The Night Germany Lost Control
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.
The trigger: Mohammad Zatareih lines up refugees in rows of five in Budapest.
7:30 a.m., Budapest, Keleti Station
Mohammad Zatareih has woken up early. Ever since he's been forced to spend his nights inside the train station in Budapest, the 25-year-old Syrian has had difficulties sleeping. A muscular man with a fashionable goatee, Zatareih set off on his journey across Turkey to Europe six months ago and now, the strain he is under is readily apparent. For the last four days, he has been stuck here and his impatience is growing. The Hungarians have suspended all rail traffic to Western Europe and provisions at the station are getting worse and worse. What if his journey ends here? What if the Hungarians lock him up, or even send him back to Greece? Or even Turkey?
Some 3,000 refugees are camping out in the souterrain level of the train station: in tents, on mattresses and between mounds of plastic garbage and walls of cement. And with small groups of refugees singing or talking loudly late into the night, rest is at a premium.
More than 150,000 refugees had been officially registered in Hungary by the middle of August. But two weeks ago, something changed. On August 25, Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) sent out a tweet, 134 characters long, saying that Germany was now accepting unregistered refugees from Syria — and since then, people have been refusing to register in Hungary. Instead, they are showing the tweet to police on their smartphones and insisting that they want to continue onward to Germany.
Mohammad Zatareih doesn't even have a sleeping bag, but he slowly stretches himself awake, gets a cup of water and begins looking around for Ahmed, who he met the day before in the crowded train station. A slight man who used to be a teacher in Damascus, Ahmed is a good talker — and he is plagued by the same impatience as Zatareih. While talking yesterday, the two began considering their options. Simply head off to the north toward Austria? Zatareih once served in the Syrian army and says "we sometimes marched 150 kilometers, even in the heat of the day. Why don't we just head for Vienna? Including breaks, we could make it two or three days."
It is an idea that will ultimately transform history, but the two didn't know that yet.
8:30 a.m., Berlin, Chancellery
In Angela Merkel's office on the seventh floor of the Chancellery, the chancellor is meeting with her closest advisors as she does every morning. Once the meeting has finished, Merkel plans to fly to Munich to visit a school in the nearby town of Landshut and then drop by a few start-ups in Munich. That afternoon, she is to make an appearance in Essen ahead of municipal elections there before delivering a speech in the evening at the 70th anniversary celebration of the North Rhine-Westphalia chapter of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Cologne. From the looks of her calendar, it would seem to be a normal day for the chancellor: flights back-and-forth across Germany, files to read and phone calls to make, hands to shake and photos to pose for.
But the mood this morning is tense. Two days ago, the lifeless body of a three-year-old boy in a red T-shirt was found on a Turkish beach, his face pressed into the sand. He had drowned in the Mediterranean in a failed attempt to reach Europe. Eight days before that, a truck packed with 71 dead bodies was found on the shoulder of the A4 highway in Austria: 59 men, eight women and four children, all of them suffocated. And then there are the images from the train station in Budapest that have been broadcast on German television for the last several days. To make matters worse, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said yesterday that the refugee crisis isn't a European problem, but a German one.
That view, of course, is not one shared by those inside the German Chancellery and such mutual incriminations will recur throughout the weekend. Merkel's staff believes the Hungarian government "swindled" the refugees by allowing a group of them to buy train tickets to Austria only to stop the train in Bicske, just outside of Budapest. In the morning meeting, they decide that Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert should say something about it in the government press conference later that day.
And because she has the feeling that the situation could quickly become more pressing, Merkel decides that Bernhard Kotsch, her deputy office manager, should stay with her that day. She says merely: "Kotsch has to come along."
10:30 a.m., Budapest, Keleti Station
Mohammad Zatareih is finally able to locate his new friend Ahmed, who he finds pleading with a group of refugees to start marching westwards. If at least 1,000 of us set out, nobody will stop us, he says to enthusiastic nods from Zatareih. The megaphone bought by a Hungarian aid worker the day before suddenly appears and Ahmed rides through the crowd on the shoulders of a companion shouting: We're marching! We're marching! We're leaving at 12 o'clock!
11:30 a.m., Berlin, Federal Press Conference
In early September, more than 100,000 refugees are traveling along the Balkan route between Greece and Hungary, but in Berlin, the government has completely underestimated the importance to those refugees of the tweet sent out by BAMF. Merkel is still insisting that those refugees who have reached Hungary be registered there — but they no longer want to be. Every day, chants of "Merkel! Merkel! Merkel!" or "Germany! Germany! Germany!" echo through the souterrain level of Keleti Station in Budapest.
Nevertheless, in accordance with the discussion during the morning meeting in the Chancellery, Steffen Seibert once again insists to journalists in that day's press conference that Hungary has "the legally binding obligation" to "properly register the refugees, to provide for them and to carry out asylum proceedings in Hungary in accordance with European standards." The German government, Seibert says in a tone that for him sounds almost threatening, "assumes that Hungary, as a part of the Western community of values, will meet its legal and humanitarian obligations just as Germany has."
Prevailing law, European standards, humanitarian obligations — such are the terms being invoked by German politicians during these turbulent days. Because for Germany, prevailing law is rather useful.
Prevailing law holds that every asylum-seeker must be registered, provided for and sheltered in the EU member state where they first enter European Union territory. Germany, though, is situated in the middle of Europe, surrounded on all sides by EU member states. That means it is impossible for refugees to arrive in Germany without having first passed through another EU member state, unless they fall from the sky. Prevailing law also holds that those who have managed to make it to Germany must be sent back to the country where they first entered the EU. By definition, these are countries on the European periphery like Greece and Italy.
Were this law to still apply, there wouldn't be any refugees in Hungary at all. They would all still be in Greece, properly registered, appropriately provided for and humanely sheltered. And truth be told, officials in Berlin are perfectly aware of that fact.
12:30 p.m., Budapest, Keleti Station, Forecourt
Increasing numbers of refugees are pouring out of the souterrain level of the train station onto the square out front. They are initially blinded by the sun as they emerge into temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and aid workers, police officers and reporters are all scurrying around. Without much effort, Mohammad Zatareih is able to line up the refugees in rows of five, just as he learned in the army, and by 1 p.m., almost 100 rows of five have been set up and the mass of people slowly begins to move out in the direction of the Danube River. Many additional refugees join them, including families with children, until the group ultimately swells to over 2,000 people. This is the moment when the refugees become key actors in European history — protagonists who take their fate into their own hands. It is the moment when political leaders in Berlin, Vienna and Budapest become followers, reacting to events instead of initiating them.
A Hungarian accompanying the group of refugees advises Zatareih to head for the highway: "There, we'll remain visible to the media," he says. Zatareih nods. But where's the highway?
