No Turks, please, we're German

Gerhard Schroder's new citizenship law is provoking a backlash against immigrants

O tempora, o mores, as Enoch Powell might have lamented. There used to be a time when a British shadow cabinet minister was sacked if, like the Roman, he saw the Tiber foaming with blood at the prospect of more immigration.

More than 30 years on, if Germany's new Social Democrat interior minister, Otto Schily, says that "Germany's capacity to cope with immigration is exceeded", he not only keeps his job but finds his comment on the front page of Der Spiegel.

"Too many foreigners?" the respected weekly asks, accompanied by an alarmist illustration of an array of alien characters crammed into Germany's borders.

Conservatives are exhilarated that the minister - a defector from the Greens and once a left-wing lawyer who defended Red Army Faction terrorists - has dressed up their slogan of "the boat is full up" in more polite terms. "Schily has only said out loud what every reasonable German has known for 20 years," commented Rudolf Schlierer, the not-so-reasonable leader of the far-right Republicans. According to a recent poll, 52 per cent agree that there are already too many foreigners and only 7 per cent would feel at ease with more immigration.

Despite this xenophobic mood, Gerhard Schroder's government is proposing a reform of Germany's antiquated blood-based citizenship laws. The second generation of German-born immigrants will automatically receive citizenship. Other foreigners will now qualify for naturalisation after eight years and be allowed to retain their original citizenship.

This may sound modest, but it is a near-revolutionary break with an ethnic concept of nationhood on which Hitler once based his whole ideology.

Is Germany making a fresh start by transforming itself into a multicultural melting pot from Bamberg to Berlin? Not if the opposition has its way. Christian Democrat leaders, still smarting after their worst electoral defeat in the history of the republic, smell a gerrymandering operation of vast proportions. If all eligible foreigners were to take up the offer of a new passport - which is by no means guaranteed - they fear the creation of four million left-wing voters grateful to the government which enfranchised them.

To the Bavarian hardliner Peter Gauweiler, this amounts to nothing less than "a shift in the balance of power" in the new Germany, with Turks forming a notable political constituency. Bars are abuzz with fears of cultural subversion: if Turks are enfranchised, will they call for equal treatment of Islam next?

Schily tries to dispel these concerns: "I would have a problem if a muezzin drowned out the bells of a village church in Bavaria. We will have to counteract such developments."

While populist politicians play to the gallery, the country is ever more in danger of drifting into a Powellian mindset. Schroder himself, when he was trying to prove his credentials as the Social Democrat candidate for chancellor, hardly sent a message of social harmony when he dabbled in prejudice in writing for the German tabloid Bild: "You've got to point out, even if some people don't like to hear it: Poles just happen to be conspicuously active in organised car-theft, the Russian mafia dominates prostitution, drugs-related criminals are often from south-eastern Europe or black Africans. For those who abuse their status as guests, there can only be one answer: get out, and quick!"

The figures are daunting: between 1987 and 1994, the seven million foreigners already residing in Germany were joined by another 1.6 million asylum-seekers (compared with the UK's 240,000) and nearly two million ethnic Germans who were welcomed from the disintegrating eastern bloc by the supposedly anti-immigration chancellor Helmut Kohl. Under an all-but-forgotten legal provision, these Aussiedlers not only assumed citizenship automatically but also received a very generous package of benefits, prompting second- and third-generation Turks, who do not even enjoy the rights of foreign EU-citizens, to condemn the privileges of the "Russian-Germans" as based exclusively on race.

The advent of the Aussiedlers fuelled a rise in violence by the extreme right. As Turkish families died in the arson attacks of Molln and Solingen, jack-booted neo-Nazis patrolled the streets in search of dark-skinned victims. In the disaffected east, the violent backlash against immigrants has been particularly intense: with one in five unemployed, the resentment against the "job thieves" erupts on an almost daily basis. In response, alienated Turkish youths have started looking to Islamic fundamentalism as an ideological platform from which to organise their fightback.

The violence seems an almost inevitable consequence of an immigration policy that for 45 years has lacked any thoughtful planning. From the 1950s, when politicians urged the first "guest-workers" to cross the Alps to man the engine rooms of the economic miracle, the elites told voters that the presence of the eager new workers was a necessary, but temporary, evil.

They were wrong. As early as the 1970s it was clear that foreigners would not return to their impoverished origins. Instead they brought their families to join them. Moreover, the establishment was slow to realise that Germany's singularly munificent right to asylum - a basic right any newcomer could pursue through every appellate court - had become a burdensome provision in the constitution.

Yet the immigrants' contribution was also overlooked. Many started their own businesses, often family-run and remarkably successful; in recent years, the 10,000 independent kebab shops have managed to outsell McDonald's.

A study by the RWI economic research institute showed that 75 per cent of foreigners do jobs that Germans would not even consider taking on. The immigrants keep alive trades that would otherwise suffer acute shortages of labour.

Moreover, according to Rainer Munz, professor of demographic studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, the immigrants fulfil another role: according to recent studies, Germany will need around 300,000 immigrants a year during the next three decades to keep its population steady. The statistics seem to sound the death knell for Schily's last delusion: that the country cannot take any more newcomers.

Meanwhile, the cause of assimilation has received an unexpected boost: late last year Peter Kohl, the son of the defeated chancellor, announced that he is soon to be married to a Turkish girl.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times