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.