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“Merkel is neither a saint, nor a witch – she’s a politician”

A new book topping Germany's non-fiction charts suggests that the refugee crisis that shook Germany and the world was the result of confusion, backroom deals and political backpedalling. Author Robin Alexander explains.

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Photo by Gudrun Senger

Robin Alexander takes us behind the scenes of Germany’s refugee crisis in his best-selling book Die Getriebenen (The Driven Ones), revealing Merkel as neither a saint nor a devil, but a politician driven by events beyond her control.

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In a page-turner that’s been topping the non-fiction bestseller lists since last week, the Berlin-based journalist exposes the behind-the-scenes events that led to the “refugee crisis” in 2015, laying to rest a few misconceptions on the way – like that of a benevolent Mother Merkel who deliberately opened Germany’s borders out of pure humananitarian goodness. Cheered by Breitbart and the AfD as evidence of the chancellor’s treachery, Die Getriebenen makes a case for reclaiming the immigration issue from the hands of the rightwing populist fringe and putting it back where it belongs: on the mainstream political agenda.

The main narrative, especially as seen from abroad, goes like this: in an unprecedented gesture of humanity, Angela Merkel – the very Merkel who so ruthlessly imposed austerity on Greece – decided to open the country’s borders and welcome one million refugees to “her country”. Not quite, says Alexander in Die Getriebenen. The Welt am Sonntag journalist shows that this political moment that was to decisively impact German and European politics was actually the result of a non-decision by a government who lacked the courage to act.

The reporter travelled across Europe and Turkey and met with firsthand witnesses to deliver this breathless account of the six months that shook Germany from August 31, 2015 until the deal made with Turkey in March 2016 – disentangling the complex web of political decisions, agendas and events. It reads like a thriller and leaves you with a sobering conclusion: politics are a complex thing; and politicians are neither the plotting villains nor the deserving heroes we often make them out to be. More often than not, they don’t drive events but are driven, getrieben, by them – even if, like Merkel, they’ll pose for selfies and say the words that give the illusion of endorsement.

We sat with Alexander for a chat over pasta a few hundred metres away from his Spinger office …

It’s been decried by some as irresponsible and celebrated by others as a grand gesture… either way, the consensus remains that letting refugees in was a decision made by Angela Merkel. But your book challenges this. Can you tell me how?

See, everybody has been focusing on September 5. That was the moment Germany first opened its borders to a specific group of refugees – a few thousand Syrians walking on the motorway from Hungary to Austria. This decision was meant to be a humanitarian exception for a specific group of refugees. But more decisive, as I’ve discovered in my research, was the meeting that took place one week later. And what happened then was not a political decision made by Angela Merkel or anyone else saying,“Let’s keep the borders open and welcome refugees from the world over.” What actually happened is that nobody had the courage to sign off on closing the borders again.

So your book introduces readers to that crucial meeting that took place on September 12 at the interior ministry. The idea was to implement proper border controls as planned all along, right?

Yes, the agenda was to impose border controls. They had a Koalitionsausschuss (meeting of top members of the coalition parties) statement saying the opening of the border was an exception; they had a joint declaration with the Hungarian government that it would be an exception. They had a written order of what the police should do, it was printed out – it was 30 pages – and in that written order it said : We are imposing border controls, and we are going to send back refugees – we are not going to let everyone in. The border police were already in position – they flew in thousands of policemen overnight. I mean, it was a huge operation!

Who was there at the meeting?

It was the interior minister Thomas de Maziere, his top officials, the heads of the departments of the interior ministry and the state immigration department, and all the top policemen. It was about 20 people. All there to organise the border controls, and what would be done.

So what happened?

There was simply no one to sign this order! People were articulating doubts. The first doubt was: is it lawful? And it clearly was, because German law says that you can only be a refugee if you’re coming from a country where you’re in danger. If you’re coming from Austria, they can send you back to Austria. So from the German perspective, no doubt it would have been legal. But from a European perspective, you have the Dublin rule that stipulates that you first need to find out where a refugee first entered the European Union, so you can send him back to that country where he first entered. So they couldn’t decide: was it German or European law that applied? And the second question was, what are we doing if the refugees attempt to cross the border anyway? Are we going to stop them? How? Can Germany stand that kind of TV footage? Thomas de Maziere left the meeting three times and he called Angela Merkel.

De Maiziere was the one who should have signed it? What did Merkel say?

In the decisive hour, no one took the responsibility to close the border. That is something completely different than making a decision to let them all in!

Yes, his signature is required by the German constitution. But he didn’t sign – instead, he called Merkel. She didn’t tell him not to do it. Merkel said: can you guarantee that it’s according to the law, and can you guarantee that we can stand the TV footage? Then she refrained from taking the decisive step, and he refrained from it too. And then they even called the Social Democrats to ask for their opinion. So the point I’m making is: in the decisive hour, no one took the responsibility to close the border. That is something completely different than making a decision to let them all in!

But Merkel did make the decision to welcome those people coming from Hungary a week earlier. Why then?