12:30 p.m., Luxembourg, Kirchberg
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier climbs out of a black sedan in front of the conference center in the Kirchberg district of Luxembourg. Twice a year, the foreign ministers of the 28 EU member states meet for an informal, two-day gathering known as the Gymnich meeting. Steinmeier has brought along a paper that he drew up together with his French counterpart urging that Europe do something about the migrant smugglers who are bringing so many refugees across the Mediterranean to Italy from Libya — as though hundreds of thousands of refugees weren't at that very moment making their way to Europe along the Balkan route.
And even as refugees in Hungary begin their march to Austria and Germany, European foreign ministers in Luxembourg stick to their agenda: the Middle East, relations with Russia and the Iranian nuclear program — the standard fare. Only on Saturday morning does the agenda call for the refugee crisis to be addressed.
1 p.m., Röszke Refugee Registration Center
Not far from the Hungarian village of Röszke, there is a gap in the Serbian border fence allowing the train line to pass through. But day after day, innumerable refugees are also taking advantage of the opening. After passing through, they are taken to a hopelessly overcrowded tent camp, jam packed with thousands of people who have come before. At noon, some 300 refugees break through the fences surrounding the camp and head north.
Around 3:45 p.m., Highway M1, near Budaörs
Mohammad Zatareih is growing uneasy. The parade of refugees has crossed the Elizabeth Bridge over the Danube and reached the M1 onramp heading toward the town of Budaörs. Residents are waving from their windows, bringing fruit and water to the refugees and distributing huge, blue IKEA bags full of bread and blankets. But after just nine kilometers of marching, the first participants are tiring and families with children are falling behind. The group is becoming increasingly fragmented.
To make matters worse, a Hungarian police unit suddenly appears before the refugees, apparently intending to divert them to a side road. It marks the final attempt for the time being to stop the march and reestablish state control. Had it been successful, this day and all that hinged on it would have ended quite differently — and Angela Merkel would have been spared the most difficult decision of her time in the Chancellery.
Zatareih brings the refugee march to a halt a certain distance from the police. The hot sun beats down from above and nerves are raw. The leaders of the march talk excitedly amongst themselves, none of them have ever experienced such a thing before and nobody knows what the police intend to do. In the countries the refugees come from, the consequences of such a standoff with police are myriad, including beatings, gunshots and deaths.
But Mohammad Zatareih and Ahmed agree that they have to stay on the main highway and keep moving. Otherwise, everything will have been in vain. After a brief but intense debate, the men in the first rows of the march form a chain and run at the police and the crowd behind them follows. Several camera teams film the clash and the shoving that ensues, but then the police give way. Their position is immediately overrun by the crowd of refugees and the path to Vienna appears to be open.
5 p.m., Nickelsdorf, Police Station
The landscape at the Austrian-Hungarian border is flat as far as the eye can see, and Hungarian territory begins just behind the Nickelsdorf police station. When police lieutenant Manfred Schreiner starts work, he is expecting a quiet shift. The 44-year-old has been scheduled as deputy head of the night shift. Ever since the truck full of suffocated refugees was found on the shoulder of the Austrian highway, Schreiner's officers have been told to intensify their checks on the search for migrant traffickers, but that has already largely become routine. There is no indication that this will turn out to be the longest and most intense day in Lieutenant Schreiner's career. Only after 24 hours on duty will he be able to return home.
5:15 p.m., Essen, Burgplatz
Despite a light rain, a few hundred people have gathered on Burgplatz, Essen's central square, to see the chancellor. She holds a formulaic campaign speech praising local CDU candidates and criticizing Social Democratic policies in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Several refugees have also turned out and are holding up signs reading "Thank You Germany." There is also a poster reading "Refugees Welcome" — and several calls of "Merkel Must Go!"
After the appearance in Essen, Merkel flies onwards by helicopter to Cologne, and somewhere between Essen and Cologne, she turns on her iPad and sees for the first time images of the refugee march on the Hungarian highway. They are images that immediately trigger memories of history — memories of World War II, of flight and of expulsion from the East.
5:20 p.m., Bicske Train Station
A banner on the engine of the train that has been held at the Bicske station since yesterday reads: "Europe without Borders for 25 Years." Inside are 350 refugees. They had hoped the train would take them north all the way to the Austrian border, but officials stopped the journey and are now seeking to transfer those inside to a tent camp. In response, train passengers have barricaded themselves inside and haven't even accepted water from the police. Now, some of the passengers are jumping out of the train with the intention of continuing onward to Vienna on foot.
A short time later, the dead body of a Pakistani refugee is found not far from the tracks. Paramedics spend more than three-quarters of an hour trying to revive the man before finally giving up. It isn't initially clear if he died in a crush, from exhaustion or from a fall.
6:30 p.m., Cologne, Flora Köln
Angela Merkel seems relaxed, almost cheerful, as she enters the Flora Köln, an event location in the center of Cologne's botanical gardens. She is there to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the North Rhine-Westphalia chapter of the CDU together with senior party members and she shakes hands and poses for photos as she walks in. Her speech is full of praise for the party she leads along with a few jokes about local party politics and a bit of campaigning for the Cologne mayoral candidate Henriette Reker. But Merkel also has a few serious words to say about the refugee crisis and repeats her message that "we can do it." Never since World War II have so many people come to Germany, the chancellor says. "In such a situation, we have a duty to help." But she also says: "We must tell those who come to us purely for economic reasons that they cannot stay." She also launches a sharp attack on Hungary: "It is difficult to watch as those who opened the border for us 24 years ago are now showing severity to those who are obviously fleeing from distress."
Merkel is still receiving significant applause for such sentiments.
6:30 p.m., Hungary, M1 Highway
The journey from Budapest to Vienna is about 250 kilometers — and the group of marching refugees is now being led by a man waving the EU flag. Another marcher up front has pinned a photo of Merkel to his sweater and a third is pushing a man in a wheelchair. Images of the trio will become iconic of the march and they are shared extremely rapidly across Twitter and Facebook. Even as the refugees continue putting kilometer after kilometer behind them, the march is christened in social media as the #marchofhope.
The coup: Viktor Orbán transports the refugees in buses toward Austria.
7:30 p.m., Vienna, Chancellery
An official memo from the Hungarian ambassador in Vienna arrives at the Austrian Foreign Ministry. The note advises Austrian officials that a group of around 1,000 persons who entered Hungary illegally are now on their way to Austria. The ambassador also requests Austria's view of the situation: On the basis of what legal foundation should Hungary react? The diplomats in the Foreign Ministry immediately forward the message onward to the Chancellery, where Chancellor Faymann and his advisors interpret the memo as being far more than a non-binding diplomatic note. Rather, they see it as a question coming straight from Orbán as to whether the Hungarians should stop the march or allow it to continue to Austria. They are also certain that the march can only be stopped with violence — and they all quickly agree that such violence should be prevented at all costs. Faymann decides to call Angela Merkel.
