Refugee policy With so much immigration, can Germany stay German?

If there is one very noticeable impact immigration is having on Germany, it is that locals are debating the topic more. Many are asking what impact incoming foreigners will have on indigenous culture.
A protest in Greece by asylum seekers who wish to join families in Germany.

“Germany will stay Germany,” Angela Merkel said, countering criticism about her decision to allow asylum seekers enter the country during 2015’s so-called refugee crisis, and “with everything we love and value about it.”

Ms. Merkel was trying to allay fears that such an influx of foreigners might change the country for good, fears that many believed partially responsible for the rise of the far-right, populist party, Alternative for Germany.

Over intervening years, Ms. Merkel’s statement has been brought up many times, and by both critics and fans of her policies. For some voters, the debate over immigration is marked by a low-level anxiety that the country is changing.

But is it really? Obviously there must be some impact. But perhaps one of the first and most obvious effects is that it causing Germans to ask questions. Some might even say that a more nuanced discussion on immigration, integration, race and locals’ underlying assumptions about their own country’s homogeneity is long overdue.  After all, as the Federal Statistical Office announced in August last year, more than one in five people living in Germany are now first or second generation immigrants.

More immigrants may lead to fewer politically incorrect jokes.

Who will remember the war?

German’s culture of remembrance and atonement for actions during World War 2 is an important part of the country’s identity. It informs not just the culture, but also many aspects of daily life because it informs legislation and policy, both foreign and domestic.  Some have even said that the willingness to open the country up to refugees in desperate straits is part of that need for atonement. But what happens for this new generation of Germans, who have no familial connection to the country’s historic crimes? There appears to be a lack of ideas for how to impress upon newcomers the importance of remembrance culture to the national identity.

What to do about imported anger?

A migrant obviously brings their own politics and culture with them. This can lead to conflicts within a new homeland. For example, when Palestinians demonstrate in front of the Brandenburg Gate against US president Donald Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem. Or when Turkish-Germans boycotted German elections just because Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told them to.

How to maintain social equality?

Maintaining a social welfare state, where income inequality is minimized, becomes more difficult with more migration. Harvard professor Edward Glaeser has researched the question of why certain European countries are more willing to redistribute income than the US; that is, why locals in places like Germany and Scandinavia were happy to pay more taxes toward their national social welfare system. The theory was that Europeans were more willing to help support those who looked and acted like them. The reverse argument allows that the more diverse a population, the less enthusiastic the indigenous population will be about redistribution.


An inegration class for children of refugees in Berlin.

How to ensure the ongoing culinary success of the sausage?

In the cantines of many German businesses, spaghetti bolognese is now more popular than the dish known as “currywurst” – a local sausage sprinkled with curry powder and dowsed in ketchup. Additionally, you can find a Turkish doner kebab – a meat sandwich – on many urban street corners. But has this brought about better cultural understanding between Italians and Germans, or Turks and Germans?

Marin Trenk, an ethnologist at the University of Frankfurt, who studies exotic cuisines, says that Italian food has become a standard part of Germany’s menu and he believes that this has brought the country closer to the southern neighbours. However, Mr. Trenk also says that although doners are everywhere, the same has not really happened with Turkish food.

Did you hear the one about the Irishman, the Catholic and the refugee?

More immigrants may lead to fewer politically incorrect jokes, something that troubles those Germans looking for comedic material in a country that isn’t exactly renowned for its sense of humor anyway.

Elisabeth Niejahr is chief reporter at WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. Gregor Peter Schmitz heads WirtschaftsWoche's Berlin office. This story was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected][email protected]