Considering that upwards of one million migrants and refugees poured into Germany in 2015—about five times the number of arrivals during the previous year—the level of social peace and the sense of hospitality that had prevailed until now in Germany is remarkable.
There was some backlash to the refugee influx last year. PEGIDA, a right-wing, anti-Islam movement, could draw about 10,000 people on to the streets at rallies in the fall. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who broke with her decade-long practice of cautious incrementalism to throw open Germany’s doors to migrants, saw her seemingly impervious political armour dented. Her own finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, in November criticized her for triggering an “avalanche” of refugees into Germany with what he likened to a bit of careless skiing.
Yet in her New Year’s Eve address to Germans, Merkel felt confident enough to double-down on her refugee policy. Wearing a festive red dress, she acknowledged the “major challenge” presented by integrating so many refugees but said they were also an “opportunity” for the country’s future. Germany can meet the challenge, she said.
The challenges—including providing housing, health care and schooling for so many, so quickly—are real. Nevertheless, when Merkel spoke those words, many of her fellow citizens likely agreed with her. But the chancellor’s timing was terrible.
Elsewhere in Germany that night, events were taking place that may severely erode Germans’ willingness to accept so many newcomers, and at the same time weaken the the German chancellor who’s seen as responsible for inviting them in the first place.
On the crowded public square outside Cologne’s main train station, more than 100 women were sexually assaulted or robbed by gangs of men described as appearing to be Arab or North African. The men, hundreds of them, surrounded the women and prevented them from leaving while stealing their phones and wallets and groping them. At least two women were allegedly raped. Similar attacks took place in Hamburg and Stuttgart.
Germans are furious—at what they say was the slow response of the police, at the absence of any arrests (as of Wednesday night), and at the initially tepid reaction to the attacks by German media. Some anti-migrant activists and commentators have said media organizations downplayed or ignored the assaults because they didn’t want to stir anger directed against refugees in Germany.
German authorities have said there’s no evidence that any of the refugees who recently arrived in Germany were among the attackers. Cologne is an ethnically diverse city, and it’s possible the attackers have been in Germany for years or were born there.
But that the attackers appear to have origins in the same parts of the world from where Germany’s more recent influx of migrants comes will inevitably colour the debate about Germany’s current migration policy.
Germans know their country is rich. Many take pride in the leading role it has played in meeting the migrant crisis facing Europe and were likely willing to shoulder their share of the resulting financial burden resulting, at least in the short term, from absorbing so many migrants. Many were also willing to embrace an evolving German identity that is no longer as tied to ethnicity as it once was.
But the attacks in Cologne were something different. They are perceived by some as reflecting an unbridgeable gap—especially concerning the rights of women—between Arab and Muslim cultures and values, and German ones. The challenge faced by Merkel and others attempting to convince Germans that they can and should welcome hundreds of thousands of migrants is now more difficult.