7:45, Cologne, Flora Köln
With Merkel at the podium delivering her speech to the CDU anniversary celebration, the telephone of her deputy office manager, Bernhard Kotsch, who is sitting in the audience, begins vibrating. Merkel's aide receives a message from the situation center in the Berlin Chancellery: Werner Faymann would like to speak with Merkel. Extremely urgent.
8 p.m., Budapest, Parliament Building
The Hungarian government's crisis task force assembles for a special session under the leadership of János Lázár, Orbán's chief of staff. There is only a single item on the agenda: What to do about the refugees? The assembled politicians and officials, including the interior minister, the head of the national police force and the prime minister's special envoy for disaster relief, are appalled. Parts of the highway system have been closed down due to pedestrians on the roadway, the situations at the train stations in Budapest and Bicske are chaotic and there has been a death. Furthermore, refugees are no longer following instructions from officials and are deciding for themselves where to go and where to stay. To make matters worse, the international media is showing almost exclusively misleading images from the train station in Budapest, making the situation seem more chaotic than it is and suggesting that Hungarian officials are using violence.
Meeting participants quickly agree that the state must rapidly regain control. Now. Immediately.
8:15 p.m., Budapest, City Center
Prime Minister Orbán begins making his way to the sold-out Groupama Aréna in the southeastern corner of the city to take in a European Championship qualification match between Hungary and their archrivals from Romania. Shortly before kickoff, Chief of Staff Lázár calls Orbán to tell him that a plan has been hammered out. Just a few minutes later, Orbán tries to reach Chancellor Faymann in Vienna, but is unsuccessful. Faymann isn't taking calls from Orbán.
8:15 p.m., Cologne, Flora Köln
Chancellor Merkel's speech in Cologne lasts 32 minutes. In closing, she says: "It is good to celebrate, but from now on, work will continue and that can be fun too." At the time, she has no idea about the work awaiting her just a few minutes later.
As the crisis task force is meeting in Budapest, as Mohammad Zatareih and the other refugees on the highway are slowly tiring and as CDU members in Cologne begin sipping their first beers, Merkel's four-car convoy drives up to Flora Köln to take her to the airport, located roughly 20 minutes away. The chancellor climbs into an armored Audi A8 and security personnel pile into an additional A8 behind her vehicle.
Merkel quickly has herself connected with Faymann. He fills her in on the situation, saying it is critical and telling her about the images from the highway. He also warns of the possibility of violence and even of deaths and says Hungary is pursuing a strategy of escalation. Merkel is certain that force would be necessary to stop the refugees and that, in turn, would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. As such, she is convinced that Austria and Germany will not be able to close their borders.
If one is looking for the moment when the historical decision was made, this is it.
But Merkel also knows that it would be problematic to simply let them all in, so she tells Faymann that she has to talk with her people and that afterwards, Faymann should then speak with Orbán. Faymann hangs up with the feeling that the German chancellor will help him out.
Merkel starts making calls. She wants to know what her advisors, her government ministers and her coalition partners think. Are there serious objections? What is the legal situation?
8:40 p.m., Budapest, Groupama Aréna
In just a few minutes, German referee Felix Brych will blow the opening whistle. Viktor Orbán is sitting in the VIP box and is able to relax. He has just made a decision that gives him the upper hand, one that will change the entire situation in one go. Its effects will be felt across Europe.
8:40 p.m., Berlin, Hungarian Embassy
A directive for the ambassador arrives from Budapest ordering him to immediately inform the German government of Orbán's decision. Ambassador József Czukor dutifully sits down at his computer and fires off an email to Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier and State Secretary Emily Haber, who is responsible for refugee issues at the German Interior Ministry. Hungary is no longer able to guarantee the registration of refugees, Czukor writes, and is thus planning to bus them to the Hungarian-Austrian border. The total number of refugees, he continues, will be between 4,000 and 6,000 on board around 100 buses. In the mail, Czukor asks for a return phone call, and a few minutes later Altmaier is on the other end of the line.
9 p.m., Budapest, Parliament Building
The Hungarian government's crisis task force instructs the Budapest transport company BKK and the state-owned bus company Volán to immediately make fueled up buses available and to arrange for drivers. Departure: as soon as possible. The Interior Ministry and the national police force, they are told, are in charge of coordination.
Around 9 p.m., Highway M1, Kilometer 27
After almost 32 kilometers on foot, the mood is souring among the refugees who are still making their way down the highway. Women and children are unable to continue and it is getting cold and dark. Then the rain starts. There are arguments and some begin complaining, saying at least it was dry in the train station. Hungarian bloggers accompanying the march send out a call for people to donate camping mats, sleeping bags and creams for aching muscles. Mohammad Zatareih begins looking for a place to camp on the side of the highway that would be difficult for police to surround. The Red Cross is supplying the provisions and there are many volunteers helping out. The situation is precarious, but not at all catastrophic.
9:15 p.m., Budapest, Parliament Building
János Lázár, Viktor Orbán's chief of staff, addresses the press following the meeting of the crisis task force. That same night, he says, buses will head to Keleti station and to the M1 highway to transport the refugees to the town of Hegyeshalom on the Austrian border. It will be up to the Austrian government, he says, to determine whether they will then be allowed to enter Austria. Vienna, he continues, hasn't yet commented on the issue despite numerous attempts by Prime Minister Orbán to reach Austrian Chancellor Faymann. The Hungarian cabinet has even sent a diplomatic cable to Vienna, Lázár says, but "we haven't thus far received a real reply." He adds that Chancellor Faymann has notified Orbán that they can speak on the phone at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Hungary, though, can't wait that long, the chief of staff continues. "The EU and several EU member states are demanding solidarity from us even as they don't exhibit any solidarity with us."
The move is a clever one. On the one hand, it is unquestionably a humanitarian gesture, with Orbán giving the refugees what they want: free passage to the west. The women, children, sick and exhausted will be plucked from the rainy highway and provided shelter. On the other hand, Orbán is shifting the pressure to where he wants it to be — away from himself and toward the Austrians and Germans. Toward Merkel.
Within just a few hours, the time it takes for the refugee-filled buses to reach the Hungarian-Austrian border, Orbán's political adversaries will have to make a momentous decision. Should they continue to insist on the application of European law? If they do, they will have to stop the refugees, a move that will make them seem like cold-hearted hardliners, not unlike Orbán. Or should they accept the refugees? Should they choose that route, Orbán will be rid of them and domestic pressure will rise in both Austria and Germany. It is a win-win situation for the Hungarian prime minister. A short time earlier, Orbán posted "Toi, toi, toi Hungary" on his official Facebook page. The message, of course, was meant for the Hungarian national team ahead of its match with Romania, but other interpretations are possible.
