National Identity in Plural Democracies

There is a house in the Brunnenstraße in Berlin. Large white letters across its four stories read: “This house formerly stood in a different country”. And as an introduction: “Human will can move anything”. Can human will really move anything? At least national borders, apparently. Not only from the GDR into the Federal Republic – ­areas that were once part of the German Empire became Polish or Czech areas. The Saarland was once French and once German. Germany was Rome, or rather a part of the Roman Empire for a long time.

In the Middle East, after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, new countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel were created as if drawn by a ruler. When Arthur James Balfour, the British First Lord of the Admiralty, asked the young Mark Sykes how the Ottoman Empire should be divided between Great Britain and France on the morning of 16 December 1915, the latter drew his index finger over the map on the table and said: “I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk”.

The Nation as a ‘Desired Society’

The Ottoman Empire – although multicultural, multidenominational, and multilingual – shaped national identities for centuries and then suddenly ceased to exist. Today, it is suddenly shaping the identities of some new nationalists again, who seemed to forget that this empire had never belonged solely to the Turkic peoples. In our country, we shake hands and show our face, according to Thomas de Maizière in his ten-point plan to define German national identity. Once founded as a nation, the new national states emulated the myth of the homogenous, ethnically pure, or religiously pure society and still continue to do so. Internally in civil wars and externally in territorial purity wars. Sunnis against Shiites, Turks against Kurds, Israelis against Palestinians. The nation, as a purely fictional concept, develops a power that is more than just liberal: when studying the emergence of the German nation, students interpret it as an emancipative movement, a liberation from federalist particularism and the despotism of individual princes. The emergence of the German nation was read by the students of that time as an emancipative movement, a liberation from federalist particularism and the despotism of individual princes. Moreover this emancipative narrative reached far beyond the mere moment of funding, as it was soon transformed into a narrative that keeps the nation together through constructing the outside “the other” as an enemy, a competitor or even as a curious friend. The more different the other is, the more we identify as I, We, and The Nation – in contrast to the other nation, to the enemy, the antidemocrat who is also constructing himself by pointing back. What is the idea of the nation based on? Is the idea itself sufficient for a society to exist and form – which Benedict Anderson envisions as ‘imagined communities’? Or is the nation based on a decisive and desired union that forms a ‘desired society’, as Ferdinand Tönnies describes it? In both cases, inclusions and exclusions seem constructed, haphazard, changeable. Can we simply include and exclude people in and from the thoughts of the national affiliation as fits into the narrative of the time? Today you belong to France, tomorrow you belong to Germany. Today you are Leopolitan, Galician, Polish – tomorrow Ukrainian with a proud national identity? Today you are an Ottoman, tomorrow Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian. ­Today Ukrainian on the Crimea, tomorrow Russian? Or is it not so arbitrary after all?

What is the Idea of the Nation Based On?

What is the idea of the nation based on? On a common language? If this was the case, then we would, for example, have to deny Switzerland its right to nationality. Is it based on the common culture? If that was a general criterion, how should we then assess the controversial debate over the guiding culture (“Leitkultur”) here in Germany? In our country, we shake hands and show our face, according to Thomas de Maizière in his ten-point plan to define German guiding culture. This could be considered rather unspecific – do they not do this too in France, Angola, or Honduras? Or is it religion that forms us into a nation? The Jewish-Christian guiding culture, as Volker Kauder once said, shaped us Germans. This prompted Professor of Jewish Philosophy Shulamit Bruckstein’s response in the Tagesspiegel: “No, there has never been a Jewish-Christian tradition, this is an invention of European modernity, and a favourite of traumatised Germans.” Perhaps, however, it is rather the idea of a common origin that forms a nation from one blood community. But even ethnicity is defined as a social construct in sociology that can, however, be deeply anchored within the ‘historic memory’ of a group. In his work “The Ethnic Origin of Nations”, Anthony Smith lists six criteria that substantiate a shared affiliation. These include:

  1. A common name
  2. The myth of a common origin
  3. A common history
  4. A common culture
  5. A connection with a certain territory
  6. An awareness of community

In turn, Max Weber does away with the illusion of this accessible catalogue of affiliation criteria and considers neither common historical experiences, myths and religious persuasions, nor individual language or a special lifestyle constitutive. He postulates that it is merely the common perception of affiliates – that these features differ from those of other groups – which makes a nation a nation. So it is merely a construct after all – and an arbitrary one at that?

