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Photo Gallery: The Summer that Changed Germany

Foto: Zsolt Szigetvary/ dpa

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.

Before

By the spring of 2015, Ismail and Majedah Ahmad in Damascus had already endured four years of civil war. Initially, they still had jobs, he as an electrician and she in a pharmacy. They had a four-room apartment and owned a dark-green Kia. But then they lost their jobs, and with each additional year of war, they lost something else: first the car, then the apartment, and finally they couldn't even buy bottles of gas for heat. The last winter had been icy cold, and they were determined not to go through another winter in Damascus with five children. The Ahmads had given up hope that things might improve. All they had was $8,000 for a smuggler. They planned to flee in the summer.

German teacher Husein Alali, likewise a resident of Damascus, also planned to flee that summer. President Bashar Assad's army was in trouble and it likely wouldn't be long before Alali was drafted. His wife was pregnant and they already had a one-year-old daughter. He didn't want to fight, not for Assad and not for Assad's enemies. He wanted to live.

Ayad Morad, for his part, had long hoped to wait out the Syrian civil war in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. In the early summer of 2015, it looked like it might soon be over and Morad had a job with a construction company from Abu Dhabi and was making $1,000 a month. But then Islamic State troops advanced on Erbil and the construction company shut down. What should Morad do now? Return to his family in northern Syria? Or go to Europe, where so many others were now heading? He planned to flee in the summer.

After four years of civil war, many Syrians had reached the end of their tethers. They were running out of hope, of patience and of energy. Whether they had been persevering in a refugee camp in one of the neighboring countries, where international aid money was now being cut, or in Syria, where they faced the terror of airstrikes, many now believed they had nothing left to lose but their lives. Rather than continue living under their current conditions, they were now willing to risk life and limb by fleeing.

In Germany, it wasn't as if the government in Berlin had been clueless as to what lay ahead. A memo the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF) sent to the Interior Ministry in early August 2015 stated that Syrians who had fled to neighboring countries had "completely given up" all hope of returning. The "nightmarish situation" was pushing them to depart for Europe.

The situation was fueled by the availability of the Balkan route to refugees and migrants, including Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis. There was a well-developed network of migrant smugglers and Turkish authorities were still looking the other way. Furthermore, the voyage to the Greek islands off the coast of Turkey was a short one. "The focus is increasingly shifting to the eastern Mediterranean route," and away from the North African route to Italy, German security authorities wrote in an internal report in July 2015.

A Dramatic Surge in Refugees

Already in 2014, the number of asylum-seekers in Germany had risen to 202,834, the highest level since the mid-1990s. These numbers alone are enough to show that the German bulwark against the army of the poor and desperate from around the world had collapsed. That bulwark is the Dublin regulation. It holds that in a Europe without internal borders, peripheral countries like Greece, Italy and Hungary must ensure that refugees remain where they first set foot on EU soil -- in those countries on the periphery. Those who keep going, to western and northern Europe, are sent back.

The regulation was long beneficial to Germany. But the country now had the highest number of asylum seekers in Europe, as it had for several years. The overwhelmed Italians, and probably others, were waving refugees through without registering them. And Greece was in such bad shape that German authorities were no longer allowed to send asylum-seekers back to that country. On July 8, the German federal police for the first time counted more than 1,000 illegal entries into the country on a single day. It had become clear that Dublin was no longer stopping refugees. With the Balkan route, a link had now been established between affluent Germany and global suffering.

Chancellor Merkel bided her time before addressing the problem -- until she had no other choice. Refugee policy, after all, is a losing issue. Standing firm is viewed as having no mercy, particularly when the next ship goes down in the Mediterranean. Generosity, by contrast, is seen as naiveté, especially when the German tabloid newspaper Bild prints stories on asylum fraud. On July 16, in the northeastern city of Rostock, Merkel herself realized what she was up against in the refugee crisis. She found herself standing in front of a little Palestinian girl named Reem, who had just asked her why she and her family were likely to be deported soon. At that moment, Merkel ought to have said that Reem would be permitted to stay. It would be her last chance to emerge from the situation looking like a decent person. That, of course, wasn't possible. If she had said that, she would have had to allow many others to stay in Germany, and "we cannot welcome everyone to Germany," she said. Besides, she added, "we don't even have the capacity to do so."