Shortly after 9 p.m., Goslar
Sigmar Gabriel, German vice chancellor and leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel's coalition partner, is with his family in his central German hometown of Goslar when his mobile phone rings. It's the chancellor, asking for Gabriel's endorsement to bring between 7,000 and 8,000 refugees to Germany from the Budapest train station. Foreign Minister Steinmeier, likewise a senior SPD member, has no objections, she continues, adding that she has spoken with him at length and that the Foreign Ministry is looking into the legal situation.
The discussion lasts just five minutes and is more of a briefing than it is a strategy discussion. Gabriel says he sanctions the move as long as it remains an exception, whereupon Merkel assures him that that is her intention as well. They speak of the images from the Budapest train station and about the refugees who are walking to Austria along the highway. Then she hangs up.
Gabriel then immediately calls Steinmeier, who is still in Luxembourg at the meeting of EU foreign ministers. Steinmeier says that Merkel merely informed him briefly and that he can't remember a lengthy discussion. He confirms that the Foreign Ministry is checking into the legal details.
That evening, Steinmeier's legal experts indicate that prevailing European law includes a sovereignty clause allowing EU member states to allow as many refugees into their country as they want.
9:50 p.m., Highway M1, Kilometer 27
The news from Budapest that buses are on their way to drive them to the Austrian border begins circulating among the refugees on the highway. Cheering erupts and Mohammad Zatareih is also excited — but others are skeptical. Can it really be true? Or is it just another trick from the Hungarian government? Everyone here knows about the train that didn't travel to Vienna as promised but was stopped in Bicske instead.
Around 10 p.m., Berlin
Angela Merkel, who herself admits that she can't make decisions until she has thought things through to the end, must act quickly and under significant pressure. Moreover, she doesn't have even the slightest idea about the consequences.
Orbán's announcement is essentially an ultimatum. In just three or four hours, by the time the buses full of refugees arrive at the Hungarian-Austrian border, it must be clear whether they will be allowed to cross into Austria.
The chancellor would rather wait to open the border until the next morning so as to slow things down and have more time to prepare. But Faymann told her on the phone that he can't wait that long, that there are too many people underway. He essentially beseeched Merkel to assent that night.
And what options does she have? Merkel and her people are convinced that the marchers could only be stopped with the help of violence: with water cannons, truncheons and pepper spray. It would be chaotic and the images would be horrific. Merkel is extremely wary of such images and of their political impact, and she is convinced that Germany wouldn't tolerate them. Merkel once said that Germany wouldn't be able to stand the images from the dismal conditions in the refugee camp at Calais for more than three days. But how much more devastating would images be of refugees being beaten as they try to get to Austria or Germany? Images of blood, injuries and perhaps even of deaths.
Who exactly was coming — whether Assad henchmen or Islamic State terrorists were among the new arrivals — none of that played a role in the discussions.
10:15 p.m., Luxembourg, Cercle Cité
The 28 foreign ministers are eating scallops, salmon and char for dinner, accompanied by Pinot Gris from the Mosel region. But the menu is about the only part of the original agenda that has come off as planned. The refugee march has long since become the primary subject of discussion here too and Frank-Walter Steinmeier has left the meeting hall several times in the past several hours to talk on the phone. Now, dessert is being served, but Steinmeier, his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz and the Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó have retired to a separate room, with work still to be done. Together, they have been tasked with formulating a text that will serve as the official announcement of the acceptance of the refugees from Hungary.
After 10 p.m., Berlin
Then, late in the evening, after the chancellor has been on her feet for more than 16 hours, something happens that cannot be precisely reconstructed. The descriptions are simply too divergent.
Undisputed is that Merkel sends Horst Seehofer, governor of Bavaria and head of the CDU's powerful Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), a text message to inform him of her decision. It is also clear that Seehofer does not reply. The CSU boss is at his holiday home in Schamhaupten, 35 kilometers northeast of Ingolstadt, and he will later say that he had already shut off his mobile phone, as he always does when on holiday.
Merkel then asks Altmaier, who is already in Evian, to inform Seehofer by way of his office manager Karolina Gernbauer, head of the Bavarian state chancellery. She too tries to reach Seehofer, but is unable.
The result is that the path to Bavaria is opened for thousands of refugees without the chancellor having exchanged even a single word with the Bavarian governor.
The chancellor, Merkel's people will later say, did all she could to reach Seehofer. They would also say that there were more important things to do that evening that to speak with Seehofer. His input was not important for the decision-making process, they would say, he was merely to be informed, just as Gabriel was. And perhaps, they would intimate, Seehofer knew that he wouldn't have been able to change anything and thus preferred not to answer.
Seehofer, though, insists that if Berlin had really wanted to reach him, they could have sent the police to his house — and if Karolina Gernbauer had known how urgent the situation was, she wouldn't have hesitated for even a moment in calling the Schamhaupten police. That method, after all, has been used to reach politicians in urgent situations before, such as when Thomas de Maizière, who was hiking in a forest near Dresden, needed to be reached so he could replace a seriously ill Wolfgang Schäuble at an important euro crisis meeting in Brussels.
Who informed whom and when — or not — would not be particularly important if Merkel and Seehofer had any trust in each other on this issue. If that were the case, a communication problem like this one could be solved within the space of two sentences. But the two are not on the same page on the refugee issue and their conflict has only worsened in the last several weeks. As such, the lack of communication that evening will become politically meaningful.
After 11 p.m., Vienna
Faymann reaches Orbán. He informs the Hungarian prime minister that the refugees will be allowed to enter Austria.
Helplessness: Austrian Lieutenant Manfred Schreiner can hardly believe his eyes.
12:01 a.m., Budapest, Keleti Station
A bus slowly drives up to the forecourt in front of Keleti train station in Budapest. There is no destination listed on its display panel. It only reads "Special."
Shortly after Midnight, Nickelsdorf
The command center in Vienna contacts Lieutenant Schreiner to inform him that a large number of refugees are approaching Austrian territory and are heading for the Nickelsdorf border crossing. Schreiner and his people are to prepare for the arrival of 60 buses. The refugees, he is told, will be picked up by Austrian buses after they cross the border. There is no further information, he is told, and there will be no back-ups sent.
