Germany, a country with the third-largest population of refugees in the world, will hold general elections on September 26 to decide who will succeed Angela Merkel. Many politicians and pundits predicted that Merkel’s decision to admit asylum seekers to Germany—1.7 Million between 2015 and 2017—would damage her politically.
However, on the eve of her retirement, after 16 years leading Germany, she remains one of the most respected political leaders in the world; in 2020, 81 percent of Germans expressed confidence that she would do the right thing when it comes to world affairs. And all three of the candidates vying to succeed her—from the center right CDU/CSU (her party), the center-left SPD, to the Green Party—are in some way reassuring voters they will carry on her legacy. As of September 3, just 13 percent of voters said they consider migration an important issue.
Within Germany, the settlement of the refugees who began arriving in 2015 has been assessed and judged, fairly consistently, to have been a success. By 2020, more than half of those who’d fled to Germany from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Iran, and other countries had found employment. Three-quarters of refugees, according to a 2020 study by Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, felt “welcome” or “very welcome.” And by 2017, 55 percent of Germans said they had contributed to the integration of refugees in some capacity, some through community-based support activities.
So why do so few people outside of Germany know about this success?
I don’t live in Germany, but I spend a lot of time there. And in the United Kingdom (where I do live) or the United States (where I am from), I am frequently offered a narrative that I know is untrue: that Germany’s admission of refugees was a mistake, and that support for the far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) skyrocketed as a result.
The AfD, which began as a Eurosceptic party in 2013, rebranded itself as an anti-immigrant party in 2015, and gained 12.6 percent of the vote nationally in 2017. Recent polls place it at 11 percent. Often, there is international press coverage of state elections where the AfD has a high level of support—usually states in the former GDR, where, after unification, some residents felt left behind as industry shut down, employment became hard to find, and younger residents moved away. There wasn’t significant settlement of migrants in these places—as is the case in many countries, anti-migrant rhetoric in Germany is often highest in places with the fewest migrants.
Refugees were an easy target when they first arrived, notes historian Klaus Neumann, who is researching the reception and rejection of asylum seekers at local level. Covid restrictions have become the new target for resentment. This doesn’t mean that the AfD is now a less xenophobic party; the party is more radical now than it was in 2017, Neumann points out.
The AfD is sometimes referred to as the “the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag.” However, this does not convey the AfD’s role in the Bundestag, or the percentage of people who support its policies. Germany is not a political system with two main political parties, in which one is always “the opposition.” It’s a political system in which political parties usually work together in coalition governments, even parties with very different orientations. That is why the center-right CDU/CSU and center-left SPD have formed a grand coalition, and politicians from both parties are in key government roles.
Smaller parties in the Bundestag and at state level also can form voting blocs and alliances, but there is no party that will form an alliance with the AfD. They are a pariah party, consumed by infighting and scandal in recent years, and under investigation by Germany’s domestic security agency for extremist activities.
The AfD’s isolation hasn’t nullified it. The party remains a threat to people and institutions typically threatened by the far right—particularly in states where they have achieved a relatively high level of support (for example in Saxony, long considered an AfD stronghold, the AfD came second with 27.5 percent of the vote in the most recent state elections).
But it’s important to understand the nature of that threat. Neumann has noted the way “right-wing populists came to power indirectly [in Denmark and Austria] because other political leaders adopted their key policies in an attempt to deprive them of oxygen.” The aim of the AfD isn’t to promote Nazi ideology, he explains, but “to attract the media’s attention, to unsettle their opponents, to shift the boundaries of political discourse” so that its far-right ideology and goals are no longer taboo.
Within Germany, this shift has not taken place. The AfD exists, in part, because the CDU/CSU moved to the center, and many members of what was once the anti-migration wing of the CDU/CSU now belong to the AfD. There are still anti-migration voices within the CDU/CSU, and at times tension within the party. However, the centrist voices in the party have for the most part prevailed.
The international press’s focus on an anti-refugee minority, and dismissal of the majority of Germans who welcome and support refugees—and refugees who say they feel welcome—not only misrepresents the experiences and perspectives of the majority of Germans and refugees but also denies other countries a picture of what success can look like as well as information about policies that work.
Germany’s experience shows that refusing to mimic the anti-migrant policies of populist parties not only can encourage popular support for a humanitarian response to people in need of refuge—it also appears to be the most effective way to keep a country from acquiescing to and privileging the far right. The story of refugee settlement in Germany is not a perfect story, and it has not had a perfect ending for everyone. Resources were stretched sometimes to the point where, without community volunteers, refugees would have been left on their own, said Neumann. Some asylum seekers have had their asylum claims turned down and have been granted only a precarious legal status. And not every refugee feels welcome or settled in Germany.
But the fact remains that in 2015 Germany—a country that does not have a strong history of refugee settlement—did what no other country in Europe attempted to do. Angela Merkel was right when she said, “We can do it.” They have done it.
Today one in four Germans is either an immigrant or has a parent who was an immigrant. In Berlin’s Kreuzberg, the restaurant Refueat is representative of the kind of hip enterprise that provides employment for refugees. The housing put in place for refugees who arrived in 2015, who have since moved on to their own homes, is being readied for refugees who are arriving from Afghanistan.
The streets of Berlin are lined with election posters; they are fastened to every lamp post. Germany does not elect its chancellor directly; citizens cast their votes for political parties. The support that the CDU/CSU enjoyed under Merkel’s leadership is seeping away as Armin Laschet, the party’s new candidate, commits gaffe after gaffe on the campaign trail. The SPD’s candidate Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, has gained more and more support as he engages with voters.
The SPD, a party that explicitly supports the rights of refugees, is almost certain to lead Germany’s next government. In a world that has experienced numerous jolts in the last few years, Germany seems remarkably stable—as does the future of the people who found refuge here.