While most participants the Missoula to Berlin Journalism school program had done some international travel previously, and some had even spent time in Germany, I was afforded the unique perspective of observing Europe immediately before and after the refugee influx of 2015/16. Because I had lived and worked in Bavaria during the summer of 2014 and studied in Austria in the following fall and spring, I perceived the refugee “crisis” as a type of before and after snapshot that is probably uncommon.
While back in the United States last winter, I followed the refugee situation fairly closely, and expected to return to a radically changed Europe. Instead, I found Germans more prone to volunteerism, more politically polarized, but far from expressing the monumental shift in consciousness I had expected.
To the outsider, there were also minor observable differences. An Austrian chain supermarket in the town where I studied had been converted into a Syrian grocery, machine-gun toting police officers now patrol the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and more women in headscarfs can be seen on the subway system.
Although my original intention in writing this blog post was to highlight some of the superficial and aesthetic differences between Germany of 2014 and today, I realize this over-simplification is inaccurate and dismisses the significance of the situation.
For all their media hype, the immediate and tangible challenges of accommodating refugees pale in comparison to the long-term, intangible difficulties of cultural evolution. While not all asylum seekers plan to stay in Germany permanently, some certainly will. It will be Germany’s ability (or inability) to make these new residents prominent members of their cultural and political identity, that will shape the new face of Europe.
The type of monumental paradigm shift that I had expected upon arrival in Germany this summer, while not yet fully expressed, must come to fruition if the violence of radical islam and nativism are to be avoided in the future. Germany has been superficially, yet undoubtedly changed, but it will be the ability of Germans to change themselves that will decide the future of the nation. The greatest challenge concerning the refugee crisis is not what has already passed, but what is to come.