I've been doing this for almost 20 years. Over and over again. As the son of guest workers from Andalusia with a degree in journalism and a modest amount of success, I am writing a piece about immigration. It has become my periodic duty to explain to Germans what it is like to live many, many years in this beautiful, strange country without a German passport. More than anything: What that feels like.
What, for example, it feels like when Bavarian conservatives with the CSU whipsaw from contemplative caroling under the cross, like at Christmas 2013, to delivering hateful screeds against foreigners and presenting the party's next intolerant campaign slogan: "If you lie, you fly." Someone always wonders, how do foreigners feel about such things? So they call me. And I write.
They call me because my biography supplies me with a certain degree of expertise. My parents came as Spanish guest workers in the 1970s and, seen objectively, they are a monstrous example of failed integration. For decades, they worked on the assembly line of a tire factory and even today, neither my father nor my mother is able to read these lines. Both speak only broken German and they never had German friends or even acquaintances. When their landlord at some point allowed them to mount a satellite dish on the rooftop, they watched almost exclusively Spanish TV. Yet neither of them has a bad word to say about the country that never really became their home: Germany.
I can remember the time when the disgusted father of my first love -- he was a butcher from town -- called up. I was nine years old. He screamed into the phone: "Your son no seeing my daughter, or police, and back to España!" I can remember the time when my brother and I were stopped by a policeman with the racial slur: "And where did the two Kanaks get their bicycles." I can remember that the teller at the bank used the informal "du" when talking to my father although he used the formal "Sie" for all other customers. I can remember a teacher telling me in response to a paper I had turned in: "Since the defeat of the Armada, you Spaniards haven't amounted to much."
For my parents, such people were never "the Germans." They were simply people. And there were such people everywhere, no more in Germany than in Spain. They were isolated cases. And when I got older and told them that there was a damned lot of "isolated cases," they told me that neither I nor my two brothers would have gone to university had we stayed in our Andalusian village. They said that "the Germans" had given them work at a time when Spain was unable to feed its own people. My parents had, and still have today, one overriding emotion for this country where they never integrated: Gratitude. Plus, things are getting better, my father recently told me. In the 1970s and '80s, it was much worse, he said, positing that Germans had become nicer and less xenophobic.
Have Things Changed?
That is exactly the question that I would like to answer with this piece. Are things better today? Are my parents right? Are Germans less xenophobic than they used to be? Have things changed in the last 20 years?
Germany has become a different country: that much seems safe to say. Berlin had a gay mayor; the chancellor has no children and is on her second husband; a politician was elected to a state governorship despite having a child in an extra-marital affair. Anything goes. Tattooed 60-year-olds listen to better music these days than their children -- and their baggy jeans are baggier too. The country has become unrecognizable. The 2006 World Cup, hosted by Germany, has become the symbol for this transformation into a relaxed, lively, funny and who-knows-what-else country. Now, we have this happy event-patriotism that wells up every two years for the European Championships and the World Cup, gathers not far from my apartment on the main street through Berlin and gets fall-over drunk. It is not a dangerous patriotism -- it wears a black-red-gold wig.
But if that is the case, if everything has become so light and enlightened -- why were there 200 attacks on refugee hostels in Germany in the first half of this year? How do rampaging neo-Nazis fit in with New Germany?
I drove to Dusseldorf to meet the man who, for me, personifies the change that my parents talk about. It was a humid day in mid-summer, in the heart of vacation season, and Armin Laschet, deputy head of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, received me on the terrace of the state parliament building in Dusseldorf, cigarette in hand. He was in a good mood, had unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and started off by pointing out how beautiful the Rhine River looked. Laschet is head of the opposition in the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament.
