What it means to be German

Recognise the potential

Germany is a country of immigration. Clinging to an out-dated and mythical understanding of what it means to be German not only adds grist to the right-wing populists′ mill, it also endangers social cohesion. By Andreas Bock

We live in a post-truth era. And not just since Donald Trump. Among the convictions of German conservatism that run contrary to the truth is the idea that Germany is not a country of immigration.

Germany, not a country of immigration? The plain facts tell a different story: in 2014, 16.4 million people in Germany claimed a migration history, a number that corresponds to 20.3 percent of the entire population. 9.2 million people with a migration history are Germans. Around two thirds (or 10.9 million) of people with a migration history living in Germany are first-generation migrants; a third (or 5.5 million) are people with a migration history in the second or third generation.

Anyone who mistrusts these figures may perhaps believe in the normative power of German soccer. In the 2014 World Cup, it was players like Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Shkodran Mustafi and Mesut Ozil who ensured Germany's success. And in the current squad too, national coach Jogi Low counts on top performers with a migration background, on players such as Antonio Rudiger or Emre Can.

Germans can only be descended from Germans

Germany, not a country of immigration? This is not a fact, it is merely wishful thinking. It is the ideological construct – one that still wields power to this day – of a homogenous and hermetically sealed concept of the "German people" – which can only be accessed through birth.

Only since 1 January 2000, alongside the still primary law of descent (ius sanguines, literally.: blood right) has territorial law (ius soli, literally: right of the land) been applicable to the acquisition of German citizenship. Under the ius sanguines law, only those who are descended from German parents are German. This makes access to German citizenship and affiliation to the German nation exclusive. People with a migration history can never be Germans! They may acquire citizenship through formal channels – but this does not make them German, members of the German race.

Mesut Ozil during a match at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil (photo: picture-alliance)
High performers with an immigrant background: in the 2014 World Cup, it was players like Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Shkodran Mustafi and Mesut Ozil who ensured Germany's success. And in the current squad too, national coach Jogi Low counts on top performers with a migration background, on players such as Antonio Rudiger or Emre Can

To the uninformed, this may appear antiquated and in view of the highly problematic and sinister history of the term "German people", it may even appear rather eerie. But it is precisely this hermetic, exclusive and discriminatory understanding of the state of being German that continues to exert an influence on politics and society to this day. On the one hand, it still creates tension and friction on the question of the social participation of people with a migration background and on the other, it keeps the right margin of the political spectrum fertile for feelings of resentment towards people with a migration background, towards foreigners and above all towards Muslims.

What does it mean to be German?

A Wikipedia search as to the national identity of the Germans, as to the prerequisites of being German, yields a positive surprise. "According to several studies, the majority of Germans themselves say that the most crucial criterion in being German is use of the German language." Irrespective of the fact that only one study is actually cited, upon closer examination of this very study it becomes apparent that the still potent understanding of being German is far more exclusive and closed-off than this quotation might hopefully suggest. The Wikipedia entry refers to the study "Deutschland – Post-Migrantisch I" (Germany – Post-Migration I) which Berlin's Humboldt University published in 2014 together with the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) 2014. The results of this study are both illuminating and telling.At first glance, the key factors in determining whether or not someone can be said to be German are cited as having German citizenship at almost 80 percent, as well as the ability to speak German at almost 97 percent. Both inclusive factors, which also make it possible for people with a migration background to be German and be regarded as Germans. But at the same time, these come with other exclusive and racist-discriminatory criteria such as "being able to speak German without an accent" at almost 41 percent, "renouncing the headscarf" at almost 38 percent and "having German ancestors" – a statement with which 37 percent of respondents agreed.

This excludes all those people in Germany from being German who either haven't acquired German as their mother tongue, or who wear a Muslim head covering, or who are not descended from German parents. Just fulfilling one of these criteria is enough to not be considered German – even if one has had German citizenship from birth.

No religious freedom for Muslims?

The disastrous extent of this exclusion is illustrated by the example of devout Muslims who wear headscarves. They are, as the authors of the study write, "defined as outside of the national narrative and thereby also outside of the collective identity […], regardless of whether they were born here, whether they have German citizenship, speak German or perhaps even have German ancestors – something that is possible in the case of women who have converted, but also in the case of the children of converts."

The extent of this exclusion is brought into particularly sharp focus when regarding access to the labour market. For example, the study "Diskriminierung am Ausbildungsmarkt" (Discrimination on the Apprenticeship Market) by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, shows how people with the same qualifications are disadvantaged if they have a Turkish name.

It found that the candidate with the German name has to make job five applications on average, while his fellow applicant with a Turkish name has to write an average of seven. The excluding effect becomes even more apparent in the case of female applicants with German names or with Turkish names and a headscarf, as Doris Weichselbaumer was able to show in her study "Discrimination Against Female Migrants Wearing Headscarves". The study reveals, en passant, how difficult it is for German majority society to deal with Muslim citizens in its midst: in order to receive an invitation to an interview, the female applicant with a Turkish name and a headscarf has to write almost five times as many applications as the female applicant with a German name.

This unnecessarily hampers social participation for many people in Germany on the basis of their migration background, indeed, in some areas it is even made impossible. There are cases such as that of the young Muslim lawyer from Bavaria, whom the Free State banned from working in court during her traineeship, because she wanted to wear her headscarf. The woman successfully appealed against this ban. A decision that the Bavarian justice ministry does not however want to accept, as Justice Minister Winfried Bausback (CSU) emphasises: "we can't let the ruling stand like that." Bavarians can't let it stand that religious freedom also applies to Muslims? The extreme right, for which Muslims only represent a danger and a foreign body, will rejoice.

The consequences of social exclusion, even more so when they are experienced as inevitable and irrevocable, can have a calamitous effect on social co-existence, as the French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar shows in his study "Radicalisation". Conversely – and this is also something that can be gleaned from Khosrokhavar's investigation – the facilitation of social participation is an effective tool against radicalisation.

Germany is a country of immigration – now in the second and soon in the third generation. Clinging to an out-dated and mythical understanding of what it means to be German not only adds grist to the right-wing populists′ mill, it also endangers social cohesion.

Andreas Bock

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Andreas Bock is professor of political science at the Akkon University for Applied Sciences in Berlin and visiting lecturer in international politics and conflict analysis at the University of Augsburg. His research focuses on terrorism, racism and political psychology.

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Comments for this article: Recognise the potential

What a great article! All respect to the author. Just the same thoughts have crossed my mind so often. It is high time an enlightened idea of "Germanness" is adopted in this, my country, of which I have been a citizen since 1998, and in which our children live. The outdated notions in people's minds here are so unfit for a civilized country and society. A debate should be started at the highest levels to discuss these primitive, embarrassing and offensive views that people often unthinkingly entertain in this country. Request the author warmly to contact me for further exchange on this topic: p_v_hassell@t-online.de

Thanks and best regards,

Palvasha von Hassell

Palvasha von Hassell07.04.2017 | 18:19 Uhr