From the AICGS Bookshelf: Wir können nicht allen helfen

Just before the German elections in September 2017, Boris Palmer, the mayor of Tübingen presented a new book he wrote about the refugee crisis in Germany: Wir können nicht allen helfen: Ein Grüner über Integration und die Grenzen der Belastbarkeit. At 34, he was one of the youngest political figures elected to the job of mayor. He was re-elected to a second term with an overwhelming majority seven years later. During his first term, Palmer, a member of the Green Party, pursued green themes in the overcrowded university town challenged by communal problems like traffic.

But it was after his re-election that he—like many of his counterparts elsewhere in Germany—had to confront the refugee crisis and the pressures of conflicts emerging from it. Palmer wrote the book, which appeared in the summer of 2017, with the purpose of offering a ground-level view of what those conflicts are. Whether housing issues or job training or dealing with crime or educational infrastructure, Palmer challenged those who followed Chancellor Merkel’s claim that “wir schaffen das” by answering “maybe not.” At a minimum, he argued that there was a disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of policies formed to deal with a million refugees—policies that lacked any real evidence about how they would work.

Palmer lays out what he ran into with refugees in Tübingen and the many reasons the clashes between them and the local long-term residents emerged. The difficulties he points to involve the mix of clashing expectations as well as collisions of culture and behavior. Regardless of how much money one can throw at these challenges, it does not prove easy to bridge borders and boundaries of people who cannot understand each other—literally and figuratively.

In examining the framework of these issues, Palmer is critical of those who underestimate the challenges and who attack those that mention them. That includes many people in his own party, who he accuses of “moralizing” around the issue. In turn, Palmer’s critics accused him of encouraging the right-wing attacks on refugees and immigrants.

Regardless of that dispute, the fact is that Germany—like the U.S.—is struggling to deal with the fundamental questions surrounding the immigration and refugee challenges at a time when the dialogue can become full of sound and fury—and no policy consensus. Palmer wishes to address what he sees as taboos in that debate. Others see him as a catalyst for heating up the exchange.

There is a good deal to learn from talking to those individuals at the grassroots level who were confronted with the million-strong wave of refugees in 2015 and later. One mayor told me that he wanted to believe Merkel when she said, “we can do this,” but he was left to his own devices as to how that would be managed. This was not a voice laced with anger, but more with helplessness in the face of too much to deal with at once.

The refugee issue is an explosive one and has burdened Angela Merkel as she starts her final term in office—and which may cut that term short. The issue is also one that is generational in duration, even if the flow of those seeking to enter Germany has slowed significantly during the past months. But there remains a good deal of anxiety about what lies ahead in the short and long term. The response to that challenge has been mixed throughout Europe, as one can see in Hungary, Austria, and Poland, for example. Germany’s struggle has been framed differently in light of its history and indeed its capabilities. The dimensions of German outreach to the refugees and their families has been extraordinarily and uniquely generous. But Palmer points out that there are limits to what Germany can do.  His book sheds light on both sides of that debate just as he is caught up in the middle of it.  The fact that he takes pains in presenting it from the standpoint of a Green may not appeal to all his fellow party members, but it does illustrate how complex the problem remains from whatever angle one views it.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Education:
Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Expertise:
Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.