Shortly after Midnight, Berlin
The joint statement from the three foreign ministers is finished. Merkel and Faymann have already decided that the Austrian chancellor should be the first to announce the news due to his greater proximity to the situation. The message is also to be sent out via Facebook so that those marching along the highway can also read it. That, too, was discussed. The only thing left to complete is the press statement, the final wording of which is still being hammered out by Merkel's deputy government spokesman Georg Streiter and the Hungarian ambassador. The ambassador insists that, instead of a "humanitarian emergency," the statement should only mention an "emergency." He doesn't want to give the impression that Hungary is unable to provide food and shelter for the refugees. The word "humanitarian" is deleted.
12:17 a.m., Vienna
The Austrian news agency APA reports: "Refugees traveling through Hungary will be allowed to continue their journeys to Austria and Germany, according to a statement delivered by Chancellor Werner Faymann on Friday evening following a conversation with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The decision was made 'due to the current emergency situation on the Hungarian border,' the Chancellery said." If one reads the entire press statement, one thing becomes clear: Merkel and Faymann publicly insist that Hungary will soon continue to register and provide for all refugees and keep them away from the rest of Europe.
That, though, would soon prove to be inaccurate.
12:30 a.m., Highway M1, Near Budapest
The refugees led by Mohammad Zatareih are camping not far from the highway. It has become extremely cold and very few are able to sleep. Suddenly, four buses drive up, their displays also reading "Special," and the refugees jump up, excited and confused. Many are skeptical: Is it a trap? Zatareih asks several journalists to accompany him to talk to the bus drivers, who confirm that they've been ordered to drive the refugees to the border. After a brief back-and-forth, the refuges decide to send one bus ahead along with a handful of journalists. As soon as it reaches the border, those inside are to call the others. At that moment, Ahmed appears. He is extremely skeptical and begins arguing with Zatareih. It is the most critical moment of the march.
For a brief moment, everything depends on these two: the fate of the march; Orbán's clever maneuver; perhaps even Merkel's refugee policies. Had Ahmed got his way, had the refugees not boarded the buses, who knows how the night would have ended?
But Mohammad Zatareih gets the upper hand. The first bus is sent ahead.
12:39 a.m., Budapest, Keleti Station
Additional buses drive up to Keleti train station in Budapest and the refugees begin celebrating. With smiles on their faces, people who have been stuck at the station for days climb aboard the buses for the westward journey. The head of the Budapest chapter of the Catholic aid organization Malteser shouts to the refugees: "The government has guaranteed transportation to Hegyeshalom. It's not a trick. You won't be taken to camps." Exactly how many refugees make the trip that night is unclear. No count is made and no lists are kept.
1 a.m., Vienna, Grillgasse 48, ÖBB Headquarters
The headquarters of the Austrian national railway (ÖBB) can be found in the tallest building at Vienna's central train station — a 24-floor office tower with a curved glass facade. From his office, ÖBB CEO Christian Kern looks down on the lights of the city. From here to the city's Westbahnhof train station, it is about four kilometers as the crow flies. Kern doesn't yet know that the events of this night will soon land him a new job, that in eight months he will become the chancellor of Austria. All he knows is that he has to help his people get the refugees streaming toward the Austrian border into trains.
It is a decision made in mere minutes, there is no overarching plan. ÖBB decides to send buses to the Nickelsdorf border crossing to transport the refugees to the Westbahnhof station in Vienna. From there, the journey for some of the refugees will continue by train — to Salzburg and then on to Munich. To Germany.
Kern speaks with Rüdiger Grube, head of German rail, by phone.
2:56 a.m., Highway M1
Finally, a phone call from the first bus that was sent ahead reaches the refugees waiting on the highway. The conversation is broadcast to the group by way of a police car loudspeaker.
"Where are you?"
"Just in front of the Austrian border!"
The refugees erupt in cheers and tears flow as they rush to board the buses. Mohammad Zatareih searches through the bushes on the side of the road to make sure that nobody sleeps through the departure.
A Hungarian aid worker climbs into each of the buses and tells the occupants: "Ladies and gentlemen, sorry for the inconveniences in Hungary. Now, we wish you a pleasant journey to Austria. See you soon in Germany." There is more cheering and the buses depart.
Shortly before 4 a.m., Nickelsdorf Border Crossing
The first refugee buses reach the Austrian border. Those inside must disembark on Hungarian territory before crossing the border on foot. It's raining. Lieutenant Manfred Schreiner thinks to himself: "It's like a scene from a bad movie." He feels sympathy with the refugees and finds himself thinking of his own children. The people getting off the buses are exhausted, almost to the point of apathy and many of them are wearing only flip-flops. They are cold and hungry. Some of them raise their middle fingers and yell "Fuck Hungary!" upon leaving their bus.
Around 4 a.m., Vienna
Faymann speaks with Merkel on the phone again. More refugees have arrived than expected and he is worried about being left in the lurch — he is afraid that Germany might close its borders after all. Merkel reassures Faymann, saying she still intends to take in the refugees. After speaking with Merkel, Faymann tries to reach Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, but he has switched off his mobile phone for the night.
Around 4 a.m., Munich, DB Operations Center
At the German rail operations center in Munich, employees sit in front of large monitors, overhead lights dimmed so they can better see the lines and numbers displayed on the screens. Each line represents one kilometer of track and each number stands for a train. German rail's track network in southern Germany is monitored from here, a total of 5,900 kilometers of track and around 11,000 trains per day. Now, though, the focus is on trains that aren't part of the normal schedule, special trains for refugees. Urgent phone calls are being made to train drivers and conductors, awakening them from their sleep.
5 a.m., Nickelsdorf Border Crossing
As the morning sky slowly changes from black to gray, more and more refugees are arriving at the border crossing. It is only with some effort that Schreiner's officers are able to keep newcomers off of the highway, with some of them wanting to immediately resume their march toward Vienna. Young men continually try to force their way to the front, shoving aside children and the elderly. It's like on a sinking ship, Schreiner thinks to himself, with some people caring only about themselves. There is no time for passport controls or any kind of registration: The police officers simply wave the new arrivals through, focusing primarily on preventing accidents and fights.
At daybreak, reinforcements finally arrive from the surrounding state of Burgenland and from Vienna, 70 kilometers away. The parking lot at the border slowly fills with aid workers and a caravan of Austrian buses stands at the ready to shuttle the refugees onward. None of them want to remain in Nickelsdorf. Indeed, some of them don't even know what Austria is. They simply chant: "Germany!"
And the stream of refugees refuses to abate. Schreiner regularly heads upstairs to the police station meeting room with its expansive view of the border — and it never seems to change: No matter when he looks out the window, the truck lane is jammed with people. At some point, he begins to realize that he is witnessing an historic moment.
