Germany’s ‘open house’ policy and newly attributed “moral leadership” within the mounting refugee crisis was indeed initially surprising. It certainly wasn’t always so. I’m remembering the 17-year-old boy I met in the nineties when I was working as an artist in Cologne Prison. His name was Christian and he had been placed in the special segregated unit there because his crime was so contentious on a national scale. He was one of four young Neo-Nazis responsible for burning down the house of a large Turkish family in Solingen in May 1993, killing three girls and two women and injuring fourteen other family members. It was the most severe instance of anti-foreigner violence in modern Germany and in 1995, Christian was found guilty of murder, attempted murder and arson and sentenced to 10 years.
He joined my art class in September’93 and in my notes I wrote: “Strange, he has the “courage” to throw fire bombs into a house to destroy 5 Turkish people and yet when it comes to painting in a communal picture, he is so hesitant, unsure of himself, scared. He paints delicate flower heads with blue petals with incredible care and concentration… and gets very hurt when other members of the group destroy them.” This apparent contradictory combination of tenderness and vulnerability mixed with extreme hatred and violence often surfaced in such prisoners’ artworks and would no doubt also be visible in the works of today’s perpetrators of violence.
Fortunately the relatively few Neo-Nazis today are the last of the extreme right Germans determined to maintain the legacy of Hitler’s pathological racism and nationalism. In the nineties they still had support from some ordinary people who applauded them when they burned down refugee camps. However, Germany and Germans have changed, even the tabloid press coverage of the current crisis is more sympathetic with one paper, Bild, printing out information sheets in Arabic for refugees.
There are many layers and reasons behind this change but one important one has to be the on-going emergence of the war-torn memories and personal traumas long suppressed within German families and long ignored by the World War 2 narrative of the history books. After the war, the experiences of the German population were considered irrelevant in the face of the trauma Germany had inflicted on others. Its status as a country of immigration has always been denied yet most Germans today will have family members who have memories of being caught up in the massive migrations of 1944-5 when 14 million people of German ethnicity were on the move. Largely made up of old people, women and children under 16, the stream of refugees were either fleeing westwards from the rapidly advancing and avenging Soviet army, or were forcibly expelled from their more eastern countries of origin – East Prussia, Pomerania, the Baltic states etc. It was a quarter of the German population and, as Neil Macgregor, out going Director of the British Museum said, “is the largest episode of forced mass migration in history”.
Like the refugees today the Germans only had what they could carry with them. Unlike the refugees arriving today however, they arrived in a largely destroyed land where they were not welcome and were seen simply as a burden and threat to the already scarce housing and resources. On arrival in the Allied Occupation Zones some expellees / refugees were interned in former concentration camps, like Auschwitz less than 2 weeks after its liberation by the Soviets. Or they were placed in labour camps where they were often subjected to sadistic beatings, torture, sexual violence and malnutrition. Other expellees lived in refugee camps; many were just stranded and some, like my mother and her family, were able to live with relatives.
The story of my mother’s escape by train from a burning Berlin and the brutal Russian army in 1945 impressed on me, already as a child, what it must be like to lose everything – home, belongings and every other symbol of safety and familiarity. I have vivid imaginings of her as an 11 year old, being rudely woken at 4am, grabbing a hideous new doll instead of her love-worn, old one, and being taken with her little sister to the heaving Berlin main station where they were shoved through the window of a train leaving their mother and older sister behind to a fate unknown. Weeks later they too left to catch the last train out of Berlin, locking the door of their home behind them never to see it or any of their belongings again. I imagine this story resonates with millions of Germans then and so many millions more people now.
Christian was an extreme example of post-war German xenophobia. His heinous act back in 1993 along with the atrocities of the Third Reich in the 1930s-40s may, however, have contributed to Germany’s slightly unexpected current role as “moral leaders”. Could it be that it really is lighting the way forward for all other European nations and beyond to what is widely perceived as the “right thing to do”? Either way, I am proud of Germany’s government for its spontaneous open arm policy and proud of the Germans for going out of their ways to make it happen instantly. I just find it frustrating that the Volkswagen corruption scandal (how can people be so stupid?) is now distracting from this otherwise clear demonstration of a country that has collectively learnt the lessons of its past.