Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Habermas on Germany today

New York Times, October 28, 2010
Leadership and Leitkultur

SINCE the end of August Germany has been roiled by waves of political
turmoil over integration, multiculturalism and the role of the
"Leitkultur," or guiding national culture. This discourse is in turn
reinforcing trends toward increasing xenophobia among the broader

These trends have been apparent for many years in studies and survey
data that show a quiet but growing hostility to immigrants. Yet it is
as though they have only now found a voice: the usual stereotypes are
being flushed out of the bars and onto the talk shows, and they are
echoed by mainstream politicians who want to capture potential voters
who are otherwise drifting off toward the right. Two events have given
rise to a mixture of emotions that are no longer easy to locate on the
scale from left to right — a book by a board member of Germany's
central bank and a recent speech by the German president.

It all began with the advance release of provocative excerpts from
"Germany Does Away With Itself," a book that argues that the future of
Germany is threatened by the wrong kind of immigrants, especially from
Muslim countries. In the book, Thilo Sarrazin, a politician from the
Social Democratic Party who sat on the Bundesbank board, develops
proposals for demographic policies aimed at the Muslim population in
Germany. He fuels discrimination against this minority with
intelligence research from which he draws false biological conclusions
that have gained unusually wide publicity.

In sharp contrast to the initial spontaneous objections from major
politicians, these theses have gained popular support. One poll found
that more than a third of Germans agreed with Mr. Sarrazin's prognosis
that Germany was becoming "naturally more stupid on average" as a
result of immigration from Muslim countries.

After half-hearted responses in the press by a handful of
psychologists who left the impression that there might be something to
these claims after all, there was a certain shift in mood in the news
media and among politicians toward Mr. Sarrazin. It took several weeks
for Armin Nassehi, a respected sociologist, to take the
pseudoscientific interpretation of the relevant statistics apart in a
newspaper article. He demonstrated that Mr. Sarrazin adopted the kind
of "naturalizing" interpretation of measured differences in
intelligence that had already been scientifically discredited in the
United States decades ago.

But this de-emotionalizing introduction of objectivity into the
discussion came too late. The poison that Mr. Sarrazin had released by
reinforcing cultural hostility to immigrants with genetic arguments
seemed to have taken root in popular prejudices. When Mr. Nassehi and
Mr. Sarrazin appeared at the House of Literature in Munich, a mob
atmosphere developed, with an educated middle-class audience refusing
even to listen to objections to Mr. Sarrazin's arguments.

Amid the controversy, Mr. Sarrazin was forced to resign from the
Bundesbank board. But his ouster, combined with the campaign against
political correctness started by the right, only helped to strip his
controversial arguments of their odious character. Criticism against
him was perceived as an overreaction. Hadn't the outraged chancellor,
Angela Merkel, denounced the book without having read it? Wasn't she
now doing an about-face, by telling young members of her Christian
Democratic Union party that multiculturalism was dead in Germany? And
hadn't the chairman of the Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, the only
prominent politician to counter the substance of Mr. Sarrazin's claims
with astute arguments, met with resistance from within his own party
when he proposed expelling the unloved comrade?

The second disturbing media event in recent weeks was the reaction to
a speech by the newly elected German president, Christian Wulff. As
the premier of Lower Saxony, Mr. Wulff had been the first to appoint a
German woman of Turkish origin as a member of his cabinet.

In his speech earlier this month on the anniversary of German
unification, he took the liberty of reaffirming the commonplace
notion, which former presidents had already affirmed, that not only
Christianity and Judaism but "Islam also belongs in Germany."

After the speech the president received a standing ovation in the
Bundestag from the assembled political notables. But the next day the
conservative press homed in on his assertion about Islam's place in
Germany. The issue has since prompted a split within his own party,
the Christian Democratic Union. It is true that, although the social
integration of Turkish guest workers and their descendants has
generally been a success in Germany, in some economically depressed
areas there continue to be problematic immigrant neighborhoods that
seal themselves off from mainstream society. But these problems have
been acknowledged and addressed by the German government. The real
cause for concern is that, as the Sarrazin and Wulff incidents show,
cool-headed politicians are discovering that they can divert the
social anxieties of their voters into ethnic aggression against still
weaker social groups.

The best example is Bavaria's premier, Horst Seehofer, who has
declared "immigrants from other cultures" to be detrimental and has
called for a halt to immigration "from Turkey and Arab countries."
Although statistics show a net outflow of people of Turkish origin,
Mr. Seehofer invokes the phobic image of unregulated masses of social
parasites crowding into our welfare state networks as a way of
building support for his own political aims.

To be sure, the bad habit of stirring up political prejudices is a
phenomenon reaching far beyond Germany. In Germany, at least, our
government doesn't, as in the Netherlands, have to rely on the support
of a right-wing populist like Geert Wilders. Unlike Switzerland, we
don't have a ban on building minarets. And the comparative European
survey data on hostility toward immigrants do not show extreme numbers
for Germany.

