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The new 

On being and becoming German – how the challenge presented by an influx of refugees can become a win-win constellation.


A total of 1.1 million people came to Germany as refu­gees and asylum seekers in 2015, and another 300,000 to 400,000 people are expected to join them in 2016. Many of these newcomers are convinced they will return to their countries of origin when the war or civil war is over. And German administrative practice assumes that too – however, the history of exile and migration shows that many of them will remain: some because they cannot return to their countries of origin and others because they have put down roots during their stay here.

A political dispute has broken out in Germany between two sides with strongly opposing views on how to treat these people: those who advocate the friendly and helpful acceptance of these new arrivals under the heading of a “welcome culture” and those who did not want to allow them into the country and now consider it important to get rid of them as soon as possible. Between them stand the great majority of the population who face this challenge with a mixture of annoyance about the aggressive mood of discourse and concern about the country’s capacity to integrate so many newcomers. Once again German society is engaging in a debate about its identity and the question of who the Germans are and who they want to be.

For those who tend to believe that identity is defined by ethnicity, there can of course be no “new Germans”. For them you are German by birth and cannot become one. For those who define being German in terms of culture, you can definitely become German, but to achieve that you must overcome the high hurdle of ­cultural assimilation. As a rule, the culturally based definition of what is German contains an underlying anti-Islamic sentiment: a Moslem, according to this subtext, cannot become a German. Both the ethnic and cultural defi­nitions therefore boil down to a concept of ­exclusion. Their main purpose lies in ensur­ing that the obstacles to permanent access to ­Germany are as high as possible and practic­ally insurmountable.

However, Germany has a problem – its low ­demographic reproduction rate. The country is dependent on immigration if it wants to maintain its position in the world economy, its level of affluence and the standard of ­pro­vision of its welfare state. It is possible to speak of a form of social reproduction that compensates for the shortfall in biological ­reproduction. This is nothing new: since the late German Empire, when Germany underwent the transformation from an agrarian country to an industrialised nation at the end of the 19th century, there has almost always been immigration from outside in addition to strong internal migration. It has also ­progressed in waves following major political upheavals: after the First and especially after the Second World War, since the 1960s in the shape of “Gastarbeiter” (guestworkers) and then again after the collapse of the Eastern bloc. The notion that Germany is not an immigration country is one of the ­life-lies of the Federal Republic that has ­constantly been repeated. In fact, however, there have always been “new Germans” in the past who have made their contribution to the reconstruction and the prosperity of the country. Neither the ethnic nor the ­cultural definitions of what it means to be German has hindered many of these ­newcomers from becoming German.

Modern societies do not by any means need to forego the idea of national cohesion and shared identity. But they must replace an ­exclusive with an inclusive definition of ­nation. An inclusive concept of nation and an open, flexible and forward-looking society go together very well. They complement one another perfectly and provide ­mutual support. There are five characteristics here that constitute what it means to be German in a modern society. Two of them are essentially socio-economic in ­nature. People assume that they will be in a position to provide for themselves and, 
if applicable, their families through their own work and effort. Naturally, there are social security systems, but they are only there for emergencies and not intended to give people an easy life.

This work ethos is linked, secondly, with the opportunity of upward social mobility associated with achievement. That is not only because this is the characteristic of an open society, but above all to prevent immigration leading to the creation of an “underclass” that keeps the newcomers permanently on the lowest rungs of the ­social ladder because of their origin, their name, the colour of their skin, their religion or their gender – even if upward social ­mobility possibly only occurs among the children.

In addition to these two socio-economic factors, however, there are also two socio-cultural characteristics of being German. First, there is the principle that religious faith is a private matter that has no defining role whatsoever in the shaping of the social and political order. Nevertheless, that does not rule out someone becoming involved 
in German society and contributing to the life 
of the community because of their personal faith. And another principle of Germanness is that everyone is free to lead their life in accordance with their own beliefs and this can not be prescribed by their family. And finally a very crucial part of being German or becoming German is a commitment to the ­Basic Law.

We certainly cannot rule out that some of those who have long-established roots in Germany do not satisfy one or other of these conditions. However, this proves that these characteristics are not simply a means of controlling access to Germanness, but also provide potential for revitalising society. This revitalisation must also engage those Germans who feel left behind in society because the increasingly widening gap between flourishing cities and depopulating rural areas leaves them feeling redudant. The importance of such a revitalisation is frequently underestimated, although it is essential for the self-affirmation of democratic societies. To that extent, what at first glance may seem a burden on German society – the acceptance, support and eventual integration of the refugees that have come to Germany – can become a revitalisation project that allows the Germans to strengthen their political and economic stability for the coming decades.

Integrating 1.5 million people into German society cannot therefore become a mere policy measure, an administrative act carried out by government agencies. Instead it involves an ­arduous process in which government, labour market and civil society must work together. There will be repeated setbacks and disappointments here because most of those who have come do not have the qualifications required by the German labour market. It will therefore be necessary to “invest” in these 
people, to spend money on language acquisition and training programmes. It will be important here to do this in the broadest and most comprehensive way possible and to ensure that this process of “empowerment” is not affected by the statutory sorting machine of German government agencies, in other words, their legal classification into persons in need of protection, recognised asylum seekers and persons with exceptional leave to remain. Not investing in people who then stay nevertheless will ultimately cost German society much more than making a determined effort to qualify them. The project of making new Germans out of those who have sought refuge in Germany faces the imperative of transforming a dramatic challenge into a win-win constellation from which not only refugees, but also German society can benefit. Fundamental rejection and hate, on the other hand, create what they claim to prevent: a disintegrating society that fails at its shared responsibilities. ▪