What Is To Be Done? Philosophers on the Refugee Crisis

In the current issue of Germany’s philosophie magazine, 27 philosophers consider the country’s situation with relation to the crisis in refugee policy. We start with editor-in-chief Wolfram Eilenberger.            

von Wolfram Eilenberger, Translation: Katy Derbyshire

Titelbild vom philosophie Magazin Nr. 02/2016. Foto: Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos/Agentur Focus
Cover “philosophie Magazin” No. 02/2016. Photo: Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos/Agentur Focus

We can already tell that the past autumn is one of the great turning points in Germany’s post-war history, like the autumn of 1989 before it. The fall of the Berlin Wall brought an enormous leap in mobility. Under the banner of freedom, it redrew the political map of Germany, Europe and effectively the whole world. But how might we classify this second great autumn occurrence, the effective collapse of the EU’s outer borders and the associated decision to take in more than a million refugees in Germany alone? Once again, borders are falling. Once again, entire nations are voting with their feet and marching – as victims of civil wars and an Islamic terror regime now turned state – out of the war-ravaged regions of the Arab world to core Europe, heading for a better life – or simply for survival.

At least one interpretation can already be clearly formulated: 2015 marks the end of the lie central to the lives of an entire European generation. I am referring to the furtive hope that the specific suffering shaping and determining billions of lives in the Middle East, Asia and Africa might be kept at a distance over the coming decades. I am referring to the illusion of a core Europe as an unwalled Garden of Eden in a world of poverty and misery. For this too seems clear, in view of the geopolitical situation: seen in the long run, 2015’s leap in migration can only be the beginning, not the end of a development. In view of the sheer numbers of individuals willing to migrate even at this point, the differentiation between war refugees, economic refugees and climate refugees will only be an academic one in the coming decades. The uncertainty and anxiety linked to this expectation can be felt everywhere in our society, in politics, culture, art, philosophy: What is to be done? What principles are we to hold to? How can we orient our thinking?

Guiding interpretations of the recent developments are rare, however. We are still lacking comprehensive concepts that might do justice to the actual complexity of the new normality. That goes, for example, for the reprimand that the current migration is ultimately nothing but a direct consequence of the social imbalances inevitably created by global-scale capitalism. It also applies to the theory that the rise in radical Islamism is a direct consequence of colonialism – and in recent times in particular of the United States’ fatal military policies. For what results from these ideas in the current situation, aside from the already obvious moral duty to accept people in need with respect? It is also striking that these analyses, as justifiable as they may be, share a tendency for self-responsibility: the West, in other words “we”, is ultimately to blame for “all this”. Hence, it must also take responsibility for the situation, by displaying maximum openness for refugees. Historical guilt (on a timescale ranging from 450 to 20 years) is expected to have a lasting motivational effect in favour of a culture of welcome. Is that a sustainable strategy?

Unconditional will

With this perplexity in mind, Europe’s political situation appears almost ironic. It is a Christian Democrat of all people, an East German politician who evaded any programmatic and certainly ideological definition for more than a decade, who is proving extremely capable of action and determined by her will at the height of this humanitarian crisis. She is doing so as the chancellor of the nation, of all countries, with a cultural identity that must remain uniquely questionable, indeed burdened by fear, from a historical perspective. For months now, Angela Merkel has kept the borders open – increasingly against the will of the neighbouring countries, staunch resistance within her own party, and through the suspension of existing legislation. This humane audacity has made her the most visible figurehead of a new German culture of welcome, so self-mobilizing and infectious that a German might even feel something like pride. Where was all this energy before the refugees arrived? Where did that power flow to? And not least, how long will it go on springing?

The past months’ growth in vitality, the multitudes of spontaneously formed networks and volunteer groups, the willingness to donate and help across the general public hint at the situation’s virtually utopian potential. They indicate the possibility of a society of lasting active solidarity, in which cultural differences will be a productive contribution to every individual member’s self-discovery. A society that celebrates pluralism in the ways we live our lives – rather than fearing difference.

Tense hope

The dark companion to this same dynamic, however, has been a doubling in racist attacks over the past year. Right-wing populist parties have been gaining support across Europe – including in Germany, where the “Alternative for Germany” AfD and the Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) in the east in particular have successfully mobilized xenophobic opinion present in certain sectors of society. Sectors that extend well into the middle class, launching targeted acts of terror against refugees.

The explosive potential of this combination cannot be overestimated; the autumn of 2015 was after all a season of terror. The Paris attacks sent new waves of fear around the world and raised concerns, in view of the organizations behind them and the conditions under which they came about, over the possible long-term consequences of failed integration policies for a country and a continent. Can we manage to do what has obviously failed in France? And if so, by what means, with what aims and convictions?

If we were to provide a philosophical foundation for Merkel’s current position, it would be an expression of Protestant pragmatism as voiced by Immanuel Kant. According to this philosophy, there is nothing better, nothing more powerful in the world than goodwill. This good Kantian will sees humanity primarily as an end in itself requiring absolute protection – and only secondarily as a possible means to a (demographic, economic…) end. These would be the two permanent absolutes of a Kantian realpolitik. Yet Kant was not only a philosopher of the reasonably excessive, but also a proponent of beneficial boundaries and demarcations. There is no purely practical reason in his system, on good grounds – simply because every reasonable action remains related to the opposing reality in which it must prove itself. How, then, might a refugee policy look within the boundaries of practical reason? And what might it hope for in view of the geopolitical circumstances? That existing borders do not one day become lethal walls? That we might succeed in getting across permanently to every newcomer and everyone in the hosting countries (!) how ineffably valuable the promise is to respect every individual as an end in itself and accordingly to enable each one the freedom to seek their own end within this parameter? That would certainly be a great deal.

Questions first

On the way to that point, we must ensure that everyone can address their own fears and hopes, concerns and aims: openly, honestly and with an open ear for what we would perhaps rather not hear or not understand. It would be a good start if we had the courage to admit our fundamental perplexity for the moment; and therefore to begin by formulating questions. (…) Philosophers have given their personal answers to burning questions on the refugee crisis and the reasons behind them in the current philosophie magazine. Not as ultimate truths, but as the beginning of a clarifying conversation about the country and the world in which we want to live. The time is right for such a conversation.