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Village Loud: The politics of discourse in Germany, five years after the refugee crisis

“Schaumburg is, and remains, red! Marx·Engels·Stalin·Lenin·Mao,” reads the graffiti on this side of the bridge. Each name is punctuated with a sickle and hammer. It is out of place in placid Vehlen. When I ask Holger Meier—a local—about the graffiti, he laughs and says he has no idea who wrote it. “It was probably some teenagers. Marx and Lenin have never had much of a shot here.”

Vehlen, where my mother grew up, is an unobtrusive village in the formerly-West German district of Schaumburg, which is home to about 150,000 people in the state of Lower Saxony. Outside the local church, a stone commemorates the village’s founding in the year 1055. Branching off from the highway are cobbled streets and old houses in the half-timbered style for which north Germany is famous. Up the road is Obernkirchen, the small town which has subsumed Vehlen as it has grown. With an economy heavily reliant on sandstone mining, Obernkirchen has traditionally voted Social Democrat, but like much of the country, the area boasts somewhat surprising variation in its voting habits. 

I visited Vehlen in December, five years after the refugee crisis of 2015. Its residents are concerned with local issues, but, like in all of Germany, a new mode of political engagement is obvious here. Politics have changed, revealing preferences that liberal Germans have become complacent about in the 30 years since reunification.

The Communist declaration has been on display for those who drive past it on the B65, a major regional road, for the past six months, yet no one in Vehlen seems inclined to remove it.  

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When Claudia Kornblum-Illgner moved to Vehlen 25 years ago, the issue on everybody’s lips was the war in what used to be Yugoslavia. Kornblum-Illgner, a teacher in adult education and a translator, is measured and pleasant as she explains in an interview with The Politic, “Our neighbors could explode when you talked about politics.” Although she had moved from Bielefeld, where political engagement and demonstrations are more common, she recalls that in Vehlen, conversations around the breakfast table often turned into heated debates on foreign affairs. “But that was just what you talked about,” according to Kornblum-Illgner. Politics were not yet tainted by pessimism.

2015 changed that. By the end of the year, the country had accepted over 1 million asylum seekers. Though the largest influx was to the major cities, particularly Berlin, Merkel’s open-door policy was evident even in Germany’s rural centers. Heike Reyes-Küpper, a nurse, felt the effects of an increased population at her work. “I saw it in the hospital—how many refugees we had coming [to Schaumburg]. And underlying all of that was always the question, how many can we take in?”

When refugees first arrived, everyone was welcoming. Willkommenskultur—a culture of welcome—became so ubiquitous among German speakers that year that it was elected word of the year in Austria. But Kornblum-Illgner had her misgivings at the time. Perhaps, she suggests, “people didn’t understand that [the refugees] weren’t just passing through.” Others, such as Meier, said that the problem lay in the perception of refugees as demanding undeserved charity. His neighbor, who volunteered at one of the shelters, told him, “The first thing they asked for was Wi-Fi and plug-in points to charge their smartphones.” 

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Support for refugees was and continues to be largely run by volunteers. Structural help from the government could not cope with the numbers, and though there are glory stories, the overwhelming attitude towards refugee politics today is Verdrossenheit—mistrust and disaffection.

Two years after the worst of the crisis, a new party had risen to power in Germany’s historically two-party parliamentary system. Alternative for Germany (AfD), the first nationalist right-wing party to win seats since the Second World War, won enough votes in 2017 to surpass the five percent requirement for representation in Parliament, growing farther and faster than any other of the small parties had in years.

Reyes-Küpper rages at the weaponization of the crisis by those on the political right, including by the AfD. “People may stand there and criticize [Merkel], but when you ask them what they would have done, they have no answers. Imagine if Germany had closed its borders—we would have immediately been Nazis. We would have been compared to the Third Reich, and we would have been the terrible German nation.”

Meier, though frustrated that the party has been hijacked by its more extreme elements, explained that “the AfD is made more extreme than it is through its portrayal in the media. The Left [Party] also has a bad reputation, but they have some good social policies.” He would not be afraid to be ruled by a right-wing government—no more than he would be afraid to be ruled by the Left.

The younger generation often thinks differently: Svenja Küpper, a student who has become more active in politics in the wake of the 2017 federal elections, shared in an interview with The Politic that she votes mostly “in the hope that fewer seats go to the AfD.” She is one of many young Germans who worry that their liberal tendencies are not being reflected in the increasingly radical politics of an aging population. 

Although the overwhelming majority of the country would never vote for the AfD, the party has sparked debate among Germans. Some, like nurse Reyes-Küpper, are afraid. Indeed, she believes that the AfD embodies the most terrifying form of nationalism that Germany has seen since the Nazis.

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Holger Meier has always been critical of politics. “There is no political party which has me completely convinced…their ideologies are somewhat neutralized when they come into power anyway.” Almost by necessity, there is a disconnect between what politicians promise and what they can actually achieve. Recently, however, he has come to view this not as incidental disconnect, but rather as deliberate deception.

Meier is a bit of a renaissance man. He is a manager in water services and runs a small house brewery, through which he knows people from all walks of life. His family have been farmers in the area for generations. Although conversations in the brewery still focus on quotidian events like the area’s regular harvest festivals, political debates now punctuate the talk. “Mercifully,” Meier says, “people are starting to become more critical of classic politics.” 

