Germany has always been hard to ignore. Today, Europe's most populous nation is also its biggest economic power and consequently has – albeit reluctantly – taken on a more active role in global politics, especially in the Greek debt and Syria refugee crises. A founding member of the European Union, it is solidly committed to preserving the alliance and making sure it is poised to deal with the political, social and military challenges of this increasingly uncertain and complex world.
Land of Immigration
Immigration remains at the centre of public debate and was a major bone of contention in the run-up to the September 2017 federal elections. By the end of 2017, Germany's foreign population had reached a record high at 10.6 million, an increase of 5.8% compared to the previous year. While Germany has seen a drop in the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, immigration from EU countries including Poland, Bulgaria and Romania has risen sharply.
In response to the migrant crisis in 2015, Germany set a precedent with its open border policy, opening the floodgates to around a million refugees, with Chancellor Angela Merkel encouraging other EU nations to show solidarity and follow suit. The influx has been startling: Hamburg, for instance, accepted 40,000 refugees in 2016, more than the UK government committed to over a five-year period.
Despite Merkel’s admirable intentions and 'Wir schaffen das' (we can do it) attitude, there have been many hurdles to overcome. Immigration has been largely to areas where housing is plentiful but unemployment is higher, making integration more difficult. There has been a spike in violence, as well as a spate of terrorist attacks, ostensibly stoking far-right, anti-immigration sentiment.
Federal Elections 2017
Though admitting that responding to the refugee crisis had been 'as challenging as reunifying Germany', Merkel stood her ground in the run-up to the 2017 federal elections, defending her decisions as 'humane' and saying that faced with a similar crisis she would do the same again. Not all Germans agreed. Though Merkel emerged triumphant – being re-elected for her fourth term in a grand coalition between the country’s two largest parties, the centre-left SPD and the centre-right CDU/CSU – her conservative party received its worst result since 1949, taking just 33% of the vote (down from 41.5% in 2013).
The SDP suffered a major blow in the elections, securing only 20% of the vote. It lost ground largely in areas with high unemployment, as support shifted to smaller parties such as the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which latched onto the growing undercurrent of discontent regarding issues such as immigration, asylum, 'Islamification' and national security. The AfD gained 13% of the vote, enough to secure access to the Bundestag; it's the first far-right nationalist party to enter German parliament in more than half a century. A major AfD stronghold is the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, one of Germany’s poorest states.
Rise of the Right
The growing popularity of the AfD sent shock waves throughout Germany, with many Germans expressing deep concern about its place in parliament (as of 2017 it's the third-largest party in the Bundestag). The rapid change in Germany's demographics since the massive influx of migrants and refugees has sparked a backlash that has added fuel to the fire of the far-right and has brought national identity into question. Issues long considered taboo are now being openly debated.
In many towns and cities, particularly in the eastern states, locals have clashed with migrants, resulting in spates of xenophobic attacks and violence. In 2018, members of the far-right Freital group were found guilty of terror crimes and attempted murder, after propagating a ‘climate of fear’ with explosives attacks on refugee homes. In 2015, 18,000 supporters of the anti-Islam group PEGIDA marched in Dresden, the biggest protest of its kind. Some 30,000 counter-demonstrators protested in other German cities. Cologne expressed its outrage at the anti-Muslim march by turning off its cathedral lights.
Anti-immigrant sentiments are running strong in eastern Saxony. The AfD stronghold is home to the town of Bautzen, which made headlines in February 2016 when a mob cheered as a future refugee shelter was set on fire, then again that November when neo-Nazis attacked migrants with bottles and stones.
Even Berlin's hip, multicultural Neukölln neighbourhood has seen a rise in hate crimes and arson attacks targeting migrants and political activists.