Leitkulturkampf

In comments to an earlier post on neonazi electoral gains in eastern Germany, I noted that Germany’s mainstream right wing Union parties normally respond to this sort of thing with a rightward lurch of their own. And indeed, they are right on schedule.

Angela Merkel, leader of the CDU, in a guest appearance at the party conference of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the CSU, declared the multi-cultural society a ‘grandiose failure’. Edmund Stoiber, chief of the CSU, declared ‘Yes to openness and tolerance, no to Islamic headscarves’. The CSU unanimously approved a resolution that immigrants must fully accept the German Leitkultur (‘dominant culture’). And, oh yeah, in case any of you were wondering how the CSU views possible future Turkish accession to the EU, you’ll be surprised to learn that they think it a Bad Thing.

Now, quite a lot of what the Union is calling for makes perfect sense. G?nther Beckstein, Bavaria’s home secretary, urges immigrants to learn German. Rightly so, and he could set a good example by learning German himself. People who want to make their lives in Germany, or any other modern democracy, should embrace democratic ideals and show towards others the tolerance they would wish for themselves. The SPD’s Otto Schily, federal home secretary, agrees with Beckstein that immigrants should acquire the language. And he thinks they should acquire something more: they should internalise the fundamental values expressed in the federal constitution.

But that’s not quite what the Union is demanding (or at least, it’s not all they’re demanding). They keep harping on that business of the German Leitkultur. Schily calls these demands ‘imbecilic’ (schwachsinnig) and questions whether ‘German Leitkultur‘ even means anything. And it’s true: it’s never quite clear what the Right means by ‘German Leitkultur‘. But whatever it is, there can’t be very many (native) Germans upholding it. More of them get their clothes from C&A or H&M than wear dirndls. Their iPods are likelier to be stuffed with hip-hop than Brahms. Pizza and Big Macs (and d?ner) are more popular than sauerbraten. All these developments may be regretable from some perspectives, but in any event the presence of immigrants is not the major factor in the encroachment of this non-Germanic Leitkultur; it is the Germans themselves.

So you may say, well, there’s more to Leitkultur than bratwurst and Blaskapelle. No doubt you’re right. It’s more important by far that people who settle in Germany accept the rule of law, assent to the democratic process and accept that their neighbours (and family members) be free to differ from them even on values that they hold dear. More broadly, they should embrace the values of hard work, self reliance and responsibility. But let’s leave aside for one moment the question whether immigrants, in the main, embrace these values or not (though in my experience they are at least as hard-working as Germans). Laudable as these traits are, what is particularly German about them? Would not any country wish to see its immigrants adopt these values?

If, then, ‘German Leitkultur means nothing more than ‘be a good citizen and pull your weight’, Schily is right. Of course that’s to be demanded, but it is not a peculiarly German culture. So, when the Right says it, do they mean something more?

Some of them do, I think. One thing it means, apparently, is Christianity. The CSU’s Stoiber is calling for the ‘defence of the Christian character of our country’. He’s against permitting Muslim women to wear the headscarf, but he’s all for keeping crucifixes on the walls of state schoolrooms. (When the Union’s deputy parliamentary leader Wolfgang Bosbach demanded recently that immigrants support, among other things, ‘the separation of church and state‘, he presumably meant it as a joke.)

Now, this is all rather odd. If an immigrant truly wished to adopt the German Leitkultur, taking up Christian religiosity would probably not loom very large on his agenda. Most Germans are Christians only in a nominal sense, and the number who are not even that increases yearly. (I speak here of ‘native’ Germans who officially renounce membership in one of the two de facto established churches, not of non-Christian immigrants who become citizens.) Despite the massive financial assets and political privileges of the two main churches, Germany is very largely a post-Christian place. If Stoiber wants to preserve Germany’s ‘Christian character’, he really needs to make his case to his own countrymen before he starts annoying blameless Muslims.

But then Stoiber’s issue isn’t really a religious one. Very few German politicians, even in the Union, are big on evangelising. When they talk this way, what they are trying to do is mark out some sort of ‘national identity’. And the identity they have in mind excludes non-Christian, non-EU immigrants. Purely nominal church affiliation is more than sufficient for this purpose.

The Union demands that immigrants adopt the German Leitkultur, but defines that Kultur as something that the immigrants in question can’t reasonably be expected to adopt. That’s the point, of course. They are not to be integrated but segregated. Oh, some number of them can be tolerated (we all like a good d?ner). But they must not to be allowed to think they can be part of the Volk.

