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Refugees: The Four Forces Driving Angela Merkel

Seizing America’s “future preference” and having grown up behind the “Iron Curtain” help explain Merkel’s approach to the refugee crisis.

November 21, 2015

Seizing America’s “future preference” and having grown up behind the "Iron Curtain" help explain Merkel's approach to the refugee crisis.

With her strong pro-refugee stance, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has confounded many people at home and abroad. After all, she is also the leader of the country’s right-of-center party and conservatives generally take a very reserve stance on refugees and immigration.

#1: The anti-“Iron Curtain” Lady

A key factor explaining her stance is that Angela Merkel grew up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. For that reason, she has a very personal sense of what striving for and attaining personal liberty under great adversity really means. That sets her apart from basically any other leader in the Western world.

This autobiographical element aside, what are the forces and reference points that the German Chancellor is relying upon at the present time to guide her through the thorny terrain she has entered?

Generally known for her caution, Merkel believes that the leaders of major nations once in a while have to grab the wheel of history and take significant actions that inevitably involve significant risks.

On the refugee crisis, Angela Merkel has done what she has repeatedly done since becoming Germany’s leader. As with her previous decision, taken after the failure of the nuclear plant in Fukushima, to end the use of nuclear power in Germany by 2020, she has acted in a very ballsy fashion.

Her pro-refugee policy choice exposes herself once again to vehement criticism at home and considerable disbelief abroad. But she is remarkably unafraid. As was the case with the advocates of nuclear power then is the case with anti-immigration activists now: The opponents of her policies at home and abroad cast her actions as wholly irresponsible.

For Merkel, the point of taking such actions is to provide courage to others who are caught in the futile effort of trying to preserve a past that can no longer be preserved.

Simply put, the opposing call – to keep “Europe for the Europeans” – condemns Europe to a future of eternal stagnation.

Coincidentally, this is also where Merkel, ever the Protestant, is closely aligned with Pope Francis. In a sense, both are driven by a strong sense of moral responsibility toward the destitute. In a sense, both embrace the true meaning of Catholicism – literally “about the whole thing” and positing that everything is connected.

#2: Seizing America’s “future preference”

Hard though it may be to believe, with her more generous policy on refugees, Merkel is throwing down the optimism gauntlet to the Americans. The U.S. government is, in fact, very reserved, to put it mildly, to accept sufficient numbers of refugees from the war-torn areas.

This is all the more irresponsible is it was irresponsible actions by the United States under President George W. Bush which triggered a significant part of the refugee wave, not just from Iraq.

In contrast to the puny numbers of refugees the U.S. is bringing in, Merkel evidently seizes upon what former U.S. President Bill Clinton has called the United States’ “future preference.”

Clinton, recalling his days of studying international relations at Georgetown University (where the term was coined by his former professor, the late Carroll Quigley), has defined “future preference” as “the idea that the future can be better than the present and that each of us has a personal moral responsibility to make it so.”

From Clinton’s vantage point, this inherent optimism is the hallmark of what has traditionally set the United States apart, in domestic as well as in world affairs.

However, in the original conception, future preference was considered not just as an idea relevant to the United States, but as the “defining idea of western civilization.” Merkel is evidently betting that, by seizing this future preference from its otherwise predominantly American provenance, she can help reconnect the non-American parts of Western civilization to the challenge.

Even Merkel’s most ardent domestic detractors from conservative ranks must grudgingly concede one thing: Although she doesn’t have any children of her own, this “mother” is showing a great deal of political courage, particularly toward the war-torn world’s children.

#3: Merkel, Brandt and the politics of symbolism

With regard to its symbolic power, the closest event that Merkel’s call to let many of the desperate war refugees into Germany now can be compared to the famous and iconic “knee fall” (genuflection) of then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt, on December 7, 1970.

The event occurred when Brandt visited the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, the site of unspeakable German war crimes during the Nazi era, to honor the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

For a German leader to demonstrate atonement in such a strong and unmistakable fashion was a major event of postwar European history.

Although unknown and unimaginable at the time, the act was ultimately rewarded by the unexpected reunification of the entire European continent.

#4: Mother Courage and Her Children

Even before the current string of events, in the German domestic political debate, Merkel has been referred to at times as a “Mother Courage.”

More so than ever before, this moniker highlights how, despite her general reputation for great caution, she throws that caution to the wind at moments where others might just take flight by doing what is politically expedient to protect their own flanks.

In a broader cultural context, the specific reference here is to a play, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” by Bertolt Brecht, Germany’s most important 20th century German playwright.

Written in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Brecht, in the figure of “Mother Courage,” also known as “Canteen Anna,” symbolizes the resolutely anti-war spirit, challenges and inner tribulations of a woman on the battlefield of the Thirty Years’ War in the first half of the 17th century (1618-1648).

This is actually an especially apt historical reference in the context of current events. With all the marauding of armies, the common people lived in mortal fear across large land areas. They tried to escape pillaging and death by being on the run.

While our “usual” reference terms for true calamities (still) tend to be World War I and World War II, those were really different events from the challenge we face now.

Rather than another cataclysm, the crisis related to the vast refugee populations that is unfolding now has a prolonged, medium-intensity character, with events ebbing and flowing into and out of the public’s consciousness.

It is for that reason that the prolonged conflict in the Middle East, which has just begun (and that is certainly not limited to that geographic region), resembles the Thirty Years’ War.

Four centuries ago, much of central Europe – principally the German states – was a chessboard on which troops moved about in a seemingly endless series of military campaigns, engaging in looting, conquest and destruction.

Then as now, borders became mere figments of imagination. Increasingly destitute, people in the affected areas tried to flee, if they could.

And while everybody was hoping for victory, or at least temporary triumphs, all that “jazz” became ever more elusive with the passage of time. The longer the war lasted, the more drawn out and inconclusive the battles became.

A political question

Of course, irrespective of the four historic forces that drove Merkel to making her historic pronouncements about Germany standing ready to welcome all those refugees, the question has now become a profoundly political and managerial one.

It seems as if all the selfies taken by refugees who had just arrived in Germany, with Merkel in the frame, had a self-reinforcing effect that convinced even more people to come.

Now, the daggers are out for Merkel. This includes the first round of speculation in German political circles that she will either resign before long or be forced to resign, if things get really messy.


On refugees, Angela Merkel is throwing down the 'future preference' gauntlet to the Americans.

The call to keep “Europe for the Europeans” – condemns Europe to a future of eternal stagnation.

Merkel is showing great political courage, particularly toward the war-torn world’s children.

Merkel's refugee move was the greatest symbolic gesture since Brandt's "knee fall" in Warsaw.

In our modern-day Thirty Years War, Chancellor Merkel has taken on the role of "Mother Courage."