Six weeks before uttering her now-famous words, "We can do it," Merkel spoke so clearly that it hurt -- even today, when we see the video with the knowledge that Reem's family was ultimately allowed to stay.

Merkel's Choice

But if not everyone can come to Germany and stay, what to do with the hundreds of thousands who were making their way to Germany that summer? Merkel had a choice: Erect a fence or seek to have the refugees distributed. She didn't want the Hungarians' fence on the external border. It made Europe, the continent of freedom, look like one of those fenced-off luxury resorts in a developing country. And she wasn't going to get distribution either -- that is, a fair distribution of asylum-seekers among all EU countries. The Eastern Europeans already made abundantly clear at the EU special summit in Brussels in April that they would reject any such proposal. Hungary had been particularly adamant.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán may be a right-wing populist, but he did at least ask the right question during a meeting of EU leaders in July: "Schengen or corridor?" By corridor, Orbán meant that Hungary would not allow the refugees to stay in the country, even though it's the land where they first set foot on EU soil. Instead, he would allow them to pass through Hungary to Germany -- as would actually happen a short time later in September. "No, no corridor" was apparently the prevailing opinion, says Hungary's then EU envoy Péter Györkös, who is now Budapest's ambassador in Berlin. The corridor would be a violation of the Dublin regulation, and Dublin must continue to apply, he added. Orbán reportedly said: "Well, then we'll need the fence," so that refugees would not all come to Hungary and stay there. No fence, please, was the answer from Brussels. What, then, should be the solution?

Soon afterwards, Hungary began building the fence to close the Balkan route, with its completion scheduled for that September. The news triggered a mass migration, with all those wanting to make the trip realizing that it was now or never.

'Challenges of Previously Unknown Magnitude'

BAMF, the German refugee authority, issued its most recent forecast for 2015 on May 7: 450,000 asylum-seekers. But it was already clear by mid-July that this figure was far too low. During a regular meeting of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party on August 18, Interior Minister de Maizière raised the estimate to up to 800,000. "We will have to come up with good way of explaining this exorbitantly large number to our citizens," read the minister's notes for a meeting on the next day with senior officials from Germany's 16 states. The notes also mentioned "challenges of a previously unknown magnitude," and the fact that Germany remained the main destination for refugees. According to the notes, there was "an acute danger that our national asylum and acceptance system will collapse."

The truth is that the system had long since collapsed -- at the German border. By May 2015, the flow of refugees had become so large that the federal police were no longer able to take all 10 fingerprints from each refugee. Thousands were entering the country, but the authorities didn't even know who they were or where they were going.

The second bitter truth is that Germany, with its "false incentives," as de Maizière put it, had turned itself into a dream destination for the desperate. In Berlin, clothing allowances for six months and spending money for six weeks were being paid to refugees in advance. According to de Maizière, the news of this largesse spread quickly in an era when refugees with smartphones can report their experiences in real-time to friends and relatives back home. They would also learn that in Germany, the asylum process can take longer than a year, and that a "no" doesn't necessarily mean no in the end, with the government cancelling many more deportation orders than it carries out.

A 'Certain Amount of Confusion'

And then there is the tweet that BAMF sent on August 25: "We are at present largely no longer enforcing Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens." In fact, this was merely the recognition of reality. BAMF, completely overstretched, was no longer able to determine which EU country asylum-seekers had come from, which made it impossible for it to send them back to that country. As a result, Syrians were essentially allowed to decide for themselves. Refugees making their way along the Balkan route saw the news from the administrative authorities as a message that Syrians were welcome.