7 a.m., Munich, Youth Welfare Office
As they have been doing every day in recent weeks, the city of Munich's crisis task force meets at the Youth Welfare Office, located just a few steps away from the city's central train station. The meeting is led by Christoph Hillenbrand, head of government for the Oberbayern region of Bavaria. Two dozen people are gathered in the room, including city representatives, police officers and volunteer aid workers. The city's mayor, Dieter Reiter of the SPD, is also there. The fact that thousands of refugees are on their way to Munich is merely a rumor at this point in time, with Berlin not yet having officially informed the city. "I heard that the chancellor decided to open the borders," says one government official. That's it. What that means exactly and how many refugees Munich should be expecting remains unclear. The only certainty is that those involved will have a lot of work to do. "I only sleep three hours a day," says Christoph Hillenbrand. "And I expect the same from you."
8:30 a.m., Schamhaupten near Ingolstadt
Horst Seehofer calls the chancellor. He says he has only just now realized that Merkel tried to reach him the previous evening. The chancellor informs him that she, in consultation with Faymann, has decided to allow the refugees from Hungary to come to Germany. She then says something that she will repeat often from this moment onwards: This decision was a humanitarian exception. She says she was afraid the Hungarian police, and possibly even the Hungarian military, might take action against the refugees.
"Angela, that's going to be problematic – we won't be able to put the lid back on the bottle," Seehofer answers. Both speak in a businesslike tone and they don't argue. Merkel says she is saddened by Seehofer's position, but says nothing more. The chancellor is merely conveying her decision; she is no longer willing to discuss it.
This is the point at which the rupture between the CDU and the CSU and the quarrel between Merkel and Seehofer becomes irreversible. It's the first collateral damage caused by the refugee decision, but more will follow.
Shortly after 8 a.m., Luxembourg
Frank-Walter Steinmeier conducts a conference call with his advisors in the Foreign Ministry. There's only one issue up for discussion: the decision made the previous night, which Steinmeier supported. His staff is skeptical. They're familiar with internal reports from German embassies in the Middle East and Central Asia and suspect that the decision will generate enormous hopes among the people there. They are convinced that even people more will set off for Germany.
8:45 a.m., Munich, DB Operations Center
It still isn't clear just how many refugees will be arriving in Munich, but no matter how many ultimately show up, they will require onward transportation. "We are still waiting for further information from ÖBB," Deutsche Bahn's crisis team writes in an email to management. "Receiving several thousand refugees on a single day will be challenging. Please note that it is not possible to embark to many reception centers from Munich after 4 p.m. It's likely that many refugees will have to spend the night inside the Munich train station and will only be able to continue their onward journeys early tomorrow morning."
9 a.m., Evian
From Lake Geneva, Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, sets up a conference call with the heads of the state chancelleries in Germany's 16 states. He informs them of the chancellor's decision the previous night and requests their assistance in providing accommodations for the refugees. Some call participants feel steamrolled and react with annoyance. One asks: How many refugees should we be expecting? But nobody knows. During the night, Merkel spoke of 7,000 people. But what if there are 15,000, another asks? No one has an answer. No preparations have been made and there is no past experience to learn from. No one has ever been part of something like this before.
9:33 a.m., Munich, DB Operations Center
"Just a short note: This is happening faster than expected," the crisis team writes to management. "We will be assuming control of a special ÖBB train carrying refugees at Salzburg at 11 a.m. It will continue without stopping to Munich and will arrive there at a partitioned area of the train station. Vouchers will be issued there for further travel with regularly scheduled train service."
10 a.m., Paris, Élysée Palace
The phone rings inside the office of Philippe Léglise-Costa, European affairs advisor to French President François Hollande. Uwe Corsepius, his counterpart in Angela Merkel's Chancellery, is on the line. Corsepius describes the events of the previous night to the Frenchman and also passes on a request from the chancellor to Hollande: Could France take in 1,000 of the refugees now coming from Hungary?
10:30 a.m., Munich, DB Operations Center
More trains are needed and more staff. The trains in regular service between Austria and Germany are overflowing with passengers and additional special trains need to be brought in. Food for the refugees also must be arranged – a lot of food. Since early in the morning, employees here have been bringing out everything the railway has in its storage facilities. At first, refugees were provided with ham sandwiches, but now, only turkey breast sandwiches are being loaded onto the trains. The most important thing, though, is that the trains keep running.
"We are expecting 3,000 to 5,000 refugees today," the crisis team mails DB management. "If necessary, and if it makes sense, we will operate a small number of special trains at night in coordination with the Federal Police."
11:16 a.m., Hegyeshalom Border Crossing
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltán Kovács makes an announcement at the Hegyeshalom border crossing. "Hungary will not organize any additional bus transports of refugees to the Austrian border." But it no longer matters much if Hungary organizes buses or not. The refugees have begun doing the organizing themselves.
11:21 a.m., Vienna
Austrian news agency APA quotes Christian Hafenecker, a member of parliament with the right-wing populist FPÖ, as saying: "There are thousands of people currently in our country of whom we know neither who they are, where they come from nor the reason they are fleeing. At the same time, the terror militia Islamic State has repeatedly threatened to smuggle fighters into Europe among the mass of refugees."
11:40 a.m., Vienna, Westbahnhof Train Station
The crisis team at the Austrian national railway sends a mail to their German colleagues. "Currently, unmanageable streams of travelers are being reported at Vienna's Central and Westbahnhof stations. The situation is being exacerbated by buses that are bringing large numbers of travelers directly to Westbahnhof. At Central Station, private vehicles are arriving with refugees."
Indeed, it's not only those refugees who were picked up directly at the border by Austria's national railway who are disembarking at Westbahnhof station. Hundreds of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Somalis are also arriving in the cars of private helpers. Streams of people are arriving at the train station from all over and they all want to board trains to Germany. Later, Berlin will speculate that Austria tried to move its own refugees to Germany that night.
12:30 p.m., Paris, Élysée Palace
As on every Saturday, the French president receives his most important advisors for lunch. Léglise-Costa presents the chancellor's request. Hollande doesn't hesitate for even a second, but the president also says: Ultimately, only a joint Europe solution can be successful. Given that such a European solution is utopian, as Hollande well knows, the comment effectively means that France will show nothing more than symbolic support for Merkel. It will also be the only help that Merkel receives from any of her European partners. She spends the entire day making calls to European leaders from her home and receives one rejection after the other.
12:55 p.m., Munich, DB Operations Center
"Situation is escalating," the Deutsche Bahn crisis team writes in a mail to management. "We are currently trying to find out if a second special train is heading straight to Munich or whether we will take over operation directly in Salzburg. It is likely we will have to switch out the train in Munich for safety reasons."
Around 1 p.m., Munich, Central Station
The first 400 refugees from Hungary arrive at Munich's Central Station. They are led through crowd barriers to the collection point where helpers provide them with water, snacks and stuffed animals for the children. Curious onlookers gather at the crowd barriers and a few begin to clap – hesitantly at first, but then more intensely. One onlooker begins singing the German national anthem. The refugees look puzzled at first, but soon the first ones begin smiling and waving back as the clapping and cheering grows even louder.
