The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Germany welcomed more than 1 million refugees in 2015. Now, the country is searching for its soul.

A party boat passes the sculpture "Molecule Man" by U.S. artist Jonathan Borofsky on the Spree River as the sun sets in Berlin. (Hannibal Hanschke/European Pressphoto Agency)

BERLIN — Less than a year ago, Germany opened its doors to refugees and seemed to shake off its image as a cold-hearted nation.

But calling it one of the most go-to places on Earth may have been a bit premature.

Recent polling suggests that Germans are now more opposed to immigrants and want their government to focus on their own problems. A new GlobeScan poll, commissioned by the BBC, has found that Germans are less likely to consider themselves “global citizens,” compared with people in other large countries. The survey examined 21 nations and consists of more than 20,000 individual interviews, conducted between Dec. 2, 2015, and April 15, 2016.

Since 2009, objections to being labeled a global citizen has risen by 13 points in Germany to 70 percent.

Unlike in Germany, more people in other countries identified themselves as global citizens than ever before.

Only one surveyed country was more inwardly focused than Germany: Russia.

When thousands of refugees arrived each day at Munich central station last summer, hundreds of Germans applauded the newcomers. Such extraordinary scenes, broadcast around the world, may have hidden another reality: A significant proportion of Germans never really warmed up to the idea of having become one of the main destinations for refugees.

Politicians were outraged when thousands of Germans started to protest against their government’s pro-refugee policy. Many protesters said they didn’t believe that their problems were being taken seriously enough by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At first, such marches were widely condemned as right-wing extremist protests. But more recent surveys suggest that many Germans would agree with at least some of the criticisms being brought forward by the demonstrators.

About half of all Germans do not approve of welcoming Syrian refugees, according to the most recent GlobeScan poll. In other European countries, such as Britain, which took in far fewer migrants, approval is much higher.

Germans were also disproportionately opposed to intermarriages between different races or ethnicities. Only 34 percent of respondents totally approved of such marriages — whereas most other Western countries that were polled had approval rates above 80 percent.

In many regards, German attitudes toward immigration, refugees and intermarriage were most similar to those prevalent in Russia. It is a finding that may shock German politicians who often criticize Russian attitudes and accuse its government of restricting civil rights.

Multiple studies have found that it is mainly older and economically disadvantaged Germans who oppose more immigration and disapprove of welcoming refugees. Although another recent poll found that young Germans were mostly willing to support refugees in the country, the authors also noted that they were much less rebellious than their parents.

Their parents searched for adventures, but young Germans are now much more interested in stability in life — presumably a consequence of the current chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, the researchers said.

Germany struggles to adapt to a new reality

These numbers reflect an underlying struggle that has defined German politics for decades, but was rarely discussed amid the recent refugee influx: Many Germans think that their country should act particularly humanitarian given its war-time history. However, the country is often also obsessed with preserving its Christian roots and its current identity.

Historically, Western Germany has pursued a different approach toward immigration than the United States, for instance. When Germans invited Turks to come to the country as “guest workers” amid a labor shortage in the 1960s, few expected the migrants to stay. When it became apparent that they would, Christian Democratic politicians in particular favored assimilation over multiculturalism. Refugees or migrants were expected to adopt what they considered the German way of living rather than being allowed to import their lifestyles.

The territory of former East Germany, where most of the violence against refugees has recently been recorded, had nearly no Muslims during Soviet times. Few foreigners arrived in the past two decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall: Many feared xenophobia or were scared by the lack of diversity in the region and opted to stay in the country’s west.

When Merkel allowed more than 1 million refugees to enter Germany last year, she may have failed to consider a crucial factor: Germans were less prepared for such an influx than it was often suggested. She may have persuaded her party to embrace pro-refugee policies, but she lost the support of many voters who turned toward more radical parties.

Less than a year later, one of the world’s seemingly most immigrant-friendly nations has become one of the most skeptical.

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