by Annabelle Luecker
Over the last few weeks, there has been much talk from numerous political commentators as well as spectators regarding the extent to which the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been hit by the political consequences of the Refugee Crisis.
This is with particular reference to the number of concessions she has been forced to make to her Minister of the Interior (Horst Seehofer). The compromises which Merkel has had to make entail new and stricter screening policies at the border between Germany and Austria, and getting rid of transit centres that process new asylum seekers and instead the transit process will now occur in police stations, as announced by Seehofer in early July. Additionally, the method for handling asylum applications according to the Dublin Agreement (which is the policy that regulates refugee intake across the European Union) will be sped up considerably. This is the price that Merkel had to pay to keep her majority in the Bundestag. Merkel’s position now stands in stark contrast to the government position. In 2005, which celebrated Germany as a country welcoming to immigrants from all over the world.
There have been a few reasons proposed as to why the issue has unfolded in such an unpleasant and dramatic fashion. The first hypothesis was that Seehofer sees Merkel as a politician approaching her sell-by date, and is being driven by ambition in the hope that anti-refugee sentiment will deliver him the Chancellorship. The second is that Germany is perceived to be bearing too much of the burden for what is a European-wide policy and that the German political order resents the likes of Orban’s Hungary getting a free pass. I, however, am going to suggest that these reasons read or try to read too much into Seehofer’s thought process. Instead, I shall argue that these supposedly seismic events of the last month or so are really just responses to the rise in the electoral prospects of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The CSU, as the more socially conservative of the two main parties, is the one under most significant threat from this right-wing populist mob. As such, they have been forced to turn on immigration to remain politically relevant.
Perhaps one of the greatest myths of German liberal thought is that Germany is a country which is mostly free of the xenophobia which plagues other European nations. It is correct to say that Germany does have a comparatively well integrated Turkish population. However, it is history, and not pluralism, which explains why this is the case. Since the end of the second world war there had been a growing demand for labour forces, especially cheap labour. So when in the 1950’s there were shortages of labour forces the federal government decided to employ foreign workers temporarily, this was called “Agreement on the Recruitment and Placement of Workers” (“Abkommen über Anwerbung und Vermittelung von Arbeitskräwften”). This agreement welcomed labour workers, who were unskilled or semi-skilled and therefore, could be paid little money to do the “unattractive” work, which was first agreed to with Italy in 1955. Later Greece, Spain (both in 1960), Turkey (1961), Morocco (1963), Portugal (1964) Tunisia (1965) and finally, Yugoslavia (1968) also joined the agreement. It was widely assumed that these “guest workers” would not stay long, but for two years at most. Therefore, worrying about long-term residence for the workers was not a concern of economic and political actors. At the beginning of the “Agreement on the Recruitment and Placement of Workers” there was a relatively low number of recruitment workers; however, after more countries agreed to the contract the population of foreign workers increased rapidly and in 1964 Germany welcomed the millionth “guest worker”.
After foreign workers coming into Germany only increased further and further, West Germany took action, and on November 23, 1973, the recruitment ban (Anwerbestop) was set in place. However, many workers did not leave Germany, and due to the right to family reunification, they arranged for their families to come to Germany too. To the end of the 1980’s the immigration levels stayed modest, but they started growing again in the 1990’s, becoming even more prominent than the numbers of immigrants during the “guest workers” era. This was due to the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as geopolitical changes meaning a more substantial number of asylum seekers, migrants and ethnic Germans from former German settlements. This rise in immigrants triggered new and bigger waves of xenophobic hostility, resulting in several violent incidents throughout Germany (Rostock, Solingen, Hoyerswerda and other places). As immigration figures went down again in the mid-1990’s violence against immigrants also went down significantly.
However, make no mistake, it is clear to see that Germany has still not managed to make the progress that it proclaims to have made. Two contemporary events have shed light on the amount of work that Germany still has to do. The first was the response to the German National side’s premature exit from the World Cup. Given that football is a team sport, it would seem reasonable to distribute blame between many different parties. However, the majority of German media (Bild in particular) decided to focus on Mesut Ozil in particular. For those of you who are not fans of football, Ozil is a German footballer of Turkish descent. He felt that the criticism was so racially charged that he has made clear his intentions to retire from international football. One quote from him hit at the core of European attitude towards immigration.
‘When we are winning, I am a German. When we are losing, I am an immigrant.’
As is often true with most stories, there is more than one facet to the response that Ozil received. The first thing to note is that Ozil has a football style which is easy to criticise, as it comes across as lazy and lacking in commitment. This is never a good impression to give when representing your country. The other, more significant, issue, is that Ozil has been photographed with Turkish Autocrat President Erdogan on a few different occasions. This cast certain doubts about his commitment to liberal democratic values, given the ability of celebrities to lend legitimacy to cruel regimes.
The other clear example of this and something which has been oddly lacking in publicity outside of Germany has been the conclusion of the NSU (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund) murder trials. This resulted in the sentencing of Beate Zschäpe to life imprisonment on charges of arson and murder. The reality is that Germany has a thriving neo-Nazi scene which has been driven underground because of the bans on Nazi iconography and the unwillingness to confront the past head-on. In this case, the hatred of the NSU manifested itself in political violence. This resulted in the death of Turkish shopkeepers all over the country. What was equally intriguing was the way in which the media would refer to the attacks. The most common phrase to describe the murders were Dönermorde (which literally translates to the Donner Murders). This shocking use of dehumanising language was not even restricted to the German tabloid media. The formal name of the murders was the Bosporus Serial Murders, feeling it was appropriate to not focus on the modus operandi and instead focus on the ethnicities of the slain.
Whether we are looking at German language, culture, society, or politics, it becomes increasingly clear to see that Germany is far from the haven Merkel believed it to be. She was out of touch with this reality from the beginning of her Chancellorship, and this is a delusion which has only gotten worse throughout her tenure in office. Her belief that she could head a conservative alliance with such liberal immigration policy suggests that she no longer has the sense of volksgeist which serves her so well up to this point. This loss of the common touch is the Achilles heel with often causes the downfall of democratically elected leaders who have served for an extended period of time. Perhaps Merkel’s most significant challenge is an indicator that it also should be her last.
Annabelle Luecker is a high school student in the United Kingdom who specialises the ethnic politics of Europe. She spends her spare time honing her competitive debating skills, and is about to undertake a seminar on the psychology behind public communication and the use of language in political discourse.