March 21st is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – a name so cumbersome that in Germany it was renamed as “International Day against racism” (Welttag gegen Rassismus). The topic is pressing these days, with nationalism and xenophobia creating a massive move to authoritarian thinking all around the globe, dwarfing real issues like Climate Change in the public discourse. Future generations might think that we all lost the plot in the early 21st century, setting the wrong priorities while engaging in pointless squabble.
Nevertheless, it is a great opportunity to have a look at the state of racism, immigration and multiculturalism in Germany. Many myths are going around about Germany’s current struggle with what has been branded a refugee crisis, so a sober look at the realities is a challenge, but also a chance.
Let’s start with a personal view on Germany and its very own multiculturalism. When I left Germany for Finland, I felt very tired with the attitude of my fellow countrymen. I had enough of how difficult it is to question the status quo in Germany. The stereotype of Germans being very stuck to order and tidiness isn’t wrong. “But we never did it like this” is a common and very sincere answer to any suggestion of change, and it means: “No!”
Immigration, of course, brings change. Multicultural societies are never static, they require constant development, and Germans do not particularly like that.
When I left the country to live elsewhere with my Chinese-Finnish partner, England looked really good to us. We were under the impression that the UK dealt more relaxed and more successful with the multicultural character of its population. It seemed that the largest empire that ever existed, despite suppressing and exploiting large parts of the globe, at least created a colourful, open-minded society in Britain, and we loved it.
Some of these ideas about global Britain and the openness of the majority of English people appear a bit naive in hindsight, as the current surge of nationalism, xenophobia and outright racism all over England shows all too clear. A surge, of course, that also exists in Germany, like in far too many countries in the world right now. Surprisingly, Germany seems to be more sturdy in resisting this massive movement, which might be due to the aforementioned dislike of changes to the status quo, or maybe the historical education of most Germans. Many English people seem to be completely unaware of the realities of their colonial past, and frankly: This is shocking.
British multiculturalism is as old as the Empire (and probably even older, given the wild mix of people that created the UK in the first place by means of conquest and immigration centuries before the Empire began). That’s why Britain sports exciting cities that – like Manchester – offer places like Chinatown, the Curry Mile or vast Jewish and Muslim communities that exist peacefully next to each other.
The only Chinatown in Germany was a short lived venture in Hamburg, a harbour city that has a long tradition of trade with the far east. Chinese immigrants built their very own community in the borough of St Pauli, the legendary borough that many English visitors know because it is also home to the famous Reeperbahn. Nothing is left of this Chinatown but a small bar run by a half-Chinese elderly lady. Her fascinating story has been covered by the German newspaper “Taz”
The end for this multicultural experiment came 1944 during the reign of the Nazis, who decided that Chinese people in Germany were dangerous and had to be incarcerated and tortured in concentration camps, a fate all too common in Nazi Germany. Any other attempt to create Chinatowns in Germany has been denied even after the war, and up to this day any indication of cultural accumulation is frowned upon. “Little Istanbul” is unwanted, even if thriving Turkish or Arabian communities in big cities would be able to create them. A huge number of Germans is afraid to allow “parallel cultures” in their midst, not willing to embrace the chances that could come from this. The risks are at the forefront of thinking. As ever so often, challenges outweigh opportunities in the German mindset.
And yes, there are good reasons to be careful. Immigration does create friction. Ironically, restrictive immigration laws tend to make them even worse, creating an atmosphere of constant pressure on immigrants and division among the population.
Many of these worries spiked in the last years due to the huge amount of refugees leaving the Middle East and Africa for Europe – many of whom were welcomed in Germany after chancellor Angela Merkel put her foot down and proclaimed the famous term “Wir schaffen das” (we can handle it). Imported crime, illnesses and of course the fear of “Islamization” of Europe and a loss of Christian identity were at the forefront of the arguments in media and public.
While the arrival of nearly 2 million refugees was poorly handled by the authorities and put a strain on many local councils, most of the concerns turned out to be unfounded. Crime rates didn’t spike, for example – in fact, Germany reported the lowest crime rates in decades in 2018. Christian churches still have massive influence in Germany, and their ongoing loss of members is not caused by Muslim immigration.
Opening the country to millions of people from war torn regions did, however, cause issues, and some of them were violent. Sadly they were even outnumbered by right wing attacks on “foreigners”. The frictions triggered by immigration are real, but the majority seem to be caused by fear and discrimination.
Race, religion and other excuses to cause division
Unlike other European nations, Germany doesn’t have an impressive history of colonialism. The idea of a world wide empire – a “place at the sun”, as Emperor Wilhelm II announced it – ended latest with the first World War, and in hindsight this is probably a good thing. Without colonies, though, the influx of people from other parts of the globe remained small, and most immigration came from other European countries.
After World War II, when Germany needed workers to rebuild after the devastation of the war, Greeks and Italians were the biggest groups of immigrants, and like in the UK, this did a whole lot of good to the country, especially when it comes to food. Who could imagine British cuisine without Curry and Kebab? German’s food culture has been enriched by Greeks and Italians. If you’re looking for good ice cream, go Italian, for example. Pizza and pasta are as important to Germans as they are to Brits – although my spouse would claim both dishes to be part of her Chinese heritage.
The next big wave of immigration was Turkish. “Gastarbeiter” (guest worker) is the term that was coined for these hard working people who came to Germany to make money and create a life for themselves and their families. Many of these “guests” didn’t just come for a short time. They settled and built own communities. With their arrival a new kind of racism took hold in Germany, one that would explode brutally after the reunification when in pogrom-like attacks Turkish families were targeted all over Germany. The ghosts of these attacks are still around, and the narrative has become clearer and clearer: Unlike the Greek or Italians, most Turkish migrants are Muslim. The discussion whether mosques and their minarets should be allowed in German “Christian” towns still heats up the minds, and the sentence “The Islamic religion is part of Germany today” nearly cost a former president his job.
Of course this is absolutely not a German issue. On a recent visit in Denmark I was told that many Danes feel threatened by immigration, but when they say immigration, they actually mean Muslims. The perceived threat coming from the Muslim community is a huge issue in many Western societies, but interestingly, when looking to other parts of the globe, the revival of nationalism and xenophobia also exists in countries where Muslims are not the scapegoats. An indication that the Islamic faith isn’t really the source of the problem at all.
In Germany, just looking backward in recent history can make that point as well. A curious kind of immigration, right after the reunification of the two German nations, brought all the same challenges as the current refugee crisis. Germany’s citizenship laws (some of them actually written during the time of the Third Reich), emphasize the importance of heritage and opened a way to “return” for many people from Eastern nations who had next to no connection to Germany other than a grandfather or a great-grandfather who left the country generations ago. Naturalisation was so easy for these groups, that whole communities settled in Germany, coming from countries of the former Eastern block. Their appearance enriched Germany (and revived many of its Jewish communities that had never recovered from the horrors of Nazi rule), but they also brought friction and complications.
Far from my initial statement about a lack of multiculturalism in Germany and how this drove me to leave for pastures new – 12 years ago – it looks as if Germany, like all of Europe, has done much better than it gets credit for. It also looks as if matters of race and religion will be used to create division, just as they have been in the past. The UN did the right thing to call an International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Our world is on a dangerous path to create problems where there should be none – and ignore burning issues that we should care for now, before it’s too late.