Bear with me as I shift our gaze from the drama of our politics to the even more fractious realities of Europe. Looking over there these days, you wonder if we’re seeing not just widespread problems, but the failure of European union itself. Like some marriages between people, that marriage of nations seems designed for success only: it works fine as long as things go well, but grievous flaws emerge under pressure. Two cataclysms have provided that pressure: the economic meltdown; and the refugee crisis spurred by catastrophe in the Arab world and inflamed – as we saw again last week -- by ISIS terror.  

While the economic crisis can bewilder anyone lacking a PhD in economics, the second crisis is easy to grasp. Take southeastern Europe’s porous gateway to strife-ravaged areas in the Levant, add the erasure of interior border controls wrought by the EU Schengen Agreement, plus the liberal asylum policies in prosperous Western European nations... and you get a tidal wave of desperate humanity aimed at Europe. Complicating things, once those refugees arrive, is the hamfistedness many Euro countries have with multiculturalism, and the particularly vexing nature of the European-Muslim encounter.

The case of Germany is both emblematic and crucial, so I’ll focus on it. The Merkel government greeted the refugee influx with exceptional generosity, taking in an astonishing one million asylum seekers last year. Consider the implications of that number. It’s more than the U.S. accepted in the entire last decade -- and remember, the U.S. population is four times greater than Germany’s. Imagine if we agreed to take four million Arab refugees this year. When President Obama pledged to accept a paltry 10,000, all hell broke loose.

The backlash against Merkel’s policy came first from other countries, especially the border countries of eastern Europe, which denounced the policy for creating incentives for more refugees. Then it came from within Germany itself, where anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim energies have exploded, sparked by the notorious events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, when scores of German women were sexually assaulted and robbed by gangs of men of Arab origin in the public square by the train station. Subsequent reports revealed that over half of the 31 men arrested were asylum seekers. The crass prospect of sexual assaults committed by beneficiaries of German hospitality outraged the nation, triggering what Der Spiegel opinion editor Anna Sauerbrey called political hysteria. Similar hysteria, as the New York Times noted, has spread through Europe: Finland, where militia groups vowing to protect Finnish women have taken to patrolling refugee neighborhoods; Italy, where regional governments are formulating laws against the construction of mosques; Denmark, where the government proposed confiscating the valuables of refugees to help defray the cost of housing them; and even Sweden, where gangs have plotted attacks against refugees. When Swedes engage in xenophobic violence, you know Europe is in trouble. 

Partly such responses aim to discourage further refugees. But they also express sentiments long latent in these countries, and boiling over now not only in the form of violent mobs, but as expressions of anger within the body politic. One Bavarian politician, rejecting the government’s plan to house refugees in his town, ordered a bus full of asylum seekers sent on to the Chancellor’s Office in Berlin, with protesters chanting, “Merkel muss weg!” – Merkel has to go! -- as they went.  Politically, things are coming to a head in Germany. “The time has come for a broad debate over Germany’s future,” wrote Der Spiegel, “and Merkel’s mantra of ‘We Can Do It’ is no longer enough to suppress it.” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, in a piece titled “Will Merkel Pay For Doing the Right Thing?”, notes that the Chancellor’s popularity has nose-dived, and quotes her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, calling the liberal refugee policy “a mistake” and saying of Merkel that “she had a heart, but no plan.” Why did Merkel – leader of a conservative party, after all – take such a risk in the first place? “Because she is a German,” Cohen writes, “and to be German is to carry a special responsibility for those terrorized in their homeland and forced into flight.”

Are we seeing the end of that special responsibility? If so, it is a bellwether moment for all of Europe. So let me turn for a moment to the backlash in Germany, and to some of the voices jostling for primacy in the great debate that Der Spiegel foresees.  