2:30 p.m., Highway between Evian and Geneva
Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier is heading back from Evian to Berlin. On the way, he calls Merkel. Both agree that a short television statement needs to be made but the chancellor doesn't want to speak herself. An appearance by Merkel from the Chancellery is briefly considered, similar to a statement delivered during the height of the euro crisis together with then-Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück to ensure Germans that their money was safe. But the idea is quickly discarded. Too dramatic. Instead Merkel prefers to have one of her people make the statement. With de Maizière still sick at home, the job is left to Altmaier. The two agree on the content of the statement.
The emphasis should be on the word "exception." "Exception" is the word that will be repeated over and over again: in government press releases, in information provided by Merkel's spokesman Seibert and in statements made by Altmaier. It's the word that everyone now clings to. Later, sources in the Chancellery will say that the use of the term "exception" was "deliberately vague."
One term, however, is studiously avoided. That term is "one-time only." No one ever says that it is a one-time only rescue operation. The nice thing about the word "exception," though, is that it sounds a bit like "one-time only." Exceptions are rare. They don't happen that often and they disappear again soon. That is what makes the word so attractive at this moment.
And the word "exception" is also not inaccurate. It's not a lie. Because it allows one to legally argue that the registration of refugees in their first country of entry remains the rule and that Germany's acceptance of refugees from Hungary was merely an exception. The problem is: What exactly is an exception when the rule no longer applies?
3 p.m., Geneva Airport
German public broadcaster ARD dispatches a team from its Geneva bureau to record a statement by Altmaier for its primetime evening news program. He says the German government is in talks with Hungary and the EU "to ensure that this event doesn't repeat itself daily."
4 p.m., Munich, Central Station
Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter is standing in the train station's hall, a poster hanging behind him with hand painted letters reading, "Welcome to Munich." Reiter is still confident that his city can handle the challenge. "We have sufficient hall capacity, we have support and we have an incredible number of volunteer helpers," Reiter says to the television cameras. After the interview, he goes over to the train platform and a young man approaches.
"Hello, how are you?" Reiter asks. "Hello, how are you?" the young man answers. Then Reiter says to the journalists gathered around, "When you see the happy faces, you know that we're doing the right thing."
Around 6 p.m., Berlin
Merkel telephones with Orbán for the first time since making her decision to take in the refugees. The conversation doesn't last long, nor is it acrimonious. Both agree that the operation from the night before should remain an exception. The two don't have much more to say to each other.
6 p.m., Munich
Horst Seehofer holds a conference call with the executive committee of his CSU party. There is only one issue to discuss: the chancellor's decision. The CSU's position is clear: The decision was wrong. Several members of the committee warn of an additional "magnetic effect."
6:14 p.m., Munich, DB Operations Center
"Currently, the situation at the Munich train station remains manageable," the Deutsche Bahn crisis team writes to management, "but several more trains are approaching. We will operate special trains from Munich at night in coordination with the authorities."
8:20 p.m., Berlin, Tegel Airport
When Peter Altmaier lands, a broadcasting van is waiting so he can take part remotely in a refugee special being broadcast live on ARD. Twenty hours after the decision, he becomes the first member of Merkel's cabinet to face questions about the acceptance of refugees from Hungary.
Altmaier says something he will repeat over and over again. "Where there is suffering, help must be provided." The situation, he insists, "was an exception."
Program host Stefan Scheider asks: "Mr. Altmaier, what happens if the suffering continues tomorrow?"
Altmaier offers a vague answer. He says Germany has already taken in many refugees and it will take in more refugees. The country's welcoming culture, he says, is significant.
Losing control: Mohammad Zatareih arrives in Munich, his destination.
7 a.m., Munich, Youth Welfare Office
It's the first meeting of the crisis task force. The previous day's count: 6,780 refugees arrived at Munich's Central Station on Saturday alone. All need to be given medical check-ups; some even have bullet wounds. Several refugees, though, are simply going underground and trying to make their way on their own. An orderly registration of the refugees is no longer taking place. Nobody knows how many will arrive today. The Federal Police isn't providing any reliable figures and no information is coming from the federal government. "Does Berlin even exist?" one high-level city official asks the group.
The front page of the tabloid Bild am Sonntag this morning reads: "You can come to us – Merkel ends the Budapest disgrace."
12 p.m., Munich, Central Station
Mayor Reiter holds a press conference. More and more trains are arriving at Munich's Central Station carrying refugees. "The unlimited solidarity of every German state is necessary," Reiter says. "I expect this support." When asked if Munich has "reached its limit," he answers: "Last week, we thought that 3,000 people would be more than we could handle, but now, close to 10,000 people arrived on a single day. So we shouldn't busy ourselves with the numbers but instead focus on the question as to how we can best distribute the people across all of Germany."
2:55 p.m., Rott am Inn, Upper Bavaria
The CSU celebrates a memorial service at the parish church commemorating the 100th birthday of former party leader Franz Josef Strauß, who died in 1988. There's much anointing, much folklore and a lot of Bavarian culture. At the subsequent reception, Horst Seehofer is entirely unsentimental. He says that Merkel's decision on Friday night "sent entirely the wrong message." He then rants: "My friends, with 28 European Union member states, we cannot permanently take in almost all refugees from all countries in this world. No society can sustain that over the long term."
5:30 p.m., Berlin, Chancellery
Chancellery head Altmaier stands in front of a camera crew from Germany's second public broadcaster, ZDF, to record an interview that will be broadcast at 7:10 p.m. Once again, Altmaier speaks of Germany's "humanitarian obligation," of the "great suffering" of the refugees in Hungary and of compliance with European law.
The interviewer probes deeper. "The decision taken over the weekend is supposed to be an emergency exception," she says. "But for the thousands who are now in Hungary, their situation is also an emergency. Can, indeed must, additional exceptions be made?"
Altmaier answers that the emergency was a function of the Hungarian government losing control and that thousands of refugees had begun making their way on their own, walking along train tracks and highways.
The journalist remains persistent, saying that Altmaier hasn't answered her question.
"Could there be another exception?"
Altmaier is evasive. "There's little sense in speculating."
A senior official in the Chancellery will later say that the word "exception" also had a "self-reassuring" effect.
7 p.m., Berlin, Chancellery
On the eighth floor of the Chancellery, one floor above Merkel's office, the most important politicians in the coalition government convene. The meeting of the Coalition Committee has long been on the agenda and was initially called to address the technical administrative questions pertaining to the handling of the refugee crisis. How much additional money will be provided by the federal government? How can sufficient accommodations be provided for the refugees? They also want to make preparations for a summit between the federal and state governments, scheduled to take place on September 24.
