SINCE the end of August Germany has been roiled by waves of political turmoil over integration, multiculturalism and the role of the “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture. This discourse is in turn reinforcing trends toward increasing xenophobia among the broader population.
These trends have been apparent for many years in studies and survey data that show a quiet but growing hostility to immigrants. Yet it is as though they have only now found a voice: the usual stereotypes are being flushed out of the bars and onto the talk shows, and they are echoed by mainstream politicians who want to capture potential voters who are otherwise drifting off toward the right. Two events have given rise to a mixture of emotions that are no longer easy to locate on the scale from left to right — a book by a board member of Germany’s central bank and a recent speech by the German president.
It all began with the advance release of provocative excerpts from “Germany Does Away With Itself,” a book that argues that the future of Germany is threatened by the wrong kind of immigrants, especially from Muslim countries. In the book, Thilo Sarrazin, a politician from the Social Democratic Party who sat on the Bundesbank board, develops proposals for demographic policies aimed at the Muslim population in Germany. He fuels discrimination against this minority with intelligence research from which he draws false biological conclusions that have gained unusually wide publicity.
In sharp contrast to the initial spontaneous objections from major politicians, these theses have gained popular support. One poll found that more than a third of Germans agreed with Mr. Sarrazin’s prognosis that Germany was becoming “naturally more stupid on average” as a result of immigration from Muslim countries.
After half-hearted responses in the press by a handful of psychologists who left the impression that there might be something to these claims after all, there was a certain shift in mood in the news media and among politicians toward Mr. Sarrazin. It took several weeks for Armin Nassehi, a respected sociologist, to take the pseudoscientific interpretation of the relevant statistics apart in a newspaper article. He demonstrated that Mr. Sarrazin adopted the kind of “naturalizing” interpretation of measured differences in intelligence that had already been scientifically discredited in the United States decades ago.
But this de-emotionalizing introduction of objectivity into the discussion came too late. The poison that Mr. Sarrazin had released by reinforcing cultural hostility to immigrants with genetic arguments seemed to have taken root in popular prejudices. When Mr. Nassehi and Mr. Sarrazin appeared at the House of Literature in Munich, a mob atmosphere developed, with an educated middle-class audience refusing even to listen to objections to Mr. Sarrazin’s arguments.
Amid the controversy, Mr. Sarrazin was forced to resign from the Bundesbank board. But his ouster, combined with the campaign against political correctness started by the right, only helped to strip his controversial arguments of their odious character. Criticism against him was perceived as an overreaction. Hadn’t the outraged chancellor, Angela Merkel, denounced the book without having read it? Wasn’t she now doing an about-face, by telling young members of her Christian Democratic Union party that multiculturalism was dead in Germany? And hadn’t the chairman of the Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, the only prominent politician to counter the substance of Mr. Sarrazin’s claims with astute arguments, met with resistance from within his own party when he proposed expelling the unloved comrade?
The second disturbing media event in recent weeks was the reaction to a speech by the newly elected German president, Christian Wulff. As the premier of Lower Saxony, Mr. Wulff had been the first to appoint a German woman of Turkish origin as a member of his cabinet.
In his speech earlier this month on the anniversary of German unification, he took the liberty of reaffirming the commonplace notion, which former presidents had already affirmed, that not only Christianity and Judaism but “Islam also belongs in Germany.”
After the speech the president received a standing ovation in the Bundestag from the assembled political notables. But the next day the conservative press homed in on his assertion about Islam’s place in Germany. The issue has since prompted a split within his own party, the Christian Democratic Union. It is true that, although the social integration of Turkish guest workers and their descendants has generally been a success in Germany, in some economically depressed areas there continue to be problematic immigrant neighborhoods that seal themselves off from mainstream society. But these problems have been acknowledged and addressed by the German government. The real cause for concern is that, as the Sarrazin and Wulff incidents show, cool-headed politicians are discovering that they can divert the social anxieties of their voters into ethnic aggression against still weaker social groups.
The best example is Bavaria’s premier, Horst Seehofer, who has declared “immigrants from other cultures” to be detrimental and has called for a halt to immigration “from Turkey and Arab countries.” Although statistics show a net outflow of people of Turkish origin, Mr. Seehofer invokes the phobic image of unregulated masses of social parasites crowding into our welfare state networks as a way of building support for his own political aims.
To be sure, the bad habit of stirring up political prejudices is a phenomenon reaching far beyond Germany. In Germany, at least, our government doesn’t, as in the Netherlands, have to rely on the support of a right-wing populist like Geert Wilders. Unlike Switzerland, we don’t have a ban on building minarets. And the comparative European survey data on hostility toward immigrants do not show extreme numbers for Germany.
