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Germany

Defining a Common Culture - Does Germany Need To?

The divisive debate over a "Leitkultur," or predominant culture, has broken out in Germany again. Conservatives tend to think defining the culture is important; many on the left think it's an attack on minorities.

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The cultural norm everyone in Germany should be striving for?

Germany was successful in rebuilding its bombed and charred cities after World War Two, but it was less successful in healing the deep wounds German culture and the national psyche suffered after 12 years of Nazi rule.

For decades, the phrase "German pride" was considered an oxymoron, something that had been rubbed out of existence after Auschwitz. But that began to change after reunification and in 2000, conservative politician Friedrich Merz asked the question publicly: Could Germans be proud of their achievements and should there be common cultural guidelines that people ought to live by? It evoked some angry responses.

Now, the new president of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, another conservative politician, has said it is time to look again at what makes Germany German. He is not comfortable with the term "Leitkultur," which he says conjures up a sense of superiority of one culture over another. But he says he wants to get beyond the provocative nature of the term itself.

Die CDU-Vorsitzende Angela Merkel, rechts, spricht vor Beginn der Klausur des CDU/CSU-Fraktionsvorstandes in Berlin am Donnerstag, 13. Oktober 2005, mit dem Abgeordneten Norbert Lammert

Norbert Lammert with CDU leader Angela Merkel

"The prospects of a really constructive discussion are far greater today than they were a few years ago," he said. "The truth is that there are cultural differences, and the truth is also that these differences, and the conflicts that occasionally arise from them, are anything but irrelevant."

He mentioned the concept of gender equality, which in Germany is enshrined in the law. In some immigrant communities, fathers arrange marriages for their daughters and women are of second rank.

"The right to equality for women, culturally based on our historical experience, and the right of the man to dominate in other cultural circles, also culturally based, cannot exist in one and the same society," he said.

Lammert said that while German society is a multicultural one, there should be a visible common thread that holds society together. According to him, a society needs to come to an agreement that there is at least a minimal level of "orientation" that should apply to everyone, regardless of ethnic or cultural background.

Is it necessary?

But others think this debate isn't leading anywhere. According to Claudia Roth, now head of the Green Party, the country's constitution paves the way for a peaceful coexistence of cultures and Lammert should see Germany's cultural diversity as a defining value in itself.

Claudia Roth, Menschenrechtsbeauftragte der Bundesregierung, Interview-Gast bei DW-Radio

Claudia Roth

"He should realize that what he's doing is not encouraging debate but unleashing serious controversies," she said. "The concept of a defining German culture is nothing more than an attack on minorities in our country."

Thomas Nord, head of the new Left Party, also said he has misgivings about reigniting the debate of a term which he said would not lead toward addressing issues that needed attention. "Whoever restarts this debate will come under suspicion of trying to distract attention from the real problems we have," he said.

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