Two Weeks in September The Makings of Merkel's Decision to Accept Refugees

A year has passed since the dramatic decision by Angela Merkel to take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. What drove her to make the decision and what price will the country pay for it? A look back at 14 days that changed German history. By SPIEGEL Staff


Zsuzsanna Zsohár stares at the scene in front of her, hardly able to believe her eyes. One year later, it's all back: the tents, the trash containers, the plastic bags, the camping mats and the mattresses, the strollers and the stuffed animals. But there are no people. It's almost as if the refugees had all just run upstairs to the trains -- the trains to the West.

Tents, camping mats, stuffed animals. Zsohár can't process what she is seeing and her voice breaks and tears well up in her eyes. Suddenly, everything comes rushing back, those images from the days when refugees were camping out down here, on the souterrain level of the Keleti train station in Budapest. One year ago, Zsohár became a mother figure for the stranded refugees, people who had no idea how they would move onwards from this place. They were days when Zsohár was needed more than ever before -- and she will never forget those days, she will always remember them as the best days of her life.

It takes her only a few seconds to compose herself. This, after all, is only a film set. The tents, the mattresses and the stuffed animals are all props. A team is shooting a film about the events in September 2015 that would culminate in a battle over Europe -- and end with a victory for hope and for Zsohár.

And for Ayaz Morad, the man holding up the sign. On August 1, 2016, he finally prevailed and was able to start his new life. He sent a selfie from a refugee hostel in Frankfurt's Bonames neighborhood in which he can be seen holding a letter from the German authorities informing him that he has been recognized as a refugee. "Thank you, God," he wrote on the sign, along with "Thank you, Merkel." A year ago, he was one of the refugees who had reached a dead end at the Budapest station, stuck in this labyrinth of tunnels beneath the square outside the train station, an underworld of garbage, filth and the stench of urine.

March of Hope

Morad was one of the organizers of the "March of Hope," a group of more than 1,000 refugees who walked along a highway to the Austrian border, 175 kilometers (110 miles) away. The trek became a crucial moment in the high-pressure debate about whether Germany would take these people in. Morad walked at the head of the group, holding up a sign depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who they hoped would allow them into her country -- which she did on the night of September 4. "This is my mother," he said as he walked along the highway. Today he says, "It is very good for me that I am here in Germany. And Merkel is truly a mother."

This year, the chancellor held her summer press conference in late July. It wasn't planned, not this early, but what else could she do after the attacks committed by refugees in Würzburg and Ansbach? Last year's Mother Theresa has resumed her former role as a political realist who understands practical constraints and takes things one small step at a time. During her press conference, she repeated the phrase that reverberated across the entire country one year ago, just before the refugees from Budapest were allowed into Germany: "We can do it." But the magic and the promise have disappeared. All that's left is the realization that the promise couldn't be kept -- at least not with the purity that makes such big promises so irresistible.

We can do it. Now the same statement is qualified with words like "maybe," "somehow," "later" and "hopefully." Another phrase that's heard more frequently today is Lügenkanzlerin, or chancellor of lies. Merkel is also in danger of losing the reliable majority she has had for years.

'Germany Has Isolated Itself'

The source, a government official, doesn't want to be named. He witnessed how Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and the head of the federal police, Dieter Romann, tried to stop the flow of refugees to Germany. He watched as they tried to resist Merkel, stand up to the mainstream and curtail the energy of enthusiastic volunteers greeting the refugees in Munich, Frankfurt and Cologne.

He doesn't believe the country has become a better place. "Germany has isolated itself with its refugee policy. The population is polarized and becoming radicalized -- not just on the fringes. And we shouldn't forget that we have hundreds of thousands of people in the country, and we don't know for sure who they actually are and how they will turn out." The government abandoned its duties back then, he says, when it allowed a million people into the country, and what has improved? The official then once again insists on anonymity.

It has now been one year since Germany opened its borders to the stream of refugees. The refugee crisis was already looming in the spring of 2015, but the window of time in which the historic decisions took place can be narrowed to 14 days, the days of Budapest. Those 14 days began on August 31, the day the first trains arrived in Munich from Hungary to the cheers and applause of people lining the tracks. Then came the weekend of September 4-6, when the next trains were allowed to travel to Germany, this time with the full blessing of politicians at the highest level of government. And, finally, there was September 13, when the German government decided not to close the border with Austria and stop hundreds of thousands from entering Germany. Although border controls were in place, asylum-seekers were not turned away, sending a clear signal that Germany remained open for refugees.

How did this happen? When the chancellor accepted the Budapest refugees, was she making a major humanitarian decision out of a sense of moral responsibility? Or was she presented with a fait accompli by the Hungarian government, leaving her with no choice but to accept the refugees? And how close was Germany to closing its border just a week later?

A Prisoner of Its Own Liberation

A team of SPIEGEL reporters has reconstructed the events of those two weeks that saw the refugees freed from their miserable situation in Budapest. It also say German lawmakers liberated from decades of dogma in their treatment of migrants --the dogma of trying to seal Germany off from poverty all over the world, and the dogma that meant that few refugees were able to travel legally to Germany as a result of the EU's asylum system under the Dublin Regulation, a regulation which transfers the burden to the countries on Europe's periphery.