I wanted to talk to Laschet because he is, for me, a symbol. From 2005 to 2010, Laschet was integration minister in the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, thus becoming the first integration minister the country had ever seen. Until he took office, there had only been integration commissioners. And integration commissioners had virtually no staff, no budget and nothing to report. In return, they were allowed to pose as the voice of Germany's immigrants. Liselotte Funcke, who filled the role from 1981 to 1991, was nicknamed "Mother of the Turks." Her successor, Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, was in office for seven years and was never once invited for an official chat with Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Nobody really took these people seriously, no matter how hard they may have tried. The foreigners didn't, because they knew that nothing would change. And the Germans didn't either, because nobody really knew what they were there for.
Then Laschet arrived on the scene. He wasn't a leftist, he wasn't from the Green Party, wasn't a utopian and didn't believe in multi-culturalism. He was from the CDU. And he was a cabinet minister. Yet he said things that one wasn't used to hearing from CDU politicians. "It shouldn't make any difference if someone is named Öztürk or Schmidt," for example. Or, in reference to a study on trades in Germany, he said: "The master craftsman of the future will be Turkish."
A Country of Immigrants?
Laschet was our man. The center-left government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, which came to an end just as Laschet took office, had already changed some things for the better. There was a new citizenship law and a renewed commitment to integration. Things had begun to move.
As an immigrant, I was pleased. The agriculture minister defends the interests of farmers, the economy minister defends the interests of companies, Laschet defended my interests. He was a conservative Catholic from Aachen, but he supported southern Europeans, Sinti and Muslims. Only in North Rhine-Westphalia, but still. He was proof that change was possible, even within the party of Helmut Kohl.
Hard as it is to believe today, Kohl said in an important policy speech in 1991 that "Germany is not a country of immigration." Following the arson attack in Solingen in 1993, in which the couple Mevlüde and Durmus Genç lost two daughters, two granddaughters and a niece, Kohl didn't once manage to say "my sympathies," as though to do so would have amounted to an admission of guilt. Instead, he coined the phrase "condolence tourism" -- and refused to go to the funeral.
Armin Laschet, by contrast, visited the grave in Turkey and left behind a memorial wall. It was but a gesture, but what else can one do for parents whose children were set on fire by racists?
Who, then, would be better positioned to talk about changes in this country than Laschet, a man who, in my opinion, turned Germany's biggest political party on its head.
Laschet escorted me from his terrace into his meeting room and sat down at the round table. His primary focus continues to be immigration: Indeed, many in his party refer to his as "Turk-Armin." Laschet knows the numbers and can recite them without pause: 16.5 million people in Germany come from immigrant families, 9.7 million of them have German citizenship. There are 4 million Muslims in Germany, half of them citizens, and 96.6 percent of people with immigration backgrounds live in former West Germany, leaving just 3.4 percent, or around 570,000 people, for former East Germany.
I asked him about the burning asylum hostels, about the right-wing riots in the small, previously unknown Saxon town of Heidenau and about the ever-increasing numbers of refugees coming to Germany. Laschet seemed unperturbed. "All of this reminds me of the situation 20 years ago. The situation in Germany was quite similar. Back then, war was raging in the Balkans and more and more people were coming to us." And Germany coped with the situation back then, too, Laschet told me.
A Terrible Period
For me, it was a terrible time, and not just because of the economic crisis that hit my family as well. My father lost his job, as did more than a third of all foreign workers in Berlin between 1993 and 2003. They found themselves in direct competition with those coming from former East Germany -- people who were actually worse off than they were. Several of my father's Spanish friends were laid off and, after 20 years in Germany, returned to Spain, where they never again found work. As I said, it was a terrible period.
In addition, hardly a single migrant in Germany has forgotten Hoyerswerda 1991, Mölln 1992 and the pogrom in Rostock-Lichtenhagen that same year. The mood in the media was charged -- and divided. Some were crying: "No one is illegal!" The others: "The boat is full!" The boat people won out and asylum rights were massively restricted. Instead of calm came Solingen. The situation only began to relax once the refugee numbers started to fall. For the first time, my father considered leaving Germany.
