How Germany Embraces the Other Makes Strangers Feel At Home


When it comes to inclusion and embracing the Other, Germany can teach a lesson or two to the rest of Europe and the world

AIJAZ ZAKA SYED | Clarion India

ALL European cities somehow look identical to me. Berlin is no exception. The German capital is a heady blend of the old and new with tradition and modernity living in harmony with each other. The lengths to which the Europeans go to take care of their cities is instructive and fascinating. For them, they are not merely urban habitats but their nation’s heritage. The past is cherished and protected with a passion that is quite alien to us.

Unlike South Asia and the Middle East, where history is taken for granted and often neglected, no landmarks and monuments are allowed to go to seed in Europe. Every tiny slice of history is preserved for the posterity with great care.

While European cities like Berlin and London proudly live and breathe the past, great Indian cities like old Delhi are falling apart and cheap, dangerous politics is played over the globally celebrated icons like the Taj Mahal.

Exploring Berlin today, it is hard to believe this is the city that had been at the heart of action during the World War II. Being at the head of Hitler’s unstoppable juggernaut that ravaged the continent, Berlin had a ringside view of the most catastrophic war in history.

Nearly 70 million people—about the size of Iran’s population—died, not to mention the economic and other incalculable costs of the war. The Nazi monster was eventually defanged, but not before it had turned Europe upside down. It took the collective might of the US, Soviet Russia, Britain and the rest of Europe to bring the Fuhrer to his knees.

The Allied bombing totally decimated Germany with the victors partitioning the country and even dividing Berlin right down the middle, not to mention millions killed and raped. The wall that came up between the two halves of Berlin came to define not just the division of one country but epitomized the split of the world into two perpetually bickering blocs and an inevitable nuclear holocaust.

No wonder when the Berlin wall came crashing down, it was not just the Germans who cheered; the world celebrated with them. The ground had truly shifted.  More important, it marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet socialist empire, setting off a tsunami of change, much like the Arab spring revolutions of 2011.

So it all began and ended here in Berlin.  For years and decades, Germany had been humiliated and made to pay for Hitler’s crimes against humanity and delusions of grandeur.

Today, the scars of that destruction and all the evil that originated here are hardly visible.  What is truly extraordinary is the incredible pace at which Germany has managed to spring back to its feet.  Like the mythical phoenix, it has risen from its ashes, just as it had after the World War I, emerging even more powerful, and clearly wiser in its new avatar.

It hasn’t just managed to survive years of humiliation and punishment that followed the WWII, it has emerged as Europe’s largest economy and a global power.  Although its military wings still remain clipped, and like Japan it is still dependent on the US and Nato for its protection and defense, Germany has begun to come into its own slowly and surely.

With the economic meltdown claiming one formidable EU economy after another, the impregnable economic fortress that Europe used to be has suddenly started wobbling ever so slightly. The only port that looks safe in this storm is Germany.  Even more so after a Britain, full of hubris, decided to walk out of the European Union.

Save for some awfully polite protests demanding higher wages and curbs over immigration, Germany did not witness the chaos that ruled the streets of Europe after the 2008-9 crash.  Its economy remains robust and has even been extending a helping hand to others.

The country has invested in a great deal of hard work and famous German dedication over the decades to reach where it finds itself today.  The Germans put in the longest working hours in Europe.

It has moved forward on other fronts too. It appears to have learned from its past and is ever mindful of what happened to minorities under the Nazis.  There are no attempts to gloss over the past or brush it under the carpet.  The city guide on television in my room at InterContinental goes to great lengths to highlight the memorials and sites associated with the Jewish suffering and persecution.

So is the mindset that created the Nazi Frankenstein and sent millions to their deaths dead and buried now? Well, it is still seen in occasional targeting of mosques and Jewish and Muslim cemeteries. However, despite the growth of far-right anti-immigrant parties like AfD (Alternative for Germany) the Right remains in check, thanks to the charismatic leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Perhaps to compensate for its past, Merkel’s Germany has generously welcomed refugees from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa, especially the victims of Syrian conflict.  In 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, Germany accepted at least a million refugees.  People opened their homes and churches to accommodate the guests, winning hearts and minds around the world, especially in the Islamic world.

When it comes to safety and general sense of security for religious and cultural minorities, Germany is perhaps far ahead of many European nations that trumpet themselves as champions of human rights and tolerance.

While in neighboring France, Austria and the Netherlands, the vilification of immigrants, especially Muslims, has acquired dangerous proportions, Germany has managed to buck this growing trend of demonizing the Other.  The country is home to nearly 5 million Muslims, a majority of them from Turkey (two-thirds of them), the Balkans, and North African Arab countries, forming 5 percent of the 82 million population.  German Muslims are at peace with themselves and their adopted nation even as they remain loyal to their faith and traditions.

You see Middle Eastern or halal eateries all over Berlin and elsewhere with the Germans queuing up for their regulation doner kebab with their characteristic discipline.  While my Jordanian friend exults over the ubiquitous blondes, repeatedly gushing, “Every one of them is pretty!” I couldn’t help notice quite a few scarves wherever we went.

A 2009 survey by the German government together with the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) found that Muslims are far more integrated in the German society than other European nations. Compared to France and Britain, second generation German Muslims, especially women, are better educated and more upwardly mobile than their parents’ generation.

Clearly, when it comes to tolerance and cultural diversity, today’s Germany can teach a lesson or two to the rest of Europe.  Adolf must be turning in his grave.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former newspaper editor. Email:[email protected])

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.

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