Debate about Integration in Germany

The Nation State and Its Immigrants

The immigration debate is emotionally charged. Nevertheless, there is no place for sensitivities of this kind during discussions and debates. If the Germans want to embrace those who have immigrated to their country, they have to get more involved in the debate – and in an open and self-critical manner. An essay by Zafer Senocak

Zafer Senocak (photo: dpa)
Zafer Senocak: "Discussions about German integration policy should not just focus on Turks, Islam, and issues that average Germans consider foreign, but about those things that average Germans consider their own"

​​Since the dawning of the twenty-first century, attitudes in Germany have been changing: the countless number of people who live in the country but are not of German origin are at last being seen as immigrants. Since then, under the broad umbrella of the term integration, a national and social policy that seeks to shape this immigration has been pursued.

At the same time, another paradigm change has been taking place: with the reunification of Germany, a nation state called Germany emerged right in the heart of Europe; a state that is becoming more and more unlike the old Federal Republic as time passes.

This is not solely down to the integration of eastern Germany; it has much more to do with a changed perception of the German identity. People are increasingly confronting the country's controversial history with the present; individual chapters from the German history book are being rearranged and new weight is being attached to them.

Identity as a new brand

Issues relating to people's personal experience are in demand at present. German pain is being reappraised in the recollection of expulsions and the memory of victims of World War II bombing raids and German women who were raped by occupying soldiers.

At the same time, the present is being presented as a happy, cool enterprise: look at us; we can celebrate, have a good time; we've got a sense of humour and belong to a modern, open-minded state. Germany can stand with its head held high on the international stage. Identity is becoming a brand for which people are willing to canvass and which can also be used to striking effect.

But what has history got to do with the present? How much forgetting and how much remembering does contemporary German society need? It is very telling that questions about German history and the change in German self-perception are not even raised in the wider context of the issue of immigration. The wounds of the nation may have healed, but they could easily burst open once again if history were to be confronted with contemporary challenges resulting from immigration.

The Turkish future as a threat scenario

And so there is often a strange silence and sometimes even outright hostility when German history and the Turkish future are mentioned in the same breath. The Turkish future is a threat scenario as it involves a minority that has established itself in the country gaining in significance.

The Third National Integration Summit at the Chancellery in Berlin (photo: AP)
History-free Germany: the Integration Summit, the Islam Conference ... the whole political approach is structured as if it were only about integrating non-Germans into German society, writes Zafer Senocak

​​And how does a Turkish person become a German in 2010? For both the natives and the immigrants, it would be a worthwhile exercise to open the German history book and study the chapter that deals with Polish immigration in the nineteenth century or the integration and assimilation of the Jews in the modern era. What happened when the Poles immigrated to the German Empire?

Who now remembers the bitter language dispute where people sought to keep the Polish language out of German reality, just as some are trying to do with Turkish today?

No matter where you turn in this country, you are always confronted with an episode from German history: the traumatic experience of National Socialism, the war, the genocide of European Jews, and also the suffering of the German population during the war, the flight, and the expulsions have all engraved themselves deeply in people's memories.

This is why there is nothing less plausible than a history-less – and therefore faceless – Germany. However, the immigration issue is kept well away from all that. The Integration Summit, the Islam Conference, debates, and events on the subject ... the whole political approach is structured as if it were only about integrating non-Germans into German society.

Debates riddled with traps and snares

This approach is based on an assimilatory impetus: assimilation is indeed one of the ways of integrating oneself into a foreign country. However, it will not succeed if the ghosts of the different types of assimilation that existed in the past are kept firmly out of the conference chamber. These ghosts continue to haunt both the active memory and the deepest layers of consciousness. They creep into the language; they take people by surprise; unsettle them.

Representatives of migrants' organisations at an integration conference at the parliament of the state of Hesse in Wiesbaden (photo: dpa)
Integration is not a one-way street: associations representing the interests of migrants and anti-racism initiatives criticise that it is not enough for German politicians to make demands solely on migrants living in Germany

​​The language of the integration debates is certainly telling. When it comes to questions of identity, home, or loyalty, it is full of traps and snares. In the debates about dual citizenship in Wilhelmine Germany, the term "loyalty" was used again and again by conservative politicians and historians in order to demonstrate that the Jewish and German identities were incompatible: as far as the historian Heinrich von Treitschke was concerned, the unity of state and people was at risk.

Those who completely close their minds to dual identities are harking back to a tradition that fostered a nebulous image of the state – a concept that long blocked Germany's path to democracy. These terms already have suzerainty over the fear potential as it is: fear of losing one's identity, fear of foreigners, fear of things unknown.

Take also the work of the Islamic associations in Germany; they should indeed by examined more critically. However, when Necla Kelek writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about the associations' "old bazaar mentality" and the fact that they believe they are on "a division mission and can bargain with the government about the make-up and the agenda of the conference," her words invoke associations of a long tradition of defamation and stigmatization. Would a newspaper permit similar formulations about other religious groups?

The debate about immigration is emotionally charged. Nevertheless, there is no place for such sensitivities around the conference table. The only purpose they would serve would be to alienate the various parties from each other. If the Germans want to embrace those who have immigrated to this country, they have to get more involved in the debate – and in an open and self-critical manner.

Taking the other side's history into consideration

This is not always a pleasant undertaking; it can be a painful process. On the other hand, those who live in Germany on a permanent basis and would like to integrate themselves into German society, cannot avoid taking the history of the other side into consideration. Empathy has a significant role to play in this. It is not about conventional history lessons, but about an exchange of experience that goes beyond the boundaries of one's own culture.

In the past, the writing of history has often been about the construction of a national identity. Although modern history studies have made progress in this regard, the discipline still shies away from a more comparative approach. We already have comparative literary studies; what we need now is comparative history studies.

With their biographical connotations, literary texts can supplement a perception of the past that is rather devoid of emotion and open up new perspectives. The people of Europe share the experiences of the twentieth century – the genocides, the expulsions, the nationalist excesses etc.; the Germans also share them with the Turks.

Alone with one's own history

There are, however, moments where one's history cannot be shared; where one is completely alone with one's own history. This is where integration reaches its limits. These are not borders that run between nations, cultures, or religions, but borders that are drawn by people's origins, their biographies, their family trees.

These borders can shift and change: grandfathers and grandmothers remain grandfathers and grandmothers, but when the grandchildren emigrate, a new view of the earlier generation emerges. These experiences deposit themselves in family stories, are told in a variety of languages, and gain new significance. This unsettles all those who would prefer to combine individuals and individual biographies in a collective identity.

The Germans and the Turks have a number of things in common. Both originated in major mixed cultures that were violently crushed in the twentieth century. This is just one bitter experience that the two sides could talk about. It is one way of identifying similarities and differences, far away from the realm of vague judgements and prejudices.

In other words, discussions about German integration policy should not just focus on Turks, Islam, and issues that average Germans consider foreign, but about those things that average Germans consider their own: their own history, the change in their own identity.

This change is about more than just the yearning for recognition; it has much to do with feelings of uncertainty regarding a future in which nothing will be the same as it is today and many things will hopefully be different from the way they were yesterday.

Zafer Senocak

© 2010

Edited by: Lewis Gropp/

The writer Zafer Senocak lives in Berlin. His book Das Land hinter den Buchstaben. Deutschland und der Islam im Umbruch (The land behind the letters: Germany and Islam in a period of change) and a volume of poetry entitled Übergang (Crossing over) were recently published by Babel Verlag.

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