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Germany isn't alone in defining its cultural values

Klaus Krämer | Felix Schlagwein ss
May 8, 2017

Germany is at it again: The never-ending debate on what makes the country typically German is a hot topic once more. Other countries, however, are also in search of their cultural identities, like Denmark and Australia.

International flags
Image: picture alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

Elections may come and go, but in Germany they will inadvertently bring up certain polarizing issues time and again: the integration of migrants, refugee policies, immigration caps, the benefits and drawbacks of multiculturalism. The list goes on. The one term that these topics all seem to reference is "Leitkultur" - the idea of a dominant or "leading" culture and its associated values. The phrase first rose to attention in 1998, when German political scientist Bassam Tibi, who originally hails from Syria, coined the term. However, at the time, Tibi was referring to the idea of an overall European "Leitkultur."

Thomas de Maiziere in Bild newspaper
De Maiziere's divisive newspaper piece in "Bild was headlined "We are not the burqa"Image: Bild/Foto: DW/M. Fürstenau

That word first became politically charged 17 years ago, when Friedrich Merz, then parliamentary leader of the CDU/CSU party (which in 2005 would rise to power under Angela Merkel's leadership) said immigration to Germany should only take place under the leading principles of a German "Leitkultur." Merz demanded that people who wished to live and settle in Germany had to adopt the liberal values of German culture. The debates that broke out in reaction, whether in newspaper columns or at pubs, on what a comprehensive definition of such a "Leitkultur" could possible be, continues to rage on until today.

The term has indeed become a verbal comeback-kid, which has been revived once more recently, thanks to German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. The conservative CDU politician gave a newspaper interview, in which he highlighted 10 points in broad terms about what a "Leitkultur" should encompass. In the article, he pleaded in favor of a liberal society (saying, "we are not the burka"), of education as a key principle, and he advocated an "enlightened" brand of patriotism that would allow people to love their country without hating others.

There's nothing inherently wrong in asking what kind of values may form the glue that keeps a society together, what the spirit of a particular nation may be, or which principles may be important to it, but the issue of "Leitkultur" is once again fraught with controversy in 2017 just as it was when Friedrich Merz brought it up. General elections are around the corner, after all.

How do other countries handle such issues? Are there similar ideas pertaining to a predominant national culture elsewhere? And how do people go about discussing these topics in other places?

Online referendum in Denmark

In Denmark, the issue was put to a vote in 2016. The former Danish Minister of Culture Bertel Haarder initiated a virtual plebiscite about what kinds of ideas the catalogue of values called "Danmarkskanon" should encompass. The former minister said at the time that the final document should serve the purpose of showing immigrants "which areas are not subject to any compromise."

Out of 2,500 suggestions submitted, the commission in charge chose 20 terms and put them to a vote: The Danes could then choose 10 guidelines they deemed most important. However, only 327,000 out of 5 million Danes participated in the non-binding online vote, making this referendum not representative.

Danish border
Denmark seems to be looking to define its cultural valuesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Rehder

The results were interesting nevertheless: The two most important values elected were "the welfare state" and "liberty." As universal as those values may sound, however, they are equally underscored by certain ideas unique to Denmark, which could be interpreted as nationalistic. Professor Moritz Schramm, a German cultural scientist living in Denmark, told DW that the idea of the "welfare state" has a national connotation for Danes, since it implies a " strong distancing from other social and economic models."

"The term 'welfare state' is about protecting all that is Danish. The whole idea of this 'Danmarkskanon' is designed to draw a demarcation line against all things not Danish," Schramm said.

No room for humanity

The debate on cultural identity started arose in Denmark back in 2002/2003, when right-wing populists started referring to the term "clash of cultures." Schramm says that the online plebiscite on the catalogues of cultural values was born out of this debate.

Refugees block a freeway in Denmark in 2015
Refugees block a freeway in Denmark in 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Nolte

"Things quickly escalated into a general discussion on culture and values, which split Danish society," says Schramm, who has been living in Denmark for almost 20 years and works at the University of Southern Denmark.

The other chosen values in the "Danmarkskanon" take on even greater nationally-oriented tendencies. These include the idea of "Hygge," which represents Denmark's feel-good culture, as well as the Danish language and the Danish approach toward liberalism.

"The idea (behind the 'Danmarkskanon') was always one of demarcation. That's precisely why the term 'humanity' didn't make the cut in the vote," says Schramm. Terms like "Denmark's position in the world at large" and "room for diversity" didn't succeed either in the referendum.

No values in Danish law

In hindsight, Moritz Schramm says the vote in the Scandinavian country was overrated at the time, now that about half a year has passed since.

Moritz Schramm, University of Southern Denmark (University of Southern Denmark)
Professor Moritz SchrammImage: Süddänische Universität

"The 'Danmarkskanon' doesn't serve the purpose of focusing on Danish values. It was a media game that didn't have anything to do with everyday life," Schramm observed, adding that like many other countries, Danmark in the 21st century was a country with a multitude of diverse influences.

"Personally speaking, I don't witness any kind of relevance that this catalogue of values could have for everyday life. People normally manage to live alongside each other quite well."

Schramm adds, however, that these kinds of debates on values are likely to continue in Denmark. The university professor stressed that in stark contrast to Germany with its Basic Law ("Grundgesetz"), there are no values explicitly enshrined into law in Denmark. The Danish constitution, he says, is rather open and malleable.

"There is no defined basis for national values (in Denmark). That's why these debates about values keep popping up," he adds.

In search of Australian values

The ongoing discourse on cultural identity of nations isn't just contained to Denmark and Germany. Australia has also joined the ranks of those examining the issue of prevalent cultural ideas. Conservative Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced in April 2017 that certain "fundamental values are what make us Australian. Our citizenship process should reflect that."

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Australian Premier Malcolm Turnbull is accused of pandering to the rightImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tsikas

But the Australian premier failed to define what the execution of such a new immigration guideline would involve. Turnbull merely stated that respecting women and children and saying no to violence were elementary building blocks of Australian values, which immigrant to the country would have to internalize.

The prime minister also highlighted that in addition to passing a future "values test," candidates for Australian citizenship would need to speak university-level English and have had permanent residency permits for four years - as opposed to one year, as was the case to date.

These tightened measures applied to Australia's increasingly rigid immigration policy could likely be linked to the growing popularity of populist parties such as One Nation there. The "Financial Times" newspaper reported in February 2017 that Turnbull and his conservative party were increasingly adopting the radical rhetoric of such movements in order to gain back support from far-right voters.

Back in Germany, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere faces similar criticism. The prominent German journalist Heribert Prantl wrote in the daily "Süddeutsche Zeitung" that de Maiziere's "Leitkultur" article only served the purpose of avoiding losing votes to Germany's populist AfD party.

Manus refugee camp
The refugee camps in Manus (pictured) and Nauru have come under fire for inhumane conditionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/E. Blackwell

Australia's growing isolation

Australia's increasingly tight grip on immigration first started after 88 Australian nationals were killed during a bomb attack in Bali in 2002. Calls for isolation grew louder, especially when it came to Muslim immigrants. Politicians reacted accordingly. The Australian Coast Guard has since routinely been patrolling the waters surrounding the island nation, intercepting refugee boats from Asia and forcing them to turn around.

Those who do manage to reach the Australian continent are taken to internment camps on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus. There they usually have to wait for many years under inhumane circumstances for their asylum applications to be processed.

Human rights groups have been slamming this policy for years; meanwhile Australia's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton keeps boasting about the fact that in more than 1,000 days not a single refugee boat has manage to reach the Australian coastline.