The New Germans: Immigrant Children's Complicated Search for Identity

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One thing unites Khuê Pham, Özlem Topçu and Alice Bota: They are German citizens and the children of migrants in a country that has long struggled to define its relationship with foreigners. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, they describe the alienation of being first-generation Germans, but also their new role as their home becomes more cosmopolitan.

Khuê Pham, Özlem Topçu and Alice Bota: 'Those who grow up in Germany are Germans.' Zoom
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Khuê Pham, Özlem Topçu and Alice Bota: 'Those who grow up in Germany are Germans.'

Starting in the late 1800s, mass migration became the norm in America, with Ellis Island serving as the point of entry to millions coming from Germany and other European countries to the United States. The wave of migrants transformed the United States into a nation of immigration. For decades now, that multicultural identity has become something that people take for granted -- and it is increasingly reflected in all strata of society.

Over the past 50 years, Germany has ceased to be a country of mass exodus. Instead, it has experienced the first influx of immigrants in its history. After the signing of a labor recruitment agreement between West Germany and Turkey in 1961, millions of Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, were invited to come to help rebuild the country after the war and fuel its economic miracle. The idea originally had been that workers from Turkey and Southern Europe would come to Germany, work, save money and then leave the country after a certain period. But many put down roots, with tens of thousands staying to raise families. Along with the guest workers, immigrants from other countries like Poland, Russia and Vietnam also came to Germany.

A half century later, these immigrants have changed the face of Germany. Today there are 16 million residents who are either immigrants or their children, representing almost 20 percent of Germany's population of 82 million. Among those living in the country under the age of 25, one-quarter have foreign roots. More than half hold German passports, and the only things that differentiate them from other Germans are, at times, their appearance and family background. The country of Grimm's Fairy Tales, lederhosen and Cuckoo clocks has also become home to the Turkish döner kebab and Vietnamese phó. Germany's new diversity can be found in the furthest reaches of the country.

While the country may be home to two museums documenting the exodus of ethnic Germans to the United States a century ago, it doesn't have anything like Ellis Island commemorating the men and women who have left their homelands to establish new lives in Germany. At best, the relationship ethnic Germans have with immigrants has been an ambivalent one. Citizenship in the country was based on blood until 2000. In the United States and Britain, where citizenship is a birthright, no one questions the fact that the countries have become melting pots. In Germany, however, people seem to have trouble accepting the fact that it became an immigrant nation long ago.

'The Boat Is Full' Mentality

Very often Germans complain of the same immigration-related problems that one hears in the United States -- high school dropout rates are higher among immigrant students, crime is often linked to immigrants or they are accused of refusing to integrate into mainstream German society. But there is a key difference in Germany. Although many of the country's larger cities, like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, few speak of the possibility of any kind of melting-pot culture and many are resistant to the idea of a multicultural country. A prominent study on German views published in 2012 found that 47.1 percent of those surveyed believed that too many foreigners live in Germany. A 2009 study found that 46 percent of Germans agreed there are "too many Muslims" in the country.

Politicians -- and not just conservatives -- have not been shy about fueling such sentiments with populist catchphrases that were at times insensitive, and others that even bordered on being racist. When Germany debated launching its own green card program to attract foreign IT workers in 2001, Jürgen Rüttgers, a candidate with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for governor in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, made national headlines with his call for "Kinder statt Inder," or "Children Instead of Indians." During his re-election campaign as governor of Hesse in 2007, Roland Koch complained of "criminal young foreigners." After the publication of an anti-immigrant and Muslim tirade in 2010 by Thilo Sarrazin, a former board member of the German central bank with the center-left Social Democrats, conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is often criticized for pushing her party to the left, offered her own contribution to the debate: She claimed that multiculturalism in Germany had "failed utterly." The same year, Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union party, which shares power in Merkel's government, claimed that Germany is not a country of immigration. The subtext has always been that Germany has Christian roots and anything else must remain at the periphery -- or, even better, outside its borders.

But that's only one view of the dramatic demographic transformation Germany has undergone since the 1960s. In their new book "Wir Neuen Deutschen," or "We New Germans," three political reporters at the respected German weekly Die Zeit share their own experiences as children of immigrants who have gone to college and found success in society. In the book, they write of their hybrid identities in a country where a certain stigma is still attached to immigrants. The parents of Özlem Topçu moved from Turkey to Germany, where they worked in a factory in Flensburg and raised their children. Alice Bota's parents moved to Germany from Poland shortly before the fall of the Iron Curtain, a time when stereotypes about Poles as car thieves could still be heard in living rooms. And Khuê Pham's mother came from Vietnam to study German at the Goethe Institute in Germany, where she met her Vietnamese husband, a doctor, and settled down to raise a family.