I don't think Germans ever really understood what this period did to many Turks, Italians, Spaniards and Arabs in the country. Pretty much every immigrant knew at the time, and knows today, that the vast majority of Germans don't hate foreigners and repudiate xenophobic violence. Just as many Germans know that most Muslims see violence-prone hate preachers as criminals. And the Islamic State in Syria as a bunch of murderers.
People know that. But an uncomfortable feeling lingers nonetheless, along with the conviction that "Islam doesn't belong to Germany," even though it has been here for 40 years. On the other side, there are crescent-moon flags flapping on balconies in Kreuzberg -- and people who have never lived in Turkey booing Mesut Özil because he plays for the German national team and not for Turkey.
What, then, does Laschet think? Have things improved?
Armin Laschet sat on his terrace blinking into the sun and launched into a dissertation that sounded like a beautiful Rhine melody. In his sing-song accent, even heavy subjects become light as a feather, which is an unimaginable advantage for a politician. In summary, Laschet said: Asylum seekers from the Balkans have to get their own hostels and be deported more quickly. And the others must be taken care of. Peace will ultimately return to Syria, the people will head back home and, in the end, Germany will be seen as a country that helped the Syrian people in a time of need. That was more or less Laschet's message.
That is also why Laschet proposes a significant increase to the number of countries designated as "safe countries of origin." In addition, he hopes to convince the CSU, the CDU's Bavarian sister party -- which is traditionally even more averse to immigration than the CDU itself -- to support a new immigration law for Germany. Initially, the CDU wasn't interested in such a law either, but Laschet helped convince his fellow conservatives. The goal, after all, is not more immigrants, but better immigrants.
"We'll find a compromise with Bavaria. And I can also explain it better to people here than I could before. A lot has changed," he said. A shortage of skilled workers, an aging populace and future pension shortfalls: It is the trinity of horrors looming over Germany's future. According to Laschet, it's either that or immigration, and issues that even the most conservative local party chapter can understand. He is confident that Germany will soon have a new immigration law, despite ongoing CSU opposition. The passage of such a law would mean that people from the Balkans wouldn't have to apply for asylum if all they really wanted was to find work in Germany. That, Laschet said, is something that needs to change. But, he added, you also have to understand the people in Germany: Many of them are afraid.
Of course Laschet is right. Such fears are human. The feeling "There are too many of them" can be found everywhere and it is nothing new. At the end of the 19th century, for example, huge numbers of Poles came, resulting in fears in Germany of being overwhelmed. Back then, the worry was that too many Catholics were coming. In 1945, over 12 million Germans were expelled from areas Germany lost possession of as a result of World War II and homes had to be found for them in what remained of the country. In 1947, fully 24.3 percent of the population in the Soviet Zone, which would later become East Germany, was made up of expellees and refugees. I think about that sometimes when I see older "concerned citizens" from eastern Germany on television. I believe them when they say they are afraid. I believe it is sincere. But I'm sorry: A racist who is a racist because of deeply felt fear is still a racist.
I left Dusseldorf with Laschet's melody still playing in my ear. "It will get better," he said. It took a while, but he thinks the country is on the right track.
But is it? I was soothed by Armin Laschet's unimpeachable agenda. But not even my political hero, it would seem, is able to answer my question as to whether this country has become friendlier to foreigners in the last 20 years. I have just been called too often in recent years with requests to write about this issue. Each time, the central problem -- namely, the unspoken sentiment: "We don't want you here" -- comes in a different package. Asylum compromise. "Core culture." Honor killings. Poverty migration. Minaret ban. Germanophobia. Multi-cultural. Asylum abuse. Refusal to integrate. Head-scarf debate. Sarrazin. Rütli School. Pegida.
These key words are often accompanied by radical political rhetoric. We foreigners were once told that, to become a German citizen, newcomers had to "know more than just the word 'welfare.'" Then we were told that we should speak German in our own homes, something that I never do with my daughter, for example. Then, potentially criminal foreigners were to be detained, even if they hadn't (yet) done anything wrong. There's been talk of intelligence tests for migrants, of forced relocation to avoid the development of ghettos, of forcing imams to preach in German, of deporting people who didn't pass a German language test, of cutting social benefits for non-Germans.
