The circumstance that Syrians are coming in large numbers to settle in Germany raises a key series of questions, but not in the way one might think. The question in months and years to come will not only be whether the refugees become integrated into German society or whether terrorists merged with, or later arose from, the refugee stream of 2015. The more enduring issue is about the terms on which integration either will or will not take place, how easy or hard it will be. The question is all the more pressing given the historical connection between these two countries—and their utterly contrasting approaches since World War II to the conflict in the Middle East and to the State of Israel. How will Germany respond to people from a country that has been at war with Israel since 1948, was a Soviet ally during the Cold War, and which blended antagonism Israel with official hatred of Jews. How will the refugees respond to a Germany in which the memory of the crimes of the Nazi regime, not least the Holocaust, and support for the State of Israel have become core elements of a broad political consensus?
The “easy” projections about integration ignore these issues, looking only at the economic costs and potential of the immigrants, their role in German demographics over time, and other quotidian matters. The “hard” projections, on the other hand, would acknowledge these contrasting histories in order to preserve Germany’s best postwar political traditions and foster the successful integration of the refugees on terms Germans can accept.
Following the attacks in Paris on November 13, the discussion in Germany, as elsewhere, has turned in part to whether terrorists used the refugee stream to enter the country. Berthold Kohler, the publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has criticized German government efforts to insist that the issues of terrorism and migration are not related. Kohler stated the obvious: It is entirely conceivable that there will be Islamists among the approximately 800,000 migrants that the German government expects to receive in 2015. Christopher Caldwell in the Weekly Standard has examined “the bloody crossroads where migration and terrorism meet” in Europe and Germany. Since Chancellor Merkel relaxed border controls in the summer, Caldwell writes, “migrants started pouring into the country without identity check or proper registration.”
Today, the German government does not know for sure who has arrived. It does know that, regardless of how things resolve in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of Syrians or people claiming to be Syrians will be living in Germany for some time to come. Especially after the Paris attacks, the connection between migration and terrorism is firmly established. What’s done is done. Now the challenge facing Germany is that the country must foster integration on terms that preserve its values and political identity. In other words, it must relinquish its earlier penchant for thinking “easy” about integration and begin to face the reality of “hard” integration.
In 2008, in a remarkable speech to Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, Chancellor Merkel stated, “Here of all places I want to explicitly stress that every German Government and every German Chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security.” In August 2015, Merkel expressed her welcome to refugees from Syria, confident that her generosity was compatible with the commitments she had reiterated seven years earlier. If the two are to be compatible, however, the history of the Syrian government’s unrelenting hostility toward Israel since 1948, and of the two decades of alliance between the former East Germany and the Ba‘athi regime in Damascus, must become matters of public discussion in Germany.
From its beginning in 1949, West Germany’s tradition of “coming to terms with the Nazi past” clashed with those who wanted to forget and to avoid discussion of the crimes of the Nazi regime. Over time, however, a consensus emerged in the German political establishment from center-Right to center-Left that an honest reckoning was indispensable to the establishment of liberal democracy in West Germany and to its integration into the Western Alliance. During those same years, the Communist dictatorship in East Germany initially purged those Communists whose anti-fascism made room for the memory of the Holocaust and who wanted close relations with the new State of Israel. Following its “anti-cosmopolitan” purge, East Germany took a very high profile position in the Soviet-bloc alliance with the Arab states, including Syria. From 1969 to 1989, the East German-Syrian military alliance became a cornerstone of East German—and hence Soviet—policy in the Middle East.
Syria, both before and after the coup that brought the Ba‘ath Party to power in 1966 and on through Hafez al-Assad’s consolidation of dictatorial power in 1971, was the most implacable enemy of Israel among the Arab front-line states. Despite severe disagreements with Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership in the 1970s and 1980s, notably in the context of the Jordanian civil war and later amid the shifting alignments in the Lebanese civil war, the Syrian regime remained a firm supporter of avowedly Marxist PLO splinter groups opposed to Arafat’s leadership—the PFLP and the PDFLP, for example—and their terrorist campaigns against Israel. Hafez al-Assad also led the Arab states’ “rejection front,” which opposed the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.
