The New Germans Immigrant Children's Complicated Search for Identity

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.'

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.

'We Weren't Trying To Write another Book about Racism'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: We also just commemorated the 20th anniversary of the attacks on an asylum-seeker hostel in Rostock where many Vietnamese families lived. Ms. Pham, can you still recall those attacks?

Pham: I was too young to remember them. In the years before, we used to celebrate Christmas in eastern Berlin with our Vietnamese friends. We always went to a large campground where each family had their own small wooden huts and the women cooked together. That all ended abruptly. When we asked our parents why, they said we might get attacked by neo-Nazis. In the end, it weakened the sense of cohesion I had with the Vietnamese community as a young person.

Topçu: After Rostock, a number of demonstrations took part in my home town, and some high school students went along. Suddenly they realized that some of their classmates were immigrants, Turks. They felt compassionate toward us. Back then, you could see skinheads on the streets of Flensburg.

Pham: Xenophobia in Germany was much more pronounced during the 1990s. One friend of mine, whose father is from Guinea and whose mother is German, even received death threats while riding on a commuter train near Berlin. Back then, we had the feeling we had to watch our back. We had a feeling we didn't belong and that some people hated us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you still carry that with you today?

Pham: Not really. There are some parts of Germany I would avoid, but if you live in Hamburg, Berlin or one of the big cities, it's generally not a problem.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Although your book addresses feelings of alienation that many children of immigrants in Germany experience, it doesn't go deeply into the issue of racism.

Bota: We didn't avoid the subject. But we weren't trying to write another book about racism. We wanted to depict the worlds in which we live and portray the lives our parents have given us. Our personal stories are stronger than a discourse on racism could ever be.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have stated that the 2010 publication of Thilo Sarrazin's anti-Muslim, immigrant-critical book "Germany Does Itself In " proved to be a catalyzing moment for immigrants in Germany.

Topçu: We partly wrote this book as an antidote to Sarrazin, who is a politician. His book showed that there is a silent majority in Germany that harbors hostile feelings towards Muslims and feels very threatened by them. Sarrazin has given that majority a voice.

Bota: After the book came out, many immigrants, and especially their children said they had had enough -- enough of the contemptuous and hostile attitudes towards them. They started to speak for themselves in order to define their place in society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are other Germans conscious enough of how diverse the country has become?

Topçu: Most people don't know how to deal with multiculturalism. Many know that a lot of Muslims or Turks live here, but there is no real awareness of how large the entire immigrant population actually is or what it means for Germany's future.

Pham: If you look at Germany's political parties, the media or even the German national football team, you can see that things are slowly changing. It became apparent at the 2006 World Cup that there are many New Germans on the national team. You also see them on casting shows like German Idol. Things are also changing in more elite parts of society. Cem Özdemir (Turkish descent) and Philip Rösler (born in Vietnam) both lead national political parties. And Fatih Akin ("Head On") is a Turkish-German filmmaker who has been fêted at Cannes. I believe this will become normal in Germany, but first there needs to be an awareness that the country is far more multicultural than most believe.

Topçu: Every few years some politician claims that multiculturalism has failed. people burst into applause in certain political circles. But in our book, we tried to say that multiculturalism is neither a goal nor a strategy -- it is simply a reality, which is neither pretty nor ugly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You all work as political reporters for one of Germany's top newspapers and spend a lot of time thinking about politics each day. Is it your opinion that Chancellor Merkel and other politicians should be doing more to push forward acceptance of immigrants and their German children?

Pham: Our goal with this book is not to push through a particular law -- like a legal rejection to calls to ban headscarves or a demand that German introduce dual citizenship. What we want to achieve is a political consciousness. We are writers and we want to explain to people what being the children of immigrants means for us. We want to influence the way people think about other people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have also written positively about Berlin in your book as a possible cosmopolitan model for the rest of Germany.

Bota: Just look at the government in Berlin. It is a conservative and yet it includes an economics minister born in Vietnam, a wheelchair-bound finance minister, a gay foreign minister and a female chancellor from the former East Germany.

Pham: Some parts of Berlin have become very cosmopolitan -- and I'm not just talking about the Turkish populations in the Kreuzberg and Neukölln districts. In Prenzlauer Berg you have many Americans, Israelis and people from European countries. Berlin has opened itself up to the world. The Wall fell over 20 years ago, but the city still isn't complete. It has one foot in the past and one in the future.

Topçu: Some people there complain about hearing more Spanish or French on the streets than German.

SPIEGEL: Even though you have suggested that Berlin is a vibrant, diverse city, it is also a place people like Sarrazin look to for examples to cite of failed integration. Some speak of "parallel societies."

Pham: Of course there are also so-called parallel societies. In the Lichtenberg district, for example, there is a large Vietnamese center where people sell their products, operate restaurants and hair salons and where Vietnamese is spoken. But the US also has countless Chinatowns and Little Saigons and no one there speaks of parallel societies. As long as the people who live in these communities are given a chance to study, rise and leave them, they aren't necessarily bad.

Bota: When we came to Germany, we arrived in a village where we were the only Polish people. There was another larger town nearby that had public housing that was filled with Poles. That was a difficult area. It showed that the question of a few kilometers could dictate how people's lives in Germany would play out. Some families chose to go there because other Polish people lived there, but it was also related to social policies determining which housing was made available.

Topçu: Of course there are historical reasons for the existence of large Turkish pockets in Berlin. Still, these ethnic communities aren't necessarily bad. The dirty secret about Neukölln's newfound hipness is the fact that the people living there make it a little more chaotic and interesting than other parts of the city.

Pham: I would point out that we, as New Germans, choose not to differentiate between so-called "good foreigners" and "bad foreigners." Those who grow up in Germany are Germans. Their problems are our problems. They belong to this society, too.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.