stand up for our rights against those who have no right to settle down in Europe.

The Dublin Regulation has collapsed. We must try to preserve the freedom of movement within Europe – one of the great achievements of my generation – by recasting Europe on the foundation of fairness and mutual respect instead of hypocrisy. My message to the Chancellor is that Germany will remain my chosen country whether or not she likes my views on the subject, just as Hungary will remain mine forever. I refuse to repudiate either in the name of any authority or ideal. But before I am completely overtaken by pathos, let me end by quoting Pál Granasztói writing about an exchange that transpired after the Hungarian Revolution had been crushed, between József Fischer (known in architect circles as “Yusuf”), the ephemeral minister of construction affairs in 1956, and a Communist big dog, concerning the possibility of a rather peculiar brand of emigration. “Why did you not quit for the West?” the party boss enquired. “We would have issued you a passport.” “Why me?” Fischer retorted. “Why don’t you guys get out of here?”

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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