The relatively bold statement from an extremely cautious politician has become one of the biggest moments of her chancellorship so far. But her future could be determined by her rejection of the way multiculturalism has worked in the past and the success, or failure, of her alternative approach toward assimilation. She favors assimilation projects that are state-led, demanding and supportive of refugees, with the aim of making them feel part of German society. And she wants Germany's Christian origins and values to remain the country's "lead culture."
Experts say that Merkel isn't suggesting that immigrants should give up their linguistic, religious and cultural identity, though. "By criticizing 'Multikulti,' she has something different in mind. She wants to ensure that people do not only coexist, but also that they feel they belong to one community despite their different backgrounds," said Christine Langenfeld, the head of Germany's association of migration and assimilation-related foundations. Even scholars who are known to be critical of Merkel acknowledge that her approach might be right.
Merkel's understanding of "Multikulti" is shaped by history
To understand what Merkel really thinks about the challenges of immigration, one should look at how she defines Multikulti. The German word Multikulti has a slightly different connotation than multiculturalism has in countries such as the United States. In Germany, Multikulti is politically loaded and often associated with parallel societies. In 2010, she defined it as living "side by side" and enjoying each other. "We kidded ourselves awhile, we said: 'They won't stay, sometime they will be gone,' but this isn't reality," Merkel said then.
By "they," Merkel had Germany's Turkish immigrant community in mind. Starting in the 1960s, many Turkish citizens moved to western Germany to find jobs as "guest workers." At that time, Merkel lived in East Germany, separated from the West by a wall until 1989. Although the West German government invited Turkish citizens to work in the country, many Germans assumed they would eventually return to Turkey when the economy slowed down.
Instead, most of them stayed and began families. Germany never adapted to that reality, and consequently many immigrants never fully embraced Germany as their home. Assimilation schemes and language-learning programs remained insufficient for decades. Soon, Turkish children were attending predominantly Turkish schools — separated from their peers with native German origins. Today, certain districts are still predominantly populated by citizens of Turkish origins, many of whom do not speak German fluently.
If Merkel believes that multiculturalism has failed, her party is at least partly to blame. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — the party she now heads — proclaimed for decades that Turkish guest workers would eventually return to Turkey. And it was Jürgen Rüttgers, a CDU politician, who ran a "Kinder statt Inder" campaign (Kids instead of Indians) in 2000 that claimed Germany should help German children become skilled technology workers, instead of trying to attract foreigners, particularly Asians, to the country to fill those jobs. What followed were xenophobic attacks all over Germany in which immigrants' homes were burned down. A right-wing terror group attacked immigrants between 2000 and 2006, and a court trial currently underway has raised questions about why authorities had blamed shootings by the group on gang violence for years.
What Merkel wants assimilation to look like
To Merkel, multiculturalism describes everything Germany did wrong in handling immigration over the last decades. Instead of indifference, she is now calling for engagement — from authorities as well as refugees.
Several companies have publicly spoken out in recent weeks to support Merkel's approach. Last week, Deutsche Bank said the influx of refugees was "the best that could happen to Germany." Refugees are usually younger than the average German and could fill job vacancies and eventually relieve pressure on the country's welfare system. Many German companies struggle to find skilled workers for certain jobs, a problem that is expected to become even worse.
A large number of Germans also agree with Merkel that refugees should be required to assimilate quickly. According to a 2010 survey by national polling institute TNS Emnid, more than half of all Germans said immigrants coming from Turkey and Arab countries were less successful in assimilating to German society than people coming from other regions of the world.
Some leaders in those communities disagree. "Refugees who arrive in Germany enter a parallel society by necessity and law. If the chancellor considers this to be multiculturalism and a sham, it should be her priority to pursue effective assimilation policies," said Khaldun Al Saadi, a spokesman for the Islamic Center in the eastern city of Dresden.
Germany's Muslim community was predominantly composed of Turks, but the refugee crisis has attracted hundreds of thousands of Muslims coming from various backgrounds and speaking different languages. Is Germany prepared for this challenge? And will Merkel's commitment to German culture — which is predominantly Christian — lead to tensions? There are already signs of a backlash: Fights between migrants with different origins and ethnic backgrounds have broken out in crowded asylum centers. Anti-Islam demonstrations have taken place in multiple German cities and continue to disrupt daily life in the city of Dresden on a weekly basis.
Some have interpreted Merkel's comments on Monday as a call for a more active state role in helping people assimilate instead of an acknowledgment of defeat. However, doubts remain: "Most refugees are willing to assimilate and welcome any political and societal support," Saadi said. "However, the shocking rise of violence against refugees, especially in the east, raises serious doubts over the willingness of significant segments of German society to allow assimilation to happen."
Although Merkel has the backing of her party and important Muslim association to shape future immigration policies, there are many factors that could still cross her plans.