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Multicultural Germany

October 26, 2011

Germans increasingly see immigration as a benefit to the country. But experts say people's views are contradictory: Expecting immigrants to blend in to a homogenous society nullifies the benefit of multiculturalism.

Students in a classroom
German language skills are seen as a basis for integrationImage: picture alliance/ZB

Germans place a greater emphasis on lifestyle and German language skills when thinking about German citizenship, according to a recent study. Conducted by the German Institute for Economic Research, the study measured changing attitudes towards nationhood and citizenship in Germany between 1996 and 2006.

In 1996, the majority of those surveyed said that the most important factors for the awarding of German citizenship were having German ancestry, having been born in Germany or having lived in Germany for a long period. But more recently, it is criteria such as the ability to speak German and adapt to the German way of life which play a more decisive role in who Germans believe has the right to citizenship.

New distinctions

A man writes the word 'integration' on a chalk board
Integration is a fraught issue in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Ingrid Tucci, a researcher at the German Institute for Economic Research who worked on the study, said that in the globalized era people are more likely to distinguish themselves from others in terms of cultural differences.

"Boundaries tend to arise when people feel threatened," explained Tucci. "Distinctions are being drawn differently than before with new criteria, but that does not mean that they are any less racist than distinctions based purely on ethnicity."  

Tucci attributes the changing attitudes to reform of citizenship laws. Since 2000, children whose parents have lived legally in the country for more than eight years automatically acquire German citizenship. This approach effectively weakens the link between nationality and ethnicity.

The fact that every fifth person in Germany has an ethnic minority background changes the parameters of the discussion about integration, Manfred Schmidt, president of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, told Deutsche Welle.

"The integration debate in Germany is often emotionally charged," added Schmidt. "That has a lot to do with the fact that for decades, we failed to recognize that immigration is a fact of life in Germany."

Everyday reality

Turkish guest workers arrive in Germany in 1966
Turkish guest workers, seen here in 1966, weren't initially expected to stayImage: picture alliance / Beynelmilel

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the guest worker recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey. As a direct result of this policy, Turks make up the largest minority in Germany.

In the 1950s, Germany's economy started to boom rapidly, but World War II had put a serious dent in the country's work force. So Germany looked beyond its borders. The first guest worker deal was signed with Italy in 1955. Agreements followed with Spain and Greece in 1960, Turkey in 1961 and with the former Yugoslavia in 1968.

By 1973, around 4 million foreigners were living in Germany. In response to the economic downturn, Germany ended all recruitment agreements that year. The right to live in Germany on a permanent basis was never intended to be granted to guest workers: They were expected to return to their home countries after their temporary work visas expired.

But German employers were resistant to the idea of having to continually recruit and retrain new workers. As a result, visa restrictions for guest workers were relaxed, eventually granting full residency permits and the right for family members to move to Germany as well.

Manuela Bojadzijeva from the Institute of European Ethnology in Berlin believes that the instrumentalization of immigration in Germany after the Second World War as part of economic policy meant that it never became a conscious element of German society.

"There was always a clear understanding in Germany that the immigrant population should not be here at all, that migration isn't a constitutive part of German society," she explained. "But immigration is an existential reality. The idea that they should assimilate into some homogeneous socially or politically recognized form is absurd."

Language tests

Bojadzijev is also skeptical of the increasing importance of German language skills, an issue which has come to dominate the integration debate in Germany. She said that demanding immigrants pass German language tests is merely a ploy to cut down on immigration.

"The German language skills deficit amongst immigrants is a politically engineered problem," asserted Bojadzijev. "It is a discourse directed against immigrants. It says: it is your fault. There has been no acknowledgement that the proliferation of languages in the country is a good thing."

Manfred Schmidt was also keen to emphasize the benefits of immigration in the globalized era: "The aim of integration is not about creating a homogeneous cultural identity. Cultural diversity enriches Germany. Our country will only be successful and able to develop in the globalized world by being culturally diverse."

Children in a classroom
The future of Germany is multiculturalImage: picture-alliance/ZB

The study by the German Institute for Economic Research also noted that fewer Germans agreed with the statement "foreigners take away our jobs" than in 1996. In 1999 more than a third of Germans admitted to being worried about the negative consequences of immigration, whereas in 2006 this number was reduced to a quarter.

According to the study, 80 percent of Germans now believe that immigration benefits the country. Extreme racism is also on the decrease.

Contradictory debate

"There are strong right-wing movements across Europe, but not really in Germany where lingering racism has found no real political form. Here the debate on immigration is highly contradictory," said Manuela Bojadzijev.

One key problem with the study, however, is that terms such as "German way of life" were not clearly defined, an issue acknowledged by Tucci.

"If you asked those people questioned in the survey to define the German way of life, you would receive very heterogeneous understandings as to what that constitutes," she said. But then, that itself is already a sign of change.   

Author: Helen Whittle

Editor: Kate Bowen