As the session begins, Seehofer requests the floor and says: I had an exchange with the chancellor prior to this meeting. I am of the opinion that the Hungary decision was a mistake. But the chancellor and I are in agreement that it should remain an exception.
Yes, Altmaier agrees, it is an exception. But, he adds, it is perhaps necessary to more precisely define what constitutes an exception.
It is not clear to any of the meeting participants that between 6,000 and 8,000 refugees will be arriving each day from now on. Merkel is depending on the EU to soon create so-called Hotspots – EU-operated camps established in Italy, Greece and Hungary, where incoming refugees will initially be housed. "Most importantly, we also need solidarity within Europe and a common European Union asylum and refugee policy," read the minutes of the Coalition Committee meeting, which have been obtained by DIE ZEIT.
The potential reintroduction of border controls isn't on the agenda. Merkel is depending on cooperation from Germany's EU partners – cooperation that has long been missing on the refugee issue, and which will never materialize.
7:30 p.m., Vienna
Wearing a dark blue suit and a bronze-colored tie, Viktor Orbán appears on Austria's main news program on public broadcaster ORF to share his version of the weekend's events. The same Orbán who essentially forced Merkel and Faymann to open the borders on Friday night is now saying: Austria and Germany must close their borders. Both countries, he says, should "clearly state" that no further refugees will be taken in, because otherwise "several million" people will come to Europe.
Around 10 p.m., Munich, Youth Welfare Office
The day's count: On Sunday, close to 11,000 refugees arrived at Central Station for a weekend total of 17,500. The prevailing concern among those at the meeting is that such numbers will only be sustainable for a few days. Still, trains carrying several thousand people were transferred to other German states that Sunday. How things might continue tomorrow or the next day is entirely unclear. The Munich crisis task force still isn't getting any information from higher up. To stay as well-informed as possible, they are collecting snippets of news from the media and social networks.
Mohammad Zatareih, leader of the highway march, is among the refugees arriving in Munich on September 5. He will remain in Munich until the end of the month before traveling on to Zwickau in the eastern state of Saxony, where he lives today.
What happens next
On the evening of September 6, following an historical weekend, the Austrian Interior Ministry announces that around 15,000 people have crossed the Hungarian border into Austria. Officials say that the majority have continued onward to Germany and that only 90 refugees have applied for asylum in Austria.
What was initially conceived as emergency aid for a few has instead become a mass event.
In Munich alone, several thousand refugees are arriving each day. The following weekend, one week after Merkel's decision, around 20,000 new arrivals would be counted at Munich's Central Station. In response, the federal government spends several hours considering the closure of the border, with the Federal Police going so far as to prepare the necessary deployment order. This could very well have been the last possible moment to place Seehofer's "lid" back on the bottle. No one knows, though, how long the Federal Police would have succeeded in sustaining the border closure. Ultimately, they aren't put to that test because Merkel decides against it, instead leaving the border open. Controls, however, are introduced.
In the following weeks, tens of thousands enter Germany, mostly uncontrolled and unregistered. The state de facto loses control. Precisely the thing the German government had constantly demanded from Hungary – the orderly registration of all immigrants – now collapsed here in Germany as well. It was only in December, as the Chancellery admits today, that the state regained control of the situation.
The German right-wing populist party AfD, which had been on its political deathbed in the summer, would find enormous support. Furthermore, the distrust many Germans have of institutions would grow and Merkel's poll numbers would plummet. On New Year's Eve, women in several Germany cities are sexually harassed by immigrants and asylum-seekers, and in Ansbach and Würzburg, refugees commit two Islamist-motivated attacks in the summer of 2016.
At the same time, an unprecedented number of people across the country provide a helping hand. Tens of thousands of volunteers get involved, assisting with the distribution of donations and food. They provide language lessons – and countless families take in refugees, providing them with private accommodations.
On September 15, Viktor Orbán will announce the closure of his country's southern border. At the beginning of November, Sweden reintroduces border controls in response to the refugee crisis because the "record number" of refugees arriving presents a "threat to public order." At the end of January 2016, Austria decides on an "upper ceiling" to the number of refugees the country will accept each year, which is tantamount to ending its policy of taking them in. On May 9, 2016, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann announces his resignation.
So did Merkel make a mistake by allowing the refugees in Hungary to come to Germany?
If you ask officials, managers and politicians who were involved that weekend on the streets, at the train stations and in the action teams, the answer is almost always "no."
Looking back, Munich Mayor Reiter, for example, says: "Considering the images from the Budapest train station, I would have decided at that moment exactly as Chancellor Merkel did. I still believe she made the right decision based on circumstances at the time. I also don't believe that any of Merkel's messages or her friendly selfies initially encouraged many refugees to come. I can't imagine that."
Meanwhile, Christian Kern, who played a decisive role in the crisis as head of Austrian national railway ÖBB and has since become Austria's chancellor, told ZEIT in an interview: "It all happened very spontaneously – there was nothing about it that was precisely planned. We had to decide within minutes: We're going to provide buses and special trains now. There were two elements to the decision: On the one hand was the humanitarian act. On the other, we had extremely pragmatic concerns: The people would have walked in along the tracks anyway."
All the same, there is no question that mistakes were made. But almost everyone you talk to has a different mistake to talk about.
Merkel's mistake, says one top German politician, was her constant focus on a common European solution to the refugee issue, because it had already become clear, long before the Hungary decision, that her European counterparts weren't interested.
"Our mistake," says a top Hungarian diplomat, "was not that we built the fence. Our mistake was that we took so long to start construction."
One member of Merkel's cabinet says that Orbán's mistake was not that he built a fence. His mistake was making such a big deal of it. "There are also fences elsewhere in Europe – in Spain, between Bulgaria and Turkey, between Greece and Turkey. They don't bother anybody."
The reporting conducted by ZEIT and ZEIT ONLINE shows that the historic decision made by Merkel was not based on some spontaneous humanitarian impulse, emotional affect or sense of moral self-exaltation. Merkel had to make the decision under considerable pressure, within barely three hours, after Viktor Orbán succeeded in creating a situation for which there was practically no alternative.
It's possible that historians will establish one day that this dramatic situation only became possible because communication had broken down in the European Union, because Brussels, Berlin and Budapest were all blaming each other rather than showing solidarity, because everyone was insisting they were right even as public order was collapsing.
One thing, however, can be said with a reasonable degree of certainty: If the refugees had not decided on the morning of September 4 to start marching on foot from Budapest's Keleti station to Vienna, European history that weekend would have turned out differently.
Translated by Daryl Lindsey and Charles Hawley