That’s North German for “good afternoon” by the way.

I’ve been up in the north of Germany for a couple of days now. Base camp has been the port city of Bremerhaven and I’ve never been here in my life. I’m travelling alone and the dialect has me reaching for the phrasebook — but I can at least count on a little bit of local knowledge.

One of my students comes from just down the road. He doesn’t live there anymore.

He’s the same age as I am, works as a lawyer near where I live and hasn’t actually been here since he was at school. Nevertheless, his impressions of Bremerhaven are as vivid today as when he came here with his primary school class some three decades ago.

“It’s a shithole”, he tells me. “You’ll hate it”.

His memory is to be commended. Bremerhaven is indeed a shithole. But it is at least a shithole with plenty of recommend it, if only you give it time. It might not be the prettiest place in Germany but it has all the advantages of a harbour town: uncomplicated pubs, friendly locals, sea air and lots and lots of big ships. I mean, who doesn’t like big ships after all?

I’ve had a great time. I’ve been out to sea, I’ve had fish and chips and I got to go inside a submarine. I say “submarine” what I really mean is U-Boot. I doubt that I really have to translate that word, so infamous was the underwater arm of Germany’s Kriegsmarine during the last war.

This one was built in 1944 and now serves as a museum. The lady at the cash desk is friendly and helpful, particularly when she learns where I’m from.

“Welcome to Germany!”, she says in English. How times have changed.

Wilkommenskultur, the chancellor would probably call it. The ability — the duty even — of Germans to welcome people of all backgrounds to their country and acknowledge their contribution to society. Again I’m insulting your intelligence by translating.

Frau Merkel didn’t actually coin the phrase but since the 2015 Refugee Crisis she has made it her own. Not everybody likes to hear her say it.

If you want to try to understand why Germany took in so many people from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa while other countries took in so few then Bremerhaven is a pretty good place to come.

The German Emigration Center, a museum dedicated to the millions of Germans who left from this spot in search of a better life, is based here –constructed at great expense just above the quayside.

Modern Germans are such homebodies that it is sometimes hard to believe that just a few decades ago hundreds of thousands of them would have crossed a gangplank here and never seen the old country again.

The exodus towards the new world is not uniquely German, but look around Bremerhaven and you start to see signs that even today the town isn’t very good at keeping its people. There are empty flats and empty houses everywhere.

Cross the river and the empty houses become empty streets. Large parts of Germany are chronically underpopulated. It might be boom time in the big cities but out here there’s not much to tempt people in. Work is scarce and the lights of the big city are far away; the result is rows and rows of curtainless windows.

My lawyer/student’s job is actually to sell flats in places like this, and thanks to the influx of refugees into the country his job just got that little bit easier. Before the crisis there were over a million empty flats in Germany, now there are considerably fewer.

Real estate prices are on the rise and vacancy rates are on the way down, so it’s hard to argue that the influx of migrants hasn’t had a least some positive effects.

It creates jobs too. In the past, teaching German As A Foreign Language was a stop-gap occupation but now German teachers are in big demand. What’s more, there’s every chance that the new arrivals may provide a source of young, grateful cheap labour to pay pensions for an ageing population.

All of these are good things, but taken alone provide nothing more than a cynical, superficial explanation of why Germany chose to take in so many people at one time.

Seeing much deeper than this involves being able to read the mind of Angela Merkel, something which is, as we have learned over the years, no easy thing to do.

She may be crazy for all we know. Indeed the whole country may be crazy for electing her. I won’t even begin to list the drawbacks here, not least because it would take too long.

I have no idea why she took this decision but I can at least try to answer some of the questions you might have about the consequences. Fish and chips is good for the brain so they say, so you might even get an intelligent answer.

Are Germans are happy about all of this? The honest answer is a bad one. Jein, I would say. Jein is a compound of ja and nein used when the answer is unclear or ambiguous. The answer you get depends entirely on which German you ask. Opinion, on the occasions where it hardens, is split evenly.

One camp would reply “no, absolutely not”. At a time when the country is tightening its belt many are resentful that resources are being diverted into giving people something for nothing. This is made worse because other countries are not matching Germany’s efforts. Germany is tired of cleaning up other people’s mess.

A simlar number are either convinced by the economic arguments above or feel a duty to help. Wilkommenskultur by other names has existed for decades; most Germans are friendly and inquisitive towards foreigners, at least partly as a reaction to the horrors of the country’s past.

Either way, the situation is much calmed compared to 2015. The far right is in retreat but on the other hand so is the flush of enthusiasm that greeted the new arrivals at Dortmund station two years ago.

Another compound buzzword doing the rounds in 2015 was Teddybärverteiler: one who distributes previously owned teddy bears to, for example, traumatised refugee children. In contrast to 2015 you don’t see people actually doing that anymore; if you hear the word now it is normally as a term of abuse against the liberally minded.

The chancellor has changed her tune too, concluding a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of people. Another Merkelism which needs no translation: Wir schaffen das — “we’ll manage” is not something she says much these days. The only people who say that now are her political opponents, again in a negative context.

Has the integration process been harmonious? That’s an easier one to answer. Nein. The spate of sexual assaults in Cologne at the start of last year is part of a wider problem. Nearly every swimming baths you go to now has multilingual signs warning of the penalties for sexual harassment and infringements are still headline news.

At least once a week I see people from the Middle East who speak neither German nor English being pulled off trams because they have not bought tickets. Ignorance of the language, they believe, will shield them from any punitive action. Correcting this assumption is a time-consuming process which tests the patience of transport staff and fellow travellers.