People are sometimes too quick (and I confess I am sometimes among them) to impute to the German mainstream Right a sneaking regard for ideals current some 70 years ago. That’s almost always unfair. There are a few sneaking regarders in the Union’s ranks, but when the rest of the party notices them they’re usually smacked firmly on the head. Nevertheless, people in the Union (including some of its grand panjandrums) are dismayingly often willing to express xenophobia (or, what is possibly worse, to pander to a xenophobic streak in the electorate). The Hessian CDU mounted a (successful) anti-foreigner signature drive to score points against the government’s reforms of the old, race-based citizenship laws. J?rgen R?ttgers, leader of the CDU in Germany’s most populous state, remarked that the solution to the country’s demographic time-bomb was ‘Kinder statt Inder‘ — that is, instead of Germany granting ‘green cards’ to gifted high tech workers from, say, India, German mothers should bear more children for the Volk. And now Ede Stoiber demands that Muslim teachers be forbidden the headscarf while nuns teaching in ostensibly secular state schools be allowed their habits. (At least Bavaria avoids the transparent hypocrisy of the French anti-headscarf law that, oh yeah, also bans kippot and crucifixes).

At the same time, the Union are champions of the foreign descendants of Germans who emigrated to places like Russia, sometimes as long ago as the days of Catherine the Great. In many cases, these people speak no German and may no longer even bear a German surname. Yet in the eyes of German law, they are not foreigners but ‘members of the German people who do not possess German citizenship’. But citizenship is what they’re entitled to, together with financial aid and language lessons. True, even the last Union government tried to encourage these ‘other Germans’ to stay where they were rather than coming ‘home’. But legally, ‘home’ it was, as it was not (before the recent citizenship law reforms) for a ‘Turk’ born in Berlin to a Berlin-born Turk, speaking nothing but German and knowing none but the German culture.

There are practical political reasons why the Union would support the distant descendants of 18th century German emigrants while the SPD would look with favour on the claims of German-born Turks. Ethnic-German immigrants tend to vote for the Union, while Turks naturalised as Germans tend to go for the SPD. (Incidentally, it’s probably a bad tactical error for the Union to snub Turkish-descended Germans. On ‘family values’ issues, they tend to be as conservative as any Bavarian. There’s a rich electoral seam for the Union to mine there, if they only knew it.)

But practical considerations aside, the Union’s embrace of ‘other Germans’ and rejection of immigrants (Turks, mostly) who are de facto Germans — and these days often de jure as well — plays to a romantic, v?lkisches, xenophobic element in Germany. Wolfgang Sch?uble, a highly gifted CDU leader from Baden-W?rttemberg, defended the rights of the ‘other Germans’ by claiming that the German people, wherever they are (and, presumably, whether or not they speak German or can read the Latin alphabet), form a ‘community of destiny’.

This, if I may be permitted to say so, and with all due respect to Herr Sch?uble’s intellect, is a great steaming heap of bollocks. The German ‘community of destiny’, if one absolutely must use such a term, is formed by those who live and work in Germany. The Volga Germans and groups like them aren’t part of it — unless and until they settle in Germany and become part of it. And they should be permitted to do so on the same terms as anybody else, including Turks — if they are willing to live and work as democrats in a tolerant, pluralist society. To insist that they enjoy special status because some remote ancestor was a German betrays commitment to a sort of Leitkultur that Germany would be well purged of.

5 thoughts on “Leitkulturkampf

  1. An interesting and important post. I fear it may get lost in the flood of material about Ukraine.

    “On ?family values? issues, they tend to be as conservative as any Bavarian.”

    Quite. In fact isn’t this ‘family values’ conservatism probably a “stylised fact” about first generation immigrants, and wasn’t his successful leveraging of this one of the factors behind the recent Bush electoral victory.

  2. It might get lost in the Ukrainian flood, but then what’s going on in Ukraine right now is more immediately important than anything the Germans need worry about. Sometimes I feel the rest of the world could with justice say to Germany (as the old Yiddish saying goes), ‘We should have your problems!’

  3. Mrs T.,

    great post indeed.

    >This, if I may be permitted to say so, and with all >due respect to Herr Sch?uble?s intellect, is a >great steaming heap of bollocks.

    I went to a headscard event with Alice Schwarzer yesterday and I think your title is right on. This debate badly needs to be channeled, there’s a lot of agression boiling underneath. I think I never attended a panel discussion like that one – mixing up of issues, lack of respect and agression on all sides. Very unpleasant experience. Kind of the like the first student debate between Turks and Armenians that took place during my time at the LSE.

    Also, interestingly, according to the NY Times, Condoleeza Rice’s favorite musiciam is Brahms 😉

  4. The Union parties didn’t change a bit since I was there. (That was in Kohl’s time.) It was pretty apparent then that it was the Union’s politics that blocked fuller integration more, not what we foreigners wanted.

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