Refugees, Pity, and Moral Superiority: The German Case

From the Series: Refugees and the Crisis of Europe

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna.

After it agreed to take in so many Syrian refugees, one doesn’t want to tell a bad story about Germany, but is it possible that something bad is coming along with the good? Is this also a story about moral superiority, in which Germany finally wins?

During the summer of 2015, I directed a field school with two artists I had recruited from Berlin. The point was to produce short films about the future from the perspectives of noncitizens in Berlin.

We initially left the term noncitizen open, and framed the future as the stakes for a politics that had yet to emerge. The future would be filmed from (as opposed to being of or about) Berlin, since noncitizenship was the film project’s subject and not every noncitizen intends to stay in the city forever. Still, Berlin does offer distinct possibilities for living, creating, and imagining futures. So we—refugees, (post)migrants, an artistic director, a filmmaker, and an anthropologist—met every weekday at 2:30 p.m. for a month. Our project was to make a collection of short films for a larger public.

In the ensuing discussions, one young participant decided to make his film a pronouncement against pity. He had been in Berlin for two years and the authorities had recently recognized his asylum case. Originally from the Kurdish region of Syria, he wore thick black-rimmed glasses, had a sarcastic smile, and constantly referred to himself playfully as a scheiß Flüchtlinge (shit refugee). He hated pity and was making fun of the way people saw him, turning that image into a flattened caricature and thereby creating the possibility to emerge as a new self.

In response to his argument against pity, another participant from southern Germany (whose mother is German and father South Asian) said that he also wanted to make a film about pity, but from the other side. He wanted to extol pity as a laudable Christian value. The artistic director intervened, telling him that pity was hierarchical, that it put the pitied person beneath the one who was pitying. But the young man retorted, “Pity can be good.” He went on to say that “white men” also deserve pity. In the final screening at a packed cinema in Berlin-Kreuzberg, though, the audience refused this move. They could only read the white German male call for pity as ironic. In spite of the filmmaker’s intent, the audience read his film as a metacommentary against pity. The film’s characters were too robust, too confident, too self-assured.

The film against pity features the young Kurdish refugee-turned-filmmaker proclaiming “I hate pity!” He returns to his asylum camp, where the employees, one of whom is also a former refugee, argue for solidarity instead of pity. The filmmaker then goes to a refugee theater project in which he is involved, where two members have developed a slow-motion improvisational dance to the spoken-word theme “No pity! Your pity makes the Other poor.”1 The film ends with the filmmaker and his friend singing the old union song, “Solidarity forever!”

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna, licensed by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

Over the same summer, in a televised conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a young Palestinian woman speaking perfect, fluent German tells the chancellor her story about almost being deported. Merkel replies:

In the refugee camps in Lebanon, there are thousands and thousands, and if we would say that you all could come . . . You all could come from Africa, and you all could come . . . We can’t accomplish that. And so we have this conundrum. The only thing we can say is, “Don’t make people wait so long for their cases to be decided.” But some will have to go back.

The young woman, Reem Sahwil, begins to cry. The chancellor then walks over and awkwardly strokes her arm, as if to say “don’t worry,” but offers no legal remedy. Perhaps as a result of her tears, though, Sahwil has the potential benefit of the exception. Media reports reveal that medical care is among the reasons her family wants to stay in Germany. After this incident, the family receives a temporary residence permit through the following year. Is it the chancellor’s awkward pity that leads to Sahwil’s temporary relief?

While pity may rule one day, the threat of terror rules on another. Even as Germany agreed to take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, it had begun to speed up the potential deportation of others. Just after a three-year-old dead Syrian body washed up on the shore of Turkey, his boat having capsized on the way to the shores of Greece, there was again an outpouring of German pity, guilt, and compassion.

There were many young Syrians who participated in our film project, all of whom were well-educated and mostly middle-class. One had originally applied for political asylum but did not get his case recognized until he switched his application from political to humanitarian asylum. Pity works for the specific (Syrian) case, but not as a general rule (for Afghanis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Bosnians, or Africans).

On the other hand, in taking in so many refugees, Germany has seemed to be showing that it has learned from the past and that it can now teach others how to be (or, at least, appear to be) morally superior, a term that points to the virtues and the problematic hierarchy associated with this morality—as well as the question of who should teach whom (Partridge 2015). Germany’s asylum policy is a direct result of its working to find a new national direction after its Nazi-led Holocaust. Now it is at a point at which it can teach the rest of the world (including the United States) about how they should be acting.

But what would constitute solidarity in this context?


1. This is a line inspired by William Blake’s poem “The Human Abstract.”


Partridge, Damani J. 2015. “Monumental Memory, Moral Superiority, and Contemporary Disconnects: Racisms and Noncitizens in Europe, Then and Now.” In Spaces of Danger: Culture and Power in the Everyday, edited by Heather Merrill and Lisa M. Hoffman, 101–32. Athens: University of Georgia Press.