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Germany

CDU Revives Debate on German as Germany's Official Tongue

A three line clause in a 400 page proposal at a Christian Democrat party conference has revived an old debate. DW's Peter Stuetzle comments on a move to make German the official language of Germany.

A young woman wearing a headscarf with colours of the German national flag: black, red and gold

CDU underestimated the possibility that languages other than German could be official.

That German is spoken in Germany has always been assumed as a matter of course, such an obvious fact of life that it was a no brainer. But that is less the case now.

At the start of the governing coalition's Christian Democratic Party's annual conference in Stuttgart on Tuesday, conservative mayor Wolfgang Schuster said in his opening remarks that half of the children in the large south-western city come from an immigrant background that includes 2nd or 3rd generation non-ethnic Germans.

Even the Greens at their annual party conference reignited the debate on what the official language in Germany ought to be, but their co-party leader, German-born Cem Oezdemir, whose parents hail from Turkey, had called for giving greater weight to immigrant languages, such as Turkish, in public institutions. Those of Turkish extraction form the largest ethnic minority in Germany.

Protecting minority languages, dialects

author Peter Stuetzle

Peter Stuetzle

The Greens argue that minority languages or dialects spoken in the Friesen islands up north near Denmark or in the eastern German states for example are protected by law, so why not other languages?

The possibility that Turkish even has a chance of becoming an official language of Germany has been seriously underestimated by the Christian Democrats.

But Peter Mueller, the Christian Democrat premier of Saarland, which is Germany's smallest regional state, faces a re-election battle ahead and happens to be more in tune with his constituency.

His political associates made the proposal that the CDU favours the move to enshrine the German language as the official language of Germany in the constitution.

The party leaders, embodied by politicians such as CDU secretary-general Ronald Pofalla, wants to pursue the proposal in a manner that other bids are passed: By transferring such undertakings to a parliamentary task force for consideration.

"Language of Germany shall be German"

Then Pofalla could insert the clause "The language of the Federal Republic shall be German" in conjunction with other changes to the constitution in one sweep.

But Saarland's premier Mueller doesn't reckon it could be that simple. Mueller insists that the CDU must clearly recognize "what the state represents" -- that language is as much a fixture of nationhood as the flag.

A broad majority supports Müller, making the Saarland initiative the official policy of the Christian Democratic Party in Germany.

Goethe's tongue carries diminished weight in EU

That Berlin is the capital of Germany and the official flag of the Federal Republic is the horizontally striped black, red and gold are symbols of nationhood enshrined in article 22 of the Basic Law, for example. An additional third clause "The language of the Federal Republic shall be German" could then be inserted.

Such a clause won't be added today or in the immediate future. Any change in the German constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the both houses of Parliament. Such a majority, which would require the approval of the Social Democrats in the grand coalition, is not foreseeable at the moment.

But the Christian Democrat resolve at the party conference is a premonition. It has to do with giving the German language, spoken by 100 million people as a primary language in Europe, more weight within the European Union. Plenty of conservatives see the dominance given to Goethe's tongue being diminished, and they are fighting a battle against the trend. It is certainly feasible that making German the official language of Germany is an issue that one can win the hearts of a majority in Germany or one that is subject to gross miscalculation.

Peter Stuetzle is the head of Deutsche Welle Radio in Berlin.

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