The new Germans

Time to redefine what it means to be Deutsch

Europe

For centuries the Germans were wont to leave their homeland, emigrating to places such as America, where the Statue of Liberty welcomed them among the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. For all the Germans remaining at home, however, nationality remained a matter of “blood” (jus sanguinis in Latin) rather than choice or place of birth. That identity was built into the language itself. The word deutsch, originating in the early Middle Ages, meant “belonging to the people”. And until recently the word for “people”, Volk, had an ethnic rather than a civic connotation. To this day its adjective, völkisch, retains ugly racist associations with the Nazis.

All that is history and will definitively be buried in 2016. Today Germany is second only to America in the number of immigrants it attracts. Most come from within the European Union (EU), but many come from farther afield. Among rich countries Germany also takes by far the most refugees—today’s “huddled masses”. About 1m were expected in 2015 alone, and the numbers in 2016 are sure to be big too.

These newcomers from Syria, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere come into a country where one in five already has a “migration background”, as German bureaucratic jargon calls all those with foreign roots. These include the “guest workers” who came to West Germany—mainly from Turkey, Italy and Greece—in the 1950s and 1960s to provide labour, along with their German-born children and grandchildren. Then there are the former Yugoslavs who came in the 1990s during a previous big refugee crisis, as well as Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians who now enter freely as citizens of the EU, and many others.

Naturally an influx on this scale causes anxiety among some Bio-Deutsche, as Germans of ethnically “pure” stock are today called in ironic slang, with a pun on the German term for organic food. Many worry especially about Muslims: will they accept social norms such as sexual equality, secular values and Germany’s historic responsibility towards Israel?

The spice of life

The task of integrating so many foreigners will test German politics and society in 2016. Yet Germany’s Willkommenskultur (“welcome culture”) will prevail, as most Germans understand that refugees deserve asylum, and immigrants enrich the country. Today’s quintessential German stand-up snack is either a Turkish doner kebab or a Currywurst, which combines the archetypal Germanic sausage with spice from the sub-continent. In high and low culture, Germany has become unimaginable without such “foreign” influences. When Germany won the football World Cup in 1990, all its national players were Bio-Deutsche. When it won the cup again in 2014, two were Polish-born and others had family names such as Özil (Turkish), Khedira (Tunisian), Boateng (Ghanaian) and Mustafi (Albanian).

Corporate bosses and policymakers, too, know that Germany needs immigrants. Bio-Deutsche make too few babies. New Germans who are today being fingerprinted as their asylum claims are processed will tomorrow care for the elderly and pay the taxes that fund a generous welfare state.

There is really only one last hurdle to Germany officially becoming a land of immigrants, and it is politics. The centre-right Christian Democratic Union, led by Angela Merkel, and its conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, insist on the fiction that Germany does not have permanent “immigrants” (Einwanderer) but rather temporary “in-comers” (Zuwanderer), such as guest workers, who will one day leave.

This is a travesty of reality and deserves the ridicule that the centre-left parties are meting out. In 2014 a law was tweaked that makes it easier for most children born in Germany to foreign parents to keep both citizenships indefinitely. But beyond this mini-liberalisation, Germany remains unusual among rich countries in having a patchwork of rules for special situations (spouses of Germans, say), but no coherent immigration law at all.

In 2016 Germany will pass such a law, because even the Christian Democrats will admit what is already obvious: Germany has become an immigrant country—a land of hope and opportunity to many who, in turn, simply by coming, keep Germany’s ageing society vibrant. The notion of identity by blood died long ago. In 2016 Germans will formally lay it to rest, and will take great pride in doing so.

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