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On the Beach: German Angst and the Refugees

“It’s impossible. That’s sure. So let’s start working.”

— Philippe Petit

Angst is best understood as an indefinite fear. Underlying all Angst is the fear of death. There is another word in German that designates the fear of something specific, such as a father’s fear that his daughter might slip and hurt herself on a shingle beach helping cold, soaking wet refugees onto dry land. Unfortunately, in the refugee debate in Germany, neither the media nor the political parties have drawn this distinction. As a result, there is a lot of talk about Angst—my Angst, our Angst, your Angst, their Angst, etc. When the A-word is used in public debates politicians frequently react like resonating bodies: passively amplifying the volume without apparently adding anything of substance (which suggests they have nothing to add). Briefly, the problem is: Angst is real but exists in a world of its own.

Another element in these debates is risk. There are the risks we choose to take and those over which we have little or no control. The risks that the Green Party’s caucus leader in the lower German parliament (Bundestag for people who enjoy crosswords) Katrin Göring-Eckardt, aside from a minor injury or coming down with a cold, were probably not great. But then, from what I gathered, she didn’t travel from Germany down the Balkans to the island of Lesbos to create a profile in courage but rather simply to experience first hand what is happening. In any case, she took the pains to assess the situation first hand. That was her choice.

Today, (2015.11.02), the risks of integrating large number of refugees in Germany were discussed during a call-in show (Kontrovers , Deutschlandfunk). Those who have personally chosen to commit to the task of welcoming refugees (such as Pro Asyl , the Landesflüchtlingsräte ,forum réfugiés, and many others) and those who have accepted the risks of traveling the three to five thousand kilometers from war to peace, have at least this one characteristic in common. Choice.

On the other hand, people who feel put upon by the current situation (such as Alternative für Deutschand and Pegida) pose a greater danger to Europe than the refugees. Not that there are not genuine concerns or specific fears among their followers. But the reason why these groups are like protagonists in a tragedy is that they let themselves be driven by Angst. A dialogue with these people is basically impossible. They are not on board. They are in the water screaming that they cannot swim. And if you point out that there is a lifesaver floating right beside them they merely shout back something about Angst.

Put in words more traditionally associated with the right, the cosmopolitan enemy (whether in the form of refugees, bankers, Jews, muslims, officials from Brussels, multinationals, etc.) is at the gates and all the right-minded (but criminally neglected) people are at risk, especially German people. However, these groups are just as integral to the political system as they are alienated from it. And no matter how violent they may become, their purpose is to keep things as they are, not to change them.

We were given a glimpse of the alternative during the July referendum in Greece when voters rejected the EU group’s bail-out terms. Did the Greeks get the changes they wanted? Obviously not. Nonetheless, I claim that this was not the failure it was made out to be. Just think for a moment: the whole Greek population had the opportunity cast a vote on an economic policy. When was the last time your national government held a referendum on, say, the inheritance tax? The lasting impression here is that citizens can be given the opportunity to vote on policies. More generally, that democracy can be enhanced. That in itself is a small success. Affordable health care in the USA is another.

Katrin Göring-Eckardt was interviewed on German television Interview Berlin Direkt 2015-11-01 yesterday. She evidently received (social media) massive critique for having helped arriving refugees disembarking from inflatable life boats on the beach and publishing pictures of herself with commentaries about current German policy. One message suggested this was a pitiful attempt at self-marketing. In response, it should be pointed out, firstly, that refugees are not voters. Secondly, there was only a handful of helpers present at the time, all unorganized volunteers. I thought of leaving an empty last line to this commentary for readers to enter their own suitably cynical comment as a conclusion. If its not just an excuse for complacency, I have nothing against cynicism. But it usually is.

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William Hadfield is an American translator residing in Germany.

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