Immigration and Politics in Germany
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact email@example.com for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
Extraordinary tensions in German society today have initiated serious debates around the concepts of national identity and citizenship. Reunification has forced the redefinition of Germany and left precarious East-West domestic relations in its wake. Reports of violent assaults on Turkish residents over the past three years have also revived images of Germany’s racist and nationalist past.
Green parliamentarians, led by Cem Özdemir, recently drafted a bill to liberalize citizenship requirements by allowing dual citizenship. Presently, naturalization is based on descent, not place of birth. Thus, generations of foreign children born in Germany remain foreigners, while others of German descent who live in other countries may claim citizenship under Article 116 of the Basic Law. The only other options for acquiring German citizenship are: 1) if one parent has German citizenship, children are able to apply; or 2) by satisfying residence and other requirements; and 3) by renouncing one’s citizenship of birth. The Green draft included granting citizenship to foreigners in the second generation if they were born in Germany. Unfortunately, this initiative failed to gather intra-party support, but it succeeded in exposing misconceptions in political debate on this issue.
The following are excerpts from conversations with Cem Özdemir and from his public talk.
* * *
In contrast to the United States, Germany never saw itself as a melting pot of cultures. Migration was supposed to be useful to meet the need for labor during the economic boom years in West Germany. This goal was — at least superficially — totally consistent with the plans most immigrants made when they came to Germany. Most of them believed they would return to their home countries after a few years of working abroad, either wealthy or at least able to fend for themselves.
So, for a number of years most immigrants did not feel the need to integrate into German society. They tried their best not to cause trouble and conveyed this as a rule to their children. They even tried to persuade their children to concentrate their educational efforts on what could be useful in the country of their forefathers.
German society, on the one hand, drew a strict bureaucratic and often humiliating line between the German citizen and the so-called foreigners — a term which is at least misleading for the younger generation. And, of course, children of legal immigrants in Germany still do not receive German citizenship automatically.
This so-called order, established in the late 1950s and in the early 1960s, was not called into question until the civil youth movement of 1968 turned social life in West Germany upside down. The 1968 movement voiced strong criticism of social conventions and finally encouraged the first adult generation of immigrant children to play an active role in public life. These children, who had still been born in the countries of their grandparents, developed a growing and critical awareness of their social status, which was often described in traditional leftist terms as exploitation and class conflict. It was in those years that a great number of intercultural societies were founded, aimed at raising the consciousness and improving the social opportunities of immigrants. The spectrum of activities ranged from cooking and language classes to feminist groups and political action committees. For many young immigrants, these clubs and societies were a kind of entrance ticket into modern West German society. They found an opportunity for personal development, and they made friends regardless of cultural backgrounds. They created their own lives apart from the often very strict and old-fashioned ideas of their parents, who often stuck to philosophies and ideas which in the meantime had become obsolete even in their home countries.
I think we are in a transition phase, which reminds me of what was happening in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1968 — a classic example of upheaval and social change. The old is decaying and the new has not been able to take shape yet, to crystallize. For me it’s quite clear that the slogan that “Germany is not a Melting Pot” (Einwanderungsland) has been revealed as the Lie of the Republic, but to counteract this we have not yet formulated an appropriate response or decided what should replace it.
Self-definition of identity is what is important in this process, and especially for second- and third-generation Turks in Germany. On the one hand, there is the land of origin of one’s parents and, on the other hand, there is German society. Demands are being made on this generation, which is sandwiched between upholding tradition and integration/assimilation. I feel very optimistic, because the 1968 movement has shown me that things can change. I don’t want to make too much of an issue out of this, but look at me, Im a representative in the German Parliament. I come from a working-class family. My father has very little schooling. My parents both came to Germany as guest workers. I did very poorly in school, but I worked hard to improve myself and went on to the university and got my degree. I firmly believe that change can happen. I did all this as a member of just the second generation of Turks in Germany. Some say, well, I’m just an exception to the rule. This is not true. When I say to those who doubt, “I am just like you, my parents didn’t have any better conditions than your parents did when they came over,” they understand me. Then they listen to what I have to say.
A Problem of Definition: Current Debates
Definitions always imply something, and I believe the problem here is the definition of terminology used, for example, the Foreign Vote (Ausländerwahlrecht). For a long time, the public was under the impression that this meant that people who did not belong to this society would be able to participate and vote. This was never the case. It was supposed to define a group of foreigners who lived and worked in Germany and had fulfilled all requirements of citizenship, to finally give them the right to vote. We really made a mistake in this case as politicians. We failed to make this issue clear.
