What is German?

Author: Anna Sauerbrey, The New York Times

Anna Sauerbrey, MAY 26, 2016

BERLIN — IN Germany, a big question is back on the table: What is German — and how German do you have to be to belong to Germany? With the arrival in 2015 of 1.1 million refugees and migrants, it’s an important issue. But rather than having a reasoned debate, the extremists have already taken control. For a disturbing number of Germans, the answer is culture, including religion.

That’s the message coming out of the Alternative for Germany, an upstart right-wing party that has drawn double-digit support in recent state-level elections. At a convention earlier this month, the party adopted the sentence “Islam does not belong to Germany” into its official platform.

The sentence is a direct rebuke to a famous 2010 statement by a former German president, Christian Wulff, who proclaimed the opposite, earning praise from migrants, liberals and the left. At the time, it was an uncontroversial position, one supported by Chancellor Angela Merkel and most political polls. Today, about 60 percent agree with the Alternative for Germany’s position, pollsters found in May.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is just one element in the party’s fairly coherent, nativist concept of national culture. The preamble to its program promises to preserve “our occidental and Christian culture, our nation’s historical and cultural identity, and an independent German nation of the German people.” The party refers to German culture as the “einheimische Kultur” — native culture — and describes the German nation as “a cultural unit” under threat from immigrant cultures. Its program for the state election in Baden-Württemberg in March stated: “Germany’s cultural foundation is being smashed by immigration.”

For many liberals and centrist conservatives, culture is defined as the ways a person or group does things. For the Alternative for Germany, it is much more — a natural fact, the core of a person or group’s essence, a thing, not a set of practices. And that thing must be kept homogeneous and pure.

It follows, at least for the new German right, that cultures can be compared and ranked — some are worth preserving, while others are invasive and inferior. German culture is under constant risk of losing its purity, and its defense is a core role of the state. It is a thinly veiled update of the old racist ideologies: culturism as the new racism.

In March, the Alternative for Germany made it into three state parliaments. Pollsters currently see the party at 10 to 15 percent of the electorate. That could be enough to force Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party further to the right. Progressive and conservative Christian Democrats are still debating the correct way to deal with the new far right, but the party has already trotted out its own answer to the “What is German” question: the concept of “Leitkultur,” or a guiding national culture.

Leitkultur is not new per se; it was introduced to the German debate on immigration in 2000 by Friedrich Merz, then head of the federal Parliament’s Christian Democratic caucus. The German government was planning an immigration reform to attract more engineers. Mr. Merz demanded that immigrants adapt to the dominant German culture: secular, German-speaking, rule-of-law abiding. The ensuing criticism was fierce, and although the Christian Democrats did include the term in their official immigration position, they more or less dropped it as an issue.

But with the Alternative for Germany sucking voters from Ms. Merkel’s party, conservatives are pushing the party to attribute a more central role to Germany’s cultural identity. Leitkultur has reappeared in Christian Democratic speeches and working papers. Ms. Merkel used the term approvingly while campaigning in March.

There’s a difference between Leitkultur and the Alternative for Germany’s einheimische Kultur — in the Christian Democratic version, the nativist element is weak; Islam is not a target, at least explicitly. Still, the reintroduction of the concept at a time when the Alternative for Germany is promoting its cultural version of the Aryan nation is as strategically clever as it is dangerous: The Christian Democrats are whitewashing the far-right version of the Cultural German.

While the political cost is high, the concept of Leitkultur is useless. Attempts at legally defining and protecting “German culture” often verge on the absurd. In April, after reports that some public cafeterias no longer served pork out of respect for the dietary restrictions of their Muslim customers, the Christian Democrats in the state of Schleswig-Holstein introduced a proposal to preserve pork dishes in public canteens. “We must not allow for a minority to determine what the majority eats,” a local Christian Democrat said. Some of the reports proved false. The “schnitzel law” caused snickering — and was rejected.

Asked in 2000 what he thought went into German Leitkultur, Mr. Merz pointed to the Constitution and to women’s rights. But it’s no use making refugees swear an oath on women’s rights. Germans won’t control what they think. But Germany can help them understand the laws protecting women’s rights — and reinforce them.

A modern nation state cannot be built on an ontological notion of who belongs and who does not, whether it’s outright ethnic or pseudo-cultural. It needs to build on the notion of the nation as a community — a community including those who were born here, those who came to stay and those who will stay for a while and then return to their homes. The rights and duties of the members of this community should be defined by their achievements, and by the rule of law — not by whether they eat schnitzel or wear a head scarf.

Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.

Originally published by Anna Sauerbrey at nytimes.com on May 26, 2016.