The first decision on September 5 was made in a state of improvisation and chaos. Merkel was not around; she was campaigning in western Germany. She was informed while in her helicopter and then she flew back to Berlin, but she didn’t go to the Chancellery, she went home! So she made the decision in her flat. And you need to keep in mind that eight days before there was this incident with a lorry on the Austrian motorway where like 71 people died. When that happened Merkel was sitting beside [Austria’s then-chancellor] Werner Faymann in a conference in Vienna, and Faymann got the picture on his mobile and showed it to her – and that was like a moment which connected them. And now you have refugees walking on a motorway towards the Austrian border, so: lets take them in and split them. Half of them to Germany, half of them to Austria. That was the decision. It was a humanitarian impulse. She wanted to save those people. But she never intended to keep the border open for very long, or establish a refugee Autobahn from Turkey to Munich.

But her gesture was met with incredible support from the German people – everyone remembers the cheering crowds in Bavaria and the Wilkommenskultur… could this have been a factor? Merkel is known to govern according to the public mood.

Yes, remember Fukushima – she reversed Germany’s nuclear policy after that, just because of the public mood. If she’d closed the borders like she was supposed to do from the beginning, she would have shifted her policy 180 degrees against the mood, and we all would have written, “Ahh, its cruel, and its evil, and poor refugees, and so on…”

But she hoped other European countries would help, right?

No, she pressured them to! You know, on September 22, there was a vote in the European Council of Interior Affairs, where the Germans, with the help of the European commission and the French, organised a majority against Eastern Europe to impose refugee quotas. For that they needed Poland to be on board, so they applied incredible pressure on that new, inexperienced Polish government in order to make them flip – and they did.. With our recent history of having imposed austerity on everybody and putting EU countries in the position of dictating policy to others, that wasn’t such a popular move. And as a result, we lost Poland as an ally. Six weeks later the government lost the Polish elections, and now madmen are in power!

But the EU countries didn’t follow anyway – Hungary, to begin with…

Yes, because you have the legislation in Brussels, you can try to pressure countries into accepting resolutions, but then they just don’t! Germany had always stopped that refugee distribution mechanism between 1998 and 2015, and now they were trying to impose it on everybody else, and it failed. So Plan A failed, Plan B failed, So then the idea occurred to deal with Erdogan, which Merkel really didn’t want to do.

Because it’s not a very good solution.

Yeah, she really doesn’t like him. I mean, it goes way back; they’ve both been in office for 10 years. Merkel herself has stopped the Turkish process into the EU. They totally dislike each other. And then in summer, Wolfgang Schäuble first suggested the deal with Erdogan. And she didn’t want to, because she knows this part of her refugee policy would be super unpopular in Germany.

The deal was finally made in March – why then?

First, no country can manage an immigration rate of 7000-10,000 people a day, so you have to reduce the figures. She never believed the borders could stay open forever; she knew that after one week (that it wasn’t possible). But the problem was, (CSU coaltion partner and Bavarian Premiere) Horst Seehofer turned it into a power play, because he said that it could not go on forever, and if she would have shut the border then, she would have lost this power play with him.

But by March 2016 the public mood had also shifted. When was the turning point?

Merkel didn’t predict Cologne, obviously, but she was sure that the Willkommenskultur would not last another year. Even at the end of September, she was telling people in her party that we had to deliver a solution before losing public support.

The public mood shifted after New Year’s Eve in Cologne. But Merkel predicted the change earlier; she didn’t predict Cologne, obviously, but she was sure that the Willkommenskultur would not last another year. Even at the end of September, she was telling people in her party that we had to deliver a solution before losing public support.

Do you think she waited too long?

It’s not a yes or no question. What I always say, what’s really an achievement, is that all those many people who came here were fed, they didn’t freeze in the winter; nobody died here. So the management of the crisis worked, and that is something people can be proud of. But the government lost control of its borders for two or three months. You can say, okay, we are living in post-heroic times, if the government loses control, I accept it. But the price for that is losing a Polish election in which they said, look what happened in Germany, do you want that? Or Brexit – that was all about migration and the EU, with Germany used as an example. And you even have Donald Trump; Merkel and her refugee policy was a talking point for him.

And you even have a small populist party like AfD that is about to enter the Bundestag.

Yes, for the first time since World War II, Germany will have a right-wing organisation in parliament. So if you are willing to pay this price, you can say it’s okay. Or you say, the price is too high, because the confidence in the state is eroding. You can take a look from both sides; it depends on where you stand.

After that highly publicised non-decision of welcoming refugees into Germany, the current situation seems to be the exact opposite: very restrictive asylum criteria, even deportations, though it’s quite underreported. So who is Merkel? Where does she really stand?

Half of the country is saying Angela Merkel is a saint. The Spiegel cover was Mother Angela: our chancellor is a saint, and we Germans, we are saints too. Look at the evil French and what they are doing with the Calais Jungle, look at the evil Spanish and Orbán, that devil. We’re saints, we learned our lesson from history, etc. And the other half is saying, she is an irresponsible person, she has lost her mind, she wants to replace our society with Muslim law… Nonsense. She’s neither a saint nor a witch. She acted like a politician.

Like a Getriebene, right?