But social and political developments in Germany, given its ghastly
history, do not necessarily have the same significance as in other
countries. So, are there grounds for concern that the "old" mindsets
could undergo a revival?

It depends on what we mean by "old." What we are seeing is not a
revival of the mentalities of the 1930s. Instead, it is a rekindling
of controversies of the early 1990s, when thousands of refugees
arrived from the former Yugoslavia, setting off a debate on asylum
seekers. The Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party,
the Christian Social Union, then endorsed the position that Germany
was "not a country of immigration." At that time hostels for refugees
went up in flames and even the Social Democrats gave ground, agreeing
in Parliament to a shabby compromise on asylum law.

That dispute was already stimulated by the feeling of an endangered
national culture, which had to assert itself as the leitkultur that
all newcomers must follow. Yet the controversy of the 1990s was also
driven by the fact that Germany had recently reunited and had reached
the final stage in an arduous path toward a mentality that provides
the necessary underpinning of a liberal understanding of the

To the present day, the idea of the leitkultur depends on the
misconception that the liberal state should demand more of its
immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the
principles of the Constitution. We had, and apparently still have, to
overcome the view that immigrants are supposed to assimilate the
"values" of the majority culture and to adopt its "customs."

That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of
our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn't make things any
better that today leitkultur is defined not by "German culture" but by
religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an
incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the
apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the "Judeo-Christian
tradition," which distinguishes "us" from the foreigners.

Nevertheless I do not have the impression that the appeals to the
leitkultur signal anything more than a rearguard action or that the
lapse of an author into the snares of the controversy over nature
versus nurture has given enduring and widespread impetus to the more
noxious mixture of xenophobia, racist feelings of superiority and
social Darwinism. The problems of today have set off the reactions of
yesterday — but not those of the day before.

I don't underestimate the scale of the accumulated nationalistic
sentiment, a phenomenon not confined to Germany. But in the light of
current events, another trend is of greater concern: the growing
preference for unpolitical figures on the political scene, which
recalls a dubious trait of German political culture, the rejection of
political parties and party politics.

During the parliamentary election of the federal president last
summer, Joachim Gauck, the politically inexperienced and
non-party-affiliated civil rights campaigner, stood as the opposing
candidate to Mr. Wulff, the career politician. Against the majority in
the electoral college, Mr. Gauck, a Protestant minister with a history
of opposition to the old East German regime, won the hearts of the
broader population, and almost won the election.

The same yearning for charismatic figures who stand above the
political infighting can be seen in the puzzling popularity of the
aristocratic defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who, with
not much more than his family background, polished manners and a
judicious wardrobe, has managed to overshadow Ms. Merkel's reputation.

Of even greater concern is the sort of street protests we are now
witnessing in Stuttgart, where tens of thousands of people have come
out against the federal railway corporation's plan to demolish the old
central train station. The protests that have been continuing for
months are reminiscent of the spontaneity of the extraparliamentary
opposition of the 1960s. Unlike then, though, today people from all
age groups and sectors of the population are taking to the streets.
The immediate aim is a conservative one: preserving a familiar world
in which politics intervenes as the executive arm of supposed economic

In the background, however, there is a deeper conflict brewing over
our country's understanding of democracy. The state government of
Baden-Württemberg, where Stuttgart is located, sees the protests
narrowly, as simply a question of whether government is legally
permitted to plan such long-term megaprojects. In the midst of the
turmoil the president of the Federal Constitutional Court rushed to
the project's defense by arguing that the public had already voted to
approve it 15 years ago, and thus had no more say in its execution.

But it has since emerged that the authorities did not, in fact,
provide sufficient information at the time, and thus citizens did not
have an opportunity to develop an informed opinion on which they could
have based their votes. To insist that they should have no further say
in the development is to rely on a formalistic understanding of
democracy. The question is this: Does participation in democratic
procedures have only the functional meaning of silencing a defeated
minority, or does it have the deliberative meaning of including the
arguments of citizens in the democratic process of opinion- and

The motivations underlying each of the three phenomena — the fear of
immigrants, attraction to charismatic nonpoliticians and the
grass-roots rebellion in Stuttgart — are different. But they meet in
the cumulative effect of a growing uneasiness when faced with a
self-enclosed and ever more helpless political system. The more the
scope for action by national governments shrinks and the more meekly
politics submits to what appear to be inevitable economic imperatives,
the more people's trust in a resigned political class diminishes.

The United States has a president with a clear-headed political
vision, even if he is embattled and now meets with mixed feelings.
What is needed in Europe is a revitalized political class that
overcomes its own defeatism with a bit more perspective, resoluteness
and cooperative spirit. Democracy depends on the belief of the people
that there is some scope left for collectively shaping a challenging

Jürgen Habermas, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Goethe
University in Frankfurt, is the author, most recently, of "Europe: The
Faltering Project." This essay was translated by Ciaran Cronin from
the German.