Why Germany's Commitment to Diversity Is About to Face a Major Test

German society deserves praise for good intentions. The crisis of Syria’s refugees, rather than flummox or confuse the German government, brought forth the finest instincts in its leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel especially distinguished herself by insisting that Germany society could and would absorb many more fleeing Syrians than its ambivalent neighbors. 


The bold German gesture, which affirms and extends the terrain of German humanitarianism, raises fresh questions about how best to welcome refugees and whether offering them permanent homes in Germany are the best path forward.

Germany is no traditional immigration nation such as the United States or Australia. German history, with its long emphasis on ethnic and racial definitions of social unity, gave way after the second world war to legalistic concepts of belonging such as citizenship. And yet the merger of East and West Germany after the collapse of the Soviet bloc 25 years ago, served to remind the world that the definition of German-ness remained largely ethno-racial. The special terms of return offered to ethnic Germans, long “trapped” in other parts of the Soviet bloc, reinforced the sense that German identity was trapped between two worlds—its contested and corrosive racialist past and its cosmopolitan, Euro-oriented future.

When I published a book in German at the turn of new century, in early 2000, and visited the country repeatedly as an author and foreign correspondent, I perceived a profound shift underway in ideas about national identity. One social-marketing campaign, sponsored by the Berlin municipal government, well illustrated the shift in attitudes. A series of carefully constructed billboards and posters, bearing the title I am a Berliner, showed dozens of faces of Berliners of all ethnicities and races, a true snapshot of the city’s  polyglot humanity.

The attacks on the U.S. by al Qaeda in September 2001 dealt a blow to German cosmopolitanism, not the least because some of the terrorists were trained and had lived on German soil. A new menace now threatened the entire project to support more diverse societies and more energetic efforts at “integrating” non-nationals into German life. The challenges to diversity and enthusiastic integration were further complicated by the emergence of a global Islamic fundamentalist movement, seemingly rejecting Western values of tolerance and most especially the durable notion that church and state must largely remain distinct and separate realms.

Fast-forward to the crisis of Syrian refugees. Germany took in 1.1 million refugees in 2015, many of them fleeing the conflict in Syria. Their presence highlights the need for Germany society to craft a better deal for newcomers who admire German prosperity, industrial skills and cultural talents, but who likely do not speak German and have little visceral understanding of the network of mutual obligations and duties, embraced and promoted by native-born Germans, that help make the country’s humane and comprehensive social-welfare system, the envy of the world. The question is how can Germany absorb and integrate so many foreigners without creating future enclaves, clusters or ghettos of “aggrieved” minority groups

There are no easy answers to the challenge of achieving social harmony in an ethno-nationally diverse society. The German government has taken a good first step in trying to strike a balance between humanitarian concerns and the practical reality that too many newcomers, received too quickly, can overwhelm even Germans of good will and German social-welfare structure that of course doesn’t possess capacity. So the January announcement by Sigmar Gabriel, the German vice chancellor, to place Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on a list of “safe countries of origin"—meaning migrants from those countries would have little chance of winning asylum—should not be seen a step back from embracing refugees and diversity. Rather dispassionate observers might view the move to slow the influx of refugees as a pre-condition for improving the chances of creating positive integration experiences.

Another constructive move: European efforts to bring about a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war. So is the decision by NATO to patrol the Mediterranean and reduce the slow of refugees at the source. No society can respect and “integrate” unlimited numbers of refugees. At some point policymakers must insist on striking a balance between humanitarian ideals and practical realities.

What are those practical realities? The most important is that large and varied evidence that highly-fractionated diversity of refugees brings great benefits to receiving societies. The situation can be viewed more definitively when considering the character of immigration. When one sending country overwhelms the flow of refugees, as Mexico has done in the United States and as Turkey once did in Germany, the results can create conditions for a balkanized society, where one unified group of newcomers resists integration. In the U.S., Mexicans represent the majority of legal and illegal immigrants and, not surprisingly, many Mexicans resist learning English and fail to take advantage of educational opportunities. In California, the state with the largest number of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, Spanish has become officially supported by many state government agencies, and about 25 percent of Mexican-American high school students do not graduate (about double the rate of whites).

Highly fractionated diversity means that newcomers (whether called refugees or immigrants matters little for this formulation) are spread widely among a large number of countries of origin. The benefits are clear: newcomers can’t retreat into a large ethnic community that develops a parallel set of practices, cultures and institutions. And even if they have trouble adapting to the ways of the natives, they can find succor in association with other newcomers who aren’t quite like them either and thus compel everyone to adapt. The process of adaptation by newcomers to each other usually helps them adapt more easily to the ways of the dominant native culture.

Sometimes highly fractionated diversity is a consequence of colonialism. Britain possesses such diversity because, during its imperial period, its empire stretched across vast parts of the world. Other countries, such as Canada, manage to achieve diverse diversity through policies that emphasize the importance of selecting or choosing newcomers based on a system of preferences.

Germany has some experience with the preference system, especially with regards to attracting scientists and engineers from other countries. But in the main, Germany continues to experience diversity as a consequences of unhappy accidents that force refugees to leave their homes (the experience since the breakup of Yugoslavia) or due to unusual labor shortages (which opened the doors to workers from Turkey in the 1960s). More recently, migration within the European Union has brought a fresh and potentially very healthy character to diversity, bringing young mobile citizens of Ireland, Poland, Spain and other European countries to Germany. While the experience of European mobility is too young to assess, the movement of Europeans into and around Germany surely will enhance the experience of diversity by reducing the pressure to define diversity merely as an accommodation to refugees.

The hope for Germany’s capacity lies then with this broader conception of diversity and an appreciation for how differences can help energize societies. In Germany’s case, younger economic immigrants from elsewhere in Europe, as well as younger refugees, will support the growth of a younger, more flexible German workforce.

Can this sunny transition occur without changes in Germany’s national culture? Probably not. In this sense, the xenophobic right-wing of the German political spectrum may grow larger and more vocal in the near term. But the intensity of xenophobic voices may only sound the retreat of nativist aspirations. Germany is too large, too economically successful—and too diverse already—to retreat from the path toward Euro-cosmopolitanism. The Syrian refugee crisis has already reinforced the trend toward a humane, open, tolerant and pluralistic Germany. No matter of where the balance on how many refugees to accept, and how quickly, is established, the broad shape of the future is certain: to thrive, a diverse Germany will require adaptations by all members of the country. These adjustments may be unwelcome to some Germans even as others cheer them. But in the calculus of happiness, no one should lose sight of the prize: these adaptations provide an opportunity for progressives and reformers, mindful that Germany isn’t perfect however successful, to make changes worth making for their own sake.

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