Days later, Merkel would say that the tweet triggered a "certain amount of confusion." Hungarian Ambassador Györkös is less restrained. "On the day after the message appeared, the Serbian border police informed us that they had found thousands of passports on their side of the border. They had all been thrown away. From that moment on, all refugees were Syrians."

What now? Border controls to close the German border to refugees? Officials at the Interior Ministry considered taking this step, and Dieter Romann, head of the German Federal Police, would argue vociferously in favor of that approach in the weeks that followed. Indeed, Romann would emerge to become an even more vehement opponent of a policy of open borders than Interior Minister de Maizìere. "Romann wanted to seal us off," says our source, the senior government official. A task force assembled by Romann played through some scenarios for the event that the government decided to introduce controls at the border with Austria.

However, these preparations were to remain highly confidential. Closing the border would turn into a political issue, heralding the beginning of the end of the Schengen agreement on the free movement of citizens, the embodiment of European unity. Every barrier would represent the failure of a dream -- not just of refugees but also of European leader Merkel. What would the chancellor do?

There are those who believe today that Merkel made a purposely rational decision, and that she opened the gates in the days of the Budapest incident to buy time for a real solution: either distribution among all EU countries or the Turkey deal that would materialize  half a year later. Others believe it was an emotional decision, and that Merkel, normally such a composed politician, was moved by images like that of a truck found on the autobahn  in Austria on August 27, filled with 71 dead refugees or, three days later, the photo of Alan, a three-year-old boy who died en route and whose body washed up  on the beach at Bodrum, Turkey.

The government official has another explanation: Yes, Merkel did react emotionally, but not in the face of suffering. After all, she had adamantly stood by her position when confronted by Reem, the little refugee girl in Rostock. No, he says, Heidenau made all the difference, the moment when Merkel was confronted by hate.

On August 26, the chancellor paid a visit to a refugee hostel in Heidenau  in the eastern state of Saxony. It was the first time during her time in the Chancellery that Merkel had made such a visit and as she returned to her car, a hysterical woman in the crowd shouted: "You miserable cunt, you stupid slut, you traitor." Merkel had already been called a Nazi in Greek newspapers, but no one had ever insulted her in such vulgar, lowbrow and abysmal terms. "That really hit her," the official says. "And she wanted to show them." After that, the official says, her behavior became personal -- and irrational.

Merkel would utter her now famous sentence on August 31: "We can do it." And on September 15, she would say: "If we now start to apologize for showing a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is no longer my country," but rather the country of the mob. The 14 days between those two statements changed the country.

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.

Doubts

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.

The Aftermath

Such were the events of those 14 days that changed the country. It wasn't Merkel's initial decision to take in the Budapest refugees that decided the way things went, even though today it's the decision that overshadows everything else. In truth, it was the second, the one to not completely seal off the country after a week, that did it.

Merkel must have quickly realized that she couldn't upend the world's wealth pyramid, not as a German chancellor who is responsible for the top of that pyramid. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany  party (AfD), which wasn't yet even polling at the 5 percent hurdle needed to land seats in parliament in August 2015, is now consistently over 10 percent. According to a ranking by R+V Versicherung, an insurance company that has polled Germans' worries since 1992, fears of "tensions resulting from the immigration of foreigners" and "being overwhelmed by asylum-seekers" are ranked third and fourth among those surveyed. And that data came from a poll conducted before the attacks  in Würzburg and Ansbach.

At the height of the crisis, many people cited the claim from a study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation that the refugees were an opportunity and that Germany wouldn't have enough workers without the arrival of 500,000 non-EU residents per year. The claim has since lost its luster. Instead, the discussion has focused more on poorly trained immigrants whose identity is frequently hard to pinpoint, and whether they pose a threat.

Faymann, Merkel's ally, capitulated due to pressure from the populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and implemented an annual limit of 37,500 new refugees a year for Austria. She could have seen it coming. A longtime Faymann observer had warned the German government: "I know how Werner Faymann is: The second it is necessary for him, he will change his mind and won't tell you a second before he does it." Today, Faymann is considered a "traitor" in the German Chancellery.

