The World from Berlin 'We Cannot Afford to Let an Underclass Continue to Grow'

The Bundesbank has sanctioned its controversial board member Thilo Sarrazin over disparaging remarks he made about immigrants in a recent magazine interview. German commentators are split about the wisdom of the decision but welcome the new impetus Sarrazin has inadvertently given to the integration debate.
Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin has been stripped of some of his responsibilities after making controversial remarks about immigrants in a recent interview.

Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin has been stripped of some of his responsibilities after making controversial remarks about immigrants in a recent interview.

Foto: DDP

The German central bank, the Bundesbank, may not have been able to fire outspoken board member Thilo Sarrazin, but it managed nonetheless to punish him for controversial remarks he made about immigrants in a recent interview. On Tuesday, the Bundesbank stripped Sarrazin of some of his key responsibilities  in what amounted to a public humiliation. He will no longer be in charge of cash management, but gets to retain responsibility for risk control and information technology.

Politicians from the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats have criticized the decision. Otto Bernhardt, the CDU's financial expert, told the Wednesday edition of the mass circulation Bild newspaper that the move was "not transparent and not justifiable because (Sarrazin) was stripped of responsibilities that had nothing to do with his statements."

"You can certainly discuss (Sarrazin's) statements," said Peter Danckert, a Bundestag member for the SPD. "But stripping him of his responsibilities, as the Bundesbank has now done, is not the right sanction."

Sarrazin provoked a storm of criticism and a heated debate about immigration in Germany by making disparaging comments about Turkish and Arab immigrants in a recent interview  with the cultural magazine Lettre International about Berlin's economic problems. "A large number of Arabs and Turks in this city, who have increased in number as a result of wrong policies, have no productive function other than the fruit and vegetable trade," he said. He also claimed that immigrants sponge off the state, are incapable of integrating themselves into German society and "constantly produce little girls in headscarves."

Bundesbank president, Axel Weber, had indirectly urged Sarrazin to resign and said the comments had damaged the image of the bank. However Weber didn't have the power to dismiss Sarrazin, who was protected by his position as a member of the Bundesbank board. The bank had already taken the highly unusual step of issuing a statement distancing itself from Sarrazin's remarks.

While serving as Berlin's finance minister before his move to the Bundesbank, Sarrazin had gained a great deal of notoriety through a series of disparaging remarks about welfare recipients, civil servants and students, among other groups.

German media commentators Wednesday were split over the wisdom of the Bundesbank's decision. Some were glad to see Sarrazin go, while others argued that the move revealed more about internal politics at the bank than anything else.

SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:

"What a spectacle. The former Berlin Finance Minister Thilo Sarrazin burst into the meditative silence of Germany's most venerable institution, the Bundesbank, with his shrill and populist theories on integration policy. From the perspective of the Bundesbank staff, it's as if a drunken football hooligan had stormed the sacristy of the most powerful cathedral in the German financial world and shouted his infamous slogans there."

"It's no wonder then that the high priest of the financial world, Bundesbank chief Axel Weber, wanted to kick out the irritating Sarrazin, whatever the cost. Yet the religious dignitaries tied Weber's hands. He could not simply show his profane fellow board member the door, even if he would have liked nothing better. So he plotted revenge, deciding to overthrow the unpopular Sarrazin in a majority vote by the board. ... But for that Weber needed the help of the other board members. They decided to strip Sarrazin of his powers -- but not to the extent that Weber had requested."

"The result: Sarrazin has won, because his punishment was less than expected. And Weber has also won because he has prevailed, at least partially. In the end, Sarrazin has received a warning not to expound his controversial theories in public. And Weber has received a warning that he should curb his autocratic tendencies."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Sarrazin has now been demoted, and that's a good thing. In any other company, an employee who put his egotism so clearly over loyalty to his employer would have been fired immediately. After all, Sarrazin has harmed the reputation of the Bundesbank with his racist remarks. That his views are apparently shared by many people in Germany does not make things any better. … The Bundesbank has to be careful how it is perceived abroad. In that respect, it is not very helpful if a board member is doing everything he can to inject new life into the infamous image of the 'ugly German.'"

"Of course, the Bundesbank's decision runs the risk of turning a notorious loudmouth into a supposed 'martyr to freedom of expression.' The fact that Sarrazin is even being spoken about in those terms is thanks to those publications who have glorified his tirades as some kind of higher wisdom. Wasn't Sarrazin -- so argue his supporters in SPIEGEL , the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt, Bild and the right-wing Junge Freiheit -- just describing real problems?

"Hardly a single politician, not even from the Christian Democratic Union or the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, has so far come out in favor of this take on the case. Fortunately Sarrazin's colleagues at the Bundesbank also see things somewhat differently. Unfortunately they couldn't persuade Sarrazin to resign, and it's not so simple to fire him from his position. In the end they opted for a compromise that amounts to a de facto disempowerment. In doing so, they have shown more political sense, responsibility, moderation and decency than can be found in certain editorial offices in Germany."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"In Germany there are few limits on freedom of expression. Someone who makes violent attacks on 'multiculturalism,' their own left-wing parents or Islam will be feted on talk shows and see their books appear on best-seller lists. Even Thilo Sarrazin will not have to resign over his comments about Muslims producing 'new girls in headscarves' -- he is only seeing his responsibilities being cut. That says a lot about a position in which one has to keep one's mouth shut as far as politics is concerned. Anyone searching for constructive solutions will have to look elsewhere. … But one thing that Thilo Sarrazin said was correct: We cannot afford to let an underclass continue to grow, irrespective of whether it comprises people with 'immigrant backgrounds' or not."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The affair does not only reveal a lot about Sarrazin, but also a lot about Axel Weber. The Bundesbank boss reacted so sensitively to the antics of his colleague because Sarrazin harmed Weber's own agenda. Weber wants to secure total responsibility for banking supervision in Germany  for the Bundesbank and, if possible, responsibility for supervision of the insurance industry too. Until now, his institute has shared this task with the financial supervisory authority BaFin. … It is highly inconvenient for Weber that a man from the Bundesbank's own ranks attracted so much attention with his highly politicized statements."

"Weber has therefore set an example. He has demonstrated his power and positioned the Bundesbank as a strong, independent institution. But his harsh approach will make Weber new enemies."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Without a doubt, Thilo Sarrazin has harmed the cause of integration in Germany. His blanket statements about immigrants who live on welfare and continually produce new 'girls in headscarves' were completely inappropriate. Naturally the phenomena described by Sarrazin do exist. But his sweeping polemic only succeeded in insulting large segments of the population."

"But the notorious provocateur at least succeeded in doing one good thing with his remarks. Germany's new CDU/CSU-FDP coalition government is currently negotiating its integration policies for the next four years. … One can only hope that the debate stirred up by Sarrazin will have shown Chancellor Angela Merkel that there are problems with the current political approach to the issue of integration -- most of all in the half-hearted way it is still being discussed."

"Improving (immigrants' current situation) requires time, patience and also money. The new German government should provide that money, despite its desire to lower taxes. Upward social mobility in the long term can only succeed through education. … Immigrants and those from immigrant families already make up 20 percent of the German population. … Children from immigrant backgrounds will soon be producing a large part of our gross domestic product. It is in all our interests to educate them well. And that, too, needs to be said loud and clear."

-- David Gordon Smith