As I said, it is tempting to believe what Laschet says. In the final analysis, that would mean that the right-wing populist party AfD, the anti-Muslim group Pegida and arson attacks on refugee hostels were merely the final twitches of a Germany that is fading into the past -- that it will soon be over. If things are getting better all the time, at some point they will be good -- and someday, our grandchildren will be amazed at the stories we tell. Just like I am amazed today that women were once not allowed to vote. Or that homosexuality was a crime. Or that children were raised with the belt. Maybe we will, in fact, believe at some point that someone named Mohammed al-Fatih would make a perfectly good German chancellor.
I continue my journey to Leipzig, to the next person who is an expert on foreigners. Oliver Decker is a psychologist, sociologist and philosopher. He received his PhD, became a professor and has focused his academic attentions for the last 13 years on right-wing extremism and xenophobia. Last year, he published his latest study, which was widely quoted in the press. The conclusion: Germans have become less xenophobic. Whereas 9.7 percent of Germans still had a right-wing extremist weltbild 13 years ago, only 5.4 percent do today. Anti-Semitism, sympathy for National Socialism, support for a dictatorship: all of that, Decker wrote, is on the wane. That seemed to be the answer to my question. Right down to the decimal point.
Decker is a calm man with a penchant for holding forth in long and complicated sentences. I meet him in a café not far from Leipzig University, where he works. We order something to eat, but before our food comes, Decker makes it clear to me that Laschet is wrong. "There is only an ostensive reduction in xenophobia," Decker says, explaining that the rejection of certain groups has become more acute. Sinti, Roma and Muslims, for example, are more disapproved of than they used to be, he says.
According to Decker, many Germans feel there are two types of foreigners: the useful and the useless. "The Italians brought us their cuisine, so they can stay," Decker says with ironic bitterness. Americans, Britons, French and Spaniards all integrate well, find work and pay taxes. But if people believe that newcomers don't contribute, they are rejected even more than before. Someone once called it "Usefulness-racism."
Decker says that the German identity is deeply bound up with the economy. "Even the poor are proud of the fact that the world envies us for our economy. If that is threatened by immigration, acceptance begins to fall," he says.
So is it all just a big misunderstanding, this new German tolerance of foreigners?
Decker smiles. "Germany is currently experiencing a period of economic sunshine, which has led to a reduction in xenophobia. I will be interested to see what studies find a few years from now."
I take my leave from Decker. What now?
Welcomed with Pretzels
I don't know if my parents are right, if the politician Laschet is right or if the sociologist Decker is right. I simply don't know. Maybe I've been thinking about this issue for so long that I simply can't imagine it will ever go away. That it may really cease to matter where somebody is from. That a German landlord will no longer immediately hang up when someone with a Turkish name calls looking for an apartment.
Maybe we are currently experiencing a great moment, the birth of a brand new Germany. A country that doesn't just put on colorful wigs but which also opens its heart. It could be that this country is currently showing the heart and the largesse of which my parents often spoke -- and which, to be honest, I never really saw. I hope that is the case. I don't want the 200 attacks on asylum hostels to determine my viewpoint. But I also don't want everyone to act as though everything were totally fine just because refugees are being welcomed to Munich with pretzels.
For as long as I can remember, I have had the feeling that the majority of Germans don't actually want foreigners here. Right now, that is changing. Whether it is changing for good, I don't know. Whether it has to do with the fact that Germany is doing better than almost every other country on the planet and that's why people are so relaxed? I don't know.
What really gives me hope is one single number: Over 30 percent of people in Germany under the age of 15 have immigration backgrounds. When they get married in 20 years, it is theoretically possible that half of the people living in the country won't be so-called "biological Germans." That, and only that, makes me believe that, in the end, my parents may be proven right.