At the same time, though, Angela Merkel's government has since become a prisoner of this liberation. The chancellor seems to still cling to a myth that no longer has anything to do with the policies she has put in place since the late summer of 2015. Germany still hasn't closed its borders to refugees, even today. But Turkey is doing the job for Berlin by closing its own borders to both Syria and Greece. And Ankara is charging a high price for this service -- both politically and financially. In the end, 14 days in the late summer of 2015 may have shaped Germany, but they didn't change the world, which has remained the same.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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marcuspratt 08/24/2016
1. Congratulations!!!
Now you know full well what the US is dealing with related to our southern border with Mexico. You'll soon understand why we are seriously considering involuntary deportations and a permanent wall. It's all great to break out the cookies, teddy bears, and hugs for the refugees. But, when the absolute gravity of the situation comes to bear, you'll change your mind. The refusal to assimilate, learn the language, abide by cultural norms, and actually EARN a living and contribute to society all come crashing home. In the case of the US it's more migrants coming for the economic benefits (free stuff) than fleeing a war torn region (which, let's be honest, is the minority of people you now own). I wish you good luck on dealing with this. You don't have a group of people in your country. You have an army of people and, just like the problem in the US, they aren't going to just leave because you want them to. You have a mess on your hands now also.
Wetoldyouso 08/24/2016
2. And more to come . . .
Germany has agreed to start taking hundreds of migrants every month from crumbling Italy which is rapidly turning into another Calais. I know Germans will be sooooo pleased, hmmm, at yet another influx of culturally apposite economic migrants flooding in needing services that will require new taxes to pay for, raise the price of housing in cities like Berlin, and add to the already fraying cultural fabric of a once quintessentially European country. And, of course, in 8-10 years, when they have EU visas, they will be able to go anywhere they want in the bloc, helping to erode the cultures of those other formerly greatly European countries. And you wonder why Britain left, why there is so much pessimism about the future of the EU, why Norbert Hofer may just pull out the Austrian presidential election in October in the re-do of that election? Did the German government by chance ask its electorate if it wanted to start taking in thousands more economic migrants from Africa and the Middle East? No? What a surprise. Germans need to vote their government out this spring; it quite clearly does not care what its people think, want, or feel. If you leave these people in power, you will, eventually, see your country disappear.
dinerouk61 08/25/2016
3. What Britain must do, now Germany must do also.
I repeat what Der Spiegel printed after Brexit to what the British must do, but this time to the German people especially Merkel: 'You have chosen this, now you must face the consequences'.
lee_petersen 08/25/2016
4. Merkel's famous words:
"This [multicultural] approach has failed, utterly failed," Merkel told the meeting in Potsdam in October 2010 - see . What possessed the German elites then, to embark on their immigration madness, *after acknowledging FAILURE*? Well, we know it wasn't any concern for children who might drown in the Mediterranean. If the German elites cared for Muslim lives just a little, they would have pressured rich Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar to take their fellow Muslims. This would have saved *innumerable lives*, since these countries require no sea voyage for Muslims to get to. This would also have saved *thousands* of German lives being traumatized through mass co-ordinated sex-assaults, and various terror attacks - with much more to come. What's the explanation for this continuing obscene madness of the German elites? Well we do know the German elites tried to ruin Europe in WWI to satisfy their maniacal egos. They tried to ruin Europe again in WWII, again to satisfy their maniacal egos. The country itself had the honour of being divided into two, with Merkel's communist/fascist East remaining at *war* with the West until *1990*. And now the German elites are trying to ruin Europe again, and again *threatening all other European countries* with fines and worse unless they take Merkel's millions. There is something desperately wrong psychologically with Germany's elites, who are truly the worst and most destructive people the world has ever seen.
distrak 08/25/2016
5. Only Syrian refugees?
It is interesting--and false--that your article only tells about three SYRIAN refugees, who probably were actual refugees deserving of asylum in Europe, or Germany. But less than 40% of this horde of supposed "refugees" last year were Syrian. And everyone seemed to know that by October. They were Afghans, Pakistanis, North Africans intent on getting into Germany at any price--even if this meant running over Syrian women and children. I think Germans could still feel content with the effort to help deserving Syrians IF the borders had not been open to everyone who wanted to find a job or welfare from the German state. Quite rightly, Germans feel swindled--and they hopefully will take out their frustration on the government who allowed this to happen. To walk around in Germany today and see the packs of Afghan, Pakistani, and North African men sitting around smoking, not paying bus and tram fares, using expensive IPhones (that I can't afford) just reinforces the feeling that--we were swindled, and the government did nothing to stop it. And to hear these vague plans after (Silvester in Koln) to deport illegal North Africans--and then see NOTHING actually happen makes you think the government is either too incompetent or lazy or just lying. Overall, this was a good review of the history, but you could have spent some time telling us WHAT Merkel knew when she made some of her decisions. Did she know that the majority of these "refugees" were not Syrian, but young muslim men (including draft dodgers, army deserters, criminals) intent on gaming the system? Were there any other options open--building holding pens on the German border to at least TRY to identify these people. I find it incredible that the German police thought it highly unlikely that terrorists from ISIS would try to get operatives into Europe using this highway. Anyone could have forseen this happening--and it did. And we will never know how many other terrorists were shipped in with this cattle drive--until it is too late.
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