I don’t suppose the Time Magazine issue featuring German Chancellor Angela Merkel as its person of the year sold very well in Greece. Merkel made Time’s cover for opening Germany’s borders to an unprecedented flow of Syrian and other refugees, even as other European states were either hedging their bets or simply closing their borders. By year’s end, some 1.1 million migrants had been accepted, and the German government was largely preoccupied with the daunting task of settling them. Merkel’s apparent humanitarianism and generosity, even in the teeth of mounting resistance in Germany and in her own party, made her a shining light to Time’s editors in a year when the human race was not exactly distinguishing itself in general.
At the same time, however, Merkel was coming down in classic jackboot fashion on Greece’s short-lived attempt to get out from under the German-dictated austerity policies that have driven unemployment levels above 25 percent, wiped out a third of the country’s economy, and shorn its population of hope. In Athens, Angela Merkel is about as popular as Ilse Koch, the mistress of Buchenwald.
So, which Angela is it really, Mother Teresa or Frau Ilse?
A closer look at Merkel’s immigration policy may give us a clue. Germany has had a very flexible idea of its borders for a long time. Before World War I, Wilhelmine Germany talked of a “Drang nach Osten” or drive to the East. The war stripped it of territory instead. Hitler not only revived Germany’s aggressive ambitions, but led the country in a quest for so-called “Lebensraum” or living space that projected a German settlement of Eastern Europe entailing the clearance of thirty million Slavs. Where were these Slavs to go? The chimneys of Auschwitz gave a general idea. In his recent, book, “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” Timothy Snyder argued that Hitler was obsessed with the idea of a future struggle for survival on an increasingly contested planet. His plan did have a concrete and lasting result: approximately thirty million East Europeans were in fact killed, starved, or worked to death during his years in power, including six million Jews.
After World War II, Germany got payback, as ethnic Germans long settled in Eastern Europe were expelled with scant ceremony. This was Germany’s first major influx of refugees, and it left a lasting mark. Some forty years later, the reunification of a divided Germany at the end of the Cold War meant the reintegration of nearly twenty million East Germans into a single federal state for the first time since 1945. This, too, was difficult and traumatic, for under Communist rule East Germans had developed habits of thought and behavior not readily assimilated into the capitalist culture of West Germany. A quarter century later, this process is still not complete.
West Germany did, over the years, become home to “guest workers,” mainly recruited from southern Europe and Turkey, who eventually formed permanent immigrant communities. These groups were looked upon with suspicion, and, especially after reunification, the neo-Nazi youth groups known as skinheads had sometimes violent confrontations with them. The skinheads were not simply the bastardized offspring of Hitler’s master race theories, but part of an underemployed population resentful of foreigners competing for scarce jobs.
Against this background, a policy of welcoming Syrian refugees on an open-ended basis would seem most unlikely for a Conservative German Chancellor.
To understand why Merkel laid out the welcome mat, we must consider both political and economic factors. Germany’s domination of the continent through the European Union and the Eurozone has become so complete that the German Chancellor is the de facto president of Europe. In the wake of the financial crash of 2008, Germany wrote the austerity policies (beneficial to itself) that have devastated the economies not only of Greece but of Spain, Portugal, and, to a lesser extent, Italy and France. Greece has been the hardest hit of these countries, but Spain has experienced comparable levels of unemployment, and the French President Francois Hollande has just declared a state of economic emergency. At the same time, Germany has revived the “Drang nach Osten” in tandem with the United States, steadily expanding the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into the former Soviet bloc countries of the East. This policy culminated in the coup d’etat against the government of Ukraine in 2013 that installed a Western-backed regime, resulting in the civil war that has wracked the country since.
Given the last episode of German expansion into Eastern Europe, Germany’s leaders have not been eager to advertise their most recent push, and both the European Union and the U.S. have given them cover. Austerity, too, is a political policy cloaked as an economic one, but here as well the Germans have been able to wield the institutions of the EU, notably the European Commission and the European Central Bank, to achieve the desired results. The tide of refugees flooding Europe from Syria and the other failed states of the Middle East and North Africa, however, presented a more nakedly political question. The EU was unable to devise a common policy to deal with it. East European states, some within the EU and some not, abruptly closed their borders and interned refugees in what looked uncomfortably like concentration camps, complete with barbed wire. This was not an image that Germany, above all, wished to project.
Unable to broker a common policy in her first stand-alone test as Europe’s political dominatrix, Merkel compensated by committing Germany itself to an open-door policy on refugees that gave her the moral high ground — and the cover of Time. She did this, apparently, with little consultation with her party’s leaders, no preparation for the German public’s response, and no long-term plan for integrating a large alien population into the fabric of German life. Merkel would have had a practical consideration in mind, however. Germany’s aging population, like that of other European countries, faces a shortage of able-bodied workers, both to service its economy and finance welfare and pension costs. Beggaring the Mediterranean South has been one means of addressing this problem, as young Greeks and others have migrated to Germany in desperate search of employment. The Syrian refugees, however, constitute a much larger pool, and the fact that they are disproportionately young, male, and single make them, on paper, an ideal source for menial labor and value extraction.
The backlash has been, of course, only too predictable, and Merkel has now done a 180, threatening to deport the refugees she welcomed only a few months ago. Where they would go is another question. Rarely has a recent political leader made so rash a blunder, and the refugee fiasco, together with austerity, will no doubt define Merkel’s legacy.
America’s perennial immigration problem along its southern border has meanwhile come back into the news courtesy of Donald Trump, who wants a Fortress America literally walled off north and south. (Lucky us, with oceans east and west.) Of course, there wouldn’t be an America at all without immigrants, starting with those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic without papers either. The simple truth about Mexican immigrants is that their labor puts the food on our plates, and that American farmers have connived with authorities for a century to ensure the illegal workforce that brings in the crop at starvation wages and returns maximum profit. Our limitless hunger for drugs and our penchant for supporting the most brutal Latin dictators we can find has driven a further population of political refugees across the border too, fleeing a violence less well publicized than that in Syria or Iraq but hardly less lethal. The problems of Mexico and Central America are not all of our own making, but we contribute mightily to them, and in doing so make them our own too.
I can’t remember an administration that’s treated undocumented migrants (including genuine refugees) worse than Obama’s has since Dwight Eisenhower deported a million Mexicans in 1954. We have more migrants in detention, including children, than at any other time in our history; we are busily breaking up families through deportation at an ever-accelerating pace. It isn’t Congress or the law that’s forcing Obama to do this; it’s presidential compassion. For you can bank on this: whenever Obama makes a speech expressing sympathy or concern for anyone, the hammer will come down somewhere.
As for America admitting a million Syrian refugees, or even the paltry ten thousand the President was shamed into suggesting a few months ago, don’t bet your lottery ticket on it. It has a much better chance of paying off.