This article was first published on the Stratfor website.The
author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the world’s
leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared at an
October 16 meeting of young members of her party, the Christian Democratic
Union, that multiculturalism, or Multikulti, as the Germans put it,
“has failed totally.” Horst Seehofer, minister-president of Bavaria and
the chairman of a sister party to the Christian Democrats, said at the
same meeting that the two parties were “committed to a dominant German
culture and opposed to a multicultural one.” Merkel also said that the
flood of immigrants is holding
back the German economy, although Germany does need more highly
trained specialists, as opposed to the laborers who have sought economic
advantages in Germany.
The statements were striking in their bluntness and their willingness
to speak of a dominant German culture, a concept that for obvious
reasons Germans have been sensitive about asserting since World War II.
The statement should be taken with utmost seriousness and considered for
its social and geopolitical implications. It should also be considered
in the broader context of Europe’s response to immigration, not to
Germany’s response alone.
The Origins of the German Immigration Question
Let’s begin with the origins of the problem. Post-World War II
Germany faced a severe labor shortage for two reasons: a labor pool
depleted by the devastating war — and by Soviet prisoner-of-war camps —
and the economic miracle that began on the back of revived industry in
the 1950s. Initially, Germany was able to compensate by admitting ethnic
Germans fleeing Central Europe and Communist East Germany. But the
influx only helped assuage the population loss from World War II.
Germany needed more labor to feed its burgeoning export-based industry,
and in particular more unskilled laborers for manufacturing,
construction and other industries.
To resolve the continuing labor shortage, Germany turned to a series
of successive labor recruitment deals, first with Italy (1955). After
labor from Italy dried up due to Italy’s own burgeoning economy, Germany
turned to Spain (1960), Greece (1960), Turkey (1961) and then
Yugoslavia (1968). Labor recruitment led to a massive influx of
“Gastarbeiter,” German for “guest workers,” into German society. The
Germans did not see this as something that would change German society:
They regarded the migrants as temporary labor, not as immigrants in any
sense. As the term implied, the workers were guests and would return to
their countries of origin when they were no longer needed (many
Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese did just this). This did not
particularly trouble the Germans, who were primarily interested in
The Germans simply didn’t expect this to be a long-term issue. They
did not consider how to assimilate these migrants, a topic that rarely
came up in policy discussions. Meanwhile, the presence of migrant labor
allowed millions of Germans to move from unskilled labor to white-collar
jobs during the 1960s.
An economic slowdown in 1966 and full-on recession following the oil
shock of 1973 changed labor conditions in Germany. Germany no longer
needed a steady stream of unskilled labor and actually found itself
facing mounting unemployment among migrants already in country, leading
to the “Anwerbestopp,” German for “labor recruitment stop,” in 1973.
Nonetheless, the halt in migration did not resolve the fact that
guest workers already were in Germany in great numbers, migrants who now
wanted to bring in family members. The 1970s saw most migration switch
to “family reunions” and, when the German government moved to close that
loophole, asylum. As the Italians, Spanish and Portuguese returned home
to tend to their countries’ own successive economic miracles, Muslim
Turks became the overwhelming majority of migrants in Germany —
particularly as asylum seekers flocked into Germany, most of whom were
not fleeing any real government retribution. It did not help that
Germany had particularly open asylum laws in large part due to guilt
over the Holocaust, a loophole Turkish
migrants exploited en masse following the 1980 coup d’etat in
As the migrants transformed from a temporary exigency to a
multigenerational community, the Germans had to confront the problem. At
base, they did not want the migrants to become part of Germany. But if
they were to remain in the country, Berlin wanted to make sure the
migrants became loyal to Germany. The onus on assimilating migrants into
the larger society increased as Muslim discontent rocked Europe in the
1980s. The solution Germans finally agreed upon in the mid-to-late 1980s
was multiculturalism, a liberal and humane concept that offered
migrants a grand bargain: Retain your culture but pledge loyalty to the
In this concept, Turkish immigrants, for example, would not be
expected to assimilate into German culture. Rather, they would retain
their own culture, including language and religion, and that culture
would coexist with German culture. Thus, there would be a large number
of foreigners, many of whom could not speak German and by definition did
not share German and European values.
While respecting diversity, the policy seemed to amount to buying
migrant loyalty. The deeper explanation was that the Germans did not
want, and did not know how, to assimilate culturally, linguistically,
religiously and morally diverse people. Multiculturalism did not so much
represent respect for diversity as much as a way to escape the question
of what it meant to be German and what pathways foreigners would follow
to become Germans.
Two Notions of Nation
This goes back to the European notion of the nation, which is
substantially different from the American notion. For most of its
history, the United States thought of itself as a nation of immigrants,
but with a core culture that immigrants would have to accept in a
well-known multicultural process. Anyone could become an American, so
long as they accepted the language and dominant culture of the nation.
This left a lot of room for uniqueness, but some values had to be
became a legal concept. It required a process, an oath and shared
values. Nationality could be acquired; it had a price.
