The Berliner Zeitung asked me to write a guest article on the occasion of 30 years of German unity:
The courage of 1989 should be more important than the fear of 2015. Let's not look the other way when the EU testifies at the external borders.
I am writing these lines on Lesvos, one of the most beautiful places in Europe, which is telling one of its most terrible stories these days. Moria, the largest refugee camp in Europe, has burned down completely. 13,000 people, who were already living in undignified conditions, are now homeless.
For days, local police prevented aid agencies from providing medical care and food to the homeless victims of the fire disaster. Many did not eat or drink for days, and children quenched their thirst with sewage, which left them with severe diarrhea. Police used tear gas on men, women and even children. Burns remained untreated for days.
For 28 years, the Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of repression, lack of freedom and the imprisonment of its own people. The lessons learned from this period are now being sought in vain at Europe's external borders. And walls are also in vogue worldwide. There are now 70 border walls in the world - about five times as many as in 1989. The Berlin Wall no longer exists. But the idea of using a structure to keep out the other, the foreign, the hostile, still thrives in many places.
The happiness of freedom seems forgotten
But why is the desire for freedom not stronger today than the desire for new walls? The wall is a structure that is supposed to protect. But it also keeps one side from seeing the other. In a world that is becoming more and more complex, the desire for new walls is probably not only a desire for security and safety, but also a desire to put up a protective wall against the increasing complexity in order to counter one's own excessive demands by the unknown. The wall not only keeps out the unknown, but also keeps in the known.
Now there is a new Moria. And the conditions are worse than ever. While small children play in the dirt behind barrier tapes and fences, soldiers search for mines and ammunition remnants on the other side. People infected with Corona are locked behind barbed wire with others who are suspected cases. This is a crime.
When the Berlin Wall fell, I was two years old. I couldn't write any texts and I had never read a history book. The Wall, dictatorship and shoot-to-kill orders robbed millions of their freedom. The Wall fell because the idea of democracy tore it down. Now, 30 years later, I am sitting here, and a few miles away democratic states are responsible for the degradation of people. Thirty years later, we seem to have forgotten how lucky we are to be able to share freedom.
I am lucky that I no longer had to consciously experience the dictatorship in the GDR. I am lucky to live in this time, in this Europe. I owe this good fortune to courageous citizens who fought for our freedom. Not by force, but with an idea. The idea that we must build a society on a foundation of the rule of law, human rights and the dignity of every individual - because that is the only way we can build a house that no one can tear down. People took to the streets with this idea, not knowing if it would become a reality. They couldn't know that no shots would be fired. On November 9, 1989, the time finally came. The Wall fell and the world celebrated. But today the Berlin Wall stands again - in Moria.
Moria is a signal to its own population, but also to people on the run: Those who dare to flee to Europe should not rely on their own expectations. The freedom, democracy and rule of law that many seek in Europe should no longer be found by those seeking protection. Instead of a sea rescue in the Mediterranean for people fleeing Libya, we are building a wall of drowned people.
This strategy of degrading external borders follows a simple logic: as long as the Mediterranean and Moria are no more dangerous than the civil war in Libya, the wall of deterrence will not stand firm. If fewer people are to arrive, more must suffer and die.
Is this not a sign that we should be more afraid of ourselves than of the other side beyond the wall? While probably most European leaders advocate the rule of law in speeches, the reality at Europe's external borders looks grim. Instead of using the rule of law to determine what reasons a person has for climbing onto an overcrowded rubber dinghy and risking his or her life for freedom, those seeking protection at the external borders are met with truncheons, tear gas and warning shots. Wall deaths have occurred several times, and some have been shot. "Efficient border management" is the name of the "anti-fascist protective wall" today.
For many, tugboats are the only way
Further fighting words are to stabilize the wall: In October 2015, when the whole world was talking about escape, Manfred Weber, as chairman of the EPP Group, awarded the Robert Schumann Medal to Wolfgang Welsch. Welsch, an escape agent, had helped over 200 people to get out of the GDR and into the Federal Republic. A great achievement.
After the laudatory speech for yesterday's prize-winning refugee, Manfred Weber of the EPP called in the public debate for the "trafficking mafia" of today in the Mediterranean to be combated.
The judgement of the EU governments is clear in its blindness to history: the escape helpers of the past deserved medals for their services on the path from dictatorship to democracy - today, on the other hand, the escape helpers are the culprits for the deaths on our walls and should be fought. A successful escape is no longer celebrated. A successful escape is the failure of the strategy of compartmentalization. The main thing is never again 2015, the main thing is no new wave of refugees.
The traffickers from Libya certainly do not act out of humane motives, but for many refugees they are the only way to get to an asylum procedure in Europe, where protecting the dignity of every single human being is actually the task of all state authority.
Europe shows its ugly side
But state violence at Europe's external borders has degenerated into a worthless zombie with a single goal: Fewer people should come to Europe - whatever the cost. Many speeches, especially since 2015, have repeatedly stressed the need to fight the causes of flight. Since 2015, more than 15 million additional people have fled worldwide.
But how should we deal with the fact that we want to protect human rights, but 80 million refugees worldwide really cannot come to Berlin or Thuringia? "How many millions more are supposed to come?", those who campaign for the human rights of refugees are asked again and again. It is worth considering whether, on the way to the fall of a new wall at the external borders, some of the mental walls that have been erected in people's minds in recent years need to come down first.
In early March 2020, when Erdogan declared the borders to Europe were now open and 15,000 people were pushed to the border, the world watched this supposedly peaceful Europe show its ugly side. Erdogan abused the people as a weapon. Yet we did not disarm him with a democratic response. Europe simply shot back.
The shooting with ammunition and tear gas was justified above all by the fact that these were not "real refugees from Syria". Apart from the fact that the reasons for flight are examined in asylum procedures and not in border skirmishes, the absence of Syrian refugees was particularly striking. For years, there were warnings of a rush of millions of people sitting on packed suitcases in Turkey. And then, despite the opening of the border, only a handful of the 3,500,000 Syrian refugees we feared arrive? How can that be?
The future is never easy
The answer is simple: there are not these millions of people who are rushing to Europe. 3.5 million fathers, mothers and children from Syria are not fleeing. They are living in Turkey. They are not fleeing to Europe because they do not want to flee to Europe.
In reality, the fear articulated by governments of a loss of control at Europe's external borders is a metaphor for the fear of losing control over their own electoral outcomes. Too often and for too long, this fear has paralysed the will to overcome challenges. But when democratic governments - as in asylum policy - create the impression of a house in danger of collapsing, there's no need to be surprised when the population starts looking for another home.
Those who want to tear down the walls at the borders must first and foremost tear down the desire for new walls. Not with violence, but with a thought. Just as courageous people took to the streets against an unjust state back then, our powerful ideas of freedom, dignity and the rule of law must once again tear down the injustice in our own Europe today. Then the Wall will fall too.
The future is never easy, because we do not know it. But we should do everything we can in the present so that later we can proudly tell our grandchildren about the past. About when we were the brave ones in 2020 who rebelled against the wall in our heads and at our external borders. From when we finally understood that we don't protect our prosperity, freedom and security by taking it all away from others. From when Moria burned down and from the ashes arose the power to learn what we already knew in 1989. From when we learned that the courage of 1989 was more important than the fear of a new 2015.
This article is for the Day of German Unity in the Berliner Zeitung erschienen.