‘Wir Schaffen Das’: Angela Merkel, the Refugee Crisis, and the Complexity Behind a Simple Statement Like ‘We Will Do It’

pro-refugee street art in berlin, germany
A mural in support of refugees on a building in Berlin, Germany (photo by Sven-Kåre Evenseth (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

For the Winter 2017 “Home” edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, Renata Adler — whose parents fled Germany in the early 1930s — returns to her familial homeland to explore Germany’s present-day reaction to the refugee crisis, and the millions of people now trying to get in rather than out.

The “land” in question was of course Germany, which had—in living, though dwindling, memory—launched by far the worst, most immense, cruel, specific persecution in the history of mankind. One from which there were relatively few refugees fortunate enough to escape. The millions now seeking asylum were not in the old sense “refugees.” Most had fled (in German, they are called Flüchtlinge, people fleeing) from civil wars or in search of a better life. (The Yazidis, in Iraq, and the Tutsi, in Rwanda, would be refugees in the old sense. Their persecutors, eager to exterminate them, would not permit them to escape.) Historically, there has existed no genuine “right” to asylum from war, poverty, oppression, intolerable living conditions in the land from which you came. Even asylum from specific persecutions, extermination, genocide had been denied throughout the world to people trying to escape the Holocaust. Merkel’s invitation was, in part, an attempt—by welcoming all who could assert a claim for asylum—to expiate, atone for, above all to avoid repetition of this vast, unprecedented crime. Throughout human history, there had been migrations, voluntary and involuntary, of all kinds. But the current problem, whatever its moral claims, was vastly different from the Holocaust. It was different as well from every earlier migration. There seemed to exist no way for the more fortunate peoples of the earth to absorb all those less fortunate, even if their cultures were highly compatible. Which, in this case, they were not.

Read the essay