Two Weeks in September: The Makings of Merkel’s Decision to Accept Refugees

Zsuzsanna Zsohár stares at the scene in front of her, hardly able to believe her eyes. One year later, it’s all back: the tents, the trash containers, the plastic bags, the camping mats and the mattresses, the strollers and the stuffed animals. But there are no people. It’s almost as if the refugees had all just run upstairs to the trains — the trains to the West.

Tents, camping mats, stuffed animals. Zsohár can’t process what she is seeing and her voice breaks and tears well up in her eyes. Suddenly, everything comes rushing back, those images from the days when refugees were camping out down here, on the souterrain level of the Keleti train station in Budapest. One year ago, Zsohár became a mother figure for the stranded refugees, people who had no idea how they would move onwards from this place. They were days when Zsohár was needed more than ever before — and she will never forget those days, she will always remember them as the best days of her life.

It takes her only a few seconds to compose herself. This, after all, is only a film set. The tents, the mattresses and the stuffed animals are all props. A team is shooting a film about the events in September 2015 that would culminate in a battle over Europe — and end with a victory for hope and for Zsohár.

And for Ayaz Morad, the man holding up the sign. On August 1, 2016, he finally prevailed and was able to start his new life. He sent a selfie from a refugee hostel in Frankfurt’s Bonames neighborhood in which he can be seen holding a letter from the German authorities informing him that he has been recognized as a refugee. “Thank you, God,” he wrote on the sign, along with “Thank you, Merkel.” A year ago, he was one of the refugees who had reached a dead end at the Budapest station, stuck in this labyrinth of tunnels beneath the square outside the train station, an underworld of garbage, filth and the stench of urine.

March of Hope

Morad was one of the organizers of the “March of Hope,” a group of more than 1,000 refugees who walked along a highway to the Austrian border, 175 kilometers (110 miles) away. The trek became a crucial moment in the high-pressure debate about whether Germany would take these people in. Morad walked at the head of the group, holding up a sign depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who they hoped would allow them into her country — which she did on the night of September 4. “This is my mother,” he said as he walked along the highway. Today he says, “It is very good for me that I am here in Germany. And Merkel is truly a mother.”

This year, the chancellor held her summer press conference in late July. It wasn’t planned, not this early, but what else could she do after the attacks committed by refugees in Würzburg and Ansbach? Last year’s Mother Theresa has resumed her former role as a political realist who understands practical constraints and takes things one small step at a time. During her press conference, she repeated the phrase that reverberated across the entire country one year ago, just before the refugees from Budapest were allowed into Germany: “We can do it.” But the magic and the promise have disappeared. All that’s left is the realization that the promise couldn’t be kept — at least not with the purity that makes such big promises so irresistible.

We can do it. Now the same statement is qualified with words like “maybe,” “somehow,” “later” and “hopefully.” Another phrase that’s heard more frequently today is Lügenkanzlerin, or chancellor of lies. Merkel is also in danger of losing the reliable majority she has had for years.

‘Germany Has Isolated Itself’

The source, a government official, doesn’t want to be named. He witnessed how Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and the head of the federal police, Dieter Romann, tried to stop the flow of refugees to Germany. He watched as they tried to resist Merkel, stand up to the mainstream and curtail the energy of enthusiastic volunteers greeting the refugees in Munich, Frankfurt and Cologne.

He doesn’t believe the country has become a better place. “Germany has isolated itself with its refugee policy. The population is polarized and becoming radicalized — not just on the fringes. And we shouldn’t forget that we have hundreds of thousands of people in the country, and we don’t know for sure who they actually are and how they will turn out.” The government abandoned its duties back then, he says, when it allowed a million people into the country, and what has improved? The official then once again insists on anonymity.

It has now been one year since Germany opened its borders to the stream of refugees. The refugee crisis was already looming in the spring of 2015, but the window of time in which the historic decisions took place can be narrowed to 14 days, the days of Budapest. Those 14 days began on August 31, the day the first trains arrived in Munich from Hungary to the cheers and applause of people lining the tracks. Then came the weekend of September 4-6, when the next trains were allowed to travel to Germany, this time with the full blessing of politicians at the highest level of government. And, finally, there was September 13, when the German government decided not to close the border with Austria and stop hundreds of thousands from entering Germany. Although border controls were in place, asylum-seekers were not turned away, sending a clear signal that Germany remained open for refugees.

How did this happen? When the chancellor accepted the Budapest refugees, was she making a major humanitarian decision out of a sense of moral responsibility? Or was she presented with a fait accompli by the Hungarian government, leaving her with no choice but to accept the refugees? And how close was Germany to closing its border just a week later?

A Prisoner of Its Own Liberation

A team of SPIEGEL reporters has reconstructed the events of those two weeks that saw the refugees freed from their miserable situation in Budapest. It also say German lawmakers liberated from decades of dogma in their treatment of migrants –the dogma of trying to seal Germany off from poverty all over the world, and the dogma that meant that few refugees were able to travel legally to Germany as a result of the EU’s asylum system under the Dublin Regulation, a regulation which transfers the burden to the countries on Europe’s periphery.

At the same time, though, Angela Merkel’s government has since become a prisoner of this liberation. The chancellor seems to still cling to a myth that no longer has anything to do with the policies she has put in place since the late summer of 2015. Germany still hasn’t closed its borders to refugees, even today. But Turkey is doing the job for Berlin by closing its own borders to both Syria and Greece. And Ankara is charging a high price for this service — both politically and financially. In the end, 14 days in the late summer of 2015 may have shaped Germany, but they didn’t change the world, which has remained the same.

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