I was born in West Germany. In my late teens, after the collapse of the GDR and the reunification of the two Germanies I’d grown up with, I spent much of my spare time organizing protest marches agains the conservative government’s asylum policies. Recently, I found a newspaper clipping about one of those rallies, from 1992 — with a photo of myself marching with my fellow Young Socialists and Anti-Fascists. The guy walking next to me is holding a sign that says “Everyone’s a foreigner.”
I remember nights in the early 1990s when my friends and I stood watch outside refugee homes, taking turns until the sun came up, ready to run to the nearest phone box to call the police if and when Neonazi thugs showed up to attack the place. They didn’t — things never got quite as nasty in and around my home town as in East Germany, where asylum seeker homes were set on fire and angry mobs threatened to storm the crowded shelters that they could not abide in their communities. The iconic image from those days showed the scared face of a refugee, looking out through a window shattered by a protester’s rock. That was in Hoyerswerda, in Saxony, in 1991.
When angry mobs reappeared in the streets of Leipzig and Dresden last year, when gyms and abandoned school buildings designated as refugee shelters were set on fire earlier this year, when right-wing extremists hurled abuse at journalists and politicians, I registered the news with a sense of resignation: I had been right to leave that place. Germany was never going to be free of its xenophobic heritage. Happy to go back to see my family and to sit in theatres that stage the most exciting shows in the world, I would continue to have to blank out much of the rest of the country and its culture. I was no longer as angry with Germany as I used to be, but it continued to live up to my low expectations. The Greek fiasco didn’t help.
It’s not that all Germans are bad (I thought): after all, I had known many who stood up for doing the right thing, some who had opened their homes to asylum seekers in the 90s, some who had risked their own lives to protect the lives of refugees. But those people weren’t representative: they were the exception that kept the place from complete moral bankruptcy.
And then, in the last few weeks, Germany went ahead and shattered all my convictions. Suddenly, there was a Conservative Chancellor who announced that all Syrian refugees would be granted asylum. Suddenly, there was a Foreign Secretary who expressed nothing but empathy for refugees, and declared that Germany had no choice but to accept those seeking refuge. Suddenly, there were thousands all over the country welcoming refugees with open arms, organizing spontaneous food and clothes collections. Suddenly, there were videos of crowds of Germans welcoming trains full of people fleeing the Syrian civil war — in particular, today’s BBC report from the Munich train station.
Of course that’s not the whole story. There have been awful scenes outside the social security office in Berlin where asylum seekers need to register, with hundreds of people sleeping out in the open, without shelter or medical assistance, and with tensions running high — and it took days for a combination of charity organizations and private citizens’ efforts to get the situation under control. The extreme right-wing remains a virulent factor, especially in the East. There are plenty of websites and Facebook pages that spew the same kind of anti-“migrant” rhetoric that has dominated, say, the UK tabloids’ headlines.
But still. Those scenes from Munich? That’s not the Germany I grew up in. It feels like a new country. It feels, frankly, like a country rejoicing at the opportunity to do the right thing — to finally break character. There’s an odd detail in the BBC video that encapsulates this feeling for me. Somewhere in the crowd of cheering Germans, there’s a man singing Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the tune of which is also the EU’s official anthem). With its lyrics about “all humans becoming brothers” and embracing “millions,” it’s obviously an apt choice of song. And it’s a tune that resonates widely. From Chilean protestors to Tiananmen Square, the song has been sung and played against political oppressors all over the world. But in Germany, its legacy predictably is rather more complicated: it was one of the Nazi propaganda machine’s favourite pieces of music, performed on a number of highly symbolic occasions — including as part of Hitler’s birthday celebrations in 1942, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.
On Christmas Day 1989, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth in Berlin, as a celebration of East Germany’s new-found freedom. In retrospect, this has been described as a historic reclamation of Beethoven’s symphony and of Schiller’s words. But I don’t remember that concert having any kind of impact on my teenage self. 1989 was a complicated political moment and, in my experience, the prelude to the racist riots of 1991-92.
The man singing the Ode to Joy in the Munich train station yesterday, on the other hand? That’s far simpler. It makes no great claims about freedom, or about Germany, really. It’s a person singing one of the great masterpieces of German classical music, intoning one of the most famous poems of German neoclassical idealism, repurposing it into a song not about the ideal bond between men, but between all humans. It’s not much of a performance, musically. But it’s a massively meaningful one. Because it takes the very song the Nazis turned into an anthem of nationalist fervour and uses it to show Germany’s openness to people from other countries and cultures. It’s a heartfelt proclamation that Germany is changing — and that this change for the better can draw on a heritage that the Nazis and their many million followers and enablers did perhaps not manage to obliterate after all.
* * *
I came to Canada in 2005, after four years in the UK and six years in the US. The country struck me as a remarkable blend of North American and European sensibilities: the space and newness of the US combined with a Western European social conscience and belief that governments should play a role in the lives of citizens. I loved the proliferation of hyphenated identities — the sense that no-one I met was simply “Canadian.” (And yes, sure, even then I realized that that hyphenation was predicated on the genocidal suppression of the people who were “from” here in a more immediate sense.) Canada felt like the most open place I’d ever lived in, the most welcoming, the most well-intentioned — and the most calm, too.