He, along with many others, is dissatisfied with what he considers to be a stifling two-party system: “The big parties essentially stay in the middle, and concern themselves with the same topics, and have difficulty distinguishing themselves from each other.” 

Meier tells me, “politics are led by the media—and [the media’s control] is only increasing. Although many people are quite against [Merkel’s policy], their voices are cut out.” According to Meier, the national broadcasters only present a positive view of refugees and Angela Merkel’s policies. “The media would tell us that there are many highly-qualified people [among the refugees], but the truth is that they aren’t necessarily the ones coming to rural Schaumburg.”  

National news outlets are no longer trusted for any information, as Meier, like many others, feels that “Politics and media try to steer us in a direction, even though they know perfectly well that it won’t work in the way they’re selling it.” He says other news sources are necessary. “Of course, you should be critical of alternative media, but there are other thinkers and other writers which you can find only on the internet and not in the daily newspapers.”

“The idea of the established press lying to people is a right-wing ploy,” Kornblum-Illgner says, “But at the beginning of the crisis, in one of the Bielefeld newspapers that my mother has a subscription to, every day they said something different. They had no clear line.” 

In Minden, a nearby city, there was discussion during one week in 2015 about whether the police should suppress information about the refugee crisis in the interest of public safety. Even though they ultimately decided against it, the possibility of censorship vindicates the viewpoint that media and politicians are conspiring to sell people on bad politics. As Meier says, “If you’re always lied to, you won’t believe anything anymore.”

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Heike Reyes-Küpper is sitting in her kitchen, sipping a cappuccino and wrapping dates in bacon. She tells me that these political discussions have become louder since the refugee crisis. “There has been a reversal of the direction of progress because of the  refugee crisis.”

Her husband, who has popped his head around the corner, frowns. Germans “aren’t interested in politics,” he says. “They’re only interested in who it is that comes and goes.” Most white Germans tiptoe around the possibility of racism, instead hurriedly assigning xenophobia to a different region, or focusing on structural issues. But the undercurrent is clear: It’s racism hiding under the guise of political discussion.

“The hated figures,” Kornblum-Illgner had explained to me several days earlier, “are young African men. Unmarried, of course.” 

The 2015 refugee crisis has been used by those unhappy with Merkel’s policies to air their grievances. “Merkel’s attitude,” says Reyes-Küpper, “has always been a little too liberal, a little too socialist [for her party].” Her detractors scoff that she is the best Social Democrat Germany has ever had, a statement sometimes tied to the more right-wing claim that her politics are linksversift—besmirched by the left. 

Through the refugee crisis, people have become more vocal about beliefs that do not align with the liberal, progressive mainstream.  “People who wouldn’t have dared to say anything because they believed that the majority was in favor [of liberal values] are now speaking up,” Reyes-Küpper tells me. 

Indeed, the AfD serves as an outlet for previously-hidden conservative voices. Germany today is far more progressive than it was in the ’70s and ’80s, or even the ’90s. But “over the course of [building the] coalition,” says Reyes-Küpper, “people were not [met] where they were.” The AfD speaks to those people, and “somehow today we debate things that I didn’t think we had to debate anymore. All this discussion about whether homosexuals should be able to marry—I thought we were through with that.” 

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It is still unclear to many Germans if the politics of integration has failed. Public schools in Germany are excellent, but a concern that students from immigrant families slow down classroom progress due to the language barrier has led many white families who can afford it to move their children to private education. 

In 2019, Meier led a school group on a tour of the waterworks where he works, and he was surprised to realize that every student in the class came from an immigrant background. There is no agreement, not even within parties, on the best path forward for Germany.

Meier tells me that interest in politics is a matter of character. Some people “are by nature interested in their [political] environment, while others…are simply interested in having their peace.” He falls into the former category, voting in every election. Though he seems pleased by growing skepticism of  the multi-party system, such questioning has been even more damaging to Germany.

“If I have to say why people are so strange sometimes,” Kornblum-Illgner tells me, “it’s fear.” But she remains hopeful for a future in which young people who have had more contact with outside cultures are more understanding and less afraid. “Knowing my Vehlen people, I am sometimes so surprised at what terrible things they say, but I know—I know—if somebody they so hate was drowning in the Aue [River], they’d all jump in and get them out. They just don’t have contact with what they’re afraid of, so they have a good time enjoying their fear.” Kornblum-Illgner’s son attended a school whose students represented four nationalities. To young people, that contact with other cultures is normal.

The social ties in a village like Vehlen are much tighter than those in cities. Politics aren’t off-limits exactly, but Kornblum-Illgner avoids the topic when she’s not in the mood for long discussions. There is an understanding that public spaces are not intended for politics, because “you might spoil the host’s party.” When I asked whether she felt limited by this, cut off from the community based on her views, she told me no. The neighbor who she recalled “exploding” in the ’90s was a good friend of hers. 

She sometimes chooses to avoid discussions because they might become loud, but this is a “‘village loud.’ People shout at each other, and then the next day is okay.” Kornblum-Illgner explains this matter-of-factly: “If you don’t agree with someone in a city, you go to a different pub. In the village, there is only one pub.”