If anyone happens to come to Berlin, he or she should visit the German Historical Museum. Its current exhibition demonstrates how two major European countries developed their image of “the other” in order to defend and define themselves over time. A major section is dedicated to immigrant workers and their place in German and French society.
As many will know, Turks constitute the largest group of immigrant workers in Germany, which – at least according to the authorities at the time – was not a country of immigration but a “host” country that accepted them for a temporary period of time. (We should keep in mind the German saying: “Guests are like fish. After three days, they start smelling.”). As many of these workers did not return to their country of origin, Germany has had to come to terms with what it means to be a country of immigration and is in the process of dealing with questions about parallel societies and a presumed German “Leitkultur” or lead culture.
One result from these deliberations have been tougher and more restrictive policies: the right to dual citizenship was abolished in 2000, spouses now have to pass a compulsory German language test before being granted residence permits and highly controversial citizenship tests have been introduced in some Laender to measure compliance with German understandings of tolerance and the right way of acting. It is highly debatable whether many Germans would pass this test.
Regardless of what one may think of these measures, they did not resolve anything and you may still read newspaper articles claiming that Germany is not a country of immigration. But it is. Moreover, while the first generation of immigrants was unequivocally considered as foreigners or “foreign compatriots” (ausländische Mitbürger) who just so happened to stay for a long time, this perception becomes much more complicated with the second or third generation born in Germany. As many from the younger generation see themselves as German or partly German, the focus of public debate has shifted from the problem of “foreigners” to the issue of “integration” – a hugely popular term in Germany during the last couple of years.
Integration can refer to a whole range of things, but in the German context, it is understood as the adaptation to the behavioural norms and standards of mainstream German society. Let’s imagine two youth picking a fight in the metro. If these young German citizens are called Ahmet and Mehmet as opposed to, say, Hans and Klaus, it automatically becomes a matter of failed integration. It is equally about integration when a Turkish husband beats up his wife rather than because of any other reason called upon for an explanation if a German couple was concerned.
The debate about integration is, however, not entirely about negative examples. A German of Turkish origin can become a successful comedian, politician, actor, director, author etc. and function as an example of successful integration. But does being successful silence the talk about your “cultural background”? No, it certainly doesn’t. Almost every time somebody mentions Cem Özdemir, head of the Green party, Fatih Akin, the famous director, or any other well-known German of Turkish descent, you can count on also hearing about their cultural background.
The issue of integration and perception of the “other” becomes even more muddled when we look beyond the “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) and include Germany’s treatment of asylum seekers that have been living in the country for a long time, yet remain in legal limbo. A recent decision prolonged their status as “tolerated” foreigners for another year during which they must find a full-time job lest they be deported. But if you were an employer, would you hire someone who could be deported next year?
Germany will not solve its problems with foreigners and Germans of foreign origin by asking a tourist from Turkey if he or she has enough money to finance the short trip. An important step would, however, be the resolution of the paradox that Turkish parents must participate actively in the education of their kids by speaking to them in German to provide better chances whereas they cannot partake in the formulation of future policies since they do not have the right to vote. Maybe the next chapter in a future exhibition on German society will look different...