Opinion When It Comes to Integration, Silence Is Golden

Integration is back on the political agenda in Germany these days. The xenophobic rhetoric underscores decades of foreigner bashing by the country's politicians. And it may explain why immigrant youth here have fewer opportunities than in any other industrialized country.

"I am very much a supporter of integration." That is how Roland Koch, the conservative Christian Democrat governor of the state of Hesse, described his position on Germany's many citizens with an immigration background in a Monday interview with the Cologne daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.

Once again, integration has become part of an election campaign in Germany. As has often been the case, the outcome has not been pretty. Here, right-wing protesters in Munich last week hold a sign reading "Criminal Foreigners Out!"

Once again, integration has become part of an election campaign in Germany. As has often been the case, the outcome has not been pretty. Here, right-wing protesters in Munich last week hold a sign reading "Criminal Foreigners Out!"

Foto: DDP

But Koch, who is also deputy head of the CDU under Chancellor Angela Merkel, has had a busy couple of weeks, campaigning as he is for re-election in a Jan. 27 vote. And much of what he has said on integration has sounded quite different. Germany has "too many criminal young foreigners," he said recently. It is "not a country of immigration" like Canada or Australia. Moreover, "it must be clear that the slaughtering (of animals) in the kitchen … runs counter to our principles" -- as though that were widely practiced.

The rhetoric -- shocking as it may be for those who have been socialized in countries decidedly more sensitized to immigration than Germany -- comes in response to a brutal Dec. 20 attack. A 20-year-old Turkish man born in Germany and a 17-year-old immigrant from Greece beat up an elderly pensioner in a Munich subway station and called him a "Shit German." The man spent a few days in the hospital before insisting on being allowed to go home for Christmas.

The Xenophobic Playbook

But as disturbing as that attack was, it should be noted that the ominous overtones taken on by Koch's subsequent stump speeches hardly represent an oratorical novelty in Germany. Rather, it is reminiscent of decades of CDU ambivalence to Germany's continuous development into a country of immigration -- a country where just under 20 percent of the population now has an immigrant background. Indeed, the xenophobic playbook of past conservative campaigns in Germany is thick.

The political calculations made by Koch and his CDU forebears are as clear as they are cynical. A 2006 study undertaken by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence, part of Bielefeld University, found that a huge number of Germans might be receptive to Koch's xenophobic offensive. Fully 59.4 percent of Germans either "agree" or "strongly agree" with the statement that too many foreigners live in Germany -- an increase of 6 percent over 2002. In addition, 35.3 percent of those polled agreed that foreigners should be sent home should there be a shortage of jobs in Germany, up from 27.7 percent in 2002.

Koch has a history of trying to capitalize on such numbers. In 1999, he was campaigning for what would become his first term as Hesse's governor -- just as the government, under Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in coalition with the Green Party, was attempting to push through new citizenship laws. Koch began a controversial signature gathering campaign against allowing immigrants to hold on to their old passport when granted German citizenship. Guido Westerwelle, then as now head of the Free Democrats, commented that immigration policy "should be made with your head rather than your gut." SPD bigwig Günter Verheugen seconded him, calling Koch's campaign a "relapse into unreflected German jingoism."

Not long later, the key word for his CDU became "Leitkultur," or "leading culture." The idea was that there should be one, true culture in Germany, with the subtext that multiculturalism necessarily leads to social disintegration. Later, Schröder's government further angered Germany's conservatives with a law pushed through allowing skilled foreigners to immigrate. Jürgen Rüttgers, CDU governor of North Rhine-Westphalia promptly coined the phrase "Kinder statt Inder" -- or "children instead of Indians" -- to register his opposition.

Unwanted Permanence

The CDU -- and German -- past is riddled with such preposterousness. When immigrants began coming to Germany soon after the end of World War II to fill the labor gap created by war deaths and the Economic Miracle, they were called "guest workers," the clear implication that they would eventually go home. It wasn't long, however, before it became clear that the new German residents -- many of them from Turkey -- weren't going anywhere. But the complete lack of a policy on how to make them fit in went unaddressed.

First and foremost, in fact, they were seen as economic pawns rather than people -- in Germany to fulfil a specific function. Factory owners would order up workers from abroad as though ordering parts for their machines. Policy development seemed to imply unwanted permanence.

Only in the early 1980s did a discussion break out about what to do with the millions of foreigners that had arrived in Germany by then. Helmut Kohl's 1982 election campaign leaned heavily on promises to encourage foreigners to go back home -- a strategy that contributed to his victory. His CDU government began offering financial incentives for foreigners to leave. In 1988, Kohl's interior minister even proposed that foreigners who became too well integrated be denied residency permits -- on the grounds that integration proved they were unwilling to go back home -- though the idea was quickly withdrawn.

The CDU has likewise proven eager in the past to block SPD demands that immigration at least be controlled so that Germany attracts well qualified professionals as well as laborers. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that the poverty and lack of opportunities experienced by children of Anatolian factory workers -- which made up a large chunk of those who came to the country in the '60s and '70s -- may fuel violent frustration.

A clear government policy of helping educate and socialize such children has likewise been missing. German immigrant groups point out that the admittedly high -- though dropping -- rate of violence among youth with foreign backgrounds in Germany is almost entirely "home grown."

Hardly Clean

The results of Germany's ambivalent relationship to those with foreign backgrounds are clear. According to recent studies carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany's students from immigrant families have fewer opportunities than those living in any other industrialized nation. Indeed, the United Nations even sent Gunter Muñoz, the special rapporteur on the right to education, to Germany to take a closer look at the situation.

But there are other side effects, too. Opposition to mosques is rampant in Germany, particularly if religious communities are cheeky enough to want a big one. Racist attacks continue to be a problem in the country. And xenophobic campaigns like that being carried out by Roland Koch raise poll numbers more than they do eyebrows.

The Social Democrats have been slow to respond to Koch's onslaught. For months, SPD challenger Andrea Ypsilanti has pinned her campaign on supporting a nation-wide minimum wage. But earlier this week, the party fought back -- and relied on no less a personage than former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to lead the charge.

Referring to Koch as "this strange person," Schröder accused him of campaigning on fear and called him a populist. Then he pulled out the big guns: "Where were the Kochs and the Merkels when it came to confronting right-wing radical thugs?" He pointed out that violence on the right  has risen recently and accused Koch and Merkel of closing their eyes to the dangers posed by neo-Nazis -- perpetrators of a number of spectacular attacks on immigrants in recent months.

The Koch campaign was quick to respond -- by reminding Germans of Schröder speeches from days gone by. In 1997, while governor of Lower Saxony, Schröder took on the topic of youth violence himself. "We cannot continue to be so tentative with foreign criminals," he said in an interview. "There is only one solution for those who abuse our immigration laws: out at once!"

One wonders how far along integration might be if the country's politicians found a more constructive way to discuss those who helped build modern, postwar Germany.

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