Surely many who watch the news these days must wonder what is going on when a railroad car full of refugees in Hungary is chanting, “Germany, Germany …” and it has nothing to do with a World Cup soccer match.

Why do people fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan or Iran hope to reach a country whose language most don’t know, whose climate may surprise them and whose essentially secular culture may shock them?

OK, there is Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant minister and a physicist, whose humane leadership is helpful; there is a society that functions reasonably well, with trains that run on time and social services that shield the most vulnerable.

Yes, there are jobs, and yes, there is affordable or free education. But most of these are also available in other European countries (except, of course, Angela Merkel). And, yes, there is a gigantic case of collective guilt connected with the unspeakable atrocities committed in the 1930s and ’40s, which nothing can expunge, but that good deeds may place in the scale of justice.

Steven Ozment, professor of history at Harvard, wrote in The New York Times in 2012: “If there’s one nationality the rest of the world thinks it readily and totally understands, it is the Germans. Combine their deep involvement with Nazism and anti-Semitism and, voilà! – 2,000 years of gripping, complex history vanishes.”

Without aiming to summarize those 2,000 years, I think there may be not-so-obvious factors as to why refugees are welcomed by most Germans, excepting the right-wing xenophobic fringe.

I do not have some secret information on why this is. But as one who was part of the flight of about 20 million from East to West at the end and after World War II and having spent my professional life scholaring about and teaching German literature and culture, I have a few thoughts.

In the ’40s and ’50s, my generation in Germany lived and went to school with people we in Maine would safely classify as “from away.” They came from the Baltic Republics, Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans. These refugees are now the grandparents and parents of the present younger generations, but I am certain that their sensibilities still shape attitudes today.

There is also geography: Germany, its shifting borders over the centuries notwithstanding, is a country of the middle.

Germany has few natural borders. To be sure there is the North Sea in the north and the Alps in the south, but other than that Germany has to be and is easily crossed if you want to get from Paris to Prague or to Moscow or from Copenhagen to Rome.

No wonder Germany’s neighbors have so many different names for them: Nemeckii (Slavic), Tedeschi (Italian), Allemagne (French), Tyskland (Scandinavia), Saxon (Finnish and Baltic). No wonder the Roman historian Tacitus, in the first century of the common era, believed that there were 300 tribes in the inhospitable north.

But the flip side of this bewildering arrangement and what appears to be chronic tribalism may be a kind of familiarity with heterogeneity. Where I grew up in Germany in the ’40s and ’50s, the Italians had come to run ice cream parlors and restaurants. Greeks also opened restaurants, as did Yugoslavians, and Turks worked in factories and elsewhere.

Also, except for a few decades in the late 19th century, until 1918 Germany never was a colonial power. Therefore, there is no commonly remembered experience with the colonized, nor do the refugees have any notion of a history of colonialism connected with Germany.

I may be going out on a very fragile limb, but I have a hunch that – perhaps unencumbered by the sober thought process – there is a streak of idealism or emotionalism or sentimentality laced with Kantian ethics knit into the fabric of German reaction to the refugee crisis. (Roughly paraphrased: Act as if the basis for your actions could become universal law.)

My wife and I lived in Germany when “the wall” came down; we were there when a fleet of buses from the east emptied out literally into the arms of the citizens of Trier. We shall never forget the welcome the “Ossies” received in the west. Of course they arguably spoke the same language, but 40 years of separation were not easily overcome. If only a fraction of that welcome is available for the current refugees, there is hope.