September was a turning point in European attitudes towards immigration. On September 14, the French Senate followed the National Assembly in banning the public wearing of the burka. Before the dust had settled, France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was already embroiled in controversy on a wholly different matter: France’s expulsion of homeless Romanian gypsies, or les Roms, which European commissioner Viviane Reding attacked as a “disgrace” that reminded her of the Second World War. There was broad public support for Sarkozy when he suggested at a dinner at the Elysée Palace that Reding welcome the gypsies to her native Luxembourg, if she felt that strongly about it.

Last week, the Sweden Democrats, a xenophobic party with far-right antecedents, took 20 seats in Sweden’s Riksdag, after airing an extraordinary ad. It explained that all politics is about setting budgetary priorities and then showed an old lady pushing a walker getting trampled by burqa-wearing women with baby carriages running to the front of a welfare line.

But the most important development, over the long run, will have been the publication in Germany of a taboo-breaking book which touched on immigrant themes. It is by Thilo Sarrazin, a member (but not for long, as it turned out) of the Bundesbank’s board of governors. Sarrazin’s book is Deutschland schafft sich ab (roughly, “The Abolition of Germany”). The controversy it has unleashed resembles the one that America had in 1994 over Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book The Bell Curve. That was a book about the role of intelligence in society that wound up being read as a book on race. Sarrazin’s is a book about Germany’s economic future that detractors have cast as a book about how immigration is ruining Germany’s “stock.” The widespread criticism the book has received from establishment politicians has not blocked—and may even have spurred—its success. It has been a number-one bestseller for a month. Stores have been sold out for days at a time.

I have not yet read the book, and won’t judge its arguments until I do. But genetics is distant from the heart of the book​. It is mainly an account of the actuarial nightmare that confronts the German welfare state, owing to a shrinking working-age population and a leveling off of productivity gains. Mass immigration has been an economic failure, Sarrazin believes, and immigrants from Muslim countries provide—for cultural reasons, it must be stressed—relatively poor raw material for assimilating into German society.

Sarrazin is a serious economist, with a real expertise in budgets and labor markets. He is also a Social Democrat who looks at Germany’s highly developed welfare state as the great achievement of its postwar governments. All Social Democrats do, but like American Democrats they are split into two tendencies. There are those who believe that people of the left should demand maximal welfare benefits, to be limited only by countervailing political pressures. Many of these members have lately bolted to join former East German Communists in the Left party (Die Linke). There are also Social Democrats who believe that the first task of politicians is to ensure a stable financial basis for the benefits they dish out. Sarrazin was the leading voice of that latter tendency in the Berlin city-state government, the German equivalent of a Robert Rubin or Larry Summers.

Sarrazin was also a bit of a freelance intellectual. He did not mince words, as most postwar Germans politicians do. In a multicultural city, he laid the blame for a lot of budgetary ills at multiculturalism’s door. It was convenient for the city’s left-leaning mayor, Klaus Wowereit, to have him exiled to the world of high finance in Frankfurt. But Sarrazin did not keep his counsel when he took his Bundesbank seat in 2009. Interviewed in the magazine Lettre International a year ago, he opined, “I don’t have respect for a person who lives off the state while expressing contempt for it, who doesn’t plan for the education of his children in a rational way, and is constantly producing new little Kopftuchmädchen”—a coinage of his own that can be translated as “headscarf girls.” Sarrazin was demoted to a less glamorous portfolio at the bank. He began writing his book to document what he was talking about. (As if lack of documentation were his failing.)

But it was not the book itself that turned Sarrazin’s views on immigration into a scandal. It was an interview with Die Welt am Sonntag. Sarrazin was talking about cultural assimilation when the interviewer brought up genetics:

WaS: Is there also such a thing as a genetic identity?

Sarrazin: All Jews have a certain gene, Basques, have certain genes .  .  . that distinguish them from others.

WaS: So we have different genes than the people here in this Turkish café?

