Never in the United States of America have I been approached regarding life abroad as much as I was during my ten days in South Suburban Chicago over Christmas and New Year’s. The mass migration of refugees from war-torn Syria and Northern Africa to Europe seems to have captured American interest in a way with which few, if any, recent events can compare. At the grocery story, at Christmas parties, at church, people wanted to know what it’s like in Germany, whether or not it’s all falling apart.
These are difficult questions to answer because, based only on my personal experience and very rough estimations, for 95% of the German public, nothing has changed. People wake up, go to work, and return home. Their only contact to the crisis is the media. Of the remaining five percent, the majority are politicians, government and social workers, or people like my pastor and a handful of my colleagues who volunteer their time teaching German to refugees or serving in other ways.
These questions are also difficult to answer because of Cologne. I was on my way back from Chicago, on a three-hour layover in London, when I first read about “Die Ereignisse in Köln” (the occurrences in Cologne). On New Years Eve a crowd numbering over 1,000 and comprising primarily men of “North African or Arab descent” gathered in front of Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main train station, and surrounded women, sexually assaulting and robbing them. Soon the scene, formerly just the second stop on my commute, would become not just a front-page crime scene, but the nexus of the tensions tugging at the fabric of the Western world.
Initially labeled by the police chief “relaxed”, then kept quiet because of their “politically awkward” nature, the scope of the Ereignisse reached the public days later. In the days since the initial reports became known, the number of criminal cases has risen to more than 500 and it’s been confirmed that a number of asylum seekers are among the accused perpetrators. Faced with what the Justice Minister called “a new dimension of organized criminality” (a stark departure from “relaxed”), Germany is asking itself questions.
How do we preserve and teach the values of the West? Answering this question risks conflating the refugee crisis with the crimes of New Years Eve. It risks trying my friend Emmanuel or the asylum seekers who have since condemned the Ereignisse for crimes with which they had nothing to do. It risks running afoul of those Western values we suddenly hold so dear.
Indeed, some of the answers to this question seem hilariously misguided, illegal, or insufficient: A pool in Bavaria has hung signs outlining appropriate bathing conduct, another in Nordrhein-Westphalia has banned asylum seekers outright. The mayor of Cologne encouraged women to keep and arms length from stragners. As Carnival season approaches peak revelry, she has stressed explaining “to people from other cultures that the jolly and frisky attitude during our Carnival is not a sign of sexual openness.”
There are more questions. How do we temper the rage of the (growing) nationalist right? How do we quell the anxieties of the concerned middle? Lacking for an answer to the first question, this seems the top priority of lawmakers, law enforcers, and some of the people who write about them. The concerns aren’t unjustified. Since the beginning of the refugee influx, police have been dealing with the arson of refugee housing and attacks on perceived foreigners. But the answers are once again inadequate or disconcerting: agreements with Facebook and Google to punish online hate speech, or a delay in publishing a complete and accurate account of what actually happened on New Years Eve in Cologne.
For most of the people in Cologne, Hauptbahnhof is just another stop on the way to work or a place to grab a currywurst in the shadow of a towering thirteenth century Gothic cathedral. I’ve lived in Cologne for almost five months and sometimes I hardly recognize the city in the questions of concerned Americans or the punditry’s reports of Germany on the brink. But in the nascent days of the New Year, following opaque reports of evil, the same question is running through the minds the uncertain German lawmaker, the apprehensive Western woman, and the anxious asylum seeker: What will hold us together?