By Harry van Versendaal
Asked recently why Germany does not have a xenophobic populist party, Helmut Schmidt, the 91-year-old former Social Democratic chancellor, responded, “Nazism and Auschwitz.”
Its dark past has so far helped to spare Germany the rebirth of any influential anti-immigrant party, the likes of which have established themselves in nations with strong democratic credentials such as Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, its defenders say, has been working hard to make sure things stay that way – but not without some controversy.
Speaking to a gathering of young members of her Christian Democratic party in Potsdam last month, Merkel said that the country’s attempt to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed.” Merkel, known for her deft diplomatic approach, said that the idea that Germans and foreign workers could “live happily side by side” was an illusion.
The chancellor’s remarks were widely interpreted as a shift to the right, bringing her more in tune with her party’s conservative wing, which has advocated a more hard-line approach on the Integrationsverweigerer, or integration-deniers.
But some analysts beg to differ.
“It seems to me that she is misunderstood in the English media,” Riem Spielhaus, an Islam expert at the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin, told Athens Plus. “Actually in German you can interpret her statement as a shift from an exclusive to an inclusive approach, while she would still spice this up with some demands from immigrants,” she said.
The German model, however, can hardly be called multicultural. Germany invited millions of guest workers in the 1960s and 70s who were recruited almost exclusively in the country’s industrial sector. Most of them returned to their home countries but millions of others stayed. About 4 million Muslims live in Germany, a nation of 82 million. Most of them are of Turkish heritage.
“There was a lot of encouragement to go back until the late 1990s, but very little encouragement to integrate into German society in order to stay. And I think this is what Merkel was referring to with her statement,” Spielhaus said. “This has been the German model to ‘muddle through’ – if one can speak of one at all. That means there never has been a state policy accepting multicultural life,” she said.
At the same time, many immigrants have been reluctant to expose their offspring to the culture and values of the host country. Many refuse to even learn the language.
Merkel has from the beginning of her first term in government tried to change this by supporting the integration of immigrants and their offspring. Speaking ahead of a national integration summit this weekend, she said that more immigrants should work for the state in Germany.
Not everyone seems to share her cause. Last month, Horst Seehofer, state premier of Bavaria and a member of the Christian Social Union that is part of the coalition government, urged putting a halt to immigration from Turkey and the Arab countries. Seehofer underscored the need to defend the “dominant German culture” while warning that unless the country overhauled its immigration policy, it risked becoming “the world’s welfare office.”
His comments were no match for the controversy caused by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin. In his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany does away with itself) published late in the summer, Sarrazin, a social democrat, said Muslim immigrants were dumbing down German society because they are less educated but have more children than ethnic Germans. Sarrazin was fired from the Bundesbank but his book is flying off the shelves in Germany.
Data show that more Turks returned to Turkey last year than came to live in Germany, while a recent report by the German chamber of industry and commerce mentioned that the country lacks about 400,000 skilled workers. Nevertheless, a recent survey found that one-third of Germans think the country is “overrun by foreigners.” The same survey found 55 percent of Germans consider Arabs to be “unpleasant people.”
Analysts agree that economic insecurity and an influx of foreign migrants, both exasperated by globalization, have fueled popular anger at established political elites across the continent. Xenophobic populist parties have sought to capitalize on the trend – only this time they are not using the argument of race, but rather hijacking Enlightenment talk about freedom.
The party of Geert Wilders in The Netherlands – which recently signed up to a minority center-right coalition in return for a government pledge to introduce a ban on the burqa and stricter immigration controls – claims to be defending Western values of freedom and democracy against Islam.
“There is only one value right-wing parties have not borrowed from the Enlightenment, so to speak, and that is universalism,” Sjoerd de Jong, editor at the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, told Athens Plus. “Sure, they promote Western culture, but many times it’s just a universalized form of particularism: our culture as we know it,” said De Jong, author of “Een wereld van verschil” (A World of Difference) an analysis of Holland’s well-tested multiculturalism.
Wilders is currently on trial for inciting hatred against Muslims after remarks in which he compared Islam to fascism. But the procedure has not exactly caused him harm. “Wilders’s prosecution for hate-speech has only increased his popularity, as an angry outsider attacking a corrupt and ‘politically correct’ establishment,” De Jong said.
Wilders, De Jong argues, is cashing in on a major breach in trust between the Dutch government and a sizable part of the electorate regarding major issues such as immigration and integration. Holland, he says, is experiencing a backlash against the technocratic way the left-liberal coalition ruled from 1994 to 2002 that gradually evolved into a reaction “against the ‘spirit of May 68’ and leftist ideas in general.”
Pim Fortuyn, the slain anti-immigrant party leader, was one of the first to address these issues in a populist way, but he still veered to the left on cultural issues. Wilders, who has always been closer to the conservative movement in the United States, has taken the culture war to the next level: an all-out attack on Leftism. “His approach is altogether more harshly ideological than Fortuyn’s was. And while Fortuyn always kept a sense of humor, Wilders is just angry,” De Jong said.
Voter frustration over lackluster centrist parties has boosted right-wing parties in Austria where the xenophobic Freedom Party made a strong showing in recent provincial elections in Vienna, traditionally a center-left stronghold. In Sweden, a xenophobic anti-immigrant party that calls itself the Sweden Democrats has entered parliament for the first time, while in Denmark, the government depends on support from the nationalist Danish People’s Party.
Analysts are divided on whether letting populist parties join the government – provided they have enough votes – is the best way to moderate their message and influence. A decision to include the Freedom Party, then under Jorg Haider, in the government 10 years ago led to Austria’s diplomatic isolation by the European Union, but it was seen as key in sapping it of its power, as some within the party chose to water down their language to succeed in government.
Kasper Moller Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen, believes the carrot has worked in Denmark as the country’s populist party has largely moved away from the extreme views of 15 years ago. “They want to be part of the government, so they try to moderate their claims. They still are a party that wants to limit the number of immigrants, but in order to be part of the government they have to be more pragmatic on these issues,” Hansen told Athens Plus.
But De Jong has doubts whether that would do the trick in Holland. “Wilders is much too smart a politician to fall into this trap,” he said. “He has built his organization – remember, it’s not a party, but a movement, without members or party structure – as an opposition movement. He will never want to join a government at this stage of its development, still building and hunting for resources and talent,” he said.
Europe’s existentialist debate is set to heat up as countries try to come to terms not so much with the influx of migrants, but more so with the growth in migrant-origin families as the second and third generations emerge.
“These new generations are well-acquainted with the European political and social system, which enables them to participate, express themselves, criticize, rebel and sustain a more visible presence than their relatively quietist parents,” said Justin Gest, a political scientist at Harvard, author of the recently published “Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West.”
The process will sometimes be painful, but it is unavoidable. “The face of Europe is changing,” Gest said. “And anytime there is change, there will be resistance.”