The term “special path” or Sonderweg refers to the historiographical account of the distinctive process of modernization in Germany in contrast to that found in the “Western” societies of England, France, and the United States. This text originally appeared as “Ein neuer deutscher Sonderweg” (PDF) in Neue Gesellschaft/Frankfurter Hefte, no. 3 (March 2016); it was written in February 2016. Published here with permission of the author. Translated by Russell A. Berman.
Calculating the two million refugees who entered the European Union in 2014 and 2015 in relation to the overall population size, one comes up with one refugee for about every 540 residents per year. Recently The Guardian determined that, according to this formula, Germany had accepted about 200% of its portion of refugees, and only Hungary, Sweden, and Austria were more generous in relation to their population over this period. The corresponding figures for France and England, in contrast, were about 50% and 33%, and in the East European countries under 10%. Between the beginning of August 2015 and September/October 2015, Germany counted 690,000 people applying for refugee status or who were already waiting to be processed; in France the number was only 85,000, and in England 47,000. This corresponds to a ratio of 100:13:7. While in 2015 more than one million refugees came to Germany, the number for Great Britain was about 35,000. In the meantime, this imbalance has only grown larger. After Hungary, the Scandinavian countries have closed their borders, Austria is stepping on the brakes, and other countries are behaving more defensively than previously. Germany therefore faces even greater numbers. With more than 50,000 new arrivals in January 2016, it is very probable that this year’s number will exceed one million, unless new methods are developed to contain them.
As far as the willingness to accept refugees is concerned, Germany is the lonely leader in Europe. No other European country is behaving similarly, nor does the United States. Evidently there is a new special path for Germany. How can this be explained?
First of all: Germany is prosperous; we’re doing quite well. If we had southern European unemployment rates or the scarcity of East European countries, we would be less hospitable. Furthermore, influential industrial associations early on argued for the generous reception of refugees and continued to oppose the reestablishment of national border controls, on the basis of economic interests. Human rights activists and capitalists are promoting the same policy, and not for the first time. The left-wing critique of capitalism generally overlooked this affinity, but right-wing capitalism critics understand this very well: for them capitalism is not sufficiently national—it is too universalist.
Second: our party system. German politics is presently determined by a very broad coalition, by the cabinet backed by a parliamentary majority formed by the two largest parties, CDU and SPD, but co-determined by the Greens, which play a role in the second chamber. It is predisposed to affirm the status quo in which the rights of refugees, generous social services, and the emphasis on human rights are anchored strongly. Changes take place only in very small steps. This very big coalition prevented the rapidly developing social conflict around the refugee question from finding an appropriate parliamentary expression: an irritating democracy deficit. The rise of an extra-parliamentary opposition, this time on the right, was the result. But there is still no strong right-wing party in the Bundestag that, like the Front National in France, the Swedish Democrats, or the Austrian FPÖ, could give parliamentary expression to the anxieties and moods of the population and push the government further to the right. This will change soon.
But the most important factor is history, which took a different course in Germany and which has been worked through differently than in other countries. An ever more decisive distancing from the Nazi dictatorship has fortunately become a central element in the identity of the Federal Republic of Germany. A self-critical examination of the legacy of that evil, learning from this history, and consequently building a different and better Germany—this has become an increasingly clear consensus across all parties that sustains the Federal Republic and its institutions, debates, and orientations. This consensus was further strengthened through the critical examination of the “second German dictatorship” after the end of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). We can now see that this was not just a matter of ceremonial speeches, symbolic politics, and intellectuals minorities: it is evident in the emphasis on humanitarian imperatives, human-rights principles, and “European values” in practical politics, in the all-pervasive moralism of the discussion in the media but precisely also in the “welcome culture” expressed in civil society and in the broad support that Merkel’s radically pro-refugee policy received from the Germans for months and, to some extent, continues to receive. The right to asylum and the protection of refugees have become symbolic crystallization points of a new definition of German identity, after National Socialism. To change something fundamental here would quickly touch basic values.
There are good reasons to feel satisfaction and pride in this development. But its price is high and will get higher.
