BERLIN — For decades after the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, Germans had trouble defining themselves as a nation. But the arrival of hundreds of thousands of newcomers appears to have thrust the country into a new, full-fledged identity crisis.
Recently, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière listed 10 Martin Luther-style “theses” on what all Germans have — or should have — in common. The article published by the German daily Bild sparked a heated debate about the controversial term “leitkultur” (“guiding culture” or “leading culture”).
Along with less-controversial qualities, such as the typically German trait of valuing education not simply as a means to an end, the interior minister seemed to suggest that Muslim newcomers should be willing to adapt to local customs.
“We say our name. We shake each other’s hand when we greet,” he wrote. “ . . . We are an open society. We show our face. We are not burqa.”
Some accused de Maizière of blatant populism and attempting to co-opt the anti-immigrant message of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party ahead of federal elections in September.
Others mocked the text by creating their own lists, relishing in German stereotypes, such as a love for excessive bureaucracy. “If there’s no form for it, it doesn’t really exist” was among the “100 points Thomas de Maizière forgot” offered by writer Kathrin Wessling.
Social-media users began posting pictures of many German tourists’ favorite footwear alongside the caption: “We are not burqa, we are socks and sandals.”
Despite the criticism, a recent poll published by the Focus newsmagazine found that more than half of Germans think their country is in need of a “leitkultur.”
“German society due to the migration of recent years has a need to reassure itself and to define what’s indispensable for it,” said Jens Spahn, a lawmaker for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. “A healthy patriotism . . . is something that Germans are struggling with based on their history, something they are slowly and carefully developing.”
Spahn acknowledged that the number of Muslim women wearing the full-face veil is low in Germany, but he said: “People who think their wife should be fully veiled should go find another country. I don’t want to see fully veiled women. Those who want that should stay in Saudi Arabia.”
German Integration Commissioner Aydan Ozoguz said such arguments are missing the point.
“Nobody in this country considers himself a burqa. It’s shocking that such important issues are discussed in such a tone,” she said. “People should be given the chance to participate in society instead of being excluded by imposing rules on how to behave. If I think about how many Germans don’t look at one’s face, it would never occur to me to deny them their Germanness.”
The term “leitkultur” is not new and has popped up in the German political sphere before. But the massive task of integrating the several hundred thousand migrants who have arrived since 2015 lends a sense of urgency to the debate this time.
Other European countries may also have felt a need to define what makes them unique — Denmark’s Culture Ministry last year published a “Denmark Canon,” including the concept of “hygge,” or “a special way of being together in a relaxing, nice atmosphere.” But Germany seemed to grapple harder with the issue.
Literature professor Dieter Borchmeyer, author of a more than 1,000-page tome titled “What is German?: A Nation’s Search for Itself,” says that Germany’s struggle with identity has to do with the fact that, compared with other European countries, it took longer for Germany to become a nation state. “The definition of what is German used to be only based on culture, since politically Germany didn’t exist until 1871,” he said. “This explains the uncertainty when it comes to determining what is German.”
And although Germany may not “be burqa,” a moderate version of Islam is anything but incompatible with its culture, according to Borchmeyer. “Just think of Goethe’s ‘West–Eastern Divan,’ the most magnificent lyrical creation of German literature. . . . It’s a total homage to Islamic poetry.”