Eighteen Million People with a Migration Background

Max Weber goes as far as describing ethnic affiliation as a subjective fantasy and says: “When it comes to these groups of people that foster a subjective belief in a common origin based on similarities in external habits or customs or both, or memories of colonisation and migration, in such a way that this becomes important for the propagation of communitisations, we want to call them ‘ethnic groups’ if they do not portray ‘clans’, regardless of whether there is an objective common bloodline or not.” Now what does that have to do with Germany? Shulamit Bruckstein: “There has never been a Jewish-Christian tradition, this is an invention of European modernity, and a favourite of traumatised Germans.” Germany is culturally, ethnically, religiously, and nationally diverse. This makes it increasingly difficult to define features that essentially distinguish the members of our own nation from those of other groups. Anyone who describes this country today cannot do so without mentioning its diversity. Today, more than nineteen million people live in Germany with a so-called migration background, more than half of whom possess German citizenship. Nevertheless, there has not yet been any success in generating a narrative from this fact, to formulate a new plural and heterogeneous national identity that feeds into our collective memory in the medium term, with effects that extend beyond political commitments and statistical parameters. Even political proclamations hereof are likely utilitarian in nature: “We need these young people as employees in our businesses”.

The German Narrative of Purity

The impression emerges that the discourse on Germany as an immigration society does not exist outside of the crisis-narrative: The refugee crisis, migration crisis, radicalisation crisis. It seems as if the way of adressing these topics got stuck in the 1980s. This is becoming ever clearer in the media. I can remember the media reporting about delegate Karamba Diaby being elected “as the first black person in the Bundestag”. “In his homeland of Senegal, people are rejoicing with the fifty-one-year-old, who first arrived in the GDR as a student” – mind you: at twenty years of age. At this point in time, Germany had already been his home for thirty-one years. Die Welt even attested: “Karamba Diaby from Halle has made history. The SPD politician is moving into the Bundestag as the first delegate with dark-coloured skin”, to calmingly add directly afterwards: “The Senegalese native, however remains modest.” Don’t worry, one black man does not equal a diverse Bundestag. He remains modest – everything will stay as it is. This illustrates how strongly Germany – despite the factual reality of having become an immigration country, in which more than every fifth citizen and even every third school child has a so-called migration background – still remains homogenous in its national self-narrative and self-management.

Delegates, public service, teaching staff, media representatives, science, talk shows from public broadcasters – wherever structural and institutional power are pooled and visibility and speaker positions can be gained, the country predominantly persists in its homogenous structure. Minimal growth and selective increases in public interest ultimately only reinforce this homogenous narrative – in line with the motto: the exception proves the rule. The reasons underpinning the invisibility of this topic, which goes hand in hand with the non-allocation of positions, are being reinforced through the perseverance of the so-called integration discourses of the last decade. In it, no systematic shortcoming is seen in the fact that after more than half a century of immigration to the Federal Republic of Germany, migrants and their children are still largely hindered from taking up social positions. Instead, this social closure is reinterpreted as the consequence of non-­integrative behaviour, and the paternalistic “Sorry, you are just not ready yet – but we will gladly help you” further cements inequalities throughout subsequent generations.

Exclusion from the Collective Identity

If you are not considered as part of the collective, is that really so bad? You are simply not included in the definition of national identity. Isn’t this construct outdated anyway? After all, all modern citizens are global citizens. Who still wants national affiliation? What’s important is access to education and the labour market – the rest is of secondary importance. Right? In a field trial, a scientist from the Research Institute on the Future of Work sent 1,500 fictional applications to companies in Germany and analysed the responses received from their HR departments. The result: even applicants born and raised here, with excellent German skills and a background of German education and training, are significantly disadvantaged if they have a Turkish-­sounding name, or even worse: an application photo with a hijab. Sending identical applications, but either with a typically German-sounding name (Sandra Bauer) or a Turkish name (Meryem Öztürk), resulted in positive response rates of 18.8 per cent and 13.5 per cent respectively. If the fictional applicant of Turkish origin additionally wore a hijab in her application photo, the rate fell to 4.2 per cent. She had to send 4.5 times as many applications to be invited to an interview.

Wherever structural and institutional power are pooled, the country predominantly persists in its homogenous structure.

A study by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) yielded similar results. Focus was placed on integration into the labour market – again using identical qualifications. The study demonstrated that young people with a Turkish or Arabic migration background have lower chances of being invited to an apprenticeship interview in the first place. And even more so if they have their Abitur, with chances of being invited to an interview fifty per cent lower. Education and performance alone do not seem to be sufficient when it comes to equality – here, the affiliation with a ‘we group’, with a national collective, clearly continues to have a more conspicuous effect. A current study by the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research, carried out in cooperation with the SVR, also shows that the expectations teaching staff have of children of Turkish origin are systematically lower, starting as early as in the first year of school. It is entirely irrelevant which socio-economic background the parents have, whether they are rich, educated, girls or boys, simply knowing that they have a Turkish background is enough to expect less from them – in reading, in mathematics, and as a society also in other positions, as shown above.

