Who Are We? Examining the State of German Identity

Integration and immigration are extremely controversial issues in the Germany of today. What do they say about the state of German identity? A handful of new books add fuel to the already blazing fire.

Janek Stroisch

By


Six years ago, back in 2012, things weren't all that different than they are today. Angela Merkel was chancellor and Joachim Löw was the head coach of the German national football team. That year, though, a novel was published called "Look Who's Back," a white-covered tome with a swatch of dark, parted hair across the top and the letters in the title arranged in a perfect rectangle, almost like a small moustache. The face was familiar, and everyone knew who the title was referring to: Adolf Hitler. The book imagined him reawakening in Berlin in the year 2011 -- and picking up where he left off.

The book was comedy, to be sure, but the return of Hitler was obviously a metaphor. There was something in the air, something that cried out for a political response, and the author, Timur Vermes, had obviously sensed it. His novel remained at the top of the DER SPIEGEL best-seller list for 19 weeks, it was translated into 43 languages and was also made into a feature-length film. Over 3 million copies were ultimately printed. A sensation.

Now, Timur Vermes has a new novel on the way called "Die Hungrigen und die Satten," or "The Hungry and the Rich." It is a title that sounds as though it could have come from the pen of Dostoyevsky, like it is a deadly serious book. But "The Hungry and the Rich" is intended as entertainment, full of satire, surprising twists and vanity. For the author, though, the issue is a weighty one, because the actual subject of the book isn't funny at all. Vermes writes about us, the well-off, satiated Europeans -- and of a European Union that has completely sealed off its external borders and integrated the North African states into this system. And it tells of the masses of the hungry, the refugee routes that only reach as far as the Sahara, of lives lived in giant camps.

Vermes' novel essentially portrays exactly what the German public and the West are currently discussing in our ongoing integration and immigration debates. They are debates about our societal identities, about our self-image -- about the single, overarching question: Who are we?

Putting Germany Under the Microscope

There likely won't be a single, grand answer to this question. Indeed, there probably never will be one given how increasingly individualized, if not atomized, our society has become. It is possible, however, to come up with several different answers, snapshots of the country and its people from different angles, all of which can be assembled into a larger image.

Berlin psychologist Ahmad Mansour has also placed the country under the microscope in his new book called "Frank Words About Integration: A Plea Against Misplaced Tolerance and Scaremongering." Mansour's is the critical gaze of an immigrant: one that is cast on the Germans as well as on the immigrants.

Also entering the fray is Thilo Sarrazin, with his new book "Hostile Takeover: How Islam Hinders Progress and Threatens Society." His new book also offers a snapshot of the state of German society, albeit from a very distinct angle. Like Vermes, Sarrazin found significant success as an author several years ago, having identified an issue that would stir society and exploiting it to sell truckloads of books. But in his best-seller "Germany Abolishes Itself," a screed against immigrants and Islam, he took a radically different tack than did Vermes.

Whenever Sarrazin weighs in, divisiveness is certain and a bitter debate is predictable. In the run-up to the release of his latest book, a few prominent members of the political party he belongs to, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), are rekindling the long-running debate over whether it might be better to finally kick the man out of the party because of his anti-Islam views. So far, though, very few have had the chance to read his new book. In it, Sarrazin assumes the role of armchair Islam scholar. Unlike Sarrazin's previous works, "Hostile Takeover" will not be released by publisher DVA. The author and his previous publishing house are currently embroiled in a legal battle over a significant sum of money, with Sarrazin demanding 800,000 euros. The tabloid Bild first reported on the lawsuit at the beginning of July, and the case has been simmering ever since, with increasing media attention. In an interview with the weekly Die Zeit, the publisher at DVA expressed concern that the book would amplify "anti-Muslim prejudice." Although this wouldn't be anything new for the author.

Sarrazin's new publishing house, Finanzbuch-Verlag -- which is part of a larger publishing conglomerate and is increasingly developing into a platform for well-known right-wing writers -- will only send review copies to journalists if they sign a contract that stipulates a fine of 50,000 euros if they break the book's embargo. Why is such a thing necessary? It just goes to show yet again that it is Sarrazin's opponents who are his most effective form of advertising. "Hostile Takeover" is scheduled to be published on Aug. 30, three days after Timur Vermes' book. So far, the two have never met personally, and one can assume their battle for primacy of opinions will be carried out on the best-seller lists. For now, Sarrazin is ahead, with his book already in first place on Amazon, even before its publication.

