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How Nazi guilt complicates the refugee debate in Germany

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How Nazi guilt complicates the refugee debate in Germany

WATCH | How Nazi guilt complicates the refugee debate in Germany.


When Tarek Khello arrived in Leipzig, Germany, the Syrian journalist was at a loss for words. Mostly because he didn’t know a lick of German. Khello was a refugee. 

Fast-forward three years, and he’s an award-winning producer for German broadcaster MRD-TV, where he covers stories centered on violence committed by and against refugees. 

They followed me 100 meters until I could run into a supermarket.

According to statistics released by the German government, nearly 10 migrants were attacked per day in Germany in 2016. 

Khello, a former journalist in Aleppo, Syria, was himself assaulted while filming a story about attacks on refugee children.

Willkommen in Deutschland

Faced with a humanitarian crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in the summer of 2015 her country would set aside $6 billion to care for an estimated 800,000 refugees fleeing war-torn countries including Syria and Iraq.

The response from the German public was generally positive, as thousands turned out to welcome refugees at train stations in Munich and across the country.

Public sentiment sours

Over time, the popularity of Merkel’s “open-door” policy began to decline, in part due to a string of domestic terror attacks blamed on migrants, including a deadly truck attack at a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016.

A mass number of sexual assaults and robberies of women in Cologne on New Year's Eve were also blamed on refugees. (Police reports would later show most of the assailants were non-refugee North Africans).

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FILE - In this Friday, June 26, 2015 file photo protestors demonstrate against the accommodation for immigrants in Freital, Germany, near Dresden. Members of Pegida, the right-wing movement that staged regular rallies in Dresden and elsewhere against immigrants and Muslims, helped initiate protests and demonstrated against the arrival of the first refugee families. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer, File)

Asked in February 2016 whether the government was in control of the migrant crisis, 81 percent of Germans polled said “no.” The backlash began to threaten Merkel’s hold on power.

 What is the AfD?

Posing a threat to Merkel’s CDU party was the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party, a right-wing nationalist party known for its anti-immigration & anti-Muslim rhetoric. First formed in 2013, the AfD opposed European Union bailouts in countries like Greece, but its focus has since shifted to immigration.

The AfD platform rejects the notion that Islam should be part of German society, and it calls for the country to reintroduce permanent border controls. 

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Police secures a protest march against the party convention of Germany's nationalist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) in Cologne, Germany, Saturday, April 22, 2017. Around 50,000 left-wing protesters were expected and about 4,000 police officers were on the ground to prevent a violent escalation of anti-populist rallies. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

In September 2016, AfD claimed its first major electoral victories, gaining seats in 10 of 16 regional assemblies across Germany.

Nazi guilt

The rise of right-wing populism in Europe isn’t new, but it is significant in Germany given its Nazi history.

Jan Techau, of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum for the Study of Diplomacy and Governance at the American Academy in Berlin, attributes the anti-refugee sentiment to a taboo that he says has worn thin.

“A lot of time has just passed, and all of a sudden, it's quite possible to say things again that were impossible to say just 10 years ago."


But compared to populist, right-wing movements in France and the Netherlands, the AfD party hasn’t taken hold in Germany. After peaking at 15 percent, it’s now polling in the single digits. Techau says has to do with a stance long associated with right-wing politics in Germany.

“Germany has this very special Nazi history that other countries don't have. That has created a taboo, and a very strong sensitivity against these kinds of political ultra-right-wing sentiments,” Techau explained.

A divided Germany

Much like the U.S., attitudes toward refugees break down along geographic lines. In the former East Germany, parts of which haven’t fully recovered from the Cold War, skepticism over migration flow is common.

Some 100 miles southwest of Berlin, Leipzig residents were frustrated with the refugees who would come to live in their city.

“You should close the borders because there are enough refugees. We as Germans feel like foreigners because of the refugees,” one Leipzig resident told Circa. 


By contrast, the mood in a major metropolis like Berlin was more positive about the presence of refugees. 

“I think it sounds kind of weird, if I see it, but [welcoming refugees] is good in terms of the history of Germany,” a 20-year-old Berliner told us. “They’re showing the world that we are good with people from other nations..”

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