Merkel Slowly Shifts

But Merkel herself was already shifting her position before the New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne. By then, she had begun saying that "we will noticeably reduce the number of refugees," and in January she helped perpetuate the illusion that most of those who had come would eventually leave again. "We expect that when peace has returned to Syria, and IS has been beaten in Iraq, you will return to your homelands." We can do it -- but, at some point, without you, please. To prevent more people from coming, her deal with Turkish despot Erdogan needs to remain sturdy, along with the fence between Macedonia and Greece and Orban's promise that the Serbian border remains "hermetically sealed."

Refugee policy is made up of dirty compromises between what is moral and what is possible. The deal with Turkey is another example of the dirty "sealing-off" principle. As recently as last October, Merkel said that sealing-off is "an illusion in the internet age of the 21st century." The principle is predicated on the idea that Germany cannot solve the world's suffering. This was the guideline for German policy before the Budapest crisis and is now once again its maxim. What remains from those two weeks in September is thus the memory of having tried things a bit differently during a wave of euphoria and, ultimately, of having removed a bit of suffering from the world.

No Simple Solutions

More isn't possible, and even this honest, romantic attempt has its price: The axe attacker in Würzburg came to Germany in June 2015 via Hungary -- prior to Merkel's decision, as is now being emphasized. The same is true of the Ansbach bomber. But that argument hinges on a coincidence, as is readily apparent to all. There are no simple solutions when it comes to refugee policy. Everything has unwanted consequences, whether one negotiates or doesn't, whether one helps or simply observes. The good follows the bad, as if there was a kind of equation of suffering that always needs to balance itself. Merkel is now also sensing this.

None of this changes the fact that many people now have a chance at a better life. They've risked everything for it, and want to take advantage of this opportunity. Ayaz Morad is currently sitting in a refugee home, and the wait in Budapest has now turned into one in Frankfurt. He could do so many things, if only he was already recognized as a refugee, he says. At this point he hasn't received his notification yet -- it will arrive three days later. But he'd rather talk about Merkel than himself: Yes, she is really a mom, says the man with the Merkel poster, because it was Merkel who got them out of Budapest, even though she harmed herself politically in doing so. Only a mother would do something like that. "I think Merkel won't win the next election because of us," says Morad.

In late July, Husein Alali, the German teacher, cleans out his room in Flensburg's job center. Since February he has been helping other refugees find their way in Germany. Now that there are few new asylum applicants, he has found himself a new job, with an educational institution. In honor of his departure, his supervisor, Ms. Bommarius, gives him chocolates and a hug. It's nice, he says, but it would be nicer if his own wife could hug him. She's still in Syria. "I attended an advanced language course at the university, I found work, why is it still taking so long?" He's patient, he says, but to this day he has never met his eight-month-old son. "I can't stay here if my family isn't coming."

The Ahmad family lives in refugee housing in the town of Geisenheim near Wiesbaden. For Ismail Ahmad, a better world is a safer world, and what could be safer, more solid, more stable than a rustic German lounge suite, even if it's second hand and a bit threadbare. Ismail still hasn't been recognized as a refugee. He isn't allowed to work, he explains, and the days flow by, with difficulty. But his kids are going to school, they are learning how to do math and how to write, all in German. "We are raising them to love this country" -- on the table, there's a three-colored pencil for drawing the black-red-gold German national colors on one's face with a single swipe.

He says that he still has friends who live in Syria and who would like to come to Germany, but won't make it. The route is now so difficult that the smugglers are demanding ever higher prices, and there is no longer any guaranteed smuggling at a fixed price. "You did it right," his friends say on the phone. The Ahmads are a family who have no doubts about whether the decisions made in those 14 days of German history were the right ones.

Reported by Riham Alkousaa, Sven Becker, Nina Brnada, Anna Clauß, Jürgen Dahlkamp, Walter Mayr, Ralf Neukirch, Jan Puhl, Christoph Schult and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmid