The cross : How has Germany changed since Angela Merkel came to power in 2005?
Jan Plamper : Angela Merkel has distinguished herself above all in crisis management: the 2008 financial crisis, Fukushima in 2011 and her decision to accelerate the exit from civilian nuclear power, the 2015 refugee crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. It fits her style: The Chancellor likes to position herself above the fray, reacting rather than being proactive and she has pulled the CDU and CSU to the center. The polarization nevertheless affected Germany like all liberal democracies. The 2008 financial crisis opened up space for the far right, to the right of the Christian Democrats.
Despite this, the country has gone through a long period of economic prosperity since the mid-2000s. Germany has missed the opportunity to tackle climate change more vigorously, change its business model and promote an identity civic nature of the nation, taking into account the fact that it has become a country of immigration.
In a recent book (1), you explain how Germany, a country of emigration until the XXe century, has become a country of immigration. What were the main stages of this transformation?
J. P. : In the XIXe century, the Germans emigrated, mainly to the United States and Russia. Over 50 million Americans are of German descent. Everything changed after World War II. Between 1945 and 1948, around 12.5 million Germans expelled from Central and Eastern Europe arrived in Germany – 8 million in the Federal Republic, 4.5 million in the GDR. These ethnic Germans were regarded as foreigners, as “the Other” par excellence.
Between 1955 and 1973, Germany hosted 14 million “Gastarbeiter” (“guest workers”), 11 million of whom returned to their country of origin. The GDR also welcomed over 200,000 immigrants in the 1980s.
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Subsequently, 4.5 million “ethnic Germans” from Central and Eastern Europe, 230,000 Jews from the former USSR as well as asylum seekers came to Germany. Finally, around one million refugees arrived in 2015. At least a quarter of Germans, or around 20 million people, are now of recent foreign origin, with at least one parent born outside Germany.
How do you see the way the Germans handled the arrival of refugees in 2015?
J. P. : What was called, in 2015, the “Willkommenskultur” was something exceptional and rare in terms of human solidarity. Almost 10 million Germans joined this social movement in favor of refugees, which touched all sectors of society, young and old, left or right, progressive or liberal. The activism of asylum seekers and civil society from the 1990s onwards, as well as the new citizenship law adopted in 2000 under the aegis of the social-democratic-green coalition, had paved the way.
Unfortunately, the public debate remains dominated by the extreme right, which presents the reception of the migrants of 2015 as a big mistake while having the support of the majority of Germans. This does not prevent xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, exemplified by the assassinations of nine immigrants by the far-right terrorist group NSU in the early 2000s, the attack on the Halle synagogue in 2019 and the establishment of the far-right AfD party in the political landscape, with its entry into the Bundestag in 2017.
What are the consequences of these changes for the German collective identity?
J. P. : The debate on this issue has only just begun. Germany must evolve towards a civic collective identity which transcends economic or demographic aspects. Germany has long embraced an ethno-biological definition of the nation. The idea that a member of a visible minority can belong to a nation of citizens is more difficult to accept in Germany, even if that person has had citizenship for two or three generations.
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The left rejects the concept of nation, on the pretext that it would be contaminated by Nazism, but it continues to be an important identity resource for those who live in precariousness. Refraining from defining it leaves the field to the far right, or to countries of origin that support ethno-national definitions of nationality like Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia.
The “salad bowl” model, a society where it is not necessary to give up one’s cultural heritage to be considered as a full citizen, seems the most viable. The Germans experienced it before the letter in the 1950s. Instead of defining Germans of foreign origin as “Ausländer” (foreigners), even for second or third generation Germans, we could qualify them as “ Germans more ”(Plusdeutsche). It remains a utopia, but the Germans are now more used to diversity.
The parties of the ruling grand coalition in Berlin want to prevent a new influx of refugees into Europe. What are, according to you, the main issues of the elections of Sunday, September 26?
J. P. : The major issues for the coming years are climate change, brought to the fore by recent floods, immigration, the socio-economic model and its alternatives, the Covid-19 pandemic and other subjects such as identity politics, cultural wars, “cancel culture”.
But until then, the party leaders strive above all to avoid mistakes and not to propose anything revolutionary, without offering a real vision. Whatever happens, Germany will be ruled by a coalition government. It remains to be seen which one.
Liberal democracy is in crisis. Germany seems less affected than others. Why ? Can it play a role in preserving it in the years to come?
J. P. : I don’t believe in German exceptionalism. In Germany, the safeguards are a little stronger than elsewhere because of the Nazi past, the social market economy, the federalism imposed by the allies after 1945 and a media landscape still dominated by public broadcasting. . However, the middle class is crumbling, inequalities are increasing and the global geopolitical environment is hardening. An economic crisis would weaken German democracy like any other.