When looking at the big picture of the refugee crisis in Europe, it’s easy to forget the impact on ordinary people.
A small crossroads village in Germany, population 102, was informed by email recently that 1000 refugees would be resettled in their town. The mayor originally believed the news to be a hoax. But sure enough, regional officials assured the mayor that the town, Sumte, would have to take nearly 10 times the number of asylum seekers than there were residents.
When the mayor questioned the authorities, they made a small concession: only 750 refugees would be resettled.
Sumte has become a showcase of the extreme pressures bearing down on Germany as it scrambles to find shelter for what, by the end of the year, could be well over a million people seeking refuge from poverty or wars in Africa, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In a small concession to the villagers, Alexander Götz, a regional official from Lower Saxony, told them this week that the initial number of refugees, who start arriving on Monday and will be housed in empty office buildings, would be kept to 500, and limited to 750 in all.
Nevertheless, the influx is testing the limits of tolerance and hospitality in Sumte, and across Germany. It is also straining German politics broadly, creating deep divisions in the conservative camp of Chancellor Angela Merkel and energizing a constellation of extremist groups that feel their time has come.
One of the few people, in fact, who seem enthusiastic about the plan for Sumte is Holger Niemann, 32, an admirer of Hitler and the lone neo-Nazi on the elected district council. He rejoices at the opportunities the migrant crisis has offered.
“It is bad for the people, but politically it is good for me,” Mr. Niemann said of the plan, which would leave the German villagers outnumbered by migrants by more than seven to one.
A plan only a neo-Nazi could love. A situation thick with irony, to be sure, but one that presents extraordinary danger for Chancellor Merkel and the German people:
Reinhold Schlemmer, a former Communist who served as the mayor here before and immediately after the collapse of East Germany, said people like Mr. Niemann would “have been put in prison right away” during the Communist era.
“Now they can stand up and preach,” he said. “People say this is democracy, but I don’t think it is democracy to let Nazis say what they want.”
Mr. Schlemmer is among those concerned that extremists are exploiting widespread concerns, even in the political mainstream, over absorbing vast numbers of refugees, as the influx tests Germany’s capacity to cope.
Sumte has no shops, no police station, no school. The initial number of arrivals was, in fact, reduced to avoid straining the local sewage system and give time for new pumps to be installed.
“We have zero infrastructure here for so many people,” Mr. Fabel, the mayor, said.
As the federal government desperately scrambles to find shelter for the refugees before winter sets in, it is assigning quotas to each of Germany’s 16 Länder, or states, based on factors like economic strength and population.
It’s amazing that Merkel never imagined that when you throw open the doors to your country, people beyond counting will want to come in. Nothing has been prepared for the crush of humanity that took Merkel up on her generosity. There is no shelter, no allowance for schooling for children, no plan to employ those who can work. Her ultimate goal — to change the demographic decline of her country so that more workers can support the rapidly growing number of retirees — could not justify the chaos and massive dislocations her refugee policy has wrought.
Meanwhile, the good people of Sumte — no doubt tolerant and broadminded — are about to be buried in an onslaught of Muslims who will be a supermajority in the tiny town. What are the chances of German law, German traditions, and German life being maintained in the face of people who want to change all that to suit their own preferences?
Before too long, I suspect the residents of Sumte won’t be so tolerant and broadminded.