It's morning on the first of three days that will change so much, and at least one person in Berlin has a premonition of what is to come. A member of the German government is having breakfast with a group of journalists in a back room. In the next 48 hours, says the cabinet member, Germany will face a challenge the likes of which it has never before seen. "People will move across the borders, they won't wait any longer. They'll come on the highways, the streets and train tracks."
In Iraq, a report is circulating that Germany is taking in everyone, the government member says. "Many have decided: This is our opportunity."
It's Friday, September 4, 2015 and everything that the government member foreshadows will become reality in the hours to come — and much, much more. Thousands of refugees will set off on foot from the train station in Budapest where they have been stuck for days. They will trudge along the highways for hours until, late in the night, the German chancellor will ultimately decide to bring them to Germany on trains.
It's a momentous decision and many more refugees than expected will come as a result. Before long, more than 13,000 people a day will be crossing into Germany. By the end of the year, the total will exceed 1 million.
It's also a controversial decision, one that will divide the country — a division that remains to this day. The rift cuts through families, clubs, companies and editorial staffs: How much immigration can we handle? Where are the people from that we are accepting? Are there any potential attackers among them? What about our security? Above all: Did Angela Merkel encourage the people to come or would they have arrived anyway?
It is an historic decision because it is one that divides history into a time before and a time after. Those three days at the beginning of September 2015, a period that quickly became known as "Merkel's border opening" or even "the second fall of the Wall," mark a turning point in Merkel's chancellorship.
Moments that change an entire continent don't come around too often. This, though, is one of them.
Today, almost one year later, many of those who were involved are trying to play down the importance of that weekend. They are doing so in part to avoid uncomfortable questions: Whether it was the correct decision. Who or what led to the decision. And how prepared Germany was for the refugees.
Because despite the premonition of at least one cabinet member regarding what would happen that weekend, the government on that Friday morning was oddly unprepared. The chancellor had a number of routine appearances on her calendar, including a company visit, a campaign speech and a party anniversary celebration. Her chief of staff, who is ultimately responsible for the coordination of government tasks, would make his way to Evian in France to take part in a company conference. The government spokesman would attend to private business as the afternoon progressed before heading into the weekend. And the interior minister was lying at home in bed with a high fever. Nobody seemed to have thought it necessary to establish additional emergency shelters, to arrange for special buses or trains or to reinforce the police force.
On August 19, the government had already increased its prognosis for the number of refugees it was expecting in 2015 to 800,000, four times as many as in the previous year — but no additional preparations followed. Neither did anything happen after Merkel promised during her summer press conference in Berlin on August 31 that "we can do it."
Today, almost one year later, the government admits that not a single refugee who arrived on that weekend or in the days that followed was screened by security officials.
This is the chronicle of a loss of control foretold. To compile it, 12 reporters from ZEIT and ZEIT ONLINE spread out across Europe to visit state capitals and refugee hostels, speak with security officials, review classified documents and read situation reports. The result is the most detailed account thus far of a weekend that fundamentally changed Germany and Europe. All portrayals are based on the recollections of people directly involved.
Our chronicle will touch on a German state governor's sleep patterns. It will look at a Syrian private who makes his way northwards. It will discuss turkey sandwiches and phone calls that were never answered and which were perhaps never intended to be answered. It will consider attempts to mislead and examine a vast political illusion.
The chronicle will also focus on the word "exception" and what it actually means. And it will consider images, over and over again. Images that were to be avoided at all costs and images that are so powerful that they changed the political landscape.