Another case in point is the concept of dual citizenship. Here we made the same mistake, because we made it look like the most important issue here was being able to have two citizenships. Not so. It was all about attaining one citizenship, German citizenship. When you use the term double citizenship it implies having more rights than others. A completely failed argument. We need to redefine all this as right of naturalization (Einbürgerungsrecht). Same thing goes with the concept of immigration rights (Einwanderungsrecht). Again, this does not mean we are going to open all borders and all the unfortunates of the world will filter in. We need to clarify what we actually mean here, and until we do, we will never get anywhere arguing this point or establishing sound immigration policy. Conservative politicians use polemics and left-wing politicians are not able to fill the gap. The only thing that is being done with it is using it in re-election campaigns.
Integration and Assimilation within the Turkish Community
For many Turks, I am their voice in the Bundestag, and, except for left- and right-wing extremists, many have been encouraged to express their needs and their desire to contribute constructively as a part of German society. They want to be subjects of their lives, not objects of a paternalistic minority policy. This is, of course, still not self-evident, and there is an old tendency on the left as well as on the right to treat immigrants as objects.
Integration is not a one-way street, and progress is often creeping, not leaping. Many members of the Turkish community have used the previously unknown amount of freedom for their personal development. They have created individual identities that combine elements of both cultures and countries without having any loyalty problems. They are well integrated into the social fabric of Germany and they are highly educated. Some of them are from the first generation, but most are from the second or third generation. Unfortunately, the more isolated community members are, the less educated and less able to communicate successfully, the more likely they are to stick to pre- democratic behavior in families or society, and the more likely they are to turn to nationalist or fundamentalist Islamic ideologies. In fact, many of the Islamic fanatics — a small minority among Turkish Muslims - - have had their religious born again experience in Germany, and the relationship between Turks and Kurds in Germany is much more tense among the socially less integrated groups.
Another problem group are the older immigrants. Little or nothing has been done to prepare German society for the needs of the elderly and the recently retired generation of immigrants. It cannot be denied anymore that a high proportion of them will spend the rest of their lives in Germany. Social services are not prepared to meet the special needs of Muslims.
It has taken almost thirty years, but Germany is finally coming to grips with the fact that it has become — or at least has been for many years — a melting pot or immigration country (Einwanderungsland). Like other ethnic groups, the Turkish community — which totals 30 per cent of seven million immigrants in Germany — has undergone a process of amazing assimilation. According to recent studies, more than 60 per cent of all Turkish inhabitants in Germany would be willing to become a German citizen if they were able to keep their Turkish passport too. In the Bundestag there is a major initiative underway to abolish outdated legal principles that strongly discriminate against foreigners. Also, in some federal states, Islam will be taught as a regular subject in schools. Other social developments in the Turkish community of two million are quite amazing: there are over 40,000 Turkish companies in Germany that employ hundreds of thousands of people. There are more than 13,000 Turkish students at German universities. And more than 40,000 people of Turkish origin have German citizenship. (Berlin alone has a community of 150,000 Turks.)
In many Turkish families there has been a tremendous shift in attitudes in favor of liberal ideas, and I can remember many cases when the younger children in a family enjoyed a degree of freedom that had seemed inconceivable to their older brothers and sisters. I was moved to see in one family, how the German boyfriend of the younger daughter was welcomed as a member of the family, whereas the older daughter had suffered extremely a few years before in a similar situation. On the other hand, the observation of greater plurality also includes the fact that numerous Turkish families still try to stick to the less friendly parts of family tradition. Especially for those families and their children, integrating and mediating social work is urgent, but unfortunately mostly non-existent. So when the children grow older, intense emotional conflicts are quite frequent in these families, which often break up under such enormous personal stress.
The Relationship Between the Greens and the Conservatives
The fact that the Green Party is now well represented in most of the important committees within the Bundestag is not the result of any concessions that the Christian Democrats have made, but due to actual Green politics. For that reason, one can’t deduce a Black(CDU)-Green national coalition discussion at the present time. The fact that after a very long time we are discussing certain issues with the CDU is by itself a very positive development.
This discussion is of course the routine effect of democracy. For example, there is one particularly exciting discussion Green ecology activists are having with a very traditional group of CDU representatives from the economy centered around making German laws more ecologically friendly. If we succeed in bringing these groups together it could possibly transform the German economy. We have not been able to bring about such a discussion with the Social Democrats (SPD).
