Two Weeks in September The Makings of Merkel's Decision to Accept Refugees
Part 3: Fourteen Days in Late Summer
At the end of August, Budapest had turned into something of a "Casablanca" of the great trek from the East. Thousands had made it to the city after an exhausting journey. But now they were stuck, and no one knew what would happen next.
Ismail Ahmad was so convinced that his wife and children would drown in the high waves of the Aegean Sea, as they sat in their overcrowded inflatable boat, that he chanted the last words of a devout Muslim before he enters paradise: "Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah " ("I declare there is no God but Allah ") But then Allah had mercy on them, and they made it after all. The family arrived in Budapest on August 29.
Ayaz Morad, the man holding the Merkel sign, had also feared for his life. His sisters, who had fled with him, used their shoes to scoop water out of the rubber raft, but then the boat tore open and its occupants panicked. "God help us," the women screamed, and in fact heaven did send help -- in the form of a Greek coast guard helicopter. They arrived in Budapest on September 3.
Husein Alali, the German teacher, slipped through a gap in the Hungarian border fence and across the train tracks near Röszke on August 26. But police officers on the other side detained him and tried to register him. Alali had heard that he would have to stay in Hungary if he were registered. But he managed to escape by running into a field of sunflowers. He arrived in Budapest on August 31.
The Keleti pályaudvar, or eastern train station, had turned into a giant waiting hall for the hopeful and the desperate. The refugees were stuck there because -- in contrast to police in Greece, Macedonia and Serbia -- they had refused to let them continue their journey. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán was taking the Dublin agreement seriously, if only to show those Germans what happens when you don't build fences.
The Ahmads camped in a tiled pedestrian tunnel under the square in front of the train station, lying on sheets of cardboard, fighting for every square meter of space. It smelled of sweat, urine and cigarettes, and the summer heat had become oppressive in the pedestrian tunnels, where the refugees and their disappointment and rage had now bottled up.
'We Were Singing for a Miracle'
But angels could also be found in this hellish place. Zsuzsanna Zsohár, now 37, started a Facebook group in late June called Migration Aid. Zsohár was once a refugee herself, fleeing to Frankfurt from Hungary at the age of 11. She was forced to return to Budapest at 17, and since then, she says, she has fled from most things, including her university studies and two marriages. The only thing she hasn't tried to escape is the sense of responsibility to help the refugees in those summer days in 2015.
Zsohár, a translator, and her friends appealed for donations. They collected sleeping bags, diapers, asthma medication and stuffed animals -- and they received more than they needed. They even got ahold of 240 tents fans left in Sziget after the annual music festival there. They obtained 100 outlets for charging mobile phones, which become an umbilical cord between the refugees and their families, as well as a rescue line to those in Western Europe who were expecting them.
But none of this was enough. By the end of August, thousands of refugees had crowded into the underground passageways, on the steps and on the square in front of the train station. They shouted "Germany" and "Angela Merkel." They were desperate to get out of this place. "We were singing for a miracle," says Ismail Ahmad. And then the miracle happened, just not for him.
"Suddenly we heard that there was a train going to Munich. Everyone started running, leaving their luggage behind." Zsohár still remembers the scene. Hungary had opened the valve. On August 31, a Monday, trains departed Budapest heading west -- for Rosenheim and Munich in Germany. But the Ahmads didn't make it. With their small children in tow, they didn't stand a chance. It was mostly men traveling alone who crowded into the trains. After that, the police sealed off the train station again.
It was a first, brief test to see what would happen if Dublin no longer applied and the borders were opened completely. It was a small glimmer of what would happen on September 5, except that this first opening did not represent a fundamental and historical change. Werner Faymann, the Austrian chancellor at the time, even complained about Orbán, saying: "The fact that they simply get on a train in Budapest and the authorities look on as they travel to the next country -- that isn't a policy." For Faymann, the fact that the Hungarians were now looking the other way was an absurdity, an example of boorishness.
