The refugee debate

What makes us German?

Talking about foreigners is always easier than pinpointing what makes us unique. Yet, on the whole, it's actually quite easy to say what's German. The only problem is that we then need to draw the right conclusions. An essay by Armin Nassehi

As Friedrich Nietzsche famously observed, "It is typical of the Germans that they′ll never tire of asking themselves 'What is German?'."

What makes a German a German? What is appropriate behaviour "here"? What civilisational standards constitute our way of life? What does "our" culture consist of? We owe the current resurgence of all these questions to the refugees who are streaming into Germany and Europe. Fears and anxieties, admonishments and warnings keep circling around this core of what is our own, something we feel bound to defend. This question has been further exacerbated by the terrorist attacks in Paris, which were perceived everywhere as an assault on "our" way of life.

The problem is that it is difficult to actually pinpoint what makes us what we are. Arguably, those who make this certain something the sole focus of their critique should be the ones in a position to tell us what we are all about. As a result, right-wing conservative observers, if taken seriously, should be able to tell us exactly what it is, this quality that is ours alone. Strangely enough, though, the most they can say is that it makes us who we are.

The right doesn′t even know what makes us unique

Last year, I decided to start writing to Gotz Kubitschek, one of the central protagonists of new right-wing identarian thought – because I believe we need to do more than merely point up the self-contradictions inherent in right-wing dogma. Such inconsistencies also need to be demonstrated in discussion with the protagonists – on an equal footing and with respect for those who argue their case earnestly.

Over the course of our correspondence, I was amazed that what Germans call their own, the very basis on which these arguments are founded, was ultimately only assumed pre-empirically, transcendentally, so to speak, as an anchor for all discrepancies: if only our society were ethnically and culturally homogeneous, then the modern world with its diversity and contradictions would lose all its horror.

PEGIDA demonstrators in Dresden (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Endig)
Them and us: "arguably, those who make this certain something the sole focus of their critique should be the ones in a position to tell us what we are all about. As a result, right-wing conservative observers, if taken seriously, should be able to tell us exactly what it is, this quality that is ours alone. Strangely enough, though, the most they can say is that it makes us who we are"

Unable to put a finger on ″it″

Conspicuous in Gotz Kubitschek's reasoning was that, when pressed, he could offer absolutely nothing relating to what it actually is, this transcendental prerequisite of what is our own, except that it is our own. Hence, neither right-wing nor nationalist ideology in its most explicit sense is prepared to provide any information on this point that goes beyond mere folklore.

This would seem to indicate that this innate quality – it – vanishes as a nameable identity as soon as we are called on to define it. Because as soon as we try, we fall into the trap of comparison and are forced to realise that we are only one version of another possible version. As soon as we mention it, it is gone, the sublime quality of that which is our own, because we are bound to encounter others with their own unique qualities.

Of course, this then brings us on to differences, to different traditions, different customs, different degrees of openness. So, after all is said and done, we arrive at differences, rather than at something that is so explicit that it is the very crux of what makes the other different. All that's left is that it is our own. And then it becomes tautological – and we are forced to fall silent.

Sound bites at PEGIDA demonstrations, but also from those who try to name what is inimitably German, are embarrassing rather than anything else. And little more emerges from them than references to our "culture". Only, with the reference to culture, the whole miserable process starts all over again, because we are forced to compare and to deal with the fact that others also have a culture of their own.

This is so hopeless that the educated among these defenders of the German culture are forced to claim that the tone of debate is so malicious that it prevents them from uttering the truth, which is evidently unspeakable. The less educated among these disparate figures are also at a loss for words, making violence all the more likely.

I see this alleged hopelessness as a great affront. Unlike the problem of pinpointing what is our own, it is much easier to wrest a narrative from refugees and migrants, because they are difference personified, because their otherness itself constitutes the narrative, while what is our own vanishes as soon as we try to put a finger on it.

It is easy to tell a story about the Muslim, about the swarthy man, his suffering, his romantic nature and his Oriental appeal, not to mention a tale about his Oriental inferiority. But it is almost impossible to tell a story about what makes us who we are – about the German or European identity, about the Occident or the civilised West.

