I happened to be in Germany when the current refugee/asylum crisis struck. Indeed, for about a week I was in Berlin, the capital, in the Kreuzberg section of town, which happens to be about as multicultural as any thirty square block area in Germany. I did a “brown bag” seminar, as they are called, at the Aspen Institute, and also lucked into a fairly long meeting with an old friend who now works as a special assistant to the German President, Joachim Gauck. All anyone wanted to talk about, really, was the refugee crisis, and the first feeling that came to the fore was how proud—indeed astonishingly so—everyone was at the outpouring of welcome encouragement, volunteerism, and outright nobility on display in Munich and elsewhere around (most of) the country. Even columnists in Handelsblatt were blushing with pride.
Sober souls, my old friend among them in the 1994 “disappearing” black office building right next to Bellevueschloss, the President’s sprawling office complex, are counting mounting costs and waiting for the next shoe to drop. They know it will, even as they share in the wonderment that refugees far away in the Middle East could think of Germany as a country of hope. Few people say it out loud, but it’s the image of Germans welcoming “others” on in-bound trains from the east—from Hungary, very telegenically, when I was there—that arrests their attention. What a contrast with the pictures of other Germans in an earlier time shipping “others” to the east, on out-bound trains, to places like Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Germans say they have an identity problem, and so they do. It’s mainly because they believe it to be so, in other words. But there are also reasons beyond self-perception. This is neither the time nor place to go into why this is, but certainly what has happened in recent days has transformed the question of Germans’ self-image. It hasn’t answered the question, but it has rephrased it in what most take to be a felicitous way. It goes something like this: We may not know exactly who we are, but whoever we are, we’re better people that we have feared we might be. We believed we could change. Now we see, at an unexpected moment of testing, that we have changed. The earth no long trembles beneath our feet as much as it did even a month ago.
That is the sense of things, as I observed it, and it seems to me, further, to be infusing in the German elite a greater sense of self-confidence and willingness to lead within European affairs—at least for the time being. It has certainly transformed Chancellor Merkel from an austerity scold to someone with what we could call, for lack of a better phrase, abundant moral capital in a part of the world that values such a thing far more than it does other virtues of leadership.
What sort of sound is that other shoe going to make when it finally does drop? Truth be told, the German leadership—and the EU leadership as well, with Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg in the lead—are planting the seeds for long-term agony. That agony will comes in three forms: the economics of the welfare state; the self-blinding politics of multiculturalism; and security.
As to this third matter, DNI General James Clapper’s warning earlier this week, that this surge of Arabs into Europe is a security nightmare in the making, is surely correct. I tried to express this at a dinner in Warsaw on Tuesday evening, with an assortment of Poles, Germans, Norwegians, Brits, a Ukrainian, and some miscellaneous others present. I predicted that within five years Poland will be forced to erect passport control at airports for incoming European flights. (In case you are not aware, dear reader, there are none now. We flew from Berlin to Warsaw by way of Munich, and when one lands there is simply no passport control at all—meaning that any non-EU national who can get into Germany and pay for a ticket to get to Poland can indeed fly to Poland without anyone so much as asking his name or how long he intends to stay.) They all said I was wrong, but just a few days ago look what the Danes did: They basically sealed the border to rail and road traffic from Germany. And they were right to do it. If only a tenth of one percent of these Arabs are now or are later turned toward salafi-based political violence for any number of reasons we can all think of, then Germany will have a problem that will shred its esteemed privacy laws to bits, whether Germans like it or not.
I confess I do not understand Juncker’s thinking. With the Schengen Zone in effect, what is to keep arriving refugees in the place to which they are originally assigned—assuming for a moment that some form of his share-the-burden scheme is agreed to? After a year or a month or in some cases even a few days they can pick themselves up and come to Berlin if they so desire, can’t they? Even if they are not supposed to, they will do it anyway—and who is going to stop them now? What Germans, in the mood the country is now in, are willing to shove them on a train against their will heading back east? (Imagine what those photos would look like . . . some ass will surely airbrush “Arbeit macht frei” into the pictures.) Why would a Syrian family want to stay in Poland, where nearly everyone quietly hates them, when they can come to Berlin, where nearly everyone, in public anyway, professes to love them?
Meanwhile, the moral hazard problem is getting out of control. The word is out in Syria, and Iraq, and Lebanon, and among Palestinians in various places: They see the pictures, they send the men, then comes family reunification, and the next thing you know, in as little as a year or two, there could be five million Levantine Arabs (and a smattering of Kurds) clotting about in German cities.
I do not wish to delve into the economic side of the story. The numbers are too soft in every sense, and I am not very good at the bean-counting business. I will only note that many Germans seem to think that the Levantine Arabs now entering their country by the hundreds of thousands will act like their Gastarbeiter Turks. They are in for a shock. Many also think that they’re getting the cream of the educated crop from Syria. I heard several observers note that the people coming are young men, coming not directly from Syria but from camps in Jordan and Turkey. They are presumed to be engineers, doctors, and the like, and given Germany’s age-cohort imbalanced demographic picture, the consensus among the saintly is that they will boost the German economy in the not-too-distant future. This means that they know not the first thing about the real status of education in the Arab world. Only a tiny percentage of these asylum seekers are well enough educated to hold down a middle-class enabling professional job in an economy like Germany’s.
So the sound of the other shoe will consist of gunfire and bombs, most likely, and the telltale sucking sound of cash exiting the coffers of the still very generous but increasingly fiscally fragile German welfare state. And what of the politics?