Germany Overcome by Euphoria
This test did, however, demonstrate one thing: The prevailing mood in Germany was not one of populist outrage but of enthusiasm. Germany had been overcome by a sense of euphoria the likes of which the country hadn't seen since its fairy tale summer when it hosted the 2006 World Cup.
On the afternoon of that August 31, Vaniessa Rashid received an email on her mobile phone from a Green Party politician she knew in Austria. He wrote that he was siting on a train to Munich with 400 refugees and he wanted to know if something could be done for them there. Rashid, 25, a member of a local Green Party association in the city, drove to the train station, where a group of female high school students who had seen the Green Party Facebook appeal were waiting. Together they used magic markers to make the first of thousands of cardboard signs that would be created in Germany in the weeks that followed. They all read: "Refugees Welcome."
The first train arrived at about 8 p.m., on track 26. Refugees jumped from the train, cheering and shouting, with tears in their eyes, "Thank you, Germany." Rashid cheered in return, clapped and waved. "I really had goose bumps. I had never experienced anything like it before," she says, looking back. The images she describes went around the world the next day -- images of a Germany that was completely unlike the impression people in many parts of the world still have of Germans. This rush of happiness triggered by a good deed became infectious, engulfing more and more people: "Welcome Refugees."
It is the image of the good German that many Germans want to convey, and it was an image that was immediately passed down the digital Balkan route hundreds of thousands of times: Germans are happy to see refugees come to their country. The euphoria was new and pure and strong, still a long way from the hangover the country would experience on New Year's Eve in Cologne, just a few months later.
Husein Alali, the German teacher, was all the more disappointed. He had purchased a ticket to Munich, but now the train station was closed again, and there were no more trains for refugees. In the afternoon, the refugees blocked the main street in protest, but they were pushed back by police in riot gear. Sirens blared across the square outside the train station, and shoes and water bottles flew through the air. By this point, the refugees were holding protests each day and every hour, chanting, "We love to go to Germany" and, again and again: "Angela." But Angela didn't appear.
For a moment, she considered traveling to Budapest, but there is a historic and heroic precedent for such a trip: former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's 1989 mission to the West German Embassy in Prague, one of the most moving moments in German history. "We have come here today to tell you that you are free to leave ...," he said, as the rest was drowned out by cheering. But what should Merkel announce? She wasn't quite ready yet to tell all the refugees that they were free to come to Germany, and anything else would likely have attracted jeers.
On September 4, Ismail Ahmad lost all hope that a train would leave Budapest for Austria. He still had a little bit of money and early in the morning, he and his family took a taxi to Györ, 50 kilometers from the border. Having left, he wasn't there for the day Ayaz Morad would write history.
'She Is the Only One Who Cares About Us'
Morad walked across the square in front of the station, passing by people whose hopes had been broken. Not a single train was leaving the station. At some point they would all be registered and they would all have to stay in Hungary. A man then spoke to him, saying, "We have to go by foot!" To Austria. It was a crazy idea, but only as crazy as their situation. The Austrian border was 175 kilometers away. "Yes," said Morad. "Why not by foot? But we all have to go together," otherwise the police will stop us, he said.
Morad walked from refugee to refugee, asking if they wanted to join them. He stood up on the train station stairs and made the announcement: "Let us go away from here." He was speaking to the refugees, but also to the journalists. The refugees on the march needed the publicity and the pressure. Then, at 1 p.m., around 1,000 people left the train station, with a number of reporters joining them. An almost biblical scene proceeded to unfold, like the exodus of the Israelis from Egypt. One person in a wheelchair even wanted to attempt it. Morad walked in front holding a photo of Angela Merkel in his hand. He stretched it out in his hand, and when a reporter from the New York Times began asking him questions, he said, "This is my mom. I think she is the only one who cares about us."
As the mass of people reached the highway, cars raced by. The police didn't stop the refugees, but they didn't shut down the highway for them either. The group -- men, women and children -- managed 30 kilometers, but then couldn't go any further. Many were wearing flip flops, others had blisters and had been limping along for hours.
