Populist supporters would often bring up refugees as a focal point and physical manifestation of larger, more abstract fears. They would often say, as one woman told me outside a rally for the Alternative for Germany, a rising populist party, that they feared their national identity was being erased.
“Germany needs a positive relationship with our identity,” Björn Höcke, a leading far-right figure in the party, told my colleague. “The foundation of our unity is identity.”
Allowing in refugees, even in very large numbers, does not mean Germany will no longer be Germany, of course. But this slight cultural change is one component of a larger European project that has required giving up, even if only by degrees, core conceits of a fully sovereign nation-state.
National policy is suborned, on some issues, to the vetoes and powers of the larger union. That includes control over borders, which are partially open to refugees but fully open to other Europeans.
Though the backlash has focused on refugees, who tend to present as more obviously foreign, studies suggest that it is also driven by resentment toward European migrants.
Traveling recently through Yorkshire, a postindustrial swath of northern England, I heard complaints that began about refugees but shifted quickly to Polish workers, who have arrived in much greater numbers. Some spoke ominously, if implausibly, of towns where Polish was more commonly heard than English.
It is not easy for Europeans to abandon the old-style national identity, rooted in race and language, that has caused them such trouble. The human desire for a strong group identity — and for perceived homogeneity within that group — runs deep.