Gerhard Hirschfeld: Migrants a fresh challenge to German sense of identity

It remains to be seen but opinion polls suggest the majority are not falling into the trap of some populist politicians and linking the refugee crisis with terrorist subversion

In early May 2006, in the lovely mountain resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps, ministers and senators of the 16 federal states in Germany finally decided what was needed to become a German. After months of intense parliamentary debates and fierce public arguing the German Länder recommended immigrants demanding a German passport should have to pass a language exam, attend an "integration course" providing them with information about the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) and about German beliefs, and to attend a citizenship ceremony at the end.

The agreement was hailed as a success for German consensus politics, among others by then minister of the interior Wolfgang Schäuble. In truth, what Schäuble and his Länder colleagues regarded as a major breakthrough for German integration policy was "nothing more than the latest chapter in an extended debate about how the country can finally integrate its immigrant population", as the Spiegel depicted it. The question who belongs and who doesn't and how to integrate immigrants into the nation-state is not only a German issue. But nowhere has the argument about nationhood and a leading culture (Leitkultur) been more fiercely debated than in Germany. Friedrich Nietzsche, the radical German philosopher and writer, ridiculed this speculative tradition as far back as the 1880s in his famous aphorism: "It is characteristic of the Germans that the question 'What is German?' won't die out" (Beyond Good and Evil, 1886).

Today the old question of identity is being discussed in a much broader context. "People are afraid to ask 'who's 'a German'?" according to Josef Janning, co-director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. Janning is referring to populist groups like Pegida in Dresden, a grass-roots anti-Islamic movement, or the Alternative for Germany, another populist party. Both were already on the decline, although they appear to have undergone a miraculous revival since the refugee crisis began.

Threatened identity

But the card of a threatened identity is not just played by populist movements with an unashamed borrowing of right-wing labels and stereotypes. Populist signals are also coming from the national conservative CSU and even from inside Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own party. Using the controversial term



(guiding culture), the general secretary of the CSU recently declared it was essential for “all asylum seekers to accept our Judeo-Christian system of values on the basis of our constitution”. That is a bit much.

Of course, the belief that the constitution, Germany's Basic Law, should be the foundation for all people living in the country is widely shared, not just on all sides of the Bundestag. In October German tabloid Bild even printed a special edition in Arabic containing the Basic Law, which was distributed in many refugee shelters. But a "Judeo-Christian system of values" separating Europe from the Muslim world is an historical absurdity or simply an "invention of modernity" as French philosopher Jacques Derrida has put it. Given the European history of religious suppression and persecution of Jewish life, it is difficult to see how a make-believe symbiosis could guide Europe's and Germany's behaviour towards Muslim refugees. Perhaps it merely articulate a wishful dream of many Germans still traumatised by the Holocaust?

Europe and Germany are facing a refugee crisis of enormous proportions; thousands cross the Austrian-German border every day. The Berlin government shows a lot of goodwill but has no strategy for how to solve this crisis. I do not want to suggest easy answers to very complicated questions. I am more concerned with the consequences of the so-called Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) of accepting refugees and what this could mean for an assumed national identity.

Basically, I am convinced Germany “can do it” (as Chancellor Merkel promised with her usual Anglo-American pragmatism, rephrasing Obama’s “yes we can”), but it needs partners and a fair and just mechanism of distributing the asylum seekers across Europe (not just the EU). The most recent attacks in Paris will not change the Berlin government’s determination to see the refugee crisis through. After all, Europe has experienced many of these callous acts by so-called Muslim terrorists in the last decade. It has to be seen how the German people will react to it but opinion polls suggest the majority are not falling into the trap of some populist politicians and linking the refugee crisis with terrorist subversion.

Necessary integration

The big challenge will, of course, be the necessary integration of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers once their claim has been officially recognised. But as an historian I am optimistic. Mass movements of people lie at the heart of Europe, whether voluntary or involuntary. Post-war Europe was shaped by waves of migration, most of them bigger than the present one. Germany has acknowledged and integrated millions of so-called “guest workers” and their families (some of them now in their third generation) despite strong objections from some segments of the “host-society” in the past. The acceptance and integration of present refugees will succeed.

What Germany certainly doesn’t need are ghetto-like “parallel societies” that would introduce and reinforce social separation and ethnic or cultural isolation. Parallel-societies are not compatible with a democratic and welfare-orientated nation and society, based on the rule of law, that chooses and endorses the inclusion and integration of immigrants.

On the other hand, democracy and democratic societies also need the recognition of common rules and shared values (for instance: the principles of human rights) and these societies require a minimum of cultural and social homogeneity to identify the demos, the respective people, capable of acting responsibly and legitimately. Gerhard Hirschfeld is professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Stuttgart