But social and political developments in Germany, given its ghastly history, do not necessarily have the same significance as in other countries. So, are there grounds for concern that the “old” mindsets could undergo a revival?
It depends on what we mean by “old.” What we are seeing is not a revival of the mentalities of the 1930s. Instead, it is a rekindling of controversies of the early 1990s, when thousands of refugees arrived from the former Yugoslavia, setting off a debate on asylum seekers. The Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, then endorsed the position that Germany was “not a country of immigration.” At that time hostels for refugees went up in flames and even the Social Democrats gave ground, agreeing in Parliament to a shabby compromise on asylum law.
That dispute was already stimulated by the feeling of an endangered national culture, which had to assert itself as the leitkultur that all newcomers must follow. Yet the controversy of the 1990s was also driven by the fact that Germany had recently reunited and had reached the final stage in an arduous path toward a mentality that provides the necessary underpinning of a liberal understanding of the Constitution.
To the present day, the idea of the leitkultur depends on the misconception that the liberal state should demand more of its immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the principles of the Constitution. We had, and apparently still have, to overcome the view that immigrants are supposed to assimilate the “values” of the majority culture and to adopt its “customs.”
That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur is defined not by “German culture” but by religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which distinguishes “us” from the foreigners.
Nevertheless I do not have the impression that the appeals to the leitkultur signal anything more than a rearguard action or that the lapse of an author into the snares of the controversy over nature versus nurture has given enduring and widespread impetus to the more noxious mixture of xenophobia, racist feelings of superiority and social Darwinism. The problems of today have set off the reactions of yesterday — but not those of the day before.
I don’t underestimate the scale of the accumulated nationalistic sentiment, a phenomenon not confined to Germany. But in the light of current events, another trend is of greater concern: the growing preference for unpolitical figures on the political scene, which recalls a dubious trait of German political culture, the rejection of political parties and party politics.
During the parliamentary election of the federal president last summer, Joachim Gauck, the politically inexperienced and non-party-affiliated civil rights campaigner, stood as the opposing candidate to Mr. Wulff, the career politician. Against the majority in the electoral college, Mr. Gauck, a Protestant minister with a history of opposition to the old East German regime, won the hearts of the broader population, and almost won the election.
The same yearning for charismatic figures who stand above the political infighting can be seen in the puzzling popularity of the aristocratic defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who, with not much more than his family background, polished manners and a judicious wardrobe, has managed to overshadow Ms. Merkel’s reputation.
Of even greater concern is the sort of street protests we are now witnessing in Stuttgart, where tens of thousands of people have come out against the federal railway corporation’s plan to demolish the old central train station. The protests that have been continuing for months are reminiscent of the spontaneity of the extraparliamentary opposition of the 1960s. Unlike then, though, today people from all age groups and sectors of the population are taking to the streets. The immediate aim is a conservative one: preserving a familiar world in which politics intervenes as the executive arm of supposed economic progress.
In the background, however, there is a deeper conflict brewing over our country’s understanding of democracy. The state government of Baden-Württemberg, where Stuttgart is located, sees the protests narrowly, as simply a question of whether government is legally permitted to plan such long-term megaprojects. In the midst of the turmoil the president of the Federal Constitutional Court rushed to the project’s defense by arguing that the public had already voted to approve it 15 years ago, and thus had no more say in its execution.
But it has since emerged that the authorities did not, in fact, provide sufficient information at the time, and thus citizens did not have an opportunity to develop an informed opinion on which they could have based their votes. To insist that they should have no further say in the development is to rely on a formalistic understanding of democracy. The question is this: Does participation in democratic procedures have only the functional meaning of silencing a defeated minority, or does it have the deliberative meaning of including the arguments of citizens in the democratic process of opinion- and will-formation?
The motivations underlying each of the three phenomena — the fear of immigrants, attraction to charismatic nonpoliticians and the grass-roots rebellion in Stuttgart — are different. But they meet in the cumulative effect of a growing uneasiness when faced with a self-enclosed and ever more helpless political system. The more the scope for action by national governments shrinks and the more meekly politics submits to what appear to be inevitable economic imperatives, the more people’s trust in a resigned political class diminishes.
The United States has a president with a clear-headed political vision, even if he is embattled and now meets with mixed feelings. What is needed in Europe is a revitalized political class that overcomes its own defeatism with a bit more perspective, resoluteness and cooperative spirit. Democracy depends on the belief of the people that there is some scope left for collectively shaping a challenging future.
Jürgen Habermas, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Goethe University in Frankfurt, is the author, most recently, of “Europe: The Faltering Project.” This essay was translated by Ciaran Cronin from the German.