Vermes lives in Munich, a city in which the metamorphosis of German society has become particularly visible, a city that has evolved from the "capital of the movement," as it was known during National Socialism, to the capital of the welcoming culture toward refugees. And it is a city embroiled in a political debate focusing on refugee policy as the state of Bavaria heads towards elections in September. The state's leading political party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has adopted a hardline approach to the issue, one that is far to the right of its national sister party, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Vermes is sitting in a café overlooking the city's Jewish Museum -- a statement in itself. Asked if he feels his novel "Look Who's Back" was a harbinger of what is happening in Germany today, he says: "The criticisms of Merkel that Hitler voiced in my book can be heard today at any Pegida demonstration." Pegida is the xenophobic group that organizes regular anti-Islam protests in Dresden.

Has Germany Shifted to the Right?

The refugee crisis and its aftermath, the rise of Pegida and of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany political party (AfD), the resulting question as to whether the country has shifted to the right and whether it is once again turning to politicians who aren't that far away from what Hitler once thought. All of that was difficult to divine at the time "Look Who's Back" came out. The spirit of 1968 seemed to have won out, with the Germans growing ever more liberal. It was no longer a country to fear, but one in which terms like "cosmopolitanism" and "tolerance" had become maxims. It was a bright Germany, not the dark Germany of the past. And it was embodied by a CDU chancellor who was actually more center-left than center-right.

In "The Hungry and the Rich," Angela Merkel, this left-leaning conservative, is no longer in office. The government in the book is led by her party, the conservative Christian Democrats, in coalition with the environmentalist Greens, while Nadeche Hackenbusch, a trash star with a private TV station, hosts a reality show called "Angels in Squalor," directly from an African refugee camp. But Hackenbusch is a trash star with a loftier mission, her show a mixture of "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here" and "The Super Nanny." Timur Vermes himself once worked for the Cologne tabloid Express and the celebrity rag Bunte. Now he seems to have enjoyed parodying that world in his new novel. The audience he's targeting aren't the kind of people who read the editorials in major newspapers. Instead, he has turned to those who have long since lost interest in the leading media voices -- or were never interested in the first place. "I can reach certain people who aren't in the left-wing camp," he says. Vermes is an ironic, unpretentious person who comes to the interview by bicycle and later has the leftovers of his cheese sandwich wrapped up because, as he says, it would be a shame to let it go to waste. Or perhaps he does so merely for the benefit of the DER SPIEGEL journalist. But he does come across as authentic. And he has a message.

It's a message the he formulates in the second half of his novel. The mood in Germany at this point in the book has become apocalyptic. Nadeche Hackenbusch has morphed from trash queen into a kind of Mother Theresa for the refugees, and is more loved by her wards than Merkel ever was, even at her zenith. She sets off on foot together with the refugees toward Germany. Along the way, the trail of people grows to 300,000, but as they approach the German border, the situation grows increasingly tense. There are right-wing radical citizens' defense groups, political murders and the wall is to be rebuilt -- this time as a protective wall against immigrants.

Optimism in the novel comes in the form of the German interior minister, an intelligent, long-time member of the CSU. In a talk show, he formulates a declaration that seems to precisely mirror Vermes' own views: Namely that the focus should not be on making the country's borders airtight, but on shaping migration policies in ways that benefit everyone. That benefit both the hungry and the rich.

In real life, of course, the CSU has taken a sharp right turn and made Merkel's life difficult with its inflexibility on migration and refugees. As such, the depiction in Vermes' book of the CSU interior minister is a bit jarring. In July, Vermes participated in a protest against the CSU on Munich's Königsplatz, one of several tens of thousands who marched against the party's refugee policies. The slogan of the demo, #ausgehetzt, was a clear implication that the CSU was inciting racial hatred -- and it relied on a word that used to be reserved for people like the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Is Hitler Really Back?

So, is Hitler really back? "Not Hitler himself," says Vermes. But, he argues, deputy AfD leader Alexandar Gauland has no problem with the fact that many of his followers and supporters are Nazis. And escalation is coming, he says. "The Gauland of today will be too soft tomorrow." And he says Sarrazin has created a business model out of accepting the sympathies of Nazis. "If I were to behave like him, then what would separate this behavior from that of the earlier Nazi party?"

In that sense, Vermes also stands for a leftist sphere that believes all those to their right are capable of the worst possible offenses. A sphere that fuels exactly the kind of polarization it blames on the right. It's the kind of escalation that has been seen recently in many Western societies, particularly in the United States.

