While the prospect of an expected 800,000 new residents this year offers Germany a chance to ensure ongoing economic prosperity, it also challenges a prevailing cultural consensus of what it means to be German.
BERLIN — As tens of thousands of asylum seekers pour into Germany, their desired destination, they will be met by bowls of steaming soup and bread, working bathrooms and an efficient bureaucracy to move them to temporary housing and, possibly, legal immigration status.
The long-term integration of a group of people expected to reach 1 percent of the overall population, most of whom practice a different religion and often hold profoundly different world views, is another question altogether.
While the prospect of accepting an expected 800,000 new residents this year offers Germany an opportunity to rejuvenate its aging demographics and ensure its economic prosperity, it also challenges a prevailing cultural consensus of what it means to be German.
“The refugees are synonymous with formidable change,” Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, said recently in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit. “We must get used to the thought that our country is changing.”
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That change is at the doorstep. When thousands of people were allowed to leave Hungary late Friday and were put on buses to the Austrian border, many were brandishing posters of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In their days of near internment in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, some of the travelers broke into chants of “Germany, Germany” and “Merkel, Merkel,” demanding to be allowed to continue their journey west.
Germans have met previous waves of these newcomers with generosity and support. Thousands of volunteers have shown up in camps to feed them. Others have delivered water and fruit to refugees to ease their long waits as they register their arrival. Some Germans have risked arrest to circumvent immigration bureaucracy and shelter the most vulnerable in their churches.
Some fear the outpouring of generosity will not last. The Social Ministry expects the German government to spend 1.8 billion to 3.3 billion euros, about $2 billion to $3.7 billion, in 2016 to cover the refugees’ basic needs, language lessons and job training. As those costs mount, so might resentment.
Germany already has experienced a formidable backlash against the newcomers. Although the country does not have an influential far-right political party, such as France’s National Front or the Freedom Party of Austria, smaller neo-Nazi and right-wing groups have seized on the issue, organizing demonstrations outside homes for asylum seekers.
In the first six months of this year, there were more than 200 arson and other attacks on facilities for the newcomers and on the newcomers themselves.
“This massive immigration is increasingly seen in the growing worries of Germans,” said Ronny Zasowk of the far-right National Democratic Party, known by its German initials NPD.
Recalling Nazi racial laws that singled out the Germanic, or Aryan, people as superior to other ethnicities, leading to the Holocaust and the atrocities of World War II, President Joachim Gauck recently urged Germans to embrace the diversity that has since grown up around them.
Until “even more people can part with the image of a nation that is very homogeneous and in which nearly all people speak German as their mother tongue, are fair-skinned and largely Christian,” he said, their perception of German society will not reflect the reality of who lives here.
Many, including Merkel, have compared the challenge facing Germany to the historic decisions after the breach of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, when the leaders of West Germany swiftly enacted measures aimed at ensuring the peaceful merger of what for decades had been two separate states.
Experts point to the former West Germany’s far less successful experiment of integration in the 1960s, when that country invited men, most from Turkey, to fill the industrial jobs in its post-World War II factories. They were viewed as “guests” who would eventually return home, not as future citizens.
“For a long time, we made the mistake of considering migrant workers ‘guest workers,’ ” Merkel recently said, “an idea that we have recently come to abandon, faced with the reality they are our fellow citizens, no matter what their ancestry.”
The descendants of those “guest workers” who remained in the country now make up the nearly 4 million Muslims in Germany’s population of almost 82 million.