First, the politics of European integration are at risk, i.e., a major historical project to which the Federal Republic is deeply indebted. The refugee policy of the federal government is contributing significantly to the disintegration of the EU. It is based on unilateral German decisions, the results of which are supposed to be Europeanized through a quota distribution mechanism. That is an illusion. Even if the European states could be persuaded to accept it, which is highly unlikely, the refugees don’t want it. How will they be kept in Poland and the Czech Republic, Portugal and France, unless one resorts to police-state strategies and permanent and strict border controls? They will go wherever their relatives and friends live, where they are best treated, receive the most generous social services, and see the best chances on the labor market. They are crowding into countries like Germany, Austria, and Sweden. A genuine European solution would mean: equalization of the practical refugee policies and the normalization of benefits to a European average. Has this Herculean task even been considered? Is Germany ready for it? This has hardly been discussed at all. Meanwhile there have been loud demands for a strengthening of the EU external borders, but so far only in vain. Whoever wants to reestablish and strengthen the EU as a legal order cannot in fact do without an effective definition of the space in which this order is supposed to apply, that is, genuine external borders. If the European states were to pursue this goal as a priority—as a condition of the continuity of the Schengen Zone and the EU—then the current refugee crisis might actually become a step on the way toward further European integration: but only in that case.
Second, we are being overwhelmed by the scope and speed of the immigration. When the costs of unlimited refugee absorption—necessarily at the cost of other goals and paid by other groups—are eventually understood and the social consequences are felt more clearly than they have been so far, dissatisfaction, tensions and open conflicts will increase significantly. Many immigrants already find their high expectations disappointed, and there will be much more of this in the future. The extreme right is visibly growing and can count on more gains. The debate is becoming shriller and violence more common. State policies will change in reaction to this: toward more surveillance, policing, and severity. Germany is changing, but not for the better. Historical comparisons show that successful integration does not take years but decades and often fails. In this arena, even the most well-meaning policies quickly reach limits, especially in a country where the thoroughly organized labor market—in contrast to its territory—is protected by very high entry barriers. Above all: the chances of successful integration decline with the size of the population to be integrated and its compact and massive arrival. Immigration must be quickly and significantly limited.
Yet a radical reversal is neither possible nor wished for. For the causes of the massive immigration include civil and religious wars, repression and brutal persecution, extensive poverty and misery, and increasingly the consequences of climate change and the dramatically unequal distribution of opportunities in the different regions of the world, now very visible in the age of globalization and digitalization. Some of this is the result of Western policies and selfishness, but a lot is not. This can be changed only very slowly, no matter how urgent it is to work on it with strength, patience, and a significant investment of resources—as German policies are already doing. Our asylum law and the pertinent agreements for the protection of refugees bind us. There is a moral obligation to help victims. Closing borders, isolation, a “fortress Europe”—these cannot be our goals; they would be incompatible with our values as well as with our interests, because we need immigration, impulses from the outside, and openness.
But in between unwanted isolation on the one hand and unlimited openness on the other, there is a lot of space that, as the example of Switzerland shows, can be shaped by realistic policies. These should include frank information about the real opportunities and difficulties of immigrants in Germany, clear indicators—with the same signaling force but in a reverse direction as Merkel’s selfies, and a dismantling of deceptive attractions to come. A time limitation on asylum allowance could be part of the solution. “Asylum” and “refugee” should be defined more narrowly. Differences have to be made: between victims of persecutions and acts of war, who should continue to receive unconditional protection in the future, and the large number of poverty and opportunity immigrants who come to us in a search for a better life, often on the basis of strategic decisions of their families’ willingness to assume risks and frequently with the help of a developed smuggling industry. We need a fair immigration law for them that provides them with chances and gives us the opportunity for selection in the light of our interests. The laws for asylum and refugee protection are not meant for them. However, both in terms of language and practice, our politics, the media, and the “welcome culture” regard all arrivals as victims and refugees, equally in need of protection. This is a kind of life-lie of our current “refugee policies,” which, with the generalization of the powerful victim narrative in the media, declares all immigrants to be desperately fleeing “refugees,” for whom a friendly reception becomes imperative on moralistic grounds. To break through this self-deception mechanism controls are needed, if not on the external borders of the EU then at the national borders, even if this has other disadvantages.
The German special path of the twentieth century turned out to be pernicious. We should end the new German special path as soon as possible.