Sixty-five Per cent of Migrants feel German

In a representative poll of citizens that we carried out at the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research, we wanted to determine what the narratives of being German are dependent on. And we wanted to measure how national unity is expressed and whether the connectedness differs among migrants and non-migrants. We discerned great similarity, especially with emotional terms: more than eighty per cent of migrants said, “I love Germany” (this figure was eighty-five per cent among non-migrants). We were also surprised that approximately sixty-five per cent of migrants additionally expressed that they felt German. Simultaneously, we identified that the population rather ambivalently defines what it means to be German. On the one hand, in a very modern fashion, being German is being seen as conditional upon language (over ninety per cent) and upon nationality (almost eighty per cent). Nationality legislation reforms are still relatively fresh. Until 2000, only those with German ancestors could become German – now almost eighty per cent of the population consider those with German citizenship, German. We determined, however, that this cognitive attitude – established in thought – constantly relapses into the realm of emotions. My readiness to think something does not necessarily translate into feelings. The condition of speaking German apparently did not suffice; forty per cent of respondents stipulated that German should be spoken without an accent, and close to forty per cent were of the opinion that you should have German ancestors. Also, significantly more than one third of the population indicated that hijab-wearers cannot be German – rendering it clearly irrelevant whether the hijab-wearer had German citizenship and spoke German without an accent. If she wears a hijab, she is not part of this national identity.

The German Identity without Islam

Islam currently seems to be one of the dominant general exclusion criteria. Here too, however, we see ambivalence. Even though seventy per cent are in favour of granting Muslims more recognition, sixty per cent would at the same time ban circumcision for religious reasons, fifty per cent would advocate a ban of hijabs for teachers, and forty per cent would not like to have any visible mosques in Germany. These figures are significantly higher among those with a strong sense of national identity. These people are probably well aware that Article 4 of the German Constitution guarantees religious persons the right to freely exercise their religion – this also includes the right to follow fundamental religious rules. But, as already demonstrated: there is cognitive acceptance, and parallel to this, emotional distancing. And this is noticeable.

Which Criteria are Important or Unimportant for the Population to be Considered German?

The data are based on a telephone survey carried out by the Center for Empirical Social Research (ZeS) at the HU Berlin for the research project JUNITED from 24 September 2013 to 15 April 2014.

Attitudes Towards Religious Circumcision, Teachers Wearing Headscarf, Construction of Mosques and Islamic Religious Education

See above.

And what about the Idea of the Nation?

Identity – especially national identity – is amorphous. The guiding culture debates of the past years made us realise how difficult it is to define who we are. It is unlikely that anyone seriously entertains the idea that the ‘German We’ is defined by the fact that we greet each other and shake hands. A feeling of reification is generated if it can at least be determined what we are not: national identity is therefore created ex negativo. But our images of ourselves change with time, and with it the negative associations towards those that are perceived as the ‘others’. For example, in the 1960s, migrant workers were described as unpunctual, dirty, and lazy – and as a direct result, the virtues perceived as German punctuality, cleanliness, and hard work were conjured into being. Today, the German identity – embedded in the European context – is defined as democratic, tolerant, and enlightened.

Until 2000, only those with German ancestors could become German.

The other, in contrast, is anti-democratic, intolerant, and has not gone through the phase of enlightenment. It is precisely these attributions that are frequently associated with Islam and ­Muslims. The enlightenment is seen as a vaccination which – once administered – protects against anti-­democratic and intolerant behaviour, entirely as if colonial crimes, European world wars, and the Holocaust had not taken place after the enlightenment. Naturally, the question of whether Islam contains an anti-­reformatory force is justified. To answer this question, we should discuss it with theologians, scientists, Islamic feminists – and argue constructively. But at the same time, we must question whether it is really Islam that stabilises these relations or not perhaps the over 180 billion US dollar weapons deal concluded by Trump with Saudi Arabia that can contribute to stabilising terrorism – as well as the economic dependency on oil, gas, and other raw materials that are traded with us. Perhaps both, there are definitely multiple factors in play – however, Islam itself is just as reactionary or reformatory as the interpretation of Catholicism, Protestantism, or Hinduism in the political landscape and the context of the time. Looking for Surahs in Islam that justify homophobia will be senseless if at the same time Indonesia, one of the largest Islamic countries, proves that other ways of social behaviour can coexist. In the US, FBI statistics show that homosexuals are the most frequent victims of violent attacks in relation to their group size; in Russia, homosexuals are subjected to imminent threats. As a society, we must therefore learn to sanction homophobia, sexism, or antisemitism – without externalising this anti-democratic stance to one group and justifying it on the grounds of their culture or religion. This makes it too easy to think that it has nothing to do with us. Looking for Surahs in the Quran which prove that Islam is misogynist and anti-Semitic – and thereby that such characteristics are inherent to Muslims – is taking the question out of the temporal context in the same way as it would be to declare Protestants to be cultural anti-­Semitics because Luther represented the opinion that the Jews were “such [a] desperate, thoroughly evil, poisonous, devilish lot” that they “for fourteen-hundred years have been and still are our plague, our pestilence, and our misfortune” and therefore advised setting their synagogues and schools on fire.

