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SINCE the end of August Germany has been roiled by waves of political turmoil over integration, multiculturalism and the role of the “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture. This discourse is in turn reinforcing trends toward increasing xenophobia among the broader population.
These trends have been apparent for many years in studies and survey data that show a quiet but growing hostility to immigrants. Yet it is as though they have only now found a voice: the usual stereotypes are being flushed out of the bars and onto the talk shows, and they are echoed by mainstream politicians who want to capture potential voters who are otherwise drifting off toward the right. Two events have given rise to a mixture of emotions that are no longer easy to locate on the scale from left to right — a book by a board member of Germany’s central bank and a recent speech by the German president.
It all began with the advance release of provocative excerpts from “Germany Does Away With Itself,” a book that argues that the future of Germany is threatened by the wrong kind of immigrants, especially from Muslim countries. In the book, Thilo Sarrazin, a politician from the Social Democratic Party who sat on the Bundesbank board, develops proposals for demographic policies aimed at the Muslim population in Germany. He fuels discrimination against this minority with intelligence research from which he draws false biological conclusions that have gained unusually wide publicity.
In sharp contrast to the initial spontaneous objections from major politicians, these theses have gained popular support. One poll found that more than a third of Germans agreed with Mr. Sarrazin’s prognosis that Germany was becoming “naturally more stupid on average” as a result of immigration from Muslim countries.
After half-hearted responses in the press by a handful of psychologists who left the impression that there might be something to these claims after all, there was a certain shift in mood in the news media and among politicians toward Mr. Sarrazin. It took several weeks for Armin Nassehi, a respected sociologist, to take the pseudoscientific interpretation of the relevant statistics apart in a newspaper article. He demonstrated that Mr. Sarrazin adopted the kind of “naturalizing” interpretation of measured differences in intelligence that had already been scientifically discredited in the United States decades ago.
But this de-emotionalizing introduction of objectivity into the discussion came too late. The poison that Mr. Sarrazin had released by reinforcing cultural hostility to immigrants with genetic arguments seemed to have taken root in popular prejudices. When Mr. Nassehi and Mr. Sarrazin appeared at the House of Literature in Munich, a mob atmosphere developed, with an educated middle-class audience refusing even to listen to objections to Mr. Sarrazin’s arguments.
Amid the controversy, Mr. Sarrazin was forced to resign from the Bundesbank board. But his ouster, combined with the campaign against political correctness started by the right, only helped to strip his controversial arguments of their odious character. Criticism against him was perceived as an overreaction. Hadn’t the outraged chancellor, Angela Merkel, denounced the book without having read it? Wasn’t she now doing an about-face, by telling young members of her Christian Democratic Union party that multiculturalism was dead in Germany? And hadn’t the chairman of the Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, the only prominent politician to counter the substance of Mr. Sarrazin’s claims with astute arguments, met with resistance from within his own party when he proposed expelling the unloved comrade?
The second disturbing media event in recent weeks was the reaction to a speech by the newly elected German president, Christian Wulff. As the premier of Lower Saxony, Mr. Wulff had been the first to appoint a German woman of Turkish origin as a member of his cabinet.
In his speech earlier this month on the anniversary of German unification, he took the liberty of reaffirming the commonplace notion, which former presidents had already affirmed, that not only Christianity and Judaism but “Islam also belongs in Germany.”
After the speech the president received a standing ovation in the Bundestag from the assembled political notables. But the next day the conservative press homed in on his assertion about Islam’s place in Germany. The issue has since prompted a split within his own party, the Christian Democratic Union. It is true that, although the social integration of Turkish guest workers and their descendants has generally been a success in Germany, in some economically depressed areas there continue to be problematic immigrant neighborhoods that seal themselves off from mainstream society. But these problems have been acknowledged and addressed by the German government. The real cause for concern is that, as the Sarrazin and Wulff incidents show, cool-headed politicians are discovering that they can divert the social anxieties of their voters into ethnic aggression against still weaker social groups….