MUNICH — I have been lucky enough to make the trek to Germany five of the past six years for Oktoberfest, but this year’s travel occurred under an aura of the awkward social turmoil that media have dubbed Europe’s “migrant crisis.”
Munich is known for its architecture, arts and, of course, beer. The city sits nestled in the southeast corner of Germany, not far from the border of Austria and only a bit farther from the border of Switzerland. This year, however, the city is partially being defined by some of an estimated 800,000 refugees who will have flooded into Germany by year’s end. Those numbers would mark a 400 percent increase from 2014.
The migrant crisis has received major headlines for primarily the last year, though like most stories of displaced populations, its origins go back years. German media have focused heavily on the situation, with many criticizing Chancellor Angela Merkel for setting no upper limit on the number of migrants the country could accept.
As a result, concern had also grown that the influx of thousands of migrants into Munich’s city center would disrupt the 200-year old tradition of Oktoberfest. I wanted to find out if this would happen, and I wanted to hear first-hand the views of local Germans. It’s always interesting to see if views expressed in the media are the same expressed by people on the street.
Conservative beliefs: not Germany’s problem
The answer shocked me.
Bavaria is known for its conservative beliefs, and overwhelmingly the people I spoke to did not believe it was Germany’s problem — or even Europe’s problem — to absorb hundreds of thousands of migrants when so many countries much closer to the problems in, say, Syria have the resources and space to help.
During two days at the Oktoberfest fairgrounds, I saw no migrants in attendance, but I met plenty of people willing to talk about it.
One older German couple, who described themselves as political moderates, thought Germany shouldn’t let the migrants in. They didn’t think Islam was bad, but they didn’t think it was up to Germany or Europe to help. They were worried that different groups of Muslims would fight each other, and they expressed concern about losing German culture.
Intriguingly, this opinion was not limited to German nationals.
Two young Australians sitting next to me also didn’t think it was a good idea for the European nation to accept so many refugees, and they offered examples from their country, where they said Islamophobia runs high. In April of this year, violent clashes flared between the anti-Muslim group Reclaim Australia and various anti-racism groups. The tensions had mounted owing to a large immigration of Muslims and their perceived lack of integration into Australian society.
Economic refugees, too
The people I met expressed anger that a significant percent of traveling refugees are not, in fact, fleeing war-torn cities. Like many “Okies” who went to California in the 1930s, some migrants entering Europe are just economic opportunists riding the wave of immigration for a chance at a better life in Europe.
Data show 62 percent of Europe’s current migrants come from three countries legitimately mired in war (Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea) while 38 percent come from a wide range of other nations. That section of the migrant population seemed to frustrate many of the Germans I spoke to. While those economic migrants do not qualify officially for refugee status in Germany, it would seem nearly impossible to accurately and efficiently sort out who is rightfully fleeing war and who isn’t.
Speaking to others at Oktoberfest, I also heard how the religious differences between Islam and Christianity are too wide to bridge, and that these two groups will be unable to coexist peacefully. A sentiment exists that, within Islam, so many different streams of belief exist that Muslims will fight each other in Europe.
However, because of their involvement in World War II, many Germans said they feel obliged to help people in distress. It is their way of asking forgiveness from the world.
These two opposing views lead to a large divide of opinion within the country.
Papers and policemen
The main train station in Munich, where nearly all the migrants have arrived, seemed very normal and relatively quiet when I was there, with crowds of tourists buying lederhosen costumes at the pop-up kiosks. While I waited for my friend to buy his outfit, a small group of 10 migrants came through the station, escorted by police on all sides. They appeared calm as they attempted to show and explain the papers in their hands to the head policeman.
We were told that, in preparation for Oktoberfest, the migrants had been whisked out of sight into schools and other temporary shelters on the northern side of Munich. Nobody seemed to know exactly where the migrants had been taken, or what the schoolchildren would be told when they returned to classes the following week.
If you calculate the route from Damascus to Munich, it means many migrants have traveled more than 2,000 miles on boats, trains, buses and their feet to reach Germany. To put it in perspective, you could walk from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska, and not have gone as far as these people have.
But Germany has a problem. Their low birth rate means they won’t have enough young workers to support the social security pension system for their retirees in the next 50 years. A surge of new, young migrant workers solves this problem. But Germany, like much of Europe, still holds strongly to its xenophobic beliefs, and this influx of Islamic values threatens their feeling of security.
A duty as ‘good citizens’
I only met one person who thought Germany had a responsibility to offer assistance — a young professional in his mid-30s. Despite his normally conservative beliefs, he felt it was Germany’s duty as good citizens to do what they could to help.
After the weekend celebration, while we waited at the main station for our train home, officials announced that a train coming from Austria had been stopped by the police and, therefore, the return train was canceled. I chatted with two older German men — one originally from Kyrgyzstan and another originally from Russia — who told us Muslims bring problems everywhere they go. They said Europe should help the Christians, not the Muslims.
On our own journey home, policemen boarded the train at Lindau, the last stop between Germany and Austria. Clearly searching for migrants, they came slowly through the cars, looking carefully at each person’s face and who they were with. On this train, they didn’t find any migrants, only sleepy post-Oktoberfest revelers.
As the two sides battle out their beliefs, the migrants continue to arrive, and, at the current rate, there simply is no easy solution. What seems for sure is that this topic ignites emotion and divides opinion in Europe in a manner I have not seen in the six years I have lived abroad.