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On a recent afternoon, the towering façade of Berlin's disused Tempelhof airport sat still and silent as if awaiting its next transformation. The walls of sand-coloured stone, austere and intimidating, are a reminder of the terminal's original purpose as a Nazi showpiece, the Third Reich's gateway to the world.

The airport had other incarnations, too – as a lifeline during the Berlin Airlift and a point of departure for East Germans fleeing to the West. Now its cavernous hangars are about to serve a brand-new purpose: as temporary quarters for more than 1,000 refugees running from conflict and persecution in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

The changing faces of Tempelhof are a reflection of Germany's own improbable journey. On Saturday, the country marks the 25th anniversary of its reunification in 1990. Perhaps no change in that time is more unexpected than the one which has unfolded over the past few months, when Germany has emerged as a moral leader on the issue of refugees.

This is not the united Germany that some feared a quarter-century ago, a country that would try to dominate Europe by force. Indeed, among some odds makers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now being tipped as a future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Germany is expecting 800,000 asylum seekers this year, a figure equivalent to 1 per cent of its population, and it's not certain whether the open attitude toward refugees will persist. The effusive public welcome – dubbed the "September fairy tale" by the media, with Germans applauding and bearing flowers at train stations – has subsided. A new poll released Friday showed that Ms. Merkel has paid a political price for her decisive stand, with her approval rating falling to 54 per cent, its lowest point in four years.

What is clear is that the refugee crisis represents Germany's biggest domestic challenge since reunification. The ramifications are enormous, not just for the country itself but also for Europe. The coming two years – ahead of Germany's next federal elections – will be critical in shaping the next two decades, said Daniela Schwarzer of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Berlin think tank.

One path leads to a stable political landscape, as new arrivals are gradually incorporated into the broader society and Germany remains committed to deepening ties within Europe. That outcome is far from guaranteed. A different scenario might include social unrest in Germany and the rise of new, populist parties which tug German politics to the right and spur hostility to the European project.

With Germany's economy in good shape and public opinion backing the government, "the conditions are in place that it can work," said Ms. Schwarzer. "But the challenges to getting it right are pretty high," she added. "If this goes wrong, the [European Union] will struggle with the consequences for a long time."

The nearest parallel to Germany's present challenge occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the country. At first, there was jubilation. But within two years, the public mood soured as asylum seekers from countries previously behind the Iron Curtain and those fleeing violence in the former Yugoslavia poured into a newly reunited Germany.

In the summer of 1992, Germany experienced an ugly and infamous outbreak of anti-foreigner violence in the northern city of Rostock. Hundreds of right-wing extremists attacked a shelter for refugees with stones and homemade fire bombs for three days. Thousands of onlookers watched and cheered.

At the end of that year, German lawmakers from all the major political parties approved a change to the country's constitution, known as the Basic Law, placing restrictions on the right to claim protection as an asylum seeker.

Since then, the attitude of the German public has changed dramatically. Polls show a majority of Germans believe they should help refugees with their own time and money. "There has never been such an amount of support and help for people [Germans] don't know, in the history of Germany," said Hajo Funke, an expert on right-wing extremism, in an interview in August.

Some of that attitude can be traced to the unusual conditions during Ms. Merkel's decade-long tenure as chancellor. The economy is strong, unemployment is low and Germans appear remarkably satisfied with their government and way of life. One recent survey by the Allensbach Institute asked Germans between the ages of 30 and 59 how they would describe their quality of life and 91 per cent said "good" or "very good." Ms. Merkel has also consistently praised the benefits of immigration and diversity, unlike some of her predecessors from Germany's centre-right party.

Beyond the desire to help those in need is also the echo of history, particularly for older Germans. Thomas Walther, a lawyer who lives in Bavaria, was born during the final years of the Second World War. His generation helped push Germany to confront its Nazi past and also spent much of their lives in a divided country. Since retiring as a judge in 2006, Mr. Walther has played a critical role in bringing surviving Nazi criminals to trial.

For Mr. Walther, the current photos of boats crossing the Mediterranean recall the ships of Jewish refugees vainly seeking safety in the 1930s; the photos of joyful arrivals at Munich's train station last month recall the East Germans who streamed into the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The way Germany has reacted to the crisis "is not a German response, but the response is part of humanity," he said. "We have to be human."

Much now depends on whether voters believe that the German government has the situation under some kind of control, and whether the authorities will be overwhelmed by the practical challenges of housing and integrating refugees – not just those who arrive this year, but next year and the one after that.

Konrad Jarausch, a noted historian of modern Germany who teaches at the University of North Carolina, said that if the government succeeds in weaving the new arrivals into the country's economic and cultural fabric, then the very definition of Germany will have changed. "It won't be dependent on the Christmas tree and sauerkraut," he said, but on "signing on" to the Basic Law, or constitution.

"The risks are considerable," Prof. Jarausch added. In the worst-case scenario, Germany could witness a reprise of the violence of the 1990s. "If the economy is fine, and if on the local level this is working out, the fears will die down," he said. "I'm hoping for the latter."