by Felix Baum
In the summer of 2015, almost overnight, Angela Merkel transmuted in international public perception from a brutal whip of austerity policies, relentlessly squeezing already impoverished populations in the crisis-ridden South of the European Union, to the last defender of the humanist values Europe likes to take pride in. Having been regularly portrayed with a Hitler moustache in countries like Greece, she now reemerged as St. Angela, protector of the refugees. While Eastern European countries were busily erecting fences to stem the tide of unwanted intruders, and while the French state declared it sufficient to take in a mere 24,000 Syrians over the next two years, the head of the German government refused to give in to calls within her own party to limit the number of refugees, which was approaching one million (and eventually surpassed that figure by the end of the year). And just as the German hawkishness in dealing with the economic crisis of the Euro zone—seemingly irrational as it only deepened the recession—made observers resort to trivial psychology (was it maybe an exaggerated fear of inflation, deeply engraved in the German mentality, that drove those policies?), the willingness with which the German state, spurred on by its leader’s now famous We can manage!, opened its doors while almost everyone else did the exact opposite, left smart journalists wondering if Merkel’s biography (East German = victim of a Communist dictatorship = empathy for the persecuted) might provide a clue.
More critical observers, of course, suggested other readings. Some Marxists detected an “imperialist offensive” behind the German state’s seeming humanitarianism, welcoming Syrians to gain more influence on the war ravaging their home country while at the same time pushing for “a European solution” to the refugee crisis which, given Germany’s hegemony on the continent, could only turn out to be a solution in Germany’s very own best interest.1 Others focused more on the domestic situation, arguing that refugees are indeed most welcome in Germany, namely as fresh meat on the labor market at a time when many manufacturers are complaining about growing shortages of workers. In some cases, this line of interpretation feeds into a kind of left-wing nationalism that openly advocates “protecting” German workers from undue competition by foreigners. One prominent example is Sahra Wagenknecht, a high-ranking (and formerly Stalinist) politician of the parliamentary Left Party, who attacked Merkel’s policy as a “total failure of the state” and came out in favor of limiting the influx of refugees as the “population’s willingness to take them in has limits.” This earned her not only praise from the new right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD), but also a brown chocolate cake thrown in her face by leftist activists at a recent party conference.
Regardless of their political implications, both readings contain a grain of truth but ultimately seem questionable. It is true that the right to asylum, far from being an immaculate expression of humanism, has always just as much served as an instrument of power politics. (According to a recent study, of the 233,000 refugees the U.S. accepted between 1956 and 1968, a mere 1,000 did not come from “communist” countries, to name but one example.)2 And it is equally true that for capitalists, however much they claim that the ultimate goal of all their altruistic strivings is to provide jobs, full employment is simply a nightmare, as it strengthens workers’ bargaining position. Indeed, over the last nine months, representatives of German business have successfully pushed for lowering the barriers for asylum-seekers to enter the labor market. Still, both readings tend to underestimate to what extent politics, rather than following a consistent strategy, amounts to a hectic and highly contradictory muddling-through against the backdrop of growing global chaos. And what is more: if refugees are so beneficial for German capital and the imperial ambitions of its state, how is it that more recently the state-proclaimed “welcome culture” of summer 2015 has given way to very determined efforts to reinforce Fortress Europe?