National Geographic : 2016 Oct
102 national geographic • october 2016 it has been on fiery display. There have been large nighttime rallies and flaming rhetoric by right-wing orators in Dresden and Erfurt. There have been hundreds of attacks on refugee shel- ters, most still empty—although just days be- fore Merkel’s press conference drunken thugs lobbed a Molotov cocktail into a child’s bedroom at a shelter in Salzhemmendorf, near Hanover. And yet: Quieter but no less vivid, against the backdrop of Germany’s history, were the flut- terings of the better angels. Three-quarters of a century ago Germans were dispatching trains full of Jews to concentration camps in the east; now, at the Munich train station, they were greeting trains carrying Muslim refugees with food, water, stuffed animals, and smiles. On one German podcast I began tuning in to last fall, I heard a journalist from Die Zeit tell her listeners it was all right to feel “drunk” with pleasure at that transformation. To which another journal- ist retorted: The hangover is coming. “The European Union is in a very, very fragile state,” Michael Roth, Germany’s state minister for Europe, told me in April. “I hope people are aware of that.” The surge of refugees, along with Germany’s inability to persuade the rest of the continent to follow its open-armed lead, was a major reason for that fragility—and the whole world became aware of it on June 23, when the British voted in a national referendum to leave the EU. The refugees weren’t directly at issue— Britain has scarcely admitted any—but polls showed that reducing immigration, from both inside and outside the EU, was the main motive for the “Brexit” vote. What happened in Britain, and the swell- ing populist opposition to immigration in other countries too, only raises the stakes of what’s happening in Germany. Can Germans really grow out of their heavy past to become a Willkommenskultur—a culture that welcomes others? If so, then in a world increasingly full of both immigrants and xenophobes, there might be hope for us all. In the mid-1970s, when I was in high school at the German School of Brussels, Belgium, a man named Volker Damm was my social studies teacher. (Though I’m American, my father was frequently stationed in Europe, and I attended German schools until college.) Tall, with curly blond hair just receding at the temples and a chiseled face that belied his gen- tle, empathic manner, Damm was one of the cool teachers at the school. In his class I first understood about the Holo- caust—he filled one memorable period by reading aloud from graphic eyewitness accounts of the concentration camps. Born in 1939, Damm was just six when the war end- ed. His father, also a schoolteacher, had been the Nazi Party leader in a little village in the German state of Hesse, but I did not know that back then. We hadn’t been in touch in nearly 40 years, but Damm wasn’t hard to find; a local paper had reported on his volunteer work on behalf of crime victims. We began corresponding, and I learned that in his retirement he was also tutor- ing teenage refugees, tens of thousands of whom have arrived alone in Germany. Damm invited me to visit Rotenburg an der Fulda, a Hessian town of more than 13,000 near the center of the country, where he’d spent most of his teaching career. So far the town was handling the refugee situation rather well, he said. And so on a rainy morning last winter, Damm and I climbed the worn wooden stairs of the 16th-century town hall to the office of another Hamburg had to accommodate 35,000 refugees last year, half as many as the U.S. takes from the world.