The Magazine

You Can't Say That

Against its wishes, Europe’s political class is hip-deep in immigration debates.

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Berlin

You Can't Say That

Photo Credit: Der Spiegel

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.

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