"We Need a Third German Unification!"
Mr Laschet, in your book "Die Aufsteigerrepublik" (The Republic of the Upwardly Mobile), you write that Germany needs a new mentality that would allow every citizen to improve his or her social position. What kind of mentality should this be?
Armin Laschet: Germany in the 1950s und 60s experienced a whole generation that moved up the social ladder. My own father is a good example. He was a miner who later became a teacher. His children were able to study at university. Very many Germans succeeded in advancing socially after the war.
In your book, you formulate a vision for a future Germany in which the social and ethnic background of a person plays no decisive role in their social advancement. The reality today is quite different.
Armin Laschet: Yes, it is different, because we haven't focused on this issue until now. It was generally thought that we weren't an immigration country and therefore there was no need to provide systematic support. And those individuals that did succeed usually did so by chance. I write in my book about Hatice Akyün. She began to read because a library bus regularly stopped on her street. In other cases, it was the help of a teacher, an especially committed parent, or neighbours that helped with the homework. This support, however, must be systematized and this must be the task of the state. As such, the reality today is not what I would hope for.
What can be done politically to turn this vision into a reality?
Armin Laschet: We should start with the children. When children arrive in school, they must be able to speak German in order to keep up. This is not now the case everywhere, even among German children, as German is not spoken properly in every home. This is why we are in favour of mandatory language tests for all four year olds, individual support already in kindergarten, and more all-day schools that offer extra-curricular activities in music, the natural sciences, and art to promote learning opportunities for children.
This has to be implemented throughout the whole school system, which has to allow for greater flexibility. Good students should also be able to transfer faster from "Hauptschule" to "Realschule" or "Gymnasium." This can only be achieved by giving individual attention to students.
In recent years, a tendency can be observed among Turkish university graduates. After completing their degree in Germany, they leave the country for Turkey, where they hope to find better career prospects. What should the state do in order to prevent the departure of well-educated specialists? They offer, after all, a valuable potential, as most of them were born in Germany.
Armin Laschet: No one really knows how large this number is. Nonetheless, since 2008, we have become an emigration country. More young people are leaving than immigrants are arriving, so we have to attract every single newcomer. We have to show that there are worthwhile prospects and give young people with an immigrant background the feeling that they will have the same opportunities with their qualifications in Germany as someone with the name of Schmidt or Müller. This still isn't the case everywhere in Germany.
I believe that if we highlight the success stories that already exist, then a mood will also develop in which people will say, "I'm staying here. This is where I was born and it really is my country."
You write that Germany still hasn't experienced domestic unification and that what we need is a third German unification. How is this supposed to overcome social barriers? A certain degree of scepticism with respect to Muslims is widespread in this society.
Armin Laschet: To begin with, I'd say that it isn't only a Muslim issue. It is not a religious, but rather a social issue. It's about who has the opportunity to move up in society and who doesn't. That Germany has to learn to get along with different cultures and religions is just one side of things. This is why we have the German Islam Conference and a great deal of dialogue is now taking place. This is just part of the picture. The other part has to do with social advancement – it is what I refer to as the "third German unification."
The first German unification was the integration of 12 million displaced persons after the war. At the time, it was a difficult process. A Catholic coming to a Protestant village was often made to feel excluded and was given few opportunities. Mixed marriages were forbidden or, before the Second Vatican Council, not permitted for practicing Catholics. A lot has changed since then.
The second unification was between East and West Germany. At the time of re-unification, many immigrants noticed that they were now pushed to the back of the line. Although they had been living in the West for far longer than the East Germans, they felt that they had lost their position. As such, I believe that now is the time to work towards a third unification. We have to do everything to provide new Germans with the optimum in support and prospects for social mobility.
You are Germany's first Minister for Integration as well as being a politician of the Christian Democrats. You have correctly said that we require the same opportunities for citizens with an immigrant background. That sounds well and good, but why isn't there a single CDU member of parliament with an immigrant background?
Armin Laschet: A very good question, indeed! This is a problem that has arisen over many years. There aren't very many party members with an immigrant background. Only recently have they started to join the party. And, of course, we have the German-Turkish Forum and other activities, but this is just a beginning. It all has to grow. The situation isn't breathtaking in the other political parties either.
There is not a single member of the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia with an immigrant background. Lale Akgün, the SPD member from Cologne, has lost her seat in the Bundestag, because she couldn't secure a safe place on her party list. There is just as little enthusiasm for Turkish-German members in the other parties as well. Only five parliamentarians of Turkish descent out of 620 in the Bundestag are just too few.
Interview: Eren Güvercin
© Qantara.de 2009
Armin Laschet is the Minister for Intergenerational Affairs, Family, Women and Integration in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. His book "Die Aufsteigerrepublik – Zuwanderung als Chance" (The Republic of the Upwardly Mobile – Migration as an Opportunity) has recently been published by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
Translated from the German by John Bergeron