The New Statesman Profile - The Germans

At last, they are undergoing a real personality change: the <em>Volk</em> is doomed and Hitler just

This can't be Germany, surely. Rubbish at football on the field, yet finagling to take the World Cup as host against the crown head of finaglers (and I don't mean South Africa). Furthermore, we have it on the authority of the Sunday Telegraph that the Germans have at last turned to ridi- culing Hitler. For half a century, they have heavy-heartedly despised him. Now they are making fun of him in comic strips.

Goodness, the cliches are going into reverse. Perhaps it's time to abandon them altogether. The silliest and most Europhobic idea we have about the Germans - one actually pursued as policy by Margaret Thatcher, and not only in private - is that they never change. Europe's largest nation is even now going through a genuine personality change. The tribal Volk notion, never attractive, is doomed. And about time, too.

The change of personality goes to the core of what it is to be German. Increasingly, this is not so much a matter of heavy conscience, nor even football, but of immigration. What is really new about Germany is that you won't need the bloodline any more to make a go of being German. While Britain and other European countries niggle painfully about taking in foreigners, Germany has emerged second only to America as an immigration land. If it were now to erect its own Statue of Liberty, the inscription might run: "Give me your smart, your under-30s, your qualified masses yearning to earn high." Granted, this sounds a little mercenary, but it has taken Germany time to work out what it wants to be.

When emerging from its postwar ruins, it had to concentrate on putting itself right. With German nationals driven back in millions from central and eastern Europe to within diminished home boundaries, immigration in the sense we argue about today was not an issue. Unless you were of German ethnic origin, the German Federal Republic was not the place for you.

But somehow in the ensuing decades, without wanting to recognise it, Germany has turned into a multicultural, multi- ethnic society - the biggest immigration land in Europe by a very large margin. Only now is it coming to grips with the glaring ambiguity of it all and is ready to change the way it sees itself. A change of generation in government that has put the flexible Gerhard Schroder in power and the shift of capital city to Berlin from leafy, blinkered Bonn are doing the trick.

Back in the 1980s, before German reunification, which is about the only constructive thing the Volk notion has achieved, I recall reading a startling book called Ganz Unten (Rock Bottom) by the muckraking German journalist Gunter Wallraff, who passed himself off as a job-seeking Turk with false papers, black moustache and swarthy make-up. Among the horrible indignities heaped on him was being sent to clean out blocked pipes in an atomic energy plant where the radiation count after two minutes was the maximum safe dose for a year. Those employed for this labour were exclusively non-German.

There will be no shortage of Turks, who began arriving in Germany as "guest workers" in the 1960s, to tell you that things haven't changed much since. Muslim Turks account for almost one-third of the 7.3 million foreigners now settled in the land, who also include Russians, Poles, Balkan refugees, Vietnamese, Indians, Sri Lankans and many more. At least one million arrived seeking asylum and, although most haven't actually been granted it, they stay on in semi-regularised limbo, because Germany - still sensitive about looking nasty - shrinks from throwing people out. During the 1990s, half of all asylum-seekers within the European Union arrived in Germany.

All these foreigners have something in common: they remain non-integrated. Spiritually, this even goes for legions of Russians of distant German ethnic origin from the Volga, who have come streaming in with every right to assume instant German citizenship. Because immigration does not "exist", no formal attempt at integration is made.

Here is a record of self-delusion by successive German governments, and it has been heading for trouble. Relations between ordinary Germans and Turks have been, and still are, abysmal. Rooted in German minds is the idea that Turks are responsible for high unemployment, which is only now beginning to drop, and are spongers to boot. The "aggressive intolerance" towards foreigners, for which Germany's open-minded president, Johannes Rau, publicly chides his compatriots, has turned the Turkish community in on itself. You don't want us, Turks seem to say, so we don't want you. Although they have set up more than 50,000 private enterprises in Germany, precious few Turks care to run the hurdle of seeking German citizenship. They tend to shun German culture, starting with the language.

The dysfunction caused by de facto immigration on a large scale, accountable only to random rules, has begun to convince the German political class that integration is not only a social imperative, but also the efficient way out. This now seems reluctantly accepted even by opposition conservatives who until recently might have coached William Hague on how to play to immigration angst. They took a beating this spring in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, for hitching a miserable ride on the anti-immigrant wagon.

Moreover, some truly mind-boggling figures have come before the public in past weeks to temper anti-immigrant feeling. Without significantly increased immigration, demographic think-tankers conclude that Germany's under-multiplying population will shrink from today's 82 million to 75 million by 2030 and to fewer than 60 million by mid-century. To stop the rot and keep enough people in work to finance pensions and maintain living standards, the intake of new immigrants needs to top one million a year - around double the present intake.

The first traits of a new German personality are already showing through. The bloodline is no more. The Schroder government's new nationality law is a milestone in the retreat of the German gene. It grants virtually automatic citizenship to foreigners' children born in Germany. The thrust of the reform is to make Germany a community of citizens like France and most other European nations, no longer a Volk.

More of this changed personality is seen in an inventive Schroder step to lure eminently useful immigrants with "green card" permits. The target is computer specialists (Indians and Russians are in German business sights) to fill glaring holes in the new economy. Despite a business SOS for unlimited numbers of foreign nerds, a hesitant Bundestag has voted for a ceiling of 20,000 permits for five years. Schroder's critics say he is grandstanding by using the term "green card", because the US original is the gateway to indefinite residency and citizenship. The term packs popular appeal, however. This makes it easier for the pragmatic chancellor to sell.

It is easy to see what makes the Bundestag think twice. The demand for foreign technology experts is a withering comedown for the great German job-training tradition from which past economic miracles have sprung. The conclusion has to be that Germans are now coming out of schools and institutes with the wrong qualifications. Youngsters are trained for jobs that are no longer needed. The problem can be turned around, but it will take time.

All this alters the national mood. The new mood says: "All right, we admit we need foreigners, but let's decide what kind of foreigners. Let's take people we need." The debate is steadily growing in pitch. And it is plainly pushing the country towards an overall immigration law - a comprehensive set of rules giving shape and order to what Germany has long tried to ignore. Part of the thinking behind it is that, by formally opening itself to a stream of newcomers from outside the European Union with guaranteed access to German nationality, the nation would be creating a climate in which Turks and others feel more at home. Nonetheless, an immigration charter's main purpose would be German economic self-interest.

It would lay down that, say, 500,000 outsiders would settle in Germany each year, with unashamed emphasis on youth, education and professional skills. Officially at least, it could not be anything else but colour-blind. A corollary would almost certainly be a clampdown on asylum- seekers, given that conservatives won't wear major reform unless it discourages people coming in with phoney claims that they are fleeing political persecution or war. There is one further requirement - familiarity with the German language.

Chancellor Schroder is a central figure in his country's change of profile. He knows where ganz unten is. His mother spent her working life as a charlady. She was still scrubbing when he was prime minister of Lower Saxony, his springboard to the chancellorship. He also knows all about change. "Six months ago, people were spitting at me," he recalls, referring to a string of stinging electoral setbacks. "Now they come up and shake my hand."

As the idea steals in that immigration may be a good thing after all, he advances a step at a time - from new nationality law to green cards to the setting up of a government commission to explore an overall immigration statute - always in the hope that it will lead further. "We must be more international," he exhorts fellow Germans. By which he means, gritting his teeth in private, "we are frighteningly lacking in international outlook".

His political antennae tell him not to try imposing comprehensive immigration reform on Germans in too much of a hurry. You can't order a nation to change the way it sees itself. To be blunt, Schroder doesn't see it as an election winner. Indeed, his current stance on immigration is rather like Tony Blair's on the euro. ("Yes, absolutely, but not until after I get my second term.") But political calculations aside, Germany is lifting the covers off immigration. Germans, then, won't always be "Germans". The way they go on immigration must affect policy throughout a European Union with open internal borders. With luck, it will induce Blair to throw open the air vents on Britain's own stifled policy.

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky