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'We Germans crave harmony'

Ceyda Nurtsch als
April 23, 2018

Best-selling author and lawyer Bernhard Schlink talks about identity, the controversial concept of "Leitkultur," or "German leading culture," and shared values. What may Germany expect and where should it be more active?

Attorney and author Bernhard Schlink
Attorney and author Bernhard Schlink Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Galuschka

The location is Schloss Neuhardenberg, 90 kilometers (56 miles) east of Berlin. The beautiful architecture from the 18th century is surrounded by the greenery of a park.

Inside, two German intellectual greats — former diplomat and author Manfred Osten and renowned author Bernhard Schlink — come together to discuss topics German society has been dealing with over the last few years: How does one define identity? What is "Leitkultur" (Germany's leading or guiding culture) and what is everyday culture? What can German society ask of its immigrants? And what must it do itself?

Author Schlink has written numerous essays about these topics. The author himself has enjoyed major success with his trilogy of novels about private detective Selb and garnered international fame with his book "The Reader," which was also turned into a film starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. His latest book, "Olga,"  came out this year.

The kick-off of the event at Schloss Neuhardenberg was the question as to whether Germany had shifted away from its values: In response, Schlink distinguished between the term "Leitkultur" (leading or guiding culture), which former politician Friedrich März introduced into public debate in 2000, and "everyday culture."

Read more: What is German 'Leitkultur'?

Bild am Sonntag Innenminister Thomas de Maiziere
"Leitkultur for Germany: What is that actually?" asked German newspaper BildImage: Bild/Foto: DW/M. Fürstenau

"We cannot expect the people who come into our country to turn our notion of identity as defined by the constitution into their own," Schlink said. "But everyday culture is less daunting and more concrete. People learn about it in school and it is ensured through public order and safety." Examples of that are, for instance, that people keep their promises and that conflicts are to be worked out in a manner free of violence.

But Schlink also took it a step further. Everyday culture, he said, also includes the expectation that one's counterpart understands the significance traditions, history and culture have for Germans. That raised an interesting question in the evening's discussion: How much do pupils and college students in Germany actually know about German history, given that learning by rote had been deemed authoritarian and repressive and memory had been delegated to the digital arena? In other words, how much do we actually offer ourselves but which we expect of other people?

Read more: German issues in a nutshell: 'Leitkultur' - acceptance vs. assimilation

What is acceptable, and what not?

But the problem goes deeper. The fear in parts of German society about foreign infiltration is profound. The list of things people feel threaten their identity is long. Manfred Osten noted some of the items on the list. "Minarets, women wearing head scarves, the appropriation of city parks by Turkish families barbecuing, Lebanese clans who dictate drug-dealing and prostitution," he said.

Girl wearing headscarf in school
Headscarves in schools is just one of many public debates about culture and identityImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Willnow/

But what can German society do to address these issues? Schlink said people must differentiate between matters and ask themselves: "What do we have to live with and what not?" And then, he said, people must take a stand.

One example: One can accept that German lessons are composed of classes with 90 percent of the students with a migration background. Forced marriage, on the other hand, is unacceptable. While Schlink said he understood many people's concerns, he also said people must just accept certain matters and hope that, over time, things will come together in society.

Read more: 'Leitkultur' abroad: Germany isn't alone in defining its cultural values

Insecurity in many schools

A clear stance is also not taken in many schools, said Schlink. Schools, in addition to the police, are the pillars of identity in German society, he said. But there's a debacle taking place among both, he noted, stemming from a "mixture of indifference and a propensity to save money." Teachers are often left to fend for themselves, such as when parents chose not let their children take part in swimming lessons or biology class.

Why do schools have such a hard time sticking to their principles?  Schlink believes it has to do with the legacy of the Third Reich and German society's preoccupation with it. People do not want to appear to having replaced being "anti-Semitic" with being "anti-Muslim" or to re-establish the authoritarianism of the past, but it's difficult to strike a balance. Many schools, therefore, tend to sweep things under the carpet. Germans, he said, tend to avoid conflict and crave harmony.

Heimat, a complicated term

One of the final points discussed during the Schloss Neuhardenberg event was the notion of "Heimat" (homeland) that has resurfaced in public debate, particularly in light of the new yet controversial Heimat Ministry in Germany. Given growing National Socialistic tendencies in both Europe and the United States, Schlink stressed his own notion of "Heimat" as utopic:  a place from one's childhood one longs for, but to which people cannot return. However, some elements of this Heimat, such as language, he said, are not at risk, even when society is ever changing.