Gotz Kubitschek (photo: Metropolico.org)
In correspondence with the new right: "conspicuous in Gotz Kubitschek's reasoning was that, when pressed, he could offer absolutely nothing relating to what it actually is, this transcendental prerequisite of what is our own, except that it is our own. Hence, neither right-wing nor nationalist ideology in its most explicit sense is prepared to provide any information on this point that goes beyond mere folklore", writes Armin Nassehi

Referencing the constitution

This is because what is other – the foreigner – can already be read by referring to his difference as information. In our case, however, we encounter so much diversity among those we call our own that we can no longer point to a specific identity. When this does not succeed, people often attempt to define what makes us unique by referencing the constitution instead, in which the foreigner can ostensibly read up on how people are supposed to behave in Germany.

Under closer scrutiny, this should only serve to aggravate the affront even further. After all, in addition to the organisation of the state, the constitution primarily sets out the fundamental rights that protect citizens from the arbitrariness of public authorities. Moreover, the constitution also protects diverse, foreign ways of life, even if they are not to our liking.

Ultimately, the fact that citizens must obey the law is only a weak indicator of what is our own, because it is indeed a matter of course, otherwise laws would not be laws. The unique thing about legal norms is that they still apply even if they are violated. Otherwise there would be no need for them.

So what is German? Living here. That′s really all that needs to be said. In today's pluralistic, globalised society, strong and exclusive self-localisation can no longer exist. The "here" becomes "we" not through cultural dictates, but through social self-experience and daily practice. This is something to which immigrants need to have access as well – through participation in education, in the labour market and in concrete everyday life.

What makes modern ways of life so attractive is that they make do with a minimum of avowals. Everyone who wants immigration to succeed – and not just immigration, but also the life of the indigenous population! – must bear this in mind.

Indifference celebrated as a vested right

Astoundingly enough, the Paris terrorists – and also those in Beirut, because most of the victims of the so-called Islamic State are Muslims – do know what is "our" own, making it the target of their bombs. It is a way of life that makes do to the greatest extent possible without common beliefs.

It is a way of life that not only tolerates the fact that there is a certain indifference and disinterest towards how the different groups and milieus live. The terrorists are attacking a society that does not experience this disinterest as a deficit, but rather celebrates it as a vested right.

It is a society that even tolerates people who later become killers. This is the incredible paradox that is now unfolding.

Pro-refugee demonstration in Berlin (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Refugees welcome: "We Germans need to be a bit more self-confident: as a country of immigration which, even without an explicit immigration policy, has shown an amazingly inclusive character in recent decades; as a country whose cultural potency is evidently sufficient to entertain more cultural difference than has been present for generations; as a country that is obviously seen as more attractive from the outside than from the inside", writes Armin Nassehi

It goes without saying that what is our own is, in our case, a German and a European context, which cannot and does not want to rid itself of the social self-awareness of Germany.

We Germans need to be a bit more self-confident: as a country of immigration which, even without an explicit immigration policy, has shown an amazingly inclusive character in recent decades; as a country whose cultural potency is evidently sufficient to entertain more cultural difference than has been present for generations; as a country that is obviously seen as more attractive from the outside than from the inside. Anyone who thinks only in terms of material comforts has not understood what constitutes Germany′s current appeal.

What do we Germans have to say about it?

Let's not fool ourselves: these questions are more than academic. The current refugee situation is only a harbinger of a world in which global turmoil, but also worldwide networking and opportunities, are becoming apparent everywhere.

We, we Germans, have to adapt to this new world; we have to stop wondering who we are and instead focus on how we want to operate as a future immigration society. The more confidently we deal with this challenge, the less we will lose the "identity" that not even the champions of identarianism fixation can explain to us.

Armin Mohler, the right-wing pioneer of anti-liberalism, once wrote, "What I can't forgive the liberals for, is that they have created a society in which a person is judged by what he says – not what he is." That is a notion that is more firmly anchored in people's minds than is acceptable.

So let us leave Nietzsche's question behind us and not ask ourselves what is German, but rather what we Germans have to say – and judge ourselves by that. That would be a start. Maybe then completely different stories about ourselves would occur to us. And maybe we can then also overcome the affront that it is much easier to tell stories about the others, about the foreigners, about the swarthy and menacing outsiders, than about ourselves.

Armin Nassehi

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2015

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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