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A helper speaks with a Syrian girl at a collection centre for donations for refugees in Munich.CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP / Getty Images

Last Thursday morning, Peter Huth was driving to work from his home south of Berlin and listening to the radio when he had an idea. The hundreds of refugees arriving daily in the city didn't need only food and shelter, he thought, they also needed information – and he knew how to get it to them.

The result was something unprecedented: a four-page supplement written entirely in Arabic and published on Wednesday in two major German tabloids, Bild and B.Z. It featured a map of Berlin, a message from the mayor, and a host of helpful numbers and addresses. On its front page, B.Z. urged readers to pass along their copy of the newspaper to a refugee after reading it.

"Once Germans start to do something, they really do it," Mr. Huth, who is the editor-in-chief of B.Z., said. "Once you cross the line, it becomes a flood."

As a stream of migrants and refugees heads north toward Germany, the new arrivals here have encountered something remarkable: an outpouring of support from individuals, political leaders, companies and even soccer clubs.

Germany is not only receiving the largest number of asylum seekers in the European Union – it expects 800,000 this year – but it is somehow, for now at least, managing to welcome them.

The goodwill is the product of several intertwining factors, including a sense of historical guilt, a humanitarian desire to help and an effort to reject recent acts of xenophobia. Underlying those principles is also a dose of pragmatism: Germany's population is shrinking and it needs new workers to power its economy in the future.

The impulse to assist has been reinforced by messages from political leaders, in particular by Chancellor Angela Merkel. The way citizens have welcomed refugees shows "a picture of Germany that can make us rather proud of our land," she said this week.

When a questioner at a town hall meeting expressed concern about the number of Muslim refugees entering the country, Ms. Merkel was blunt. "Fear is never a good adviser," she responded. In separate and earlier remarks, Ms. Merkel noted the new arrivals mean "the world sees Germany as a country of hope and opportunity, [which] was not always the case."

Indeed, Germany's latest incarnation is an abrupt change in roles. Just two months ago, the country was cast as a harsh and unbending scold in the showdown over Greece's finances. And for decades, it has tried to overcome the legacy of the Holocaust and its responsibility for the Second World War. Now, the country that many once sought to flee is a longed-for destination: When thousands of migrants and refugees were stranded in Budapest last week, "Germany! Germany!" became a rally cry. Today's refugees see Germany as a stable and peaceful place with a strong economy where they have a chance to rebuild their lives.

Ms. Merkel "has shown remarkable leadership and moral courage," said Alexander Betts, an expert on refugees and forced migration at Oxford University. The Chancellor's repeated message that Germany is in a position to cope with the influx and will rise to this new challenge is an almost unprecedented position for a European politician to adopt, he added.

So far Germans are backing Ms. Merkel's approach. In a poll conducted on behalf of a public broadcaster and released on Friday, 61 per cent of those surveyed said they weren't worried by the rising number of refugees entering the country. Only 2 per cent said the influx was having a direct impact on their daily lives.

"There is no way out; these people are here," said Anja Berkes, a research co-ordinator in Berlin who began volunteering with refugees for the first time in August. "Germany cannot act differently. Anything else would damage everything the country has built in terms of trust, reliability and security."

For much of last month during her vacation time, Ms. Berkes worked a shift every two days at an emergency shelter for refugees in Berlin's Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district. The building is a fitting metaphor for the distance Germany has travelled: A Nazi-era structure, it now acts as temporary housing for more than 600 people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. For Ms. Berkes, her motivation was simple. "They needed help," she said. "It could have been me or my child sitting there in the heat, in a foreign country, having nothing at all."

Some of the German generosity is a reaction to events that unfolded earlier in the summer. At that time, each passing day seemed to bring news of a fresh arson attack on a planned home for asylum seekers; for two nights, clashes unfolded between police and right-wing protesters as refugees arrived at a shelter in the town of Heidenau in eastern Germany. The violence points to the presence of a small minority that remains vehemently opposed to the arrival of refugees and migrants.

"A lot of the generosity is as much a response to Heidenau and to expressions of racism and xenophobia in Germany itself as it is to what is going on in Syria," said Hans Kundnani, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Berlin think tank. There's a broad desire to repudiate what happened in Heidenau and show the world it doesn't represent Germany, he added.

From a practical standpoint, Germany has other reasons to welcome the new arrivals. The country's population is forecast to shrink by 20 per cent within 50 years; one demographer likened Germany to a boat in which the number of rowers is shrinking while the number of older passengers is increasing. The current influx of migrants and refugees could help to mitigate that trend.

Pitfalls abound. In a debate in parliament this week, Ms. Merkel warned that the country must learn from the mistakes it made in previous migration waves. There must be a rapid and full-fledged effort to integrate newcomers into German life, she said, and those asylum seekers who are allowed to stay must adhere to German norms, rather than building "parallel societies." At the same time, she added, there will be "zero tolerance" for rabble-rousing or xenophobic acts.

Few expect the effusive welcome on display in recent days to continue. But they expect the country will get to work on the task at hand. After all, this is not the first time Germany has absorbed large numbers of refugees, from the millions of ethnic Germans displaced after the Second World War to those fleeing the war in the former Yugoslavia or life behind the Iron Curtain.

Mr. Huth, the newspaper editor, says he spoke recently with his mother and she said some of the worries being expressed now are exactly the same as after the Second World War when ethnic Germans arrived – questions about where the newcomers will live, and how much will have to be shared with them.

For his part, Mr. Huth believes the new arrivals are bound to change the country in unexpected ways. Germany isn't on its way to becoming an Islamic republic, despite whatever right-wing fear-mongers may claim, he said. "But it won't stay exactly as it is, either."

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