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Can a country change its character?

By B S Prakash
October 23, 2015 11:44 IST
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'I believe that it can and in the case of Germany it has. What about ourselves? If it were 1971 today, would we accept 10 million refugees from another land?' asks Ambassador B S Prakash.

An anti-immigration demonstration organised by the rightwing movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, PEGIDA, in Dresden, Germany, October 19.

IMAGE: An anti-immigration demonstration organised by the rightwing movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, PEGIDA, in Dresden, Germany,October 19. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Why has Germany accepted thousands of Syrian refugees? Is it kindness or calculation or something else?

This is a question that intrigues many. For those of us, who have spent time in Germany -- I started my diplomatic career there in the seventies -- the image that readily comes to mind the moment you say Deutschland is 'efficiency' rather than kindness. This is the popular perception of the German character too: Of being industrious, disciplined, officious, even if correct, but not of oozing sentiment.

I recall an incident when I was a junior diplomat and was supervising the consular section that had some of our non-diplomatic staff. We had a middle aged couple, gentle and humble and somewhat fearful of the big and brisk Germans that dwarfed them in their apartment block. They had a young son, maybe ten years old, naughty and noisy. The parents were perennially worried about the neighbours complaining to the police about the tantrums of the boy and the police visiting them occasionally to advice that the child had to be kept under control.

Some times, my presence was requested to use my less than proficient German to resolve the issue.

One day, two formidable looking police officials landed up with their cars blinking and blaring on the kerb. Apparently the boy had been ringing up the Polizei emergency number as a prank to report a fire in the neighbourhood. All this was much before surveillance cameras or phone interceptions. Why, it was even before the invention of the mobile phone. Nevertheless, the police had traced the call and come to warn the parents.

After seeing the boy, they decided to condone him, but impose a fine, a hefty one of a few hundred German marks, as I recall. The parents were shocked and my budding diplomatic skills were deployed to plead with the police to let the incident pass off without a fine. This was agreed to with some reluctance and we all breathed easy.

Imagine our consternation then, when after some days, the parents received a notice in the post asking them to pay a substantial fee. We went to the police again and asked them: 'You had promised to waive the fine.' 'Ja, Ja,' we did,' they assured us. 'What is this, then?' we asked about the bill. 'These are the administrative charges for sending the police cars, for the time spent by the officers calculated to the minute, for...' How we helped our colleague to raise the money is another story.

If this is an archetypal story of German thinking, how does one square such a mindset with the willing acceptance of 800,000 refugees from Syria that Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in September?

Do German laws require it? Circumstances explain it? Has Germany changed? Does the considerations of the future or the past influence its decisions?

In short, the answer is a 'Yes' to all of the above. Let us look at the ever changing factors at work that influences a nation's thinking.

Starting with the past, Germany, more than any other nation in Europe, has a troubled past. I recall an incident when one of our erudite foreign ministers, Jaswant Singh, was telling the German minister Joschka Fischer how a nation is shaped by its past. He was talking about India's civilisational heritage.

Fischer, a thoughtful individual from the Greens party, looked pensive. He then said that in the case of Germany, its past did not portend the destiny that befell it: 'A country that produced a Goethe, a Bach, a Schopenhauer or a Schiller was not expected to be led by Hitler.'

Modern Germany has borne the Schuldgefuhl or a guilt complex. The horrors perpetrated by Hitler and a Nazi Germany are known to all of us. Less known is the intense introspection that followed in the sixties and seventies and the acknowledgment of blame and guilt as publicly demonstrated by Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling down in atonement in Warsaw in 1970.

Before sceptics object, yes, indeed we do hear of neo-Nazi groups even now, of German unfair treatment for long of the Turkish 'guest workers' who did all the dirty work, and even the famous Mehr kinder, kein Inder -- More children and no Indians -- to signal that Germany did not want an influx of Indians to do all their IT, but should produce more of their own.

Migrants are escorted by German police to a registration centre, after crossing the Austrian-German border in Wegscheid near Passau, Germany, October 20.

IMAGE: Migrants are escorted by German police to a registration centre, after crossing the Austrian-German border in Wegscheid near Passau, Germany, October 20. Photograph: Michael Dalder/Reuters

While all this may be true, there is equally the other narrative for observers of Germany, that I too share: A generation of Germans have grown up who are gentler, softer and show greater empathy for suffering humanity than ever before.

Some of it is because of their heightened sensitivity to their own history. Some of it is a result of 'do-goodism' in an affluent society that Swedes and Norwegians also exhibit.

One factor then, for Germany willing to take in those fleeing for their lives is the lessons absorbed from their own past, when thousands had to flee, first from Nazi Germany and at another stage, from totalitarian Communism.

In contrast to this historical-moral aspect, there are economic-practical considerations too. It is indubitable that Germany has an aging population and a low birth rate. It should be noted that this booming economy, Europe's most successful, will not have the requisite work force to keep its factories humming by 2050.

Cynics point out that the Syrians who are coming as refugees are educated, skilled and are potentially a suitable work-force. The head of Daimler-Benz validated this view when he spoke of another round of German economic miracle that can happen with this massive migration.

Calculation then, and not kindness?

But then, again, we have seen on television, ordinary Germans saying 'Willcommen' to complete strangers and offering them chocolates. Hospitality for refugees includes basic housing, common necessities, and a not too small subsidy of around $700. The people have exhibited a new culture, a 'willcommen culture' that has surprised other Europeans. But the tide is turning too.

Just as the Germans were being applauded (and resented too in some countries like Hungary), criticism has started about Angela Merkel's uncharacteristically impulsive decision. Some of her own colleagues think that she ought to have been more careful and not be so open and forthcoming about welcoming refugees without limits.

Germany has started to slow down a bit, insist on some procedures, and also ask other European countries to do more.

Merkel, however has stuck to her position. 'If we start having to apologise for showing a friendly face in an emergency, then this is not my country,' she said defiantly to her internal critics.

Which brings us to the question: Can a country change its character? I believe that it can and in the case of Germany it has.

What about ourselves? If it were 1971 today, would we still accept 10 million refugees from another land?

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador of India.

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