German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)
Columnist

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a storm of opposition over her brave decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, she needs help from people like Martin Patzelt.

A backbencher in the Bundestag, the German Parliament, Patzelt believes so strongly that “human rights are universal” that he took two Eritrean refugees into his home in Frankfurt an der Oder, a small city on the Polish border. An admirer of Pope Francis (“my friend,” he says with a smile), Patzelt met the refugees at his local Catholic church and said he hoped his initiative would help “get rid of the polarization and hostility” toward migrants.

Like Merkel, his fellow Christian Democrat, Patzelt grew up under the communist regime in the old East Germany, and he thus shares her instincts on rights issues. But even this admirer of Merkel’s “We can do it!” attitude toward refugees — it is often translated here into Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” slogan — thinks she now needs to address the enormous practical problems her policy has created.

“Merkel not only has to say, ‘Yes we can,’ ” Patzelt observed. “She also has to say, ‘What, when and how. ’ ”

Suddenly, Europe’s most durable democratic leader faces the most serious political crisis of her decade in office. In opening her country’s borders to what one German official called a “biblical march” of refugees, Merkel called forth a series of paradoxes.

On the one hand, Germans are deeply proud of their response to the migrants as tens of thousands mobilized to welcome them at train stations, gyms, schools and previously unused buildings. State and local governments bore much of the burden.

But the initial glow of national pride is now shadowed by doubts and, in many cases, anger. The immediate problem for Merkel is the one identified by Patzelt: Ultimately, more than 1 million refugees are expected to reach Germany, whose population is roughly 82 million. Even Merkel’s sympathizers wonder about the country’s ability to absorb many more and the capacity of administrative structures built willy-nilly to deal with the new arrivals.

Her political problem is within her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and especially its more conservative Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s premier, took Merkel to task when she appeared at the CSU party conference last month. He has labeled Merkel’s refugee policy “a mistake,” called for a restoration of the “rule of law” and spoke of “an existential crisis for the CDU-CSU.”

Norbert Röttgen, a Christian Democrat who chairs the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that Merkel “is seen by a large majority as the embodiment of a wrong policy” and that “the CDU is in real danger of losing one-third of its voters.”

Röttgen and other CDU politicians fear defections to the right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which — like comparable rightist parties in France and Britain — is strongly anti-immigrant. At the party’s recent convention, AfD co-chair Frauke Petry mocked the chancellor by invoking her own slogan. “Merkel, step down! You can do it!” Petry declared. CDU politicians will be closely watching the results of three state elections next March to see if the AfD hits double digits.

But Merkel has survived this long for a reason. She’s adjusting to political realities, and a European Union deal that included $3.2 billion to help Turkey house refugees could slow the migrant flow into Germany. Without backing away from her policy of openness, Merkel has hinted at limits.

Moreover, there is no obvious replacement for Merkel inside her party, and her approach has strong support from the center-left Social Democrats, part of her governing “grand coalition,” and the opposition Greens. “It seems Merkel is getting more support for her refugee policy from the Greens than from her own party,” said Johannes Grün, a senior adviser to the Greens in Parliament.

The point was underscored by Stefan Liebich, a Left Party parliamentarian who also supports Merkel on refugees. “It is a very strange situation,” he said. “Angela Merkel surprised all of us.”

Betting against Merkel rarely pays off. But the migration controversy could leave long-term scars on German politics. One government official noted that while U.S. politics was polarizing over the past 15 years, Germany’s major parties — and especially Merkel herself — had gravitated toward the center. Immigration, he said, is one of the few issues that splits the country in half and could set Germany toward a brand of polarization very familiar to Americans.

For Merkel, by nature a careful consensus-builder, this was never what her bold and generous “We can do it!” was supposed to mean. She needs to marry her political savvy to her courage.

Read more from E.J. Dionne’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.