DACHAU, Germany – In a place synonymous with death, life has taken an unexpected turn. The radiating crisis of the Middle East has reached Bavaria in the form of refugees, welcomed to Germany by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Officials in the Dachau region were told to prepare for 1,200. There are now about 1,600; there will probably be 2,000 by year’s end.
By way of comparison, our entire country took in about 1,800 Syrian refugees in the past two years.
Dachau’s district President Stefan Lowl, a young, intense, spreadsheet-wielding member of the conservative CDU party, gave me a tour of his small community’s response: refugees processed in a school gymnasium; large, heated, pressurized tents, normally used to cover tennis courts, housing hundreds of men; transitional housing converted from shipping containers.
It is, Lowl said, “a concentration of people in boring, rough conditions.” While the majority of refugees you meet in Lebanon or Jordan are women and children, these are 80 percent men, generally the ones willing to pay human smugglers and embark on a dangerous journey. Because Merkel’s welcome was not limited to Syrians, refugees are now arriving from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, the Balkans and several places in Africa. In a container house I visited, one door had “Myanmar” as the occupant’s place of origin.
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How have Germans reacted? Lowl says that more than 1,000 volunteers are helping in resettlement efforts. “It is really the whole of society that has responded,” he told me. The first thing refugees see at the gymnasium processing center are posters made by German school children. “Jeder ist willkommen,” reads one: “All are welcome.” At an open house allowing neighbors to examine refugee housing – in an upscale neighborhood where the head of Audi lives – a volunteer told me “Germans are proud of themselves, and a little surprised.”
Merkel’s role is certainly unexpected. She is generally known as a deliberate, cautious politician. But by accepting perhaps 1 million refugees this year, she is also assuming the largest risk of her political career. Germans debate whether she intended to issue a welcome quite so broad. But she has not backed down. “If we had not shown a friendly face,” she said, “that’s not my country.”
This flash of defiant decency may come from being the daughter of a Protestant pastor. But it also reflects the confidence of a leader who has dominated German politics for a decade and become, without dispute, the largest leader in Europe (as well as Time’s Person of the Year).
Under Merkel, Germany is experiencing a qualitative change in its place in the world. It was entirely comfortable enforcing fiscal discipline during the euro crisis, since historically its economic power was never as misused as its military. But as the United Kingdom has effectively retreated in its national security role, Germany has begun to act in this area as well. Germany is sending some planes and a ship to join the coalition of the willing fighting the Islamic State. And now it is taking a position of moral leadership in the refugee crisis.
It is revealing that almost no leaders in America covet that role, which our country played during World War II and the Cold War. President Obama has proposed a trivial commitment – taking 10,000 Syrian refugees (out of 4 million). Republican governors and presidential candidates have used the refugee program – which has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support – as a tool to express their toughness on terrorists. No travel program is completely terrorism-proof. But layers of certification and security screening, winnowing the prospects for asylum down to the clearest cases of need and the strongest claims of oppression, make planting an Islamic State mole a ridiculously difficult task. If America allows any foreigners to enter the country, the refugee program is the safest path.
Merkel’s bold moral leadership involves far greater risks. Politically, she has plenty of grumbling on her right, and March regional elections could bring gains for the AfD, Germany’s right wing, anti-immigrant party. Her appeals to other nations in the European Union to take a portion of the refugee burden may fall flat, revealing the European project as moribund. And there is always the risk of an incident. “When it’s midnight and the phone is ringing,” Lowl told me, “I fear some attack against a Muslim, or from a Syrian.”
In any case, it is Germany taking leadership in the cause of human dignity, and taking the risks inherent to leadership. This was the way America once imagined itself, which seems like long ago.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.