In the 1970s, too, Assad’s Syria became the lynchpin of Soviet-bloc policy in the Middle East. The Soviet Union and its East European satellites, including East Germany, became the primary source of arms and training for the Syrian armed forces. As I document in my forthcoming book, Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989, East Germany’s relations with the Assad regime became very close during the last decades of the Cold War. When the two established diplomatic relations in June 1969, the statement that accompanied the event extolled the shared antagonism of both regimes to American imperialism and to Israel, which it described as a regime based on racism and colonialism. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, when West German Chancellor Willy Brandt adopted an official policy of neutrality, Erich Honecker’s East German regime sent a squadron of MiG fighter jets and two freighters full of heavy weapons as part of the Soviet-bloc arms supplies to the Arab states.
It stands to reason that at least some of the Syrian refugees who have arrived in Germany come with memories of their parents’ and grandparents’ stories about fighting against Israel. This family lore will have been reinforced by a steady diet of government-produced venom that for decades denounced the State of Israel and celebrated armed attacks against it. They will have heard the media outlets of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Damascus extolling terrorist attacks as examples of heroic resistance by great martyrs. They also will have read vicious anti-Semitic tracts from prominent members of the Ba‘athi regime. Perhaps some of the Syrian refugees had occasion to read The Matzo of Zion, published in the early 1980s by Mustafa Tlass, Syria’s Minister of Defense from 1971 to 2004. Tlass, a key figure of the East German-Syrian military alliance, placed medieval blood libels about Jews killing children to bake matzos for Passover into an Arabic and Islamic context.
In the absence of a free press and amid unrelenting government hatred of Israel, Syrian refugees arriving in Germany this year have probably seldom or never heard the case for Israel’s legitimacy. So it is likely that at least some of them, even those who despise the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the terrorists of ISIS, will bring with them an intense antagonism to Jews. For them, Merkel’s speech in the Knesset would amount to a revolting defense of a regime they had learned to despise.
An influx of people with such views will only add to an antagonism toward Israel that already exists in present-day German society. Many former members of the Socialist Unity Party—that is, the former ruling Communist Party of East Germany—became members of the Left Party in Germany after reunification, which has seats in regional and national parliaments. For many of them, hostility to Israel has been and remains a core political conviction. Anti-Zionism and antagonism to Israel among new refugees may also strike a chord among some members of the Green Party and in the leftwing of the Social Democratic Party. So for some Syrian refugees, one definition of integration into German society could be integration into the anti-Israeli mood that was state policy in East Germany and has come to define leftist politics in Europe since the 1960s and in unified Germany since 1991. Leftist parties could see the new refugees as an opportunity to expand their voter base. On the other hand, in light of the declaration of war on ISIS by French Socialist President François Hollande, the Left-of-Center parties in Germany may also now be more willing to speak frankly about the anti-Israeli ideas of immigrants with which they disagree.
Ultimately, the events of the past four years in Syria may contribute not only to Syrian refugees’ integration but to a kind integration that is compatible with Germany’s best political and moral traditions. Many Syrians refugees undoubtedly feel gratitude to the German government and people for the welcome they have been offered this past year. They are aware that without that welcome, they would have been at the mercy of Assad’s armed forces or ISIS terrorists, or would be languishing in refugee camp cities in Turkey and Jordan. Relatedly, they must recall vividly the massive violence inflicted by the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago. Reflection on the over 250,000 Syrians killed by that regime may lead them to reevaluate the messages that they, their parents, and their grandparents heard from the Syrian government since 1948 about West Germany, and perhaps also about Israel, the Jews, and the United States.
To the extent that is the case, those Syrian refugees may link their voices to those of Arab liberals such as Fouad Ajami who examined the Assad regime’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria. Or, in reflecting on both Assad and ISIS, perhaps they will read Hisham Melham’s recent incisive examination in Al Arabyia of the connection between Arab political culture and the “cancer” that is ISIS. Perhaps still others will know or will discover the work of Bassam Tibi, including his important 2012 book Islamism and Islam. Tibi, a great scholar who was born and grew up in Damascus, did his doctorate with the German-Jewish social theorist Max Horkheimer in Frankfurt/Main in sociology and politics in the 1960s and then went on to a distinguished career at the University of Göttingen, where he wrote about international relations in the Middle East and the intersection of Islamism and politics.