Exactly! You get my point [laughs]. I want to bring back political thinking into a highly complex political situation. Which can’t be understood in dogmatic, even religious terms. And that is why I am  happy that so many people like the book, because this was my humble attempt at sheding some light on complex histiorical events.

So basically what you are saying is that this decisive moment that shook Europe was the result of a complex wiring of different agendas and effects, giving birth to this particular outcome. Not, as some would prefer to think, a conspiracy by some mastermind?

My book is not good news for the AfD. Because they are saying it’s a big evil plan by the Empire, and they’re the rebels fighting it. And that’s not the story.

And that is why my book is not good news for the AfD. Because they are saying it’s a big evil plan by the Empire, and they’re the rebels fighting it. And that’s not the story: that’s just the dark side of the German mainstream narrative.

Do you feel uncomfortable about the fact that the AfD, Breitbart and UK conservative tabloids are big fans of your book? It supports their view of Merkel’s two-faced, treacherous ways.

Those people who are cheering for the book this way are intentionally misreading it. I’m a mainstream democrat, and I’m not ready to be hijacked by fringe freaks. And the fact that so many are buying my book is a signal that people want to talk about what happened. They want to know about our immigration policy, work it through. People were hungry for it, and this has nothing to do with right-wing fringe politics. Now I’m hoping that my book will help mainstream society discuss it all in a reasonable way.

What about the timing of this book? Why did you decide to put it out now?

My plan occurred around October 2015, when I was getting the feeling that this is a historical moment. I’d seen Merkel in the EU crisis; I’d seen her in the Ukrainian negotiations in Minsk with Putin – that was all very intense. But nothing came close to what was going on here with the refugee crisis. So I had the feeling that this is history, like the fall of the Wall. I collected everything I could, and then it was finished in March with the EU-Turkey deal, and the closing of the Macedonian border. I took two months off in the summer, and then I toured Europe and talked to everybody: in Budapest, Brussels, Vienna; I talked to Turkish officials, which was the most difficult thing, because they aren’t the most accessible, and I talked to everybody in Berlin.

What was particularly memorable about Merkel during these events?

She was working like mad. For example, she’d work the phone for hours. She was super afraid that she’d lose local officials on the ground, so she spent hours each day personally calling mayors of small towns in Bavaria to say, I know you don’t have space, I know there are more refugees coming, just give me four or six more weeks, please – and that really impressed people. If you’re like a small town mayor and the chancellor calls to say she depends on you, that’s big.

Did Merkel know about your book before it was published?

Yeah, she knew – I sent her an email in case she wanted to talk to me, but she decided not to.

Do you know whether she’s read it?

The book came out on Monday morning, and Monday evening we were supposed to fly to Washington, but there was a storm, so it was delayed for three days. Then I met her on the plane, but she didn’t say anything; and obviously I didn’t bring it up, because she was briefing us on Trump.

Do you feel that immigration hasen’t being discussed enough in the society at large? That among mainstream politicians it is a taboo, somehow?

Yeah, the CDU and CSU decided not to talk about it in the campaign. Then Martin Schulz came up and said we are not talking about the “refugee crisis,” we are talking about “social justice”. The Greens are talking about climate and gender and whatever, so it’s only the AfD – and a little bit the FDP, but these questions shouldn’t be hijacked by the AfD: what happened in the refugee crisis, what lessons we draw from it as a society, or as a nation… It must be debated in the centre of society.

What’s your personal assessment on this whole episode? Are you critical of Merkel?

Listen, immigration has to be controlled. There is no way around it. Whoever says open the borders, no borders, no nation… that’s for kids; we both know it. There has to be a form of control. But my point is that this control has to be debated. Look at the deal they made with Erdogan, which is, we are sending back everybody who arrives in Greece – not only economic migrants, but even war refugees. And then Turkey is sending refugees to us, but who is choosing them? What I found out is that the UN refugee committee is choosing from a list provided by the Turkish ministry for Foreign Affairs. So Turkish officials are deciding who can claim asylum in Europe. And that’s a game changer, a crucial thing which was never debated in Germany. And that is one of the things Angela Merkel is not good at. She hates an open debate. Her thing is always: you keep calm, I’ll provide the solution, don’t bother with the details.

Essen-born journalist Robin Alexander launched his career in Leipzig, graduating its university in 2001 with degrees in history and journalism. In 2002, he joined Exberliner as its inaugural political columnist (“The Alexander File,” issues 1-42), remaining until 2006, when he left to help launch the German version of Vanity Fair and publish his book, Familie für Einsteiger – ein Überlebenshandbuch (“Family for Beginners – A Survival Handbook”). Since 2008, he has provided award-winning political coverage of Angela Merkel for Die Welt and its Sunday edition, Die Welt am Sonntag – receiving the 2013 Theodor-Wolff-Preis for his political essay “Auf den Herd gekommen” (“Back to the Stoves”, about Germany’s childcare subsidy debate) and, later, in 2014, the prestigious Arthur-F-Burns-Fellowship for outstanding media professionals. Most recently, Alexander cemented his status as one of Germany’s foremost authorities on its present political climate with the publishing of his new book, Die Getriebenen, and even accompanied Merkel on her trip to visit Trump in Washington.