A government task force created to promote the integration of migrants into German society has published a list of the core features of German culture.
The list studiously omits politically incorrect terms such as "patriotism" and "leading culture" (Leitkultur), and effectively reduces German traditions and values to the lowest common denominator. The task force, in fact, implicitly establishes multiculturalism as the most complete expression of German culture.
The so-called Cultural Integration Initiative (Initiative kulturelle Integration) was created by the German government in December 2016 to promote "social cohesion" after Chancellor Angela Merkel opened German borders to more than a million migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The task force — led by the German Cultural Council (Deutscher Kulturrat) in close cooperation with the German Interior Ministry and two dozen media, religious and other interest groups — was charged with reaching a consensus on what constitutes German culture. The original aim was to facilitate "cultural integration" by encouraging migrants to assimilate to a shared set of cultural values.
After five months of deliberation, the task force on May 16 presented a list of what it considers to be the top 15 guiding principles of German culture. Encapsulated in the catchphrase "Cohesion in Diversity," the list consists of mostly generic ideas about German culture — gender equality, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, pluralism and democracy — that are not at all unique to Germany.
Moreover, the list makes no mention of German culture as being the guiding or core culture (Leitkultur), nor does the task force explicitly demand that migrants assimilate to the German way of life. Rather, the guiding principles appear to be aimed at encouraging Germans to embrace the foreign cultural norms that migrants bring to Germany. The task force's focus seems to have shifted from integration and assimilation to coexistence, tolerance and to the Germans adopting the migrant's core culture.
The preamble states:
"Integration affects all people in Germany. Social cohesion can neither be prescribed, nor is it alone a task of politics.... Solidarity is one of the basic principles of our coexistence. It shows itself in our understanding of each other and in the attention to the needs of others — we stand for a solidarity society....
"Immigration changes a society and requires openness, respect and tolerance on all sides.... The stirring up of fears and hostilities is not the right way — we stand for a cosmopolitan society....
"The European integration process is not only a guarantee for peace in Europe and an important basis for prosperity and employment, it also stands for cultural convergence as well as for common European values — we want a united Europe."
A job fair for migrants, held on February 25, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. (Image source: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a well-known supporter of the idea of a core culture (Leitkultur), expressed disappointment at the task force's refusal to be more specific about what constitutes Germanness. "We cannot ask anyone to respect our customs if we are not ready to articulate them," he said. At a press conference in Berlin on May 16, he elaborated:
"I clearly disagree with the German Cultural Council regarding the word Leitkultur: I like the word, the council does not. It is still not clear to me whether what disturbs you is the word 'core' or the word 'culture' or the combination of both words. Or is it something else in the past."
Proponents of a Leitkultur argue that it necessary to prevent the establishment of parallel societies, including those governed by Islamic sharia law. Critics say that a Leitkultur would require migrants to abandon some parts of their identities to conform to the majority — the opposite of the multicultural ideal in which migrants should be allowed to retain their identities.
De Maizière generated a firestorm of criticism after he wrote an article, published by Bild on April 29, calling on migrants to accept a German Leitkultur. He argued that Germany needs a "core culture to act as a common thread through society, especially because migration and an open society are making us more diverse."
In his article, de Maizière outlined ten core features of a core German culture, including the principle of meritocracy and respect for German culture and history. He added: "There is something beyond our language, constitution, and respect for fundamental rights that binds us in our hearts, which makes us different, and distinguishes us from others."
Commenting on the role of religion in Germany, de Maizière wrote that "our state is neutral, but friendly towards churches and religious communities.... Church towers shape our landscape. Our country is shaped by Christianity.... Germany is part of the West, culturally, spiritually and politically speaking." He added:
"In Germany we say our name and shake our hand when greeting. We are an open society. We show our face. We do not wear burkas."
De Maizière's comments were greeted with widespread derision. Martin Schulz, chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD), said that Germany's "leading culture, consisting of freedom, justice and peaceful coexistence, is enshrined in the constitution."
German Green Party member, Jamila Schäfer, said:
"As soon as your identity is based most strongly on which country you belong to, you can easily adopt an attitude of superiority. And that is dangerous and anti-democratic because it is excluding others. A society is always changing, and one of the reasons for that is migration. I do not think that finding a way to live together peacefully is about preserving one's culture."
Schäfer's view, if taken to its logical conclusion, would surrender German culture for the chimera of social peace: accepting that Germany's Judeo-Christian heritage slowly be replaced by Islamic sharia law. Many German politicians agree with Schäfer.
The leader of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, accused de Maizière of reopening "an old and outdated" debate: "Once again, it is about religion."
The former general secretary of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), Ruprecht Polenz, said that the concept of a Leitkultur "does not fit into a pluralistic society." He added:
"A certain conception of Islam suggests or even forbids men from shaking hands with women. I do not think it is good, but it does not hurt. It does not have to be problematized by the debate over a Leitkultur."
Germany's Integration Commissioner, Aydan Özoğuz, denounced the debate over Leitkultur as "ridiculous and absurd." Writing in Tagesspiegel, she argued:
"A specifically German culture, beyond the language, is simply not identifiable. Historically, regional cultures, immigration and diversity have shaped our history. Globalization and pluralization have further multiplied diversity. Immigrants cannot be regulated by a majority culture."
Despite the criticism from German politicians, de Maizière appears to have the support of the German public. A May 5 Insa poll conducted for Focus magazine found that 52.5% of Germans agreed that Germany needs a Leitkultur. Only 25.3% of respondents were opposed.
De Maizière's efforts come amid attempts by the CDU to win back conservative voters angered over Merkel's liberal immigration policies. Many of those have embraced the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party that has called for curbs to mass migration.
A May 17 Forsa poll for Stern and RTL showed that if the September federal election were held today, Merkel's CDU would win with 38% of the vote, far ahead of the SPD with 26%. The FDP would win 8% of the vote, followed by the Greens and the AfD, each with 7%. If Germans were able to choose the chancellor directly, rather than through party lists, Merkel would win with 50%, compared to 24% for her main challenger, Martin Schulz of the SPD. German voters, at least for now, appear to be happy with the status quo, with or without a Leitkultur.