Integration Debate in Germany
Even Without Immigrants, We Are Already Multicultural

Whether it's religions or sub-cultures, Germany has already done pretty well in the field of integration. In the light of that, the sociologist Armin Nassehi explains why the German yearning for a German "predominant culture" is downright unpatriotic

Armin Nassehi in class (photo: picture-alliance/Süddeutsche Zeitung)
Armin Nassehi: "All the talk about a 'predominant culture' only serves to reassure a public which has made itself at home in a world based on an unrealistic image of a homogeneous society. Such times are long over"

​​At regular intervals over the last ten years, Germany has rolled out its "predominant culture" debate. The trigger has always been something to do with immigration or a discussion about the integration of foreigners and their children. Demands for a German "predominant culture" or Leitkultur tend to increase in volume whenever people begin to find it too difficult to analyse reality and they have to find a simpler formulation, something that will be more suitable for the making of populist demands.

The debate about the Leitkultur seems to be easier than the effort of communicating the fact that the integration of the Turkish immigrants and their children can largely be described as successful, as recent studies show.

Without doubt, there are some problematic immigrant areas, and it's easy to say that they are a real threat to our country and then call for a "predominant culture" to deal with them – even if it's not possible to say exactly what that is. But it would be better to intensify recent efforts to develop a more active integration policy, moving towards the state of affairs which exists in other countries which deal with immigration in a more pro-active way. The business world is further along in this respect than the government or the educational establishment.

Integrative power

One can learn from other countries that migration can certainly be organized creatively. One can also learn that Germany's integrative power is obviously greater than we think.

The history of immigration in Germany shows that the institutions of the state and its legal system, its education and its culture, its economy and even its religion have developed an ability to integrate newcomers. It has happened even though nobody ever consciously asked for such a thing to happen, and even if there was no "predominant culture" to back it up. The country was more integrative, more liberal, more republican, than those who defined its political character knew or wanted to know.

A multicultural primary school in Berlin (photo: dpa/picture alliance)
Multiculturalism as a social reality and a matter of course: according to Armin Nassehi, Germany's integrative power is greater than many think and give it credit for

​​To understand the integrative power of our society, you have to leave migration issues to one side and note that modern, liberal societies succeed in integration by not requiring cultural homogeneity or a consensus about ways of living. They are based less on community of opinions or community of social norms than on the recognition that they are communities of strangers – strangers who see their difference as a source of strength and not as a problem.

Modern, urban ways of life are only possible because they are lived above all by strangers. Especially in the big cities, in which people have to live in extreme proximity, highly dependent on one another, the limits of community – the impossibility of building social life on the basis of direct personal and cultural reciprocity – are particularly clear.

The citizen's privilege of foreignness

A liberal society depends on the citizen's privilege to be left in peace. Only thus is it possible not to find the foreignness of other people threatening. And only thus is it possible that ethnic, sexual or cultural minorities can profit from the foreignness and indifference of our ways of dealing with each other. The future of our ways of living will depend on whether it turns out to be possible to maintain this citizen's privilege of foreignness. The litmus test is how much social inequality it can cope with and how much pluralism it can offer.

In the final analysis, a liberal society depends on invisibility – not in the sense that one doesn't see its pluralism, but in the sense that the foreign, the unfamiliar, the different milieu doesn't stand out because daily life does not depend on cultural integration. Even without immigrant areas, our society would be culturally very diverse. Ways of living, moral standards, aesthetic preferences, issues of faith, customs and expectations – all of them produce thoroughly diverse worlds – one could even say: parallel societies.

Our institutions in the world of work, in the market for products and services, in education, in the mass media, even in religious practice and the leisure industry have adapted themselves to this variety of realities and this variety of contexts. When Angela Merkel says that "multiculturalism has failed," she's right insofar as she means a naive enthusiasm for the strange and exotic. But she fails to see how pluralistic and multicultural our country already is, even without migrants, and how successful we are in avoiding the possible pitfalls of such a situation.

Social revolutions in retrospect

Who can still remember how the two main Christian churches stood opposed to each other only two generations ago? Or how, just one generation ago, the dangers of youth subcultures were dramatized? Who remembers how the outing of gays and lesbians was a scandal not so long ago? Or that in the sixties Italian and Spanish "guest workers", although Catholic, were seen as a threat? Who remembers how disgusted respectable citizens were at American pop culture? Or the prudery and bigoted sexual morality of the fifties?

Chancellor Merkel speaking at a conference (photo: dpa)
"When Angela Merkel says that 'multiculturalism has failed,'" writes Nassehi, "she fails to see how pluralistic and multicultural our country already is,"

​​German society has increasing done without a narrowly defined "predominant culture" and has developed instead new forms of daily life. The liberal and republican attitude according to which one is only interested in how other people live if they get in your way has gained ground. Such an attitude only aims at ensuring that different approaches to living can exist together in a socially acceptable way.

It can even put up with parallel worlds, so long as they remain socially acceptable. And if it should turn out that "predominant culture" only means that the law applies to all, then one scarcely needs it.

Our legal system is neutral in respect of way of living, religious confessions, group morality and aesthetic preferences. All the talk about a "predominant culture" only serves to reassure a public which has made itself at home in a world based on an unrealistic image of a homogeneous society. Such times are long over.

Even when seen in an international context, German society has been successful in integrating varied milieus and ways of living, whether they have come from abroad or are home-grown. If one can acknowledge that fact without arrogance, one will then be able more effectively to deal with problematic milieus and ways of behaving which reject the legal norms of this society. One just needs the political will to do so. All this talk about a German "predominant culture" is not just narrow-minded, but downright unpatriotic.

Armin Nassehi

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/ 2010

Armin Nassehi lectures in sociology at the University of Munich. His latest book is "A taxi-ride through society: sociological stories." ("Mit dem Taxi durch die Gesellschaft. Soziologische Storys").

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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