Addressing a special event in Brussels yesterday evening to mark a quarter century of German re-unification at he German President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz criticised Hungary’s government for their miserly role in Europe’s current refugee crisis and for re-erecting some of the border fences which most Germans had hoped had come-down with the Berlin Wall (he made no mention of Belfast’s “peace-lines”).
The subsequent film at the event showed a montage of images on how the unified Germany had moved from the Third Reich towards modern Germany and the EU. Using as a main symbol of re-unification was not the German eagle, the Red, Black and Gold flag but a large, open gate with“Willkommen” (Welcome!) written above it in huge letters. An allusion to Angela Merkel’s role in the current crisis?
Cynics could call this clear PR work by a Government desperate to score goodwill points after the Greek Euro crisis and the recent Volkswagen scandal (the latter had been originally offered to host the event!). Angela Merkel’s policy of allowing increasing numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in Germany has been criticised by many as either “grandstanding” or destabilising both at home and abroad but it has won her and her government some notable acclaim. The often critical Der Spiegel portrayed the German Chancellor as a saintly”Mother Angela” – In March she was shown alongside Nazi officers!
This policy even brought-out the linguist in John Kerry, who praised Germany’s “Wilkommenskultur” (“welcome-culture”)
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) September 20, 2015
This could of course, be the actions of Angela Merkel, reputed to be stepping-down in 2017, seeking to shore-up her legacy as a European leader whose ten year tenure at the top brought more humanity and compassion rather than austerity and bailouts.
But the 25th anniversary of reunification reminds many Germans (and those old enough to remember) that an open border is as much the symbol of a united Germany as anything else. Most remember the day their country reunited not as 1 October 1990 but the night of 9 November 1989 when the barriers of the Berlin were opened and thousands of East Germans fled West, almost always welcomed by family and well-wishers keen for their kinsmen to be free of the crumbling dictatorship to the East.
For the previous generation of Germans refugees crises images of refugee crisis were not of the television: they were stored in living memory. As Neil MacGregor recalls in his recent, serialised work Germany: Memories of a Nation
“By 1950 between 12 and 14 million Germans had either fled or been forced to flee their homes in Central and Eastern Europe. Most had nowhere to go.”
One of these was the mother of Angela Merkel, who fled Danzig (as it then was) after the war. German historians have linked Germany’s response to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, with their images of refugee trains and convoys, as having shaped their response to the conflicts.
If this is a Germany seeking to re-capture its soft-power image as Europe’s nice guy after its perceived bullying over Greece or a chancellor speaking from family history it is likely to have greater implications for all of Europe and it could even impact on the UK’s referendum. Belfast’s peace walls meanwhile, the Assembly has committed to remove them by 2023- outlasting the Berlin wall by a mere 34 years.