Attitudes Towards National Identity, Immigration, and Refugees in Germany


At a time of major political disruptions and a widespread public sense of frustration with the political status quo, Germany stands out from other European Countries. Its political leadership has remained stable, it has championed internationalist values, and has been a model for other countries in its response to the global refugee crisis. The world has more refugees than at any time since the Second World War, yet only a few of the world’s high income economies have significantly increased their refugee intake. Germany has come to embody the values behind the international system of refugee protection after welcoming an estimated one million refugees during 2015 alone. This also made Germany an attractive target for right-wing populism. For example, in January 2017, President Donald Trump, described Chancellor Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees as a “catastrophic mistake” that is “ruining Germany”. 

The perceived success or failure of refugee integration – measured perhaps more than anything else by the judgment of Germans themselves – will therefore have a major influence on the global refugee debate and the future policies of many countries. Since 2015, the German public’s response to the large refugee intake has been a regular subject of media reports. In September 2015, Germans initially welcomed refugees with an enthusiasm reminiscent of the excitement around German reunification a quarter of century before. While that excitement could never be sustained, media reports have portrayed contrasting pictures of public opinion trends. Some reports have suggested that the public remains strongly supportive of the refugee intake, while others have pointed to signs of rising public anxieties and regret. Integrating the large number of refugees has posed many challenges, resulting from gaps in language skills, cultural differences and the psychological damage suffered by many refugees. The far-right party Alternative for Germany party (‘Alternative für Deutschland’, AfD), has campaigned on an ‘anti-politics’ and anti-immigration platform, capitalising on public anxieties and on incidents such as the Christmas market attack in late 2016. While AfD’s polling is well short of many other far-right parties in Europe, its growth has posed a threat to the traditionally consensus-oriented, centrist nature of German political debate.

A better evidence base to understand public opinion in Germany is needed, both to provide a context for sometimes conflicting evidence and to provide practical guidance for efforts to foster the successful integration of refugees and social inclusion. This report aims to contribute to building this evidence base. By better understanding the values, concerns and priorities of different segments of German society, those with a voice in the public debate in Germany can become more effective in their communications efforts. In particular, they can counter the increasingly well-organised and coordinated forces of the far right, who pose a serious threat to democratic norms and to the values of open and inclusive society.