When it grew dark, it also began raining and the police stopped the refugees. Who was going to help them now? Morad still had his sign. Angela Merkel!
On that Friday, the foreign ministers of the EU member states had been preparing to meet for dinner at 8 p.m. Right before, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto addressed his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz. He said it had to do with the refugees at the train station and on the highway. They wanted to go to Germany. What should be done? Orbán wanted to telephone with Austrian Chancellor Faymann and with Merkel.
A short time later, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier walked over to the men. It was the beginning of a hectic round of telephone calls -- with Faymann, who wanted to be certain that not all of the refugees would remain in Austria if he allowed them into the country, and if Germany could take them in, making an exception to EU law. And also with German Interior Minister de Maizière, whose ministry is responsible for the police and who was home in bed with a 103-degree fever. And with Merkel, of course.
The widely held version of the refugee saga is that Austria and Germany decided in a grand humanitarian act of their own free will to put an end to the misery. That Merkel and Faymann no longer wanted to continue looking on as people wandered along highways and as the weak collapsed right in the middle of Europe. That they wrested the refugees away from Orbán because they no longer wanted to be the Hungarian leader's pawns or at his mercy.
There are, however, doubts about this version of events. Merkel and Faymann did speak with each other shortly after 8 p.m., and that conversation did head in the direction of them wanting to take in refugees. But it appears that Merkel didn't make the final decision until late in the evening, at some point between 11 p.m. and midnight. Prior to the decision, meetings were held in the Chancellery with experts from the interior and foreign ministries. They warned that a decision like that might attract even more refugees to Germany.
But already by 8:43 p.m., the Associated Press reported that Hungary wanted to bring the marching refugees to the Austrian border in buses. Orbán's chief of staff Janos Lázár had just made the announcement in parliament. At 9:15 p.m., Lazar held a press conference and said that Hungary would transport the refugees marching along the highway in buses to the border as well as those waiting at Budapest's Keleti station.
Orbán didn't appear to have known yet about any German-Austrian decision on the matter when he made the unilateral decision at 8:43 p.m. to dispatch the refugees by bus to the border. Lázár complained during the press conference that the prime minister had been unable to reach Austrian Chancellor Faymann by phone, only having been offered a telephone call with him the next morning. As such, he said, it was impossible to say how the Austrians might react to the buses. But they would be heading to the border anyway.
A member of the Austrian government confirmed to SPIEGEL that the first contact with Orbán took place only at midnight. By then, however, the Hungarian government considered the matter to be closed. According to the source, Merkel was still wrangling with her advisors at this point -- and also with Faymann, who wanted the acceptance of refugees to be declared an exceptional situation. Meanwhile, around 100 buses were already gathering.
Consistent with this version is the fact that Merkel didn't try to reach Horst Seehofer, the head of her CDU's powerful Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), until 11:30 p.m. in order to inform him of her decision. Seehofer didn't answer, and Merkel didn't make the additional effort to contact his bodyguards given that he was on vacation. This opened the door for a quarrel with Seehofer that continues to this day. "That was a mistake that we are going to be dealing with for years to come. I don't see any possibility of putting the cap back on the bottle," he told SPIEGEL in June.
The CSU feels that Merkel betrayed conservative policies. From the perspective of CSU officials, though, Merkel still had a chance to redeem herself. A few weeks later, on September 13, the chancellor would face another decision: the de facto closure of the border by reintroducing border controls that had been lifted through the Schengen agreement.
20,000 Refugees Arrive in One Weekend
Until then, the joy of generosity enveloped Germany and Austria. At 3 a.m., the bus carrying Ayaz Morad arrived at the border near Nickelsdorf. He crossed it on foot, passing an old veterinary hospital where, only a few days before, a truck had been discovered in which 71 refugees had been asphyxiated. Morad made it, but they had not.
