A different kind of tolerance

Reality Learning Consultant, Emma Lang, discusses the impact of Germany’s national history in shaping its attitudes on asylum seeker policy today.

The census came back five million people short. “That’s the size of some small countries. That’s the size of Denmark!” I’ve met with a friend in Berlin at a cafe in Kruezber, former East Germany. It doesn’t take long before we’re comparing country size and populations.

“The thing is, we didn’t have a formal census for close to 30 years. Understandably, Germans are very privacy conscious.” Something that I was indeed made aware of last week when asked briskly to put my camera down at a football match by a fan.

“Merkel’s let in millions of refugees since then. So perhaps it’s evened out! And look, there’s still plenty of room.” We joke knowing that we’re over simplifying matters – sitting in a heavily Turkish influenced area where the second generation of guest workers from the 70’s are still considered to face challenges integrating.

As I walk the line of cobbled stones on my way home, I am reminded by small plaques of where the Berlin Wall stood 28 years. Just as when I walked for coffee in Hamburg, I was reminded of the Jewish residents who once lived there. Names now carved into the footpaths outside the homes they never returned to.

It’s history quite literally carved into the streets. And as my friend puts it, carved into our minds. “Our history is very much processed here. We spend a year and a half at school going over the atrocities. There’s really no nationalism for us to be proud of – not for our parents, not for our grandparents.”

“In fact, it wasn’t until the World Cup in 2014 that that we’d even seen a German flag waved.” And it’s true. I see plenty of flags of the infamous football team, St Pauli. I see flags of the European Union. The only German flag I see however, is one on an election campaign poster for a far right party, Alternative For Deutschland.

“They now have 10 per cent of the vote,” my friend explains. “They used to not even get media coverage. De-legitimised, the media refused to give them any more airtime than needed. But now they’re Nazi’s in suits,” this time said with an air of concern.

“They’re saying Merkerl’s opened the borders and doesn’t care about the consequences. We don’t even have borders to open! You just walk straight over them.” Incredulous. Frustrated. For him, just absurdity.

And that’s just it, we have a different starting point right there. The label ‘Nazi’ used in common conversation. Referred to not in the ludicrous barbaric sense we often understand it to mean in Australia, but simply and indeed matter of factly, to describe far-right nationalism. In turn it becomes a more real possibility to steer clear of, to be cautious of, than our understanding of Nazi that we have in Australia, that has very little to no correlation to our own political lives.

It’s this caution, that protects high levels of political dissent. It’s why months after violent protest in Hamburg, the government leaves streets of anarchist and anti-G20 messages sprayed and hung in public spaces. And it’s also why after strong public backlash to the government’s asylum seeker policy, Merkel has refused to buckle on the country’s open borders and pro-active protection it offers.

When it comes to racial profiling and heightened nationalism, my friend puts it quite aptly: “We’ve been there and we know where it ends.”

As the number of forced displaced people exceeds levels at the end of World War II, it seems that while the rest of the world fears by what might become by granting asylum, there’s a strong part of Germany that scares from what might become by denying it.

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