It’s been awhile since a German chancellor’s pronouncement caused a global reaction. But Angela Merkel’s remarks—to a conference of the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Union in Potsdam—that multiculturalism hasn’t worked in Germany, and that the attempt to build a multicultural society and “live side by side and enjoy each other” has “utterly failed,” is causing an undeniable stir.
Whenever a German politician strays into such territory, historical memories are pricked and the old clichés are dusted off for new use: American newspapers, in particular, have been quick to declare that Merkel’s Teutonic soul has found its voice, and to draw ominous parallels to the Third Reich. This is altogether too easy to do with any German political leader; it’s also a near-total misunderstanding of what Chancellor Merkel is saying.
Read in context, Merkel’s words are as clear as her meaning. The West German policy of inviting millions of Gastarbeiter into the country in the 1960s was undertaken on the presumption that the guest workers, mostly from Turkey, would return home in due course. That did not happen. Now Germany is home to between 7 and 8 million foreign residents, including some 2 million Turkish Muslims. Combined with West Germany’s postwar reluctance to define or promote any notion of “German” nationality, the guest workers have remained, for the most part, ghettoized in urban enclaves. They still speak their native language, practice native customs, and are estranged from the mainstream culture of the unified Federal Republic. Public opinion polls register considerable discomfort about this among German voters.
What Chancellor Merkel is saying should be second nature to any American. Foreign-born citizens prosper in their new country, and “diversity” succeeds in an open society, when immigrants are discouraged from cutting themselves off from the mainstream and encouraged to embrace the prevailing social and political culture. Europe is currently riven by religious, ethnic, and national differences within societies such as Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The answer is not further discrimination but integration—a process that transforms Gastarbeiter into Germans, not permanent aliens.