The German political establishment still doesn’t get it. One week after the (belated) revelation of the mass sexual assault in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker has given a singularly out-of-touch interview to Der Spiegel. In it, she advocates using “pictograms for refugees explaining public life in Germany about how to act in this society” to prevent sexual assault during the city’s famously lurid Fasching, or Carnival season, and defending her comments that women should keep men at “arm’s length” on the grounds that “nobody is offering any constructive suggestions.”
Angela Merkel, meanwhile, feeling the need to be seen to do something, announced a change in refugee policy that is, as she surely must know, largely window dressing: changing the rules to allow for swifter deportation of more refugees convicted of crimes. As Andrew Stuttaford points out, the European Convention on Human Rights will likely render this a dead letter. But the bigger problem is that the German public is concerned with much larger issues—mass immigration itself, and, secondarily to that, a clash of cultures—and will likely not be put off with such thin gruel for long.
At the same time, German politicians and the establishment press seem to be unable to resist employing “on the one hand, on the other hand” balancing between the New Year’s Eve perpetrators and critics of German immigration policy. On Friday, we noted Ralf Jaeger’s comments that “What happens on the right-wing platforms and in chatrooms is at least as awful as the acts of those assaulting the women.” Such comments are being backed up by force of law: German police are investigating Facebook and Twitter comments, and prosecutors are bringing high-profile cases forward, involving prison time, for inappropriate speech. Meanwhile, in Cologne on Saturday, police used water cannons and pepper spray to disperse a protest by Pegida. Where, normal Germans might wonder, were those water cannons and pepper-spray-wielding officers on New Year’s Eve? And it will be worth tracking whether the number of convictions for speech responding to the Cologne NYE attacks outnumber convictions for the attacks themselves.
Since the Second World War, Germany has worked admirably to expunge from its politics the warmongering, racism, and authoritarian streak that made the first half of the 20th century Not a Good Time to Be Alive in Europe. But the crises of the last few years have revealed a country that still hasn’t found a golden mean between awareness of the past and neurosis. In too many policy areas, from German defense policy to the euro crisis to, now, policing and refugee policy, German elites still fall short, “for historic reasons,” of the basic obligations of a mature democracy to protect its citizens at home, deal with threats abroad (such as the Syrian and Libyan wars), and protect its borders. Meanwhile, a populist backlash risks bringing back some of those dark tendencies that the elites are designing their policies to avoid.
Now due to the scale of the refugee influx, it will have to do all of this under the gun. As Ross Douthat pointed out this weekend, family reunification laws mean that the number of newcomers could legally double or triple in short order, even if the refugee boats were stopped tomorrow. (And, as we’ve noted, they’re not stopping….) Driven by guilt and bound by refugee laws from another era, Germany’s leaders cannot seem to say no, even when the demographic weight of much of Africa and the Middle East—which obviously cannot all be accommodated in Deutschland—is pressing down on the country. Indeed, after Cologne, it’s starting to seem like Germany’s elites aren’t even able to comprehend the scope of the crisis facing them, the measures needed to meet it, or even that there might be reasons to stop refugees that have nothing to do with racism.
As Walter Russell Mead has written, a new generation of Germans is growing up that is far removed from the guilt of the Second World War or the divisions of the Cold War. (Some of their grandfathers were even too young to fight for Hitler). In time, this will likely do much to make German policy more balanced. But right now, due to the refugee crisis in particular, time is not on Germany’s side. The old heads need to figure out how to find a serviceable balance between guilt and practicality, and fast.