Next door-but-one to my place has a family of refugees living there. It took a lot of effort by the town council to persuade them that storing their personal effects out in the street is just not done in Germany. There’s a lot of trivial stuff like that.

Less trivial is the risk of terrorism. It’s only a few months or so since the Berlin attacks and few have forgotten that the perpetrator came to Europe under the pretence of being a refugee.

Do you notice the influx of refugees when you’re out and about? Yes. Herne now has a Syrian restaurant for example, and a Syrian supermarket. There’s a refugee reception centre on the way to work, and when the bus fills up with residents on the way to their German course you know they’re there alright.

The natives are very nice to them and the new arrivals are trying their best. German isn’t easy. I know that from personal experience –and nobody had to teach me to read and write first. I have friends and colleagues teaching the German classes, they enjoy the experience and like their students despite the difficulties.

Have I ever met a real-life refugee? Only one. I had a Syrian in my class last year. His English was perfect, spoken with an Essex accent he’d picked up while listening to the BBC on his smartphone. He didn’t really need me, but he enjoyed being taught by a person and not a telephone. Where there are young people you’ll always find smart people.

I’m not in a rush to get home so I take a detour eastwards across the northern heathlands to the town of Soltau. I pay for a ticket by the way. I haven’t always done so, either in Britain or in Germany. Nowadays Soltau is an unremarkable country town but the land round about might tell us something about why Germany opened its borders to so many desperate people.

Today this part of the world is known as the Lüneburg Heath: a large, flat expanse of long grass and heather which fills much of the empty space between Hamburg and Hanover. It’s a pleasant retreat particularly beloved by cyclists and in a couple of weeks the heather will bloom. In fact, you can see the first spots of purple already.

It wasn’t always so nice. During the Second World War it played host to military camps, prisoner-of-war-camps and concentration camps, all of which saw service long after the cessation of hostilities.

After they had ceased to function as part of the German war machine, these camps served as temporary accommodation for displaced persons. You might have guessed the twist in the tale already: Most these people were German.

Around twelve million German speakers were deported from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and the USSR.

Most were given no more than a few hours to leave their homes and head westwards over the newly defined German border, often on foot. These were the lucky ones: If you were a German speaker living in Russia then you stood a good chance of deportation to Siberia or central Asia.

The operation was brutal and undisciplined. Many Germans were interned prior to their departure in prison camps (the ultimate irony is that Auschwitz was one of them) where disease, starvation and — perhaps most shockingly of all — suicide were rife. Atrocities were commonplace: The number of rape victims will never be known but is also thought to number at least in the hundreds of thousands.

Between half a million and two million people lost their lives over the course of the five-year “resettlement” progamme. It was nothing of the sort and the Allies knew it, but resources were thin on the ground in post war Europe, especially in occupied Germany.

When the displaced finally crossed the river into Germany they found themselves at the back of the queue. The fortunate ones found somewhere to stay in the camps, others were forced to sleep rough or just keep on walking.

Where I live, most German families have a relative who went through all this. Immediately I think of one friend from football whose grandfather made his way from East Prussia to Dortmund because he had heard on the grapevine that his wife might be there. Remarkably enough, she was.

A colleague from work came from the other direction, her ancestors forced by the Soviets into far-off Kazakhstan before her parents moved to Germany, courtesy of the German government’s policy of granting descendants citizenship.

In Australia it’s seen as a badge of honour to have an ancestor who came over on an English convict ship but in Germany it’s a simple fact of life that families started from the very bottom. I know very few German families who can trace their roots back more than a couple of generations. Hardly anybody complains about the reasons why.

Has this had an impact on Germany’s attitude to the refugee crisis? Does the current situation provide an ugly reminder of the times when Germans were the tired, the hungry, the huddled masses yearning to be free?

Well I’m only the great-grandson of Irish labourers and Scottish farmhands myself so I’m not really sure that my opinion matters. But if you really want to know then I bet it stirs up unpleasant memories in Angela Merkel. Born into a wounded nation, she’s made a career out of healing the scars. Her dad’s side of the family also came from what is now Poland.

Is she right when she says that we’ll manage? Well, an outsider could be forgiven for being afraid, very afraid even. But then one of the things that most foreigners don’t realise is that not everything in Germany is as minutely planned as it appears and yet things usually work out anyway.

There is a hidden principle which permeates every aspect of organisation in this country and few foreigners are aware of it: Things will work because they have to. The details can follow later. How else do you make the really big decisions?

Was it the right decision? The question is largely academic. Germany has nine land borders and no oceans or Jungles to protect it.  With their neighbours unwilling to step forward and play their part, what choice did the Germans really have?

The big question is not about rights and wrongs but about how we actually do this. The German intellectual elite is accustomed less to thinking in absolutes and more to devising solutions, so this may even be no bad thing. Grounds for optimism perhaps.


I’m reminded of an old joke. The pessimist sees the glass as half empty, the optimist sees the glass as half full. The scientist asks why the glass is so big.

Frau Merkel, herself a Doctor of Quantum Chemistry, might just crack a rare smile at that one.

5 thoughts on “Pragmatic

  1. Of course, a real beer drinker would say – ` Fill the glass right to the top`. Maybe Mrs Merkel thinks the same way. And why not.


  2. The northern “Moin” fits at all times of the day, even at night. It’s friesian and means ‘nice’ or even ‘beautiful’- just like ‘have a nice day’ 🙂


    1. Almost as versatile as the Australian “G’day” –although the traditonal British “good day” is
      perhaps the most versatile of the lot. Depending on the situation and the tone of voice it can meen anything from “hello” to “goodbye” right through to quite a lot worse!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s