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Germany’s heated asylum debate has dark parallels to events 30 years ago

A rally of right-wing protestors in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, in early September. Franz Fischer/EPA

It was a moment that has defined Angel Merkel’s chancellorship of Germany ever since. In early September 2015, she allowed thousands of refugees fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq to enter Germany.

Merkel promised her people that Germany would be able to handle the growing influx of asylum seekers, but her decision provoked a storm that helped fuel the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Since then, German politics has been largely dominated by that one controversial matter – asylum policy.

In early September 2018, xenophobic riots rocked Chemnitz in eastern Germany following the killing of a 35-year-old German-Cuban, allegedly by two asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq. Further rallies took place in the town of Köthen, also in eastern Germany, on September 9, demonstrating against the death of a German man following a fight with two Afghans. These are the latest in a string of events that underline how the extreme right has won support – particularly in eastern Germany where distrust in public institutions has been high since unification.

The current debate has clear parallels with an earlier period of German history. In the 1980s and 1990s, another Asyldebatte (asylum debate) dominated the then-capital of West Germany, Bonn, and spread across the country amid the rise of two right-wing parties: the Republicans and the German People’s Union.

This era, when West Germany was led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was dominated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany in 1989. But in the straddling years, asylum and immigration were also hot political topics. As my own PhD research is exploring, in the 1980s and 1990s there were hateful protests and attacks on asylum shelters, while the political elite either did not have any answer or flirted with plans to tighten the asylum law.

Read more: Germany's AfD: how to understand the rise of the right-wing populists

Changes to asylum law

There was no clear starting point of the first asylum debate. The number of asylum applicants in West Germany grew from the early 1980s onwards, mainly made up of Kurds from Turkey as well as people fleeing Iran, Lebanon, Ghana, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. In the spring and summer of 1986, West Berlin experienced a refugee crisis when the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in East Germany let many people pass the border at the Friedrichstraße train station. The West did not do any passport checks, because this would have meant that West Germany officially acknowledged the border and therefore the separation of Berlin – which it refused to do.

Suddenly, thousands of refugees were standing on West German ground and influential media outlets, such as the newspaper BILD, demanded a reaction from the government. It’s estimated that in 1985 and 1986, the GDR let around 150,000 refugees across the border, because the struggling regime wanted to force West Germany into granting a loan for over a billion Deutsche Marks and threatened to let the influx of refugees continue.

In August 1986, the Politbarometer survey published by broadcaster ZDF – which I looked at in the archives of the University of Cologne – showed that 77% of those asked believed the people applying for asylum came predominantly for economic reasons, not because they were politically persecuted. The same survey also revealed that 79.5% of Germans wanted the application process to be made more difficult.

Eventually, the debate led to a constitutional change in 1993 that effectively tightened the right to asylum in Germany, which had been the most liberal in Europe.

The debate continued to rumble on throughout the 1990s, as the Christian Social Union (CSU) – the more conservative sister party of Kohl’s and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union – shifted to the right and after 1993 frequently proposed the elimination of the individual right to asylum and an additional asylum bill that would have made it easier to decline applications. The left-wing parties also attacked the government for its decision to change the constitution. It took a couple of years before the debate slowly fizzled out when the number of asylum applicants declined significantly and the economy recovered.

Today, the CSU has again shifted further to the right, this time closing the gap with the AfD and its anti-immigration agenda. The CSU chairman, Horst Seehofer, called migration the “mother of all problems” and demanded his party “close the open right flank” after an underwhelming result in the 2017 general election.

In May 2018, the Politbarometer revealed that 51% of 1,200 people surveyed believed Germany could not deal with the influx of asylum seekers. Another 33% thought refugees threatened the cultural and societal architecture of the country.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric

In the 1980s, general resentment towards asylum seekers in Germany partly stemmed from the argument that those coming from Muslim or Sub-Saharan African countries did not share the same values and had no understanding of democracy. That argument had originally been widely spread by right-wing and moderate politicians when West Germany discussed the integration of former guest worker families from Turkey in the 1970s and early-1980s. It festered amid the context of rising unemployment rates – which went from 3.3% in 1980 up to around 8% in the later parts of the decade – and the search for scapegoats.

A protest to keep the eastern German city Cottbus ‘free of Nazis’ in February 2018 following clashes in the city between locals and refugees. Florian Boillot/EPA

Such resentment is even more noticeable today. Merkel’s announcement in 2015 further fuelled the debate over whether a considerable number of Muslims can and should be integrated into German society. However, a movement called Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, had organised its first protests in October 2014, a year earlier. Pegida and its rise is linked to a more visible rejection of an increasing heterogeneity in German society.

Read more: Behind the rise of Germany's anti-Islamic street movement

In a way that is reminiscent of the first asylum debate, many political figures in Berlin currently seem to be in panic mode, ramping up their rhetoric in an attempt to please voters who are against mass immigration. Political buzzwords commonly used by politicians such as “Asyltourismus” (asylum tourism), “Asylkriminalität” (asylum criminality) or “Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge” (economic refugees) have been recycled from the first asylum debate. Even if the country is facing a historic challenge, such language has not helped to remove emotion from the issue or to turn attention to actual legislative action.

The latest polls show that more and more voters are turning to the AfD, and that almost half of Germans think that the government is not taking concerns regarding immigration seriously. After four terms in office, Merkel’s legacy may well be tied to the rise of the political far-right and the revival of a polarising debate that Germany already had 30 or so years ago.

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