Syrian refugees, that is, could become part of a grand contemporary tradition of European history: de-radicalization and disillusionment following the disasters brought about by decades of dictatorship and political fanaticism. Europe’s and Germany’s successes since 1945 have rested to no small degree on movement away from extremes, a willingness to learn lessons from past disasters, rejection of totalitarian ideologies, self-criticism, and the assumption of responsibility for building a different future. It may occur to some of the Syrian refugees that decades of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and hatred of Israel coming from the Ba‘ath dictatorship had something to do with the self-destruction that has now engulfed their native land. For this welcome outcome to occur, German intellectuals, scholars, and politicians must teach incoming migrants of the importance of Germany’s tradition of facing the Nazi past honestly and insist that most of what the Syrians have heard from their own government over many decades about Israel, the United States, West Germany, Zionism, and the Jews is false.
That is hard, but only the hard path to integration can assure its success, defined as integration compatible with Germany’s best traditions. That path will also require that Germans themselves, especially those that came of age in East Germany, re-confirm their rejection of the worldview offered for decades by the Ba‘athi dictatorship in Damascus. Assad’s torture chambers, barrel bombs, and chemical attacks open the possibility of a reassessment of Ba‘athi policies against the West and Israel. The barbarism of ISIS also makes evident the inhuman consequences of radical Islamic ideology. That the refugees are fleeing both Assad’s nominally secular regime and ISIS may contribute greatly to an easing of Arab hatred of Israel and the West, like that experienced by many Europeans in the aftermath of Nazism and gradually in the decades before the collapse of Communism in 1989.
Yet perhaps, the Syrians and the Germans will take the easy path, one of silence and the avoidance of difficult truths. That too is a well-trodden path in post-1945 Germany and one that, we must admit, the sudden shift of U.S. policy in 1946-47 from de-Nazification to anti-Communism did plenty to assist. Yet the path to an easy integration that does not challenge seven decades of dominant ideas in Syria would only add to the ranks of voters who do not want to hear any more about the German preoccupation with the Nazi past and the Holocaust. If so, Syrian migration to Germany could weaken the country’s traditions of coming to terms with its Nazi past, foster a growth of anti-Semitism in Germany and Europe, and thus stimulate a Jewish exodus out of the country.
For this historian of the Nazi years, it was moving to see people in need seeking to move toward and not away from Germany. It was an indication of how much had changed in Germany since Nazism. Yet I also confess to uneasiness at the enormous enthusiasm with which these particular refugees have been greeted. Did the Germans welcoming them with open arms not know of Syria’s antagonism to Israel? It was hardly a secret. Was there some conscious or unconscious element of common cause in welcoming these people from a country that has been Israel’s most uncompromising enemy for so many decades? Probably not. But among former citizens of East Germany, were there fond memories of the East German-Syrian alliance of the Cold War era? I’d like to think probably not, too, and that the welcoming culture was simply the expression of elementary decency in the face of persecution and terror.
Yet in a bitter irony of history, the American (and German) failure to intervene to stop the slaughter in Syria has led to a migration of Syrians to a country still haunted by its role in the murder of Europe’s Jews. Germany finds itself welcoming victims of the Assad regime and of ISIS, both of which would gladly destroy the Jewish state of Israel if they had the means to do so.
Will Germans insist that the price of integration for the Syrian refugees is to accept and understand the German reckoning with Nazism and the related commitment to the safety and survival of Israel? Or will Germans somehow seek to meet halfway those newcomers whose parents and grandparents waged wars against Israel and the West? No one today has answers to these questions, but the two options must be discussed. The welcoming culture must express both pride in what Germany has come to understand about its own past as well as frank criticism of what the Syrian regime has said and done for the past seventy years. These Syrians have voted with their feet against the regimes and organizations that terrorized them. Hopefully there are Syrian refugees who are now willing to hear criticism that they were not allowed to hear in their native land, and perhaps some will take to heart a new understanding of Israel and the West and be encouraged to articulate it in their own words.
Perhaps that articulation will even make its way back to the land they have left behind. But that will only happen if the Germans who have welcomed them refuse to squander their own hard-won lessons of frankly coming to terms with the past. The most generous kind of asylum Germans can offer their new countrymen may be asylum from an involuntarily inherited history of lies and hatred.