Deutsche Post


I saw a store with a sign advertising rentable floor sanding machines: Fussbodenschleifmachinenverleih.

My resolve to improve my German vocabulary falters on such jaw-breaking compound words! But here’s another word I’ve just learned—thankfully one so easy I didn’t even need a dictionary to parse it: Gutmensch. This word has been all over social media and news programs in the past six months.

Literally, it means a “good person;” in practice, it means a “do-gooder.” As in, “Oh, she’s such a gutmensch, always helping out at the refugee centre.”

This word is all the rage, of course, because of the refugee crisis in Europe. Around 1.5 million people have claimed asylum in Europe in the past 18 months, pouring in from the Middle East and North Africa over roads and oceans, climbing walls and crawling through fences. Around one million refugees have entered Germany, with half already registered for asylum. If you want to get an idea of what it’s like here, take the 25,000 refugees that Canada took in, increase it at least 40-fold, then squeeze all those people into a country one-third the size of Ontario. Yes, Germany has become Europe’s gutmensch.

Our neighbouring countries tried to dam their borders when the human stream from war-torn Syria became a flood. But Germany has remained open, and even small towns here are getting accustomed to seeing women in hijabs standing mystified in the grocery aisle before 30 types of cheese, and dark-haired kids in otherwise blond and blue-eyed kindergarten classrooms.

Austria, Hungary and Poland have all veered hard to the right of late, their politicians scoring points with voters by playing up the threat of a foreign horde to western Christian civilization—an argument as old as Europe itself. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on the other hand, has insisted against critics at home and abroad that Germany cannot turn away refugees. Her bold decision, which has already proved politically costly for the ruling Christian Democrats, seems to be motivated at least in part by her own upbringing in a Lutheran manse. So Merkel too is a gutmensch.

Given Germany’s track record in the 20th century, it might be hard for a lot of Canadians to begin thinking of die Deutschen as do-gooders. But a few events in Germany’s terrible past century suggest why they’re taking leadership in Europe’s refugee crisis.

For one thing, Germany has its own tragic experience of refugees. After the Second World War, the Allies wiped the eastern province of Prussia off the map:

10 million Germans fled homelands carved up between Soviet-controlled Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic nations. Many older folks in the northern province of Schleswig-Holstein where we live recall a Prussian family squeezing into a spare bedroom during the late 1940s as they awaited resettlement; my wife’s father is one of many whose birthplace is no longer within German borders. It’s a fact little known in North America. But after what Germany did in the war, what sympathy could they expect for their own refugees, or for the 600,000 who died trying to get west?

Second, everyone here remembers when their land was split by a wall put up to keep people in, and this memory chills many (including Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany) when they see fences put up to keep people out. Politicians, church leaders and others urging a generous refugee policy make their case by reminding Germans that their bitter past should soften their hearts for present kindness.

Still, gutmensch needs to be spoken with a slight sneer to be said correctly. And this reveals a deep ambiguity. Most Germans remained convinced that opening their country to refugees was the right thing to do. But most are flummoxed by what to do with the million newcomers who neither speak their language nor share their culture. And open borders doesn’t necessarily mean open arms. From talking with friends and neighbours, I get the sense that most like the idea of welcoming refugees to their country—but welcoming them to my neighbourhood? Imagine how friends of ours felt when they dropped off their son at school one morning to find 200 new students from Syria and Morocco massing on the playground, and their own kid stuck in a portable thrown up on the soccer pitch. And of course there is a large and loud minority who “knew all along” that it was stupid to open Germany’s borders, and seize upon every mishap as proof.

A good friend of mine—a real gutmensch, by the way—oversees a refugee centre for the city of Berlin. He texted me the other day frustrated at the outbursts of violence and crime at his centre (including street fights with local fascist thugs) that always prompt complaints to police about those “typically” violent Syrians and “I told you so” media releases from far-right parties like the Alternative für Deutschland. “But if you slept 200 young German or Canadian guys in a room the size of two basketball courts,” he pointed out, “you’d have just as many fights.”

Does the popularity of gutmensch in social media suggest that Germany is second guessing itself? There’s real pride among many Germans that their country took in a million refugees, even if many of the same are wondering if it was perhaps naive and worrying about what the future holds.

I get asked by Canadian friends what the church is doing in all this. After all, the church should be the biggest do-gooder of them all, right? I’m never quite sure how to respond. Germany has a state church, and this historic and powerful institution is deeply integrated into national life and culture (even if most people rarely darken the local church door between their baptism and funeral). Much of the church’s work with refugees is being handled within its bureaucratic programs and agencies rather than by congregations themselves, which has the weird effect of making a lot of churchgoers feel like we’re doing something really good, without us doing anything at all besides paying our church tax. There are exceptions, though, and we’ve witnessed firsthand in our local Lutheran church and our daughter’s Girl Guides group some serious effort to get congregations actively involved in integrating refugees into the community.

A bigger problem, in my view, is this: for most Germans, being a Christian means nothing more than being a gutmensch. I’ve heard neighbours and my students express the hope that in due time the refugees will “become like us.” In other words, they’ll come to adopt our liberal northern European values and dilute their Islam so that it’s as benign as Germany’s national religion, Christianity. Folks here might be in for a surprise! There is a well-known saying among scholars of religion: “every migrant is a missionary.” This saying expresses the fact that most migrants from the Global South not only keep their faith when they come to northern countries like Canada or Germany, they spread it. The throngs of refugees seeking asylum in Germany typically take faith a whole lot more seriously than we do, whether they’re Muslim (the vast majority) or Christian—and they’ll probably continue to do so.

Now, this isn’t to say that refugees won’t in time integrate into Germany. They surely will, but there’s going to be give and take from both sides.

While it’s hard to foresee what this give and take will look like, my hunch is that “Christian” Germany would benefit from real contact and real conversation with these newcomers for whom faith means more than being a gutmensch. I wonder if the same would be true in Canada?


About Todd Statham

Rev. Dr. Todd Statham served with the PCC's International Ministries from 2011-2014. He lives with his wife and three children near Hamburg, Germany, and lectures part-time (in very poor German) at the Institut für Theologie und Religionspädagogik, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg.