Feeling Squeezed, Germany Opens Tough Debate on Who Belongs

TATIANA STSSEL, an ethnic German who recently came here from the Caucasus Mountains, is learning the local tongue, but she still cooks Russian. "I don't have many German recipes," she says.

Aliye Gonul, a daughter of Turkish immigrants, was born in Germany and has lived her whole life here. But when she tells people she is from Heidelberg, it is inevitably asked, "Yes, but where did your parents come from?"

The two women are opposite sides of the same coin in a country where the question "Who is a German?" is never far below the surface. The questions are all the more urgent at this time of record unemployment and potential cutbacks in the social safety net.

Immigration is a growing economic concern in many Western nations, including the US, where Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has made it a hot election topic. But unlike Americans, who agree that their nation was built by immigrants, Germans base citizenship on blood, not place of birth. But the subjectivity of that definition means that it can come under pressure in times of economic stress.

In the runup to three state elections March 24, the leader of Germany's left-wing Social Democratic Party called for a reduction in the numbers of ethnic Germans allowed into Germany. The move was widely derided as a cheap ploy to win votes from the ultra-right wing, and the Social Democrats lost in all three states. But they still sparked a nationwide discussion of the issue.

Most of the ethnic Germans now streaming back to their ancestral homeland from the former Soviet Union - 1.3 million so far - are descendants of Germans invited into Russia by Catherine the Great in the 18th century to help with its modernization.

To be allowed into Germany, these Aussiedler, as they are called, must establish their German ethnicity and their claim to a "war-related fate," which most of them can. Under Stalin, many were deported to Siberia, then to Kazakstan, as presumed Nazi collaborators.

Spending time in a gulag helps

The Bonn government approves some 225,000 applications for immigration and eventual citizenship from Aussiedler annually, and it takes from two to four years for an individual application to work through the system. But once they pass muster, ethnic Germans receive considerable financial aid from the government, starting with free air tickets to bring them here.

They get language training and roughly $100 to $200 per person per week, a sum more generous than the basic welfare payments. Pensioners receive payments calculated roughly on what they would have received had they worked in Germany their whole adult life. And those who spent time in Soviet prison camps because they were German are entitled to further benefits.

A number of these "new Germans" have settled in the village of Rottgen near Bonn, in a small hostel tucked behind a filling station. Here, in a one-room apartment they share with their daughter, Ms. Stossel and her husband, Eduard, relax at the end of a day of intensive instruction in their ancestral tongue. Eduard hopes to find work as a mechanical engineer soon. "There were so many problems in Russia. Prices were rising," says Ms. Stossel. "And we're German. Why not come here?"

Downstairs, Wjatscheslaw and Helene Untereiner share an apartment like the Stossels' - but with three children. Rugs hang on the walls in the style of their former homeland, Kazakstan. A handsome wardrobe attests to the local support network: "A gift," Ms. Untereiner explains simply.

Language ability is supposed to be a test of German identity, but both Untereiners cheerfully confess to having virtually no German when they first arrived. He is training to be a welder, his former expertise in Kazakstan.

The other side of the coin

Aliye Gonul, meanwhile, has a different story about her path to citizenship. Her father was a welder, like Mr. Untereiner - an "invited guest" to Germany from Turkey at a time of a labor shortage. But unlike the ethnic Germans, his sketchy ability to speak German proved a stumbling block when his family applied for citizenship in 1990. And even though the family eventually became citizens, that status as "belonging to the German state" (Staatsangehorigkeit) is still distinguished from that of "belonging to the German people" (Volkszugehorigkeit).

But Ms. Gonul is clearly proud of her parents' hard work, despite the physical toll it has taken on them. She takes issue with politicians who seem to want to play foreigners like her against ethnic Germans - as if doing right by both were a zero-sum game.

All the same, she has no trouble ticking off things she appreciates in Germany. "In what other country would a father of five with such limited schooling himself be able to provide such an education for all his children?" she asks. "I'm glad I grew up in both cultures. I belong here - and I want the same rights and duties as others."

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