Germany confronts its discomfort with immigrants

A nation soul-searches over patriotism and how 'German' foreigners need to be.

The front lines are shifting in a culture war that goes to the heart of what it means to be German today.

On Nov. 6 the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) gave up its long-standing insistence that Germany is not "a country of immigration," in reluctant recognition that migration has been a fact of life for more than 30 years and could well determine the country's survival in the global economy.

At the same time posters have appeared here in the capital depicting men of Asian, African, or Arab origin, wearing T-shirts bearing a provocative message in gothic script: "I am proud to be a German." Organizers of an initiative against right-wing violence cleverly hijacked a slogan usually seen emblazoned across the chests of skinheads at neo-Nazi rallies.

Germans have been debating their identity for weeks, ever since the leader of the main opposition party in parliament, the CDU's Friedrich Merz, said that immigrants should be required to adapt to the German "Leitkultur," or "guiding culture."

Flag-waving - not to mention outright national pride - has been a taboo here since the end of World War II. In the decades after Hitler's dream of an Aryan master race plunged Europe into a genocidal nightmare, Germans adopted a muted sense of nation.

Critics immediately assailed Mr. Merz's clumsy formulation as a throwback that somehow implied German superiority. "There is no mention of a German 'guiding culture' in the Constitution," said Ludwig Stiegler, a leading member of the ruling Social Democrats. "Such an idea only haunts reactionary and conservative heads." The Green Party, junior partners in the government, accused the CDU of targeting minorities. And in another twist, Greens leader Renate Kunast distanced herself last week from the word "multiculturalism," what she called a "fuzzy" term, whose overuse made the Greens vulnerable to attack from the right.

For weeks the media sought to answer the question, "What is German?" in multipart series. An editor of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that "integration without a guiding culture is like going to bed without a bed."

A commentator for the liberal weekly Die Zeit argued that "the more barking there is, the less attractive German culture becomes." Unlike self-confident countries such as Britain or France, he wrote, modern Germany still does not project an appeal beyond its borders, in part because its historical origins lie in wars and a defensive nationalism: "If you call for a 'guiding culture' so that foreigners will adapt, you have already admitted that a cultural charm is missing that foreigners could embrace."

The newsweekly Der Spiegel summed up Germans' ambivalence by quoting the country's most famous bard, Wolf Biermann: "We can't help loving the country we live in. That's why we hate it so much."

Also within the CDU, there was furious disagreement about what constitutes the "guiding culture." Nobody, not even party leaders, could clearly articulate just what it might mean. But on Nov. 6, when the Christian Democratic leadership made public a 10-point position paper on immigration that included mention of a "guiding culture," party chief Angela Merkel gave the hotly debated term a banal definition that left little room for disagreement: values such as tolerance, civil society, and an openness to the world.

"The paper is the basis for a broad discussion," says Emine Demirbuken, a CDU politician in Berlin of Turkish origin. Yet she adds that the authors forgot that finding the " 'guiding culture' is not only the homework of immigrants, but of society as a whole. Today we really need to discuss the question of what it means to be German." The demand that immigrants stick to the rules goes without saying, says Ms. Demirbuken.

It has not escaped several observers that the ones who really need singling out for breaking the law are violent extremists who attack foreigners - and that tossing the loaded term "leading culture" into the debate was a way for the CDU to appease hardcore elements while making a 180-degree turn on immigration.

In a way, the CDU's late conversion to the cause of regulated immigration is little more than an acceptance of reality. Economists estimate that as many as 250,000 immigrants per year are necessary to sustain Germany's economic recovery - and that by 2020 some 3 million new workers will be needed.

Business leaders are pressuring the government to come up with immigration rules quickly, and the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder has called on a special commission to come up with recommendations by next summer.

The CDU has been in disarray since losing federal elections in 1998 and becoming embroiled in an embarrassing financial scandal a year ago. Christian Democratic strategists are concerned that in the meantime, Mr. Schroder has managed to steal all that once was dear to the CDU: the political center, the support of big business - and now the debate over the nation.

While the CDU leadership has joined appeals for citizens to join nationwide demonstrations Nov. 9 "for humaneness and tolerance," some hard-liners in the party have publicly announced that they will not be attending.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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