Nowhere is the issue of nationalism more fraught than in the country where its excess led to the Holocaust. The right-wing parties of postwar Germany (the Republikaner, the NDP, the DVU), have been fringe players, hounded by the government and shunned by the vast majority of citizens. As a result, organized rightwing politics has made fewer inroads in Germany than elsewhere in Europe. Now, however, strains of ethnic and cultural nationalism are seeping into the mainstream. There’s the group called Pegida, (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West), whose recent rally in Leipzig set off an “anti-Islamization” rampage, with hooligans vandalizing foreign-owned shops in what the city’s mayor called “open street terror.” And an anti-immigrant political party, Alternativ für Deutschland, won enough votes two weeks ago to gain seats in three regional elections, and is now represented in fully half of the Länder, or German states. AfD started out three years ago as a sort of German Tea Party, a middle-class movement of Euroskeptics arguing against the Greek bailout and for the restoration of national currencies, including the sainted Deutschmark. As a party the AfD languished, but the refugee crisis has breathed hot life into it, conferring controversial popularity on one of its leaders, Frauke Petry, a kind of German Marine Le Pen, who in January made a stir when she exhorted border patrol agents to use firearms to stop illegal immigrants from crossing the border.

The AfD’s electoral successes are a big rebuke to Merkel’s policy. More important, they are both calling forth, and riding on, nationalistic impulses long marginalized or suppressed in Germany. Take a look, for instance, at this slickly produced video, put out by a group called The Identitarian Movement. The video records younger Germans expressing an aggrieved sense of national and ethnic pride. Some of their comments might seem innocuous to Americans (“We want a future, for us and our children”); but people familiar with the political landscape of Germany over recent generations will find them unsettling. I spent the late 80s and early 90s living in Germany, and back then, pretty much any expression of German ethnic or cultural pride was considered verboten: you almost never saw a German flag, and many younger Germans claimed not even to know the words of their own national anthem. Such self-censorship was a powerful reflex formed by the calamity of Nazi rule. History had shown how toxic patriotism could be, and Germans wanted none of it.  

That was then, this is now. Today, amid the backlash against Merkel's refugee policy, sentiments like those expressed by the Identitarian Movement are going mainstream. They reflect the difficulty that Germany – like most European countries -- has in squaring a commitment to diversity with its own deeply-held ethnic nationalism. Unlike the U.S. and other immigrant nations, Germany, Sweden, Finland and others are rooted in what Germans call das Volk – a definition of national belonging based wholly on ethnic identity. In the völkisch conception of identity you can’t “become” German – you either are, or you aren’t. When I lived in there, I coached an urban youth basketball team, and my players included a couple of Afro-German boys, the sons of long-departed American soldiers, who were being raised by their German mothers. These two dark-skinned boys spoke not a word of English – they were culturally and linguistically German, through and through – but hardly a day passed without their receiving condescending compliments from Germans who would say to them, in surprise, “But you speak German so well!”

I don’t mean to castigate those people, merely to show how deep-seated is a sense of Germanness that excludes “foreigners,” even when they’re German. Across Europe, this ethnic concept of identity is clashing with a de facto diversity wrought by liberal immigration and refugee policies. The prospect of this völkisch identity being overwhelmed by brown-skinned Arabic Muslims – the advent of what some are calling “Eurabia” – is inflaming a nationalist reaction, in Germany and elsewhere. Viewed against this backdrop, the Identitarian message, with its broadsides against “multicultural dogma,” seems less innocuous. “Our Europe is dying,” these sober young Germans pronounce, as background music strikes tones both stirring and grave; “our future is being threatened.” Their testimony segues into a warning. “You populate our homeland with foreigners who we do not understand.” And finally: “We want our Europe, not your Union.”

And it’s not just Germany. The same anxiety afflicts France, where the philosopher and member of the Academie Française Alain Finkielkraut has written a book, The Unhappy Identity, in which he observes that “the French feel they have become strangers on their own turf.” France’s success in integrating immigrants has long been a source of national pride, writes Finkielkraut, but a tipping point has been reached, and “France is disintegrating in front of our eyes.” The same dire scenario plays out in Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel, Submission, which depicts a France of the near future in which Muslims come to power.