Two hours later, Alali, the German teacher, also arrived in Nickelsdorf and then, a little later, in Passau. "It was very nice," he says, recalling all the helpers who offered him more to eat and drink than he could possibly consume. Following an odyssey in the surroundings of Györ, Ismail Ahmad and his family also finally reached their destination.
On that weekend alone, 20,000 refugees managed to make their way from Hungary to Munich. The Balkan Route was completely open. But how long would it be until the Germans closed the door again?
Dieter Romann, head of the German Federal Police, refused a request to be interviewed by SPIEGEL for this story. He would surely have had a lot to say about those days, but others will now have to speak for him. One of those is the senior government official who agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity.
Romann considered Merkel's decision to allow the refugees in to be an error and saw it as his duty as a government official to say as much. Romann, the official says, spoke out vehemently in favor of imposing border controls. He also believed that asylum-seekers who entered Germany through a third country -- namely Austria -- should be sent back to that country. He believed that doing so would trigger a domino effect. If Austria were no longer able to let people pass through the country to Germany, then Austria would shut its border to Hungary, and Hungary to Serbia and Serbia to Macedonia. Within a few weeks, word would get passed down the Balkan route that there was no longer any way of reaching Western Europe. It would eliminate the lure.
Concrete plans for how this could be done had actually existed for some time, the official says. In March 2015, left-wing anarchists from all across Europe had converged on Frankfurt for the opening of the new European Central Bank headquarters and went on a rampage. This had opened the door for the German government to implement border controls with Austria during the G-7 summit held in Bavaria three months later. The Schengen rules permit border controls in such instances, as long as they are temporary and only in cases where public order is seriously threatened. Romann, the official says, argued that the government had the means with which to close the border and that the experience at the G-7 summit had demonstrated this. On Sunday, at 2 p.m., it appeared that de Maizière also shared that opinion. By 5:30 p.m., though, he had flip-flopped.
That day, de Maizière met with senior officials in his ministry -- their task: to introduce border controls. The door, which had been wide open for refugees for a week, was to be closed. At 9 a.m. that morning, senior police officials all across Germany received a call with instructions that they should report to their stations and be prepared -- and that further instructions would come after 5 p.m.
When the meeting began, the deployment order for Romann's Federal Police was already on the table. It looked as if it had been largely copied from the deployment order for the G-7 summit. Romann also wanted the ability to send back asylum-seekers, and the first draft of the order made that step possible. But then legal experts within the ministry began questioning whether that was actually legally permissible. A joint report from the interior and justice ministries that it was, in fact, legally possible to refuse asylum-seekers at the border -- if so desired -- would only come a few weeks later.
De Maizière also began asking questions. And it appeared he was reporting to an even higher authority. He left the room twice, presumably to call the Chancellery. He then ordered Romann to start implementing border controls, but with one change: Anyone who said they were seeking asylum could enter the country.
That's how Deployment Order 1 ultimately read -- that the Federal Police should prevent the "persons from entering the country" who "did not meet the prerequisites for entering the country." The police force's task was merely that of "ensuring the orderly border crossing for mass migration." Officialese for waving people through.
Meeting participants say that Romann exploded, saying they shouldn't even bother. It has been reported that he demanded a written order. And in the end, he followed it.
But the official who served as SPIEGEL's source says he doubted that the Federal Police had truly been in a position to entirely close the border. During the G-7 summit, police had been present at the main border crossings, but had the border to Austria been closed to refugees, they also would have had to patrol the forests and fields between them. How would the Federal Police have had enough officers for the blanket surveillance that would require? And how would they respond if it weren't just individuals illegally breaching the borders, but instead groups who had sought to penetrate it in groups of 500 -- women and children too? Would they react with water cannons? Tear gas? In Germany?
"No one would have been able to bear images like that," the official says. That's precisely the view shared on that September 12 by the Chancellery and by de Maizière. They were likely right, too.
- Part 1: The Makings of Merkel's Decision to Accept Refugees
- Part 2: Before
- Part 3: Fourteen Days in Late Summer
- Part 4: The Aftermath