6 Sep 2015

Germany’s kindness isn’t about guilt – it’s about humanity

I was having lunch with some English friends yesterday and one of them, a man in his fifties, said: “Germany’s response to the refugees has completely changed my view of the Germans. I used to think they were a cold heartless bunch.”

As a German who grew up in the UK I was a bit taken aback by his barbed compliment. I had thought Germany’s image had mollified over the years. But this was a gradual transformation looking for an image. And in the welcoming scenes in Munich and Frankfurt it has found one.

Refugees are nothing new in Germany. The country took in over half a million in the first year of the Yugoslav wars in the early nineties. My own parents became refugees at the end of the war when 14 million Germans were pushed out of their homeland after it became Poland.

But in the years following the war German refugees understandably kept a low profile. Guilt left no room for pity. The question I get asked most is whether the outpouring of welcome is due to the war and a lingering sense of collective guilt. I think that’s only part of the story and perhaps no part at all with the younger generation.

I put this to a volunteer doctor in a Berlin camp last week called Nachtigall, Nightingale. She was in her thirties and she was taken aback by the question and said: “No it’s the just the right thing to do.”


To put Germany’s mass kindness of strangers down to the war is a way of exonerating other countries for not doing enough. It becomes a question of German exceptionalism when this is surely about a common humanity. Germans are also realistic enough to know that not everyone is welcoming the refugees, that neo Nazi thugs especially in the East are using this to mobilise fear and loathing against outsiders.

The German CDU MP who is hosting two Eritreans in his home and did so long before it became as fashionable as the ice bucket challenge has even received death threats for his gesture. The picture is not all Disney for Germany.But so far a quorum of ordinary Germans and political leaders have done the descent thing and that makes me proud. The numbers will test those attitudes.

Read more: Europe’s migration crisis – what we know so far

The government is nervous and there could still be a backlash. But a month ago Angela Merkel was reviled as the dominatrix of Greece and within the last week that image had been overturned.

What’s more Germany, a country with a shrinking population is getting perhaps the most desirable refugees anywhere. Educated, middle class Syrians, who have proved their resilience on the odyssey from the Middle East. That also goes for the Eritreans, Afghans or Nigerians I have met. They may not all be genuine refugees. But having made it across deserts and oceans they are surely a resourceful and resilient bunch.

We are lucky to have many of them. Just how many is the trickiest question of them all.

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9 reader comments

  1. Philip says:

    To judge by the media & social media, it’s clear that a large number of Brits have been seeking any excuse whatever for not taking in any refugees. The media and some politicians (notably Farage) have been doing their best to counter any thoughts of compassion or decency towards other people in distress. Unfortunately the UK seems to have become increasingly selfish and self-centred, with a massive compassion bypass. We’ll happily pay off our consciences with a bit of cash, but our underlying xenophobia and closet racism means that we’ll continue to harden our hearts. I’m afraid that the Thatcherite revolution wasn’t just economic. It was social and moral. It elevated selfishness & self-interest over compassion and any feelings of community or unselfishness. Of course, we are all self-centred by nature. But part of growing up to be a proper adult is to overcome that innate tendancy. By those standards, the UK is mostly still a teenager, while the Germans have grown up.

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      Perhaps, Philip, the reason why readership of newspapers continues to fall is that people don’t like our xenophobic media?
      Try reading Nicolo Machiavelli on the attitudes to change. NM observes that people who expect to lose by change are very strong in opposition, whilst those who accept change prefer to remain silent.
      I suggest that a large majority dislike the ‘nasty party’ but prefer to keep their dissent to themselves. They quietly look away from the right-sing media and their abhorrent ranting.
      Like you and I do.

  2. Diana says:

    After days of watching in misery the terrible situation in Hungary, and with so little that one could do about it other than protest, at last today one can say to all the refugees Welcome to Europe and especially to Austria and Germany who have shown their deep humanity. You are safe now and your children can eat and rest.

  3. Alan says:

    Mr Daniel Mcadams recently wrote

    “…The media line is set and is not to be challenged: poor refugees poured into Europe because the west failed to “do something” about Syria, evil Hungary prevented them from escaping to the good life in Austria and Germany, and, finally, Austria and Germany in their great magnanimity opened their doors and pocketbooks to rescue humanity.

    Prediction: The anti-Assad narrative will increase as the media blames him for the refugee crisis (even though most were actually fleeing ISIS) and without outside interference (à la Russian efforts to forestall US and UK bombs in 2013), we may well soon see a direct western military intervention in Syria”

    How odd your piece fits perfectly?

  4. Reda Allam says:

    I wish I was there to give a hand. Reading an article from another British broadcaster made me sick the way they write about suffering people. Well Done C4 news keep the good work and transparency.

  5. Eleni kyriacou says:

    I am not in any way prejudice against German people. However if I look at history I disagree. It’s all about guilt. The mess the middle East is in all roots back to Israel – all the islamic violence. It is known that Osama bin laden recruited a lot of support playing his Gaza card. And Israel exists because of the holocaust. So there you are. In my opinion what’s happening is still the consequences of Hitler. The Germans will feel guilty for as long as the world feels the repercussions, which will still be a while.

  6. Antony says:

    It is about guilt.Nobody can forget killing more that 6 millions innocent Jewish people.

  7. commonsense says:

    Resourceful and resilient bunch and refuse to assimilate. This is truly a one sided story, you’ll see.

  8. terence humphreys says:

    Rather selective human kindness. Not sure the Greeks see Germans as kind nor do Turks, while you only have to ask any black African living in Germany about kindness to receive a very different view of the German people. It might also be salutary to ask why Syrians choose Germany? Could it be 50 years of regime ignoring economic investment? Assad drove a Mercedes.

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