'Our Germany ' or 'Your Germany? '

"We New Germans" describes a latent feeling of exclusion or alienation that still accompanies many children of immigrants who have grown up in Germany, attended its schools, are citizens and can navigate the language and culture as well as any "traditional" German. These three writers have moved from the margins to the center of German society and still feel this sense of not entirely fitting in. The impetus for the book, they write, was a "feeling of anger" they shared over living in "a society in whose self-image we do not exist. And over the fact that we are a part of a change (in society) that most would prefer to suppress. And over the fact that we don't know whether we should call this country 'our Germany' or 'your Germany'."

Rather than a damnation of Germany society, the book is packed with endearing anecdotes of growing up as the children of immigrants, and also chronicles the experiences of their parents. Rather than fighting back in the populist rhetoric of a Thilo Sarrazin, the authors appeal to Germans to become more open to a multicultural society that has already been a reality in Germany for decades. With a shrinking population that is no less than a demographic time bomb, they argue the country must learn to love its immigrants if it wants to maintain its status as an export world champion.

In an an exclusive excerpt from their book and interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Özlem, Bota and Pham share their experiences as "New Germans."


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did you decide to call the book, "We New Germans"?

Khuê Pham: Twenty percent of the people who live in Germany today come from immigrant families -- and that figure is growing. We wanted to point out there is always a tone of fear in discussions about integration -- talk of "criminal foreigners," high-school dropouts and immigrants who refuse to become a part of society. We wanted to counter those messages by peering into the future and showing that Germany is changing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Politicians and the media often refer even to second-generation Germans as people with "immigrant backgrounds." How do you feel about this choice of words?

Alice Bota: It came about because people wanted to be able to differentiate between "foreigners" and "non-foreigners," and this phrase was intended to show there is something in-between. The term wasn't originally intended to exlude people, but the it is often used in a negative context in the media -- especially in reporting on crime. "Immigrant background" is often followed by additional details -- that the perpetrator was Lebanese or German of Lebanese descent, for example. It ultimately has an excluding effect.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What would you propose instead?

Bota: Neue Deutsche, or New Germans.

Özlem Topçu: Some say, "I am German," but I think that is a minority. I prefer to say I'm "German-Turkish." "Immigrant background" doesn't say much about people and it's a term that could be applied to generation after generation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Despite the fact that you were born in Germany, or at least grew up here, you write that at some point in your lives you felt excluded in some way from society.

Pham: For example, when I tell people I was born here, they still ask where I came from. They sometimes have a hard time believing I am German. So they want to know where my parents came from.

Topçu: When you rise in society and begin making demands, you start feeling alienated. I write a lot about Muslims and immigrant issues. My writing often stirs up strong reactions. I get a lot of hate mail and I also keep copies of it. Very often the writers aren't nutcases, but people who are afraid of change. The more visible you are, the more you get attacked. Nevertheless, these hate mails aren't pleasant for me, though they come from a minority of people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Topcu, your parents came to Germany as guest workers. Years later, some people still think the laborers who came to help rebuild Germany during the 1950s and 1960s should return to their countries of origin. You write that on the day of your mother's retirement from the factory a colleague asked if she planned to return to Turkey.

Topçu: I first found out about this while interviewing my mother for this book. It made me really angry. How could a person ask this question to a colleague with whom they had worked for 35 years?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you ever been confronted with similar questions?

Topçu: No, but I do get a lot of questions about how things are "back home." By that they are not referring to Flensburg, where I grew up, but to Turkey. Questions like, "Are headscarves an issue in Istanbul?"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You all traveled to the countries of your parents' origin as children. Could you imagine living there now?

Bota: No way! Poland may be going through a major transformation right now -- it is becoming more European -- but it is still very conservative. I'm 32 now, most people my age have children and an apartment with a mortgage. I have chosen a different path. I speak the language fluently, but I make many mistakes. I could imagine working there as a correspondent for some time, but I don't belong to Polish society anymore. My home is Germany.