Eurabia: that alarming prospect – a Europe culturally and politically overrun by brown-skinned Muslims – has been fueled by the refugee flood and ignited by ISIS terror attacks. Fears of “Eurabia” rest on anxiety about the threat posed by Islam, an anxiety stoked by those who peddle dire theological warnings and lurid scenarios of capitulation and collapse. These doomful prognostications reflect a synergy of apocalyptic views between the U.S. and Europe. Typical is a website called Real Facts Media, put out by Alex Charles, an American living in Germany, whose latest blog, titled “Mohammed, Islamic History, and the Bloody Future of the West,” issues a broadside against the very project of the multicultural society. Charles begins by noting, accurately enough, that “For most of us Westerners, it’s very difficult to reconcile the nice Muslim woman at work with the ISIS jihadist beheading Christians in Iraq.” He then explains, step by step, exactly how to overcome that difficulty, counseling readers to listen to the “inner voice” that tells you, with “a sickening feeling deep down inside... that something is very wrong.”

What’s very wrong, in Charles’ view, is Islam itself, and the misrepresentations of the religion by liberal apologists so wedded to multicultural dogma that they’re unable or unwilling to tell the truth: namely, that Islamic law, or sharia, “is completely incompatible with all non-Muslim government structures – including every Western democracy;” that its fulfillment “requires the end of free speech, free thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press;” and that its adherents represent an implacable force, “rapidly spreading throughout Europe under the guise of religious tolerance and multiculturalism.” Charles writes: “The nice Muslim lady at work and the ISIS jihadist who beheads Christians in Iraq are both following the Islamic doctrine found in the Sira, Hadith, and Koran.”

“Germany,” he continues, “is the perfect example of this process unfolding today in the West.” What began in the 1960s with a “mass immigration of Muslims Turks,” he asserts, has culminated today in a roster of cultural and political insults to Germans: schools forced to ban pork, the “elimination of traditional Christian holidays celebrated by German children,” female genital mutilation, segregated swimming pools, Turkish children “born and raised in Germany [who] stay in Muslim/Turkish neighborhoods and harbor resentment toward native Germans.” And so on. What’s important is less how dubious these observations are (who is resenting whom?!) than the conclusions that Euro-nationalists draw from them. “Integration simply does not work,” Charles writes.  “It can never work long-term because Islam is a civilization that is incompatible with all other civilizations.... Over time, a country will be either by 100% Muslim or 0% Muslim. Multiculturalism is just a transition phase on the path to the final result. And Islam is very patient.”

Such views are a dime a dozen here in the US, where they emanate routinely from the birther, Obama-as-Muslim, evangelical/apocalyptic worldview peddled on talk radio; just yesterday, right here in Connecticut, the host of the morning talk show on the state’s biggest AM radio station was going on, as he often does, about Islam’s vision of “raising the Sharia flag on the lawn of the White House.” But such rants, easy enough to dismiss here as cheap popular entertainment, may land with a thud of heavier consequence in Europe, where they are being propagated via the social-media synergy I mentioned above. No sooner had Alex Charles posted his blog than it was translated and passionately referenced on a German FB page put out by a German AfD member who read it and turned it into this passionate plea: “I asked myself, should we protect our country, our children and our religion, or should we be ashamed even to think about doing so?”

What will happen in Europe, not just this year, but over the next decade or two? For a long time, in Germany and elsewhere, the political and cultural contradictions wrought by the problem of assimilation simmered away -- surfacing in this or that hot-button topic, such as the hijab controversy in France or the travails of second-generation Turkish workers in Germany or the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and then subsiding. But now, with the attacks in Belgium – or “Belgistan,” as one observer called it -- underscoring “the vulnerability of an open European society,” as a Times article notes, those contradictions are front and center, and they won’t easily be pushed back again. Instead, they pose what might be an existential crisis for Europe.

What a bizarre and ominous political moment this is in the West. In the US, the leading Republican presidential candidate admiringly quotes Mussolini, praises authoritarian leaders like Putin, and cheers the action as partisans from right and left batter each other at his rallies; while in Europe, sentiments long rejected as Fascist swirl into public life once again, even as the shining liberal hopes of European union dissolve in violence, fear and loathing. And once again, Germany sits squarely at the center of European destiny. “The European idea has not been this weak since the march to unity began in the 1950s,” writes Roger Cohen. “If Merkel’s refugee gambit implodes, the reverberations will be felt everywhere.”

With the calamity of last century’s history in mind, it’s hard not to shudder.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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