It is a phenomenon that Ahmad Mansour became acquainted with back in the 1990s, when he lived in Israel. Born in 1976, Mansour is a Palestinian Muslim with Israeli citizenship. As a young man, he was a radical Islamist, but under the influence of the peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians in the mid-1990s, he became a supporter of then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Mansour has lived in Berlin since 2004. He studied psychology and today runs a consulting agency focusing on issues relating to Islamic extremism together with his wife Beatrice. In a sense, the couple is a product of the first Sarrazin debate. They got to know each other as university students while conducting research relating to Sarrazin's book "Germany Abolishes Itself." His second book, "Frank Words on Integration: A Plea Against Misplaced Tolerance and Scaremongering," has just been published.

"Rabin was absolutely my role model," says Mansour. "He was a great leader. But he was unable to bring the people along." Something similar is happening in Merkel's Germany, he believes. Policies that people can't get behind are dangerous, no matter how morally correct they may be, he says. Mansour describes a society in which only terminology is discussed and not the actual issues. "Two sides are formed. But polarization, the division of a society, is a very dangerous thing. I know that, because I come from a country that is so divided and so polarized that I couldn't stand it anymore."

An Insecure Country

Mansour says the dividing line in German society, the debate about integration, runs between the "overly tolerant and panic-mongers." Rather than focusing on the panic-mongers, his book dedicates more space to the overly tolerant. It discusses their selective understanding of multiculturalism and the inability of the left to criticize Islam as well as Christianity. It highlights the moral arrogance of those in the pro-immigration camp who "immediately label any criticism of the refugee debate as right-wing radical."

What ensues is an image of an insecure country and an insecure society, one in which teachers, youth welfare offices and the police would rather look away than intervene out of fear of being labeled as racists.

Mansour's book was already finished by the time Turkish-German professional football player Mesut Özil resigned from the German national team this summer, triggering a debate on racism in Germany under the hashtag #MeTwo. Mansour says he finds this campaign far too one-sided. "I have observed for years how many people get extremely comfortable in their victim complex." He says that Özil practiced "zero self-criticism," despite having made a mistake himself -- namely posing for a photograph with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and giving him a T-shirt dedicated to "my president."

Germany, Mansour says, "is no more racist than other countries and, by the way, no more so than the immigrants themselves." Mansour considers the political center and left to be partly responsible for the rise of the AfD. The party's success, he says, comes from the fact that "certain issues were yielded to them without a fight." "I would like to hear criticism of Ms. Merkel's refugee policies from places other than the AfD. I want to hear it from the center of society, too. Differentiated. What did Germany get right in 2015? What did we get wrong? Differentiation has eluded us because the fear of serving those on the right has become so great that we wind up doing so anyway by making the issue taboo."

Mansour speaks softly, with a gentle voice, but these days it would be difficult to find a more passionate advocate of constitutional patriotism in the spirit of Jürgen Habermas. "We must not allow ourselves to sacrifice our values on the altar of coexistence," Mansour writes in his book. "We need a leading culture that we can debate."

The German term Leitkultur, or leading culture, is a word that people in the leftist camp generally sneer at. It's one they see as standing for all they thought they had overcome since 1968 -- for the old German virtues that leftist politician Oskar Lafontaine once said were well-suited for running a concentration camp. The years 1933, 1945 and 1968 are all inexorably linked to one another by a tension that cannot be dissolved. Those who speak of a return of right-wing thinking must also address 1968, the year in which students broke with the old leading culture and pushed through a new one -- even if it isn't, of course, called a leading culture. Their fundamental position had always been that everything that stood for the right-wing was taboo. With Angela Merkel, this idea has become fully manifested. Indeed, one could say that it wasn't with the government of SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer that the 1968 generation finally reached its goal of social hegemony, but only with Merkel. And yet every hegemony also breeds contradictions.

Munich sociologist Armin Nassehi published an intelligent book in the spring about the student revolt and its cultural aftermath: "Did 1968 Actually Happen? A Search for Clues." Among other conclusions he draws in the book is that both constant moralization and the triumphant rise of pop culture, two elements that arose out of the 1968 movement, at some point melded with each other. And because the epitome of pop culture is posturing, that link ultimately resulted in moral posturing. Moral posturing that dominates today's discourse.

So, who are we as Germans?

If you lay the snapshots taken by Timur Vermes, Ahmad Mansour, Thilo Sarrazin and Armin Nassehi side by side, these disparate images of the current mood ultimately result in decisive and complementary images of an unsettled country in which some fear the Nazis and others fear the immigrants. A country in which the political camps often talk about each other but rarely to each other. A country in which one reacts to changes by repeating old beliefs even more resolutely.

A country in which political communication has become posturing: the moral posturing of the left and the nationalist posturing of the right. Both offer ideological security in times of upheaval. But they do little more than that.

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