My love for this country hasn’t soured. Not really. But seeing this place be turned into a country that sends bombers rather than peacekeepers, a nation that makes every effort to keep unwanted “migrants” out, a place so afraid of what people from abroad might bring here that it had rather shut its borders than offer shelter to those in need — that has been difficult and disappointing. Yes, I know the current government has never had the support of more than 40-odd percent of Canadians. I realize the majority of people here don’t feel Stephen Harper and his party act in their names. And I hope people will be adamant about that in October. But in a sense, none of that makes a difference. It’s still Canada that isn’t doing what one might expect Canada to do.
Video clips like the one from the Munich train station, images such as that of Alan Kurdi’s drowned body — they are symbolic, not fully representative. Many more children (and adults) have drowned, 2000 this year alone, trying to reach Europe. Many more refugees have arrived in Germany, uncheered, sometimes yelled at and insulted. But how one reacts to these exceptional symbolic images matters. The Munich video has moved some people, and has served as an occasion for others to note that those refugees might include criminals and terrorists — and that the cheering Germans are idiots who will see their country suffer. The photo of a drowned child has obviously galvanized public opinion, leading to much louder cried for accepting more refugees than in the years since the beginning of the Syrian civil war; it has also sparked comments that acknowledge the sadness of a child’s death, but query why the family didn’t just stay put in “safe” Turkey — or note that such sad events are unfortunately the sort of thing Western countries have to accept as the price for our safety and freedom.
It’s obviously possible to look at those images and feel nothing. The internet and its wonderful comment sections make that evident. Personally, I don’t understand how one can watch the Munich video and think “those are all potential terrorists,” or even “those are all Muslims and I don’t want them here.” They’re people who need our help. That’s an emotional response, and not a straightforward basis for policy — but it’s a first step towards defining policies that will make that help available. I also don’t understand how one can look at the photo of a drowned child and think “shame, but unavoidable if we want to stay safe.” Nor can I understand how one can look at that photo and say, with tears in one’s eyes, “What a terrible tragedy. But remember that we already help so many people — we can’t do much more. What we must do is continue our war against ISIS.”
And yet, that is pretty much what Stephen Harper’s reaction was.
Never mind how one feels about the current military action against ISIS; never mind that fighting ISIS offer no help whatsoever to the millions of Syrians fleeing Assad’s regime. Grant that Stephen Harper truly believes that defeating ISIS will immediately end the refugee crisis and restore peace in Syria. Grant even that he is right in the belief I’m ascribing to him, no matter how bizarre it may seem. That still doesn’t make his response any more comprehensible. Or humane. Or even politically savvy.
It would make obvious sense to say, in the rhetoric politicians use, “We can’t let this kind of thing happen again. Canada will not allow more drowned children.” And to follow that platitude with an actual concrete plan: “We will do what we’ve done in the past: we will set up emergency processing centres in the refugee camps. We will charter planes. And we will fly tens of thousands of processed and approved refugees to Canada ourselves. Starting tomorrow.” That, historically speaking, would be the Canadian solution. It wouldn’t be incompatible with continuing the military action. It wouldn’t be unaffordable. It would make the government look as good as they possibly can, given their history of near inaction. It would be pragmatic, and humane, and politically savvy.
Instead, Stephen Harper chose to lie. No other country, on a per-capita basis, has as generous an immigration policy as Canada, he said. And he’s almost right about that. But immigrants — that’s people like me. It’s easy to be generous to people like me. Canada’s broader immigration policies, however, are entirely irrelevant to the discussion of Syrian refugees. When one instead looks at the UNHCR statistics about refugees, it becomes evident very quickly just how monstrous a distortion Harper’s claim is: far from leading the world in accepting refugees, Canada ranks 26th on a per-capita basis. We’re even behind Australia in that list — a country with a recent record of brutally inhumane refugee policies. And we’re a mere 6 spots ahead of Albania! More astonishingly, the UNHCR data also reveals that unlike almost every other country on that list, Canada has accepted fewer refugees in the last two years than in previous years, despite the intensifying crisis in Syria and Iraq.
It seems as if the Harper government in fact thinks of military action as an alternative to offering asylum: we bomb your enemies so we don’t have to shelter you. It would be bad enough for a Canadian government openly to strike that attitude. But to strike it in effect, while hypocritically claiming that we are doing more than any other country to help refugees? That’s worse. And to do that while choking back tears over a drowned refugee child — I don’t know what to call that. Reprehensible is far too weak a word.
* * *
I know Canada wasn’t as good before the present government as I would like to believe. But it used to be a pretty remarkable kind of country, despite the flaws one could easily list. I also know that Germany wasn’t as utterly terrible a place as I told myself it was when I left in the mid-1990s. But it was a pretty narrow-minded place, and a place where people were pretty certain who belonged and who didn’t. I would never have thought that within a decade, Germany would start acting like Canada, and Canada — at least its government — would start acting in a more morally corrupt fashion than any German government I’ve witnessed.
I’m used to being troubled by my home country; I’m used to singing the praises of the country that I have chosen as my new home. I’ve sung the praises of German theatre makers; I’ve cheered for its football players. I have never praised Germany as a country. I now find myself looking at a Germany that seems to be trying hard to be more like the Canada I thought I lived in; and looking at a Canadian government that is trying very hard to make Canada act like the Germany that I left in the 1990s. And that is a very odd feeling. I have always wanted Canadian theatre to be more like German theatre. Let’s not even talk about football. But I would never have thought that I would ever want Canada to behave more like Germany. I now really want Canada to behave more like Germany.
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Images may be reused as long as their source is properly attributed in accordance with the Creative Commons License detailed above. Many of the photos here were taken at the Folger Shakespeare Library; please consult their policy on digital images as well.