To be French, Polish or Greek meant not only that you learned their
respective language or adopted their values — it meant that you were
French, Polish or Greek because your parents were, as were their
parents. It meant a shared history of suffering and triumph. One
couldn’t acquire that.
For the Europeans, multiculturalism was not the liberal and humane
respect for other cultures that it pretended to be. It was a way to deal
with the reality that a large pool of migrants had been invited as
workers into the country. The offer of multiculturalism was a grand
bargain meant to lock in migrant loyalty in exchange for allowing them
to keep their culture — and to protect European culture from foreign
influences by sequestering the immigrants. The Germans tried to have
their workers and a German identity simultaneously. It didn’t work.
Multiculturalism resulted in the permanent alienation of the
immigrants. Having been told to keep their own identity, they did not
have a shared interest in the fate of Germany. They identified with the
country they came from much more than with Germany. Turkey was home.
Germany was a convenience. It followed that their primary loyalty was to
their home and not to Germany. The idea that a commitment to one’s
homeland culture was compatible with a political loyalty to the nation
one lived in was simplistic. Things don’t work that way. As a result,
Germany did not simply have an alien mass in its midst: Given the state
of affairs between the Islamic world and the West, at least some Muslim
immigrants were engaged in potential terrorism.
Multiculturalism is profoundly divisive, particularly in countries
that define the nation in European terms, e.g., through nationality.
What is fascinating is that the German chancellor has chosen to become
the most aggressive major European leader to speak out against
multiculturalism. Her reasons, political and social, are obvious. But it
must also be remembered that this is Germany, which previously
addressed the problem of the German nation via the Holocaust. In the 65
years since the end of World War II, the Germans have been
extraordinarily careful to avoid discussions of this issue, and German
leaders have not wanted to say things such as being committed to a
dominant German culture. We therefore need to look at the failure of
multiculturalism in Germany in another sense, namely, with regard to
what is happening in Germany.
Simply put, Germany is returning to history. It has spent the past 65
years desperately trying not to confront the question of national
identity, the rights of minorities in Germany and the exercise of German
self-interest. The Germans have embedded themselves in multinational
groupings like the European Union and NATO to try to avoid a discussion
of a simple and profound concept: nationalism. Given what they did last
time the matter came up, they are to be congratulated for their exercise
of decent silence. But that silence is now over.
The Re-emergence of German Nation Awareness
Two things have forced the re-emergence of German national awareness.
The first, of course, is the immediate issue — a large and indigestible
mass of Turkish and other Muslim workers. The second is the state of
the multinational organizations to which Germany tried to confine
a military alliance consisting mainly of countries lacking militaries
worth noting, is moribund. The second is the state of the European
Union. After the Greek
and related economic crises, the certainties about a united Europe
have frayed. Germany now sees itself as shaping EU institutions so as
not to be forced into being the European Union’s ultimate financial
guarantor. And this compels Germany to think about Germany beyond its
relations with Europe.
It is impossible for Germany to reconsider its position on
multiculturalism without, at the same time, validating the principle of
the German nation. Once the principle of the nation exists, so does the
idea of a national interest. Once the national interest exists, Germany
exists in the context of the European Union only as what Goethe termed
an “elective affinity.” What was a certainty amid the Cold War now
becomes an option. And if Europe becomes an option for Germany, then not
only has Germany re-entered history, but given that Germany is the
leading European power, the history of Europe begins anew again.
This isn’t to say that Germany must follow any particular foreign
policy given its new official view on multiculturalism; it can choose
many paths. But an attack on multiculturalism is simultaneously an
affirmation of German national identity. You can’t have the first
without the second. And once that happens, many things become possible.
Consider that Merkel made clear that Germany needed 400,000 trained
specialists. Consider also that Germany badly needs workers of all sorts
who are not Muslims living in Germany, particularly in view of
Germany’s demographic problems. If Germany can’t import workers for
social reasons, it can export factories, call centers, medical analysis
and IT support desks. Not far to the east is Russia,
which has a demographic crisis of its own but nonetheless has spare
labor capacity due to its reliance on purely extractive natural
resources for its economy. Germany already depends on Russian energy. If
it comes to rely on Russian workers, and in turn Russia
comes to rely on German investment, then the map of Europe could be
redrawn once again and European history restarted at an even greater
Merkel’s statement is therefore of enormous importance on two levels.
First, she has said aloud what many leaders already know, which is that
multiculturalism can become a national catastrophe. Second, in stating
this, she sets in motion other processes that could have a profound
impact on not only Germany
and Europe but also the global balance of power. It is not clear at
this time what her intention is, which may well be to boost her
center-right coalition government’s abysmal popularity. But the process
that has begun is neither easily contained nor neatly managed. All of
Europe, indeed, much of the world, is coping with the struggle between
cultures within their borders. But the Germans are different,
historically and geographically. When they begin thinking these
thoughts, the stakes go up.