Another area in which exciting things are happening is in political youth groups. The Young Unionists (Junge Union), who are affiliated with the CDU, discuss current affairs such as the impact of new media, such as the Internet, and the rise of a multi-cultural society. But here is the great limitation of the CDU. It is essentially a political party made up of two different parties: on the one hand, you have those who want to keep the status quo and who support the ultra-conservatives, and on the other hand you have the modern wing of the Party, focused around Heiner Geissler. Now if the group around Geissler were in the majority, it would be no problem to work out a coalition on a national scale with the CDU, in my opinion. Unfortunately, at this point it would never happen. Regional and local areas have succeeded in coalitions, mainly as reaction to years of SPD politics that has become fossilized. Of course, the same would probably happen to us if we should ever be in the position to be the majority over generations. On the whole, there are areas where the CDU is definitely more progressive than the SPD.
Resurgence of Nationalism and Violence
Reunification has brought with it a number of contradictions. When the Berlin Wall was opened on the 9th of November, 1989, and the Iron Curtain fell, the immigrants in Germany were full of joy too. But soon, many of them began to feel uncomfortable when the call that had toppled the communist dictatorship — “We are the people” — changed into “We are one people.” We were irritated when we heard that Turkish people were one of the most disliked ethnic groups in the former East Germany - - although most of the East Germans had never even been in contact with Turks — and were finally terrified by the murderous attacks and outbursts of violence against immigrants and political attacks in Mölln, Solingen, Rostock, Hoyerswerda and many other places around the country. We felt like scapegoats and, as a result, the amount of distrust between immigrants and Germans reached a new peak. Even modest and pacifist immigrants thought of arming themselves for protection — a very unusual habit in Germany.
The horrible violence in Germany caused a great deal of anxiety both within German society and abroad. Many people feared that the moral basis of our democracy might be too brittle to withstand the hurricanes of the German unification and the migration surge after the breakdown of communist societies. The image of Germany became somewhat contradictory: on the one hand, there were almost daily reports of burning refugee camps and racist violence against immigrants, and the election results of right-wing parties reached an all-time high. On the other hand, there were great signs of civil solidarity when millions of Germans went into the streets to take part in candlelight demonstrations against violence. I know of many Turkish immigrants — even of the second generation — for whom these signs of non-violence and tolerance were really vital in accepting Germany as their second home.
It was quite evident, after these terrible attacks in Mölln and in Solingen, that people were outraged and began to flood the streets. These were people who have never in their lives taken part in a demonstration. This was a very positive sign of spontaneous political activism. It was organized by sending out just one fax, that was then distributed by fax to other groups. The silent majority had made a statement that they were no longer going to tolerate the continuation of such political actions towards foreigners — the production of anti-foreigner sentiments.
The Future of a Multicultural Society
Whether Germany will remain and become an even more civil multi-ethnic society will depend on a number of factors. First, some of the most severe social problems have to be tackled. We need a lot of effort to enable underprivileged — German and non-German — young people to have a decent future, materially as well as emotionally. Even the outcasts, even right-wing extremists, have the right to get emotional support and help. This has nothing to do with approving their actions. On the contrary: only if a society stands firmly against violence, only if there is an obvious will to protect the weaker and to care for the victims, can a civil society survive in the long run.
Contrary to what some populist ideologists preach, there is no going back to old and simple social formations and traditions, and frankly speaking, these old times were in many ways less desirable than the present. But, nevertheless, even a pluralistic multicultural community needs some basic values that all the members of the society have to be committed to. Many experiences, and even the world-wide inter-religious dialogue, imply that fundamental human rights, together with basic social rights, could play a role. Humanist values, however, can only be convincing if there is a climate in which they can be practically realized. To make this possible for everyone, there is still a lot of work to be done both within and outside parliament.
Barbara Weber is the Development Officer at the International Institute. She was a founding member and contributing editor of Courage: Aktuelle Frauenzeitung, the first feminist magazine in post-war Germany.
Cem Özdemir, a member of the Green Party, became the first person of Turkish descent to be elected to be elected to the Bundestag(German Parliament) in October, 1994. He was one of the International Institute’s guest lecturers this winter semester in the lecture series on “Citizenship, Multiculturalism, and National Identity in Post-Unification Germany,” co-sponsored by the German Academic Exchange (DAAD). Özdemir’s presentation was titled “German Citizenship and the Turkish Community.” During his stay he also gave a brown bag lecture at the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, participated in an evening discussion with members of the University of Michigan Turkish Association, in Lane Hall, and gave an interview to Barbara Weber.