The Left’s normative seizure of Germany is truly amazing. Even the Chancellor, who by German standards is far from a raving leftist, appears to firmly believe that everyone must be a multiculturalist for moral reasons, and that all people who want to preserve the ethno-linguistic integrity of their communities—whether in Germany or in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere—are acting out of base motives. One even sees self-righteous criticism of the Australians now in the German press. The German leadership’s understanding of its moral obligation is without qualification against contingency; they refuse to limit in any way the number of asylum seekers who can be taken into Germany, or the speed with which they may come. But more in Europe—a place of bloodline nationalisms compared to the U.S. creedal version—than in the United States there is a moral basis, too, for a community’s own sense of self-determination, which presumes the right of self-definition and self-composition. That is not racism in Europe any more than nervousness about immigrants is racism here in the United States. Wanting one’s own community to be a certain way is not aggressively or actively prejudicial against others, any more than declining to give money to a beggar on a city street is morally equivalent to hitting him in the head with a crowbar. It is simply preferring the constituency of a high-social trust society, from which, social science suggests, many good things come: widespread security, prosperity, and a propensity toward generosity being prominent among them.
It is, in my view, better morally to respect the dignity of difference than it is to try to expunge it though the mindless homogenization of humankind, which is the unstated premise at the base of the “thinking” of much of the EU elite. What better way to get rid of pesky nationalism than to get rid of nations, eh? One can hardly blame contemporary Germans for this sort of thinking, for their own nationalism turned out to be rabidly illiberal at one point in their history. But it is nonetheless an error of moral reasoning. Asylum seekers distort the moral choice with the intensity of their need, and their innocence; but the point is that what we see in Western Europe is not a case of what is moral versus what is base, but two kinds of rights, incommensurate (à la Isaiah Berlin) as they are, clashing. This basic truth seems to have gone missing in Germany lately, and, unfortunately, its expression in Hungary comes from a man who is toxic morally and opportunistic as well, and so gives that side of the argument a very bad name.
What the Europeans are doing, under the aegis of the European Union, but really at the instigation of Germany most of all, will have two basic political effects. First it will split the EU east and west, possibly even more bitterly than the economic woes of the past five years have split north and south. Indeed, it is doing so already. Second, it will reshape politics within most, if not all, West European countries.
As to the former effect, think about Poland for just a moment. When Poland re-emerged into independence after World War I, it was a highly heterogeneous place. And that was troublesome for nearly every community involved, to put it mildly. The situation of most other Central and East European states was roughly comparable. Thanks to World War II and then the Russian insistence on a postwar territorial settlement of a westward-displaced kind, far more homogenous states emerged from the bloodbath. Poland today is vastly more homogeneous, both in ethno-linguistic and sectarian terms, than it ever was, and Poles by and large seem quite happy with the current situation—and they are doing well as a post-Warsaw Pact, post-communist society by most measures partly because of it. Why should they jump for joy when Mr. Juncker and the Commission in Brussels tell them that all this needs to end? They clearly are not jumping for joy, and the pressure from without is bound to help President Duda’s party in next month’s parliamentary elections.
To Poland’s west we are about to witness the biggest boon for right-wing xenophobes since the 1930s. All this moral unction reminds me of the reality-challenged 1920s in Europe, which gave rise to the very ugly 1930s (and yes, there will be a sharp economic downturn to speed the effect; it’s already begun, in China, because we have allowed a half dozen major regional business cycles with their own, often balancing-out, dynamics to coalesce into one huge global business cycle), and we all know what happened next. How is the thinking in Berlin now different in essence from the calamity of Kellogg-Briand and Locarno? It is downright Kantian: The ethereal categorical imperative über alles. It also seems to me very Christian in the sense that it represents a tilt of intentions over consequences—and Kant was, remember, a Lutheran Pietist, so we know where his basic intellectual urges came from. Indeed, the denizens of the German Left seem to me a very religious people, only they think they’re secularists just because a clutch of proper names has changed, and they don’t often go to church anymore, but rather collect for the functional equivalent of communal worship in political meetings, university seminars, and protest rallies.
For all this we can blame the Nazis, because the moral ricochet over time is clear, and it is in many ways very noble. It’s nice that the Germans want to be moral, charitable, hospitable, generous and kind, isn’t it? But absent a heavy doze of Niebuhrian moral realism, they now risk letting dead Nazis derange living thought from beyond the grave. At this point, most sober Germans in the elite strata are worried about money, about what all this will cost. But this is not really about money. It’s about much more important kinds of business, political business ultimately, and politics is trump.
I would love to be proved wrong about all this. But the derangement of moral reasoning in Western Europe seems so advanced and deep that it is hard to be optimistic. One fears that if reasonable people do not somehow apply a brake to this wild excess of selfless saintliness, unreasonable people eventually will. And guess who might still be around to cheer, encourage, and perhaps even arm the unreasonable? Yes, Vlad the Putin himself, as he is indeed already doing in a minor key. Putin would love to destroy the European Union and all it stands for, almost as much as he would destroy NATO if he could. There are, regrettably, plenty of European leaders these days who are unwittingly pitching in to help him, and so before very long we could be facing another kind of security problem. That would ultimately be a problem for Americans as well as for Europeans. Doesn’t it always go like that, again, whether we like it or not?
Anyway, folks, that’s my slant on this week’s news from Germany and Poland. Darn good beer in both countries, however. So not all the news is bad.