Retelling the Story of Nations and Collective Identities

Furthermore, Kant seems to still be revered today in spite of his statements describing the Jews as “a nation of cheats” or “vampires of society”. Even when Kant writes: “Humanity’s best embodiment is in the race of the whites”, we describe him as one of the core thinkers who inspired the enlightenment – not as a racist. We know that these quotes have to be classified as historical, and that, at any rate, the deep rooting of anti-­Semitism in the texts of Kant and Voltaire as well as in the Bible and with Martin Luther are no reason for us to question Western fundamental values based on the enlightenment and Christianity. Today, we read them in a different way. Islam is not granted the same leeway. We must know: narratives are stories that are only partially based on historic experiences. While it is true that they carry the momentum of having always been there and being set in stone, we forget that narratives are constantly being rethought and can be thought back onto their time. We assume, for example, that the label of a ‘nation of immigrants’ is a so-called founding myth of the US. In actual fact, this narrative was not established until the 1960s, when administrative forces used it to strengthen social cohesion in a society that was characterised by acute social divisions. The Canadians founded their guiding principle of ‘unity in diversity’ in the 1970s. To what extent can we retell constitutive narratives of a national community – in this case of Germany? And is it possible to interpret Germany as a heterogeneous migration society – or as a post-migrant society? This refers to a society that does not operate using a narrative of binary categories, of migrant versus native. Shermin Langhoff, the Artistic Director of Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre, established and described the post-migrant perspective as a “common room of diversity beyond origin”. We know that the ways in which diversity is observed and home is felt – as a sense of urbanity, as a place of longing, as a soil, as a childhood memory – are different for everyone. Multiply diverse in its emotional rooting. The feeling of home varies as much as the telling – the narrative – of home. It becomes fluid, it solidifies. And every third child born in this country has a migration background and a German homeland, which may rather be thought of as Hamburg, Berlin, Swabia. Diversity means that a child is a migrant and German and native all at the same time. It is becoming more difficult to separate migrants and natives. This is the empiricism of the new Germany. It contradicts the narrative of homogeneity.

Narrations are therefore stories or narrative structures that affect communities and are reproduced across time and space. Narrations do not necessarily have to be based on empirical facts, they can also be based on constructions that are first interpreted in retrospect, or by looking at a future objective. They must not actually have taken place historically in the exact narrative form. Paul Ricœur’s term ‘Mimesis II’ illustrates that historic narratives are both reconstructive and creative. They are constantly reinvented in the present – through contextual reinterpretations, new stocks of knowledge, or retrospective traditionalisation. However, they receive legitimacy and shape political action through the assumption that they have always been there.

The ways in which home is felt – as a sense of urbanity, as a place of longing, as a soil, as a childhood memory – are different for everyone.

“Germany is not an immigration country and will not become one”, said Helmut Kohl as Chancellor of Reunification. This was even included into the coalition agreement in 1982. His narrative seemed plausible – even if it was completely invented. Not historically grounded and even at that point in time, not substantiated by the reality – by the middle of the 1970s, fourteen million migrant workers had already arrived in Germany. The function of narratives therefore lies in the construction of a collective memory, and thus in the construction of the past and present reality. Reconstructive narratives are references to the past of a nation or ethnicity, often loaded with affect and pathos, and only attributed to one’s own collective. They simulate a grown relation across time, and these related experiences create community. A community developed through the past, in which those who do not share this common alleged history cannot take part.

Two Axioms of National Identity

Cultural scientist Rogers Brubaker fundamentally describes national identity using two axioms: either founded on the past and ancestry, as is the case in Germany; or founded on ethical-moral knowledge, an idea or ideology, which is the case in the US, for example. Both are not necessarily veracious. Neither is Germany the product of Teutonic ancestors, nor is the US the Land of Freedom. But the narratives are the dense stories that shape self-image and create a culture of memory, which creates identity; nevertheless, value-based national narratives are more performative and open, because they adapt to the present and enable new practices of community building – that is, through values and attitudes and less through events. As such, freedom can naturally undergo constant further development as the guiding principle of a national identity. Accordingly, reconstructive narratives exist – feeding on the narrative of the past –, as well as aspirative narratives that aim for a future objective, a ‘meaningful end point’.

