U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. While this seems a stretch to me, I wholly agree with a related FDR observation—that fear “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Simply put, at the moment we most need to be proactive, fear tells us to pull back.
This is what we’re seeing in Europe, as one nation after another closes down their internal borders. For those who have resided in the European Union for their whole lives or even part, there are clearly tremendous fears about changes to their lifestyles, lifestyles that they feel they have worked for and have a right to enjoy. When I was in Europe last autumn, I heard people complain that the trains they had planned to take were being used to transport refugees or that the subways were too full or that their sports halls were being requisitioned and turned into dormitories. While some of us shrugged off those situations or those complaints as trivial, it was a lot harder to ignore reports of theft, groping, and rape from New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Don’t Europeans have a right to celebrate without fear of personal attack?
Before we get too comfortable with this rhetorical question, we need to consider the implications of an unequivocal Yes. We need to remember that fear is not always justified and that, when left unexamined, it has a tendency to turn ugly.
As a scholar of Nazism and the Nazi Judeocide, I have thought deeply about how the label of “foreigner” can be used to start down the path of discrimination and genocide. While the Greek word for foreigner, “ξένος,” also means “guest,” it has always struck me that the German word for foreign, “fremd,” also means “strange.” In the 1930s and 40s Germans of Jewish heritage were designated as “Jews” in countless contexts based on the belief that they were not, indeed could not also be “Germans.” And “Jews” were not actually human, the Nazis preached.
Modern psychology has documented what artists and sages have known for millenia: it’s a lot easier to ignore or even hurt beings that we don’t consider human. Europeans of color hear themselves described and are frequently denied opportunities on the basis of being “foreign.” As Primo Levi put it: “Many people--many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy.’” The danger of holding such a belief, Levi pointed out, is that “when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager.”
All too often, such attitudes blind people—and nations—to what’s truly at stake. Those who are “in transit” within or moving towards Europe are fleeing dangerous situations. They too live in fear—a fact too often minimized in media reports that describe refugees as “migrants.” They have seen homes bombed, family members hauled away or killed, faced torture, rape, and captivity. Having made the hard, even traumatic decision to flee their homelands, many of these same individuals of course are now also afraid that they won’t get to a safer place, that they’ll be stuck waiting at a border or that they’ll be sent back to the place they’ve just fled. Even if allowed to stay, they may be kept apart. Indeed, of the more than one million citizens of nations like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan who have entered Europe in the last year, too many have been consigned to isolated outposts, with little hope of meaningful contact with natives or of ever themselves becoming “new Europeans.”
Fear is endemic in Europe today—both among Europeans and those who would join them. My fervent hope about initiatives like “Fear? Crisis? Border?” is that they will provide a forum to acknowledge the multiple fears coming from diverse locations and people, and that having acknowledged them, as FDR suggested, we can, together, advance.
Irene Kacandes is the Dartmouth Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow. She currently serves as President of the German Studies Association, the world’s largest interdisciplinary professional association concerned with the German-speaking areas of the world.