Topçu: My situation is different. My parents spoke Turkish with us at home and I often spent time in Turkey with my family. We complained about those trips as children, but we had close family ties there that have been brought closer today by the Internet. I could imagine living in Turkey for a while, but I would want to come back to Germany soon.

Pham: The last time I traveled to Vietnam, a few young members of the Communist Party asked me if I would consider moving there to help rebuild the country. For me it would be very difficult -- and not only because I am not good at the language. It's also a question of a culture that is very different. Women have a very different position in society in Vietnam and can't do the kinds of things that are self-evident here. There are many things that I really like there, but I am too Western to fit in.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Bota, you wrote that you get very upset about the "high price" you had to pay to integrate in Germany.

Bota: We had to deny our Polish heritage in order to become German as quickly as possible. During my childhood, many Germans still had negative views of Poland and I wanted to have nothing to do with it. At home, my parents spoke Polish, but I spoke back to them in German. German officials changed my name: from Alicja to Alice. Within a year, I learned to speak German without an accent. Many years later, at the age of 16, I went to the United States for a year as an exchange student. Being Polish didn't carry the same baggage there as it did in Germany. People just said, "Oh, great!" That was totally new to me. It was an important step that led me to decide to reclaim my second half, my Polish identity.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Topçu, you write that the issue of racism was never really addressed during your childhood until a string of deadly attacks against Turkish immigrants in Germany during the 1990s.

Özlem: That was the first time it became clear to me who the target was: us, the foreigners. We had five Turkish kids at my high school and we didn't stand out -- we were just like the other German students. Let me say it this way: We weren't visible, nobody was really interested in us or our way of living, our way of thinking. The attacks made it apparent to me that we were different.

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1. Germans need a little more pride
Inglenda2 09/29/2012
The problems with the children of migrants are not caused by Germany! On the contrary, I know of no other land which bends over backwards so much, in order to integrate such young people. It can sometimes be very embarrassing, for people of a another nationality, to observe how the public shown inferiority complex, of leading politicians, leads them to denounce their own citizens. The real difficulties begin within those families, who are not prepared to accept the environment of the country in which they have chosen to live. My daughter had no handicap, because of my being a foreigner in this country. Just the opposite, she has learnt to accept having roots in two countries, giving her a very open mind and therewith the chance to judge the advantages and disadvantages of both. Speaking two languages from early childhood on, has also proved to be a help when seeking employment.
2. Not really ! !
johann84 09/30/2012
Multiculturalism is not a reality in Germany and pushing it could be dangerous. Furthermore Germany got it's name from its inhabitants the 'Germans' who are a nation and according to the Oxford Dictionary 'nation' means: 'a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture and language, inhabiting a particular state or territory' Also this is my opinion being 27 yrs, having a BA in History and International Relations with summa cum laude and an MBA so not a skinhead or a 'nutter' and ideologically I am situated in the very middle of the political spectrum. P.S. It is a fair opinion so it would be inappropriate to ban from the site.
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Book Bag
  • "Wir neuen Deutschen, Wer wir sind, was wir wollen,"("We New Germans: Who We Are and What We Want") was published earlier this month in German by the Rowohlt publishing house. The German version can be ordered online through the SPIEGEL Shop. (Please note that all ordering prompts are in German.)
  • Order your copy at Amazon
About the Authors
  • Jens Boldt
    Alice Bota was born in Krapkowice, Poland, in 1979 and moved with her parents to Germany at the age of eight. Bota earned degrees in contemporary German literature and political science. After university, she also completed studies at the prestigious German Journalism School in Munich. She then joined the German weekly Die Zeit as a political editor and reporter. In 2009, she won the Axel Springer Prize for young journalists.

  • Jens Boldt
    Khuê Pham was born in Berlin in 1982. She completed a degree at the London School of Economics and later worked for the Guardian. After completing a journalism degree at the Henri Nannen School in Hamburg, she joined Die Zeit in Hamburg in 2010. She also previously worked as an intern at SPIEGEL ONLINE International and as a research assistance for NPR, an American public radio broadcaster, in Berlin.

  • Jens Boldt
    Özlem Topçu was born in 1977 in Flensburg, Germany. At university, she completed a degree in Islamic Studies, political science and media studies. She also received training as a journalist at the Axel Springer Journalism School. She has worked as a political editor and reporter at Die Zeit since 2009 and was the recipient of the Theodor Wolff Prize for reporting.


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