Category Archives: Refugees

How do you solve a problem like Angela?

On Sunday, the Day of German Unity, the German radio station Deutschlandfunk (similar to NPR) broadcast an interview with Chancellor Angela Merkel in which she stated that she would reject the changes proposed by the CSU which hoped to reform asylum law. This statement, although coded, made headlines in the FAZ , on n-tv, in the SZ, and in video form at the tagesschau , and it was often portrayed as a direct retort to Markus Söder’s desire to change the German Basic Law to limit those seeking asylum.

This interview with Stephan Detjen runs a remarkable twenty-five minutes, has the flavor of a fireside chat, and outlines Merkel’s position (Haltung) towards the question of refugee politics, for which she has come under fire, especially from members of her own party (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party (CSU).  After opening the border on September 4, 2015, Merkel was criticized  – especially from CDU party leader Horst Seehofer – as having made a grave mistake that will have long-lasting effects. Merkel retorted that the basic right to asylum “does not have an upper limit” (kennt keine Obergrenze). 

In terms of European politics, Merkel’s role during the Greek financial crisis as the taskmaster of German austerity contrasts starkly alongside her newfound position as a suddenly liberal proponent of refugee politics (which, only a few months ago seemed impossible as she was being criticized for telling a teenage Palestinian girl, Reem, at a town-hall-style meeting that Germany could not accept every refugee). (Reem’s story had what the Germans call a Happy-End, since her residency application was later accepted.) Germans seem to be struggling to understand their Chancellor – Die Zeit from a couple weeks ago (9/17/2015) featured a long-form portrait of Merkel’s role in the refugee process with the front-page headline, “Does she know what she’s doing?” Over the next week I will take a closer look at the German chancellor and her current role as a critic within her own party.

To begin, we might let the Chancellor herself have the floor, by quoting a choice tidbit from the interview by Deutschlandfunk.

Detjen: Have you already answered to criticisms that have been formulated most strongly from Bavaria by Horst Seehofer, who, with reference to your decision to open the border to Hungary on Sept. 4th of this year, said, that this was a mistake which will occupy us for a long time?

Merkel: I think, when you look at the development, then we have seen for a considerable time – first across the Mediterranean, now along the path from Turkey to Greece – that we have an ever-increasing number of refugees. I see what Bavaria has accomplished and think it’s outstanding. On the other hand, I have to say: I don’t believe that fences help – that is futile. We saw that in Hungary, where with much effort a fence was built – the refugees come anyway and seek out other pathways. We will not solve the problem with fences. And therefore I believe that we have to solve it in the way I’ve sketched out: accept the national task, but protect the outer borders much better, to develop a fair distribution throughout Europe and to concern ourselves with the reasons for flight. And that means to also bring diplomatic processes forward, to bring political negotiations forward, and where it is necessary – like here in the Federal Republic of Germany, though supporting the Peshmerga in Iraq – to also help militarily.

You can read or listen to the whole interview (in German) here.

Day of German Unity

October 3rd is a national holiday in Germany celebrating the reunification between the Federal Republic (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East) in 1990. Today marks the 25th anniversary of reunification.

Germans celebrate today by watching documentaries about divided Germany, visiting concerts and listening to speeches held around the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. According to Berlin Police, there are so many people out to celebrate that the S-Bahn has stopped letting people out at the Brandenburger Tor stop. At the same time, there are also demonstrations taking place between right-wingers and anti-fascists around the Berlin central train station. The numbers, as reported by the Berliner Zeitung, are not large – a little over 200 right now.

As Germans celebrate the “silver wedding anniversary” (BZ) of their reunification, the country is embroiled in a political debate about refugees, distribution through a European quota system, and rapid legal changes to adjust to the nearly 800,000 refugees Germany expects to receive this year. Joachim Gauck made headlines today for stating that the refugee crisis is an even bigger challenge that reunification. The CDU finance minister, Markus Söder (Bavaria) has apparently stated an even more foundational change to German law: he questions, according to Der Tagesspiegel, whether Germany should continue to offer asylum as a basic right (Grundrecht) in its Basic Law. This basic right, lest we forget, was enshrined in the (initially West German) Basic Law because of the horrors of Nazi persecution and their irresponsible mass movement of people against their will.

There are two historical moments worthy of remembering in face of the two political conversations happening simultaneously today: the massive amount of displaced persons (Heimatvertriebene) who flooded into (a much smaller) Germany after World War II, and the constant stream of refugees fleeing East Germany before the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961.

The numbers are staggering: upwards of 14 Million people were displaced in Eastern Europe after World War II. 236,390 East Germans fled to West Germany in 1961 alone; another 388,396  fled in 1989.

Rather than reacting with alarm, as most of the CDU/CSU has done, Germany could see itself as a master of refugee incorporation. Close to every twenty years, another wave of refugees has sought safety on Germany territory and incorporated themselves into German social and political life (1945, 1961, 1989, 2015), and the republic still stands.

Center for Political Beauty

The Zentrum für Politische Schönheit is, by far, one of the most visible groups doing performance work with high media impact. This summer, as a tribute to those who die crossing the Mediterranean hoping to reach Europe, they dug up the grass on the lawn in front of the Bundeskanzleramt (the Office of the Federal Chancellor) into 100 graves. The Queen of England was about to make her regular visit to give “The Queen’s Lecture” at the Technical University of Berlin, and Germany was enjoying a summer of rainy, British weather to boot. As the German newspaper Bild noted, the lawn was quickly green again. I went to look a few days later, having missed the demonstration, and indeed – the grass had already sprouted. A metaphor for the short memories of the German elite, or a tribute to the ethereal nature of political performance?

The Zentrum has continued to make headlines for its next project: setting up floating rescue stations in the Mediterranean for refugees who find themselves stranded. First articulated as a project to build a fictional bridge from North Africa to the Mediterranean, the ZPS produced this glossy video in the spirit of campaign advertisements:


According to an article in Der Tagesspiegelthe ZPS is also soliciting money to install at least one rescue platform by October 1st.  Getty Images has posted a before shot of the preparations taking place off the coast of Sicily, which you can see here.

The name “Political Beauty” is certainly accurate – the images and glossy video of the ZPS’s projects have a sophisticated aesthetic composed of satire and privileged resistance. But it raises the question in the context of an ongoing humanitarian crisis: what kind of a weapon can art be? Are these kinds of projects the brief blips of a group of young, bright, performance artists, who may turn their attention randomly to a variety of causes as it strikes their fancy? That modernist German poet Rilke, so much a favorite of the artistic adolescent, said, a century or more ago, that “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism.” But if we focus on the “political,” our critical tools might become far more adept: what is the political reach of a glossy video about an industrialized superhighway when the practical reality of this Aktion is merely one float on the edge of Sicily?

That question is by no means merely rhetorical; it is an open one. In the face of this kind of humanitarian crisis, where images of suffering are now our daily bread, any attempt to understand efficacy will need an understanding of both the political and the aesthetic.