Sarrazin: You’re not going to get me riled up. I’ll say my thing: Up until a few years ago, immigration played only a very small role in the European gene pool, and the changes happened only gradually, over long periods. Three quarters of the ancestors of contemporary Britons and Irish were there in the British Isles 7,500 years ago. So it is actually not true that Europe has ever had movements of immigrants to the extent it does today.

I would be the last person to quarrel with these points. Sarrazin’s source for this genetic information, as he has noted in other interviews, is my own book on immigration, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, which was published last year. I cited the British numbers to make exactly the point Sarrazin did—that whether a nation is a “nation of immigrants” is not a fuzzy concept but a quantifiable thing. Whatever one’s wishes on the matter, none of the European nations is a nation of immigrants in the way that the United States is.

Nor was Sarrazin wrong about shared genes among Jews, as anyone familiar with Tay-Sachs disease will know. In Germany, however, the mere mention of Jews in a discussion of genetic attributes is a taboo, for reasons readily understood. Sarrazin certainly understood. He apologized for having chosen that example. (He probably chose the Basques as his other example because, as the oldest European people, they feature prominently in most scientific literature on population genetics.) While no convincing case has been made that Sarrazin is inclined towards anti-Semitism, his remarks made it possible to attack his book without appearing to be merely censoring his unpopular remarks on immigration.

When we say “unpopular,” we mean unpopular among the German political classes, who condemned Sarrazin almost univocally. You can count the exceptions on one hand. There was Edmund Stoiber, the former Bavarian minister president from the Christian Social Union, who warned that the last time public sentiment against heavy immigration was ignored—in the 1990s—the result was the rise of right-wing movements. Wolfgang Clement, the SPD budget czar, thought Sarrazin’s points were reasonable.

The need to discipline Sarrazin in the teeth of widespread public support posed very tricky questions for almost all of Germany’s institutions. It was as hard as passing a health care plan that nobody wants. It was particularly hard for Sarrazin’s party, the SPD. The party head, Sigmar Gabriel, who led the effort at ousting Sarrazin, admitted that mail and emails from members were running 9-to-1 in Sarrazin’s favor. As one Bavarian SPD leader told the press, “Our party members need enlightenment, and yet more enlightenment.”

Gabriel insisted that he was not objecting to the book, which he had not read, but to Sarrazin’s “core thesis” of genetic determinism. And that core thesis, Gabriel said, was “close to” Nazi ideas of “racial hygiene.” This is typical of immigration debates: Gabriel would not accuse Sarrazin of actually holding Nazi views, because Sarrazin does not. So he criticized Sarrazin’s views on the grounds that they have “overtones” of views that he doesn’t hold. “This smacks of .  .  . ” “It is almost as if .  .  . ” “There is an uncomfortable echo .  .  . ” Once this is your standard, you can ostracize anyone for anything and still make believe the discussion you’re censoring is something “well worth discussing.” No one’s censoring anybody! It’s just that absolutely everything that questions the immigration status quo is deemed to fall short of some ever-shifting standard of intellectual propriety.

In the end, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats did not escape damage. “The only solution is education, education, education,” was about the best response she could manage to the question of what she would do about the issues Sarrazin had raised. The Christian Democrats are an umbrella party of Christians, free marketers, and conservatives. The conservatives found all of this a bit mealy-mouthed. There was talk of a rupture in the ranks. A poll found that if Sarrazin were to start a political party, 18 percent of Germans would consider voting for it. In almost every newspaper, there were forebodings that Sarrazin might wind up as the German equivalent of Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-Islam party leader, or, worse, that the truculent impatience with the German ruling classes that he had unleashed might signal the beginnings of some Teutonic Tea Party.

Now the German debate has come to resemble the American one. The magazine Der Spiegel mentioned “the danger of an emotional and irrational debate that would give a new impetus to the rightmost fringe.” True, the right has got some impetus out of the Sarrazin affair. But the taboo that is being broken is not the one the German mainstream press thinks. Until now the debate over immigration has been platitudinous, based on moral uplift, lecturing, and exhortations to fellow feeling. Sarrazin’s book merely asks Germany’s political leadership to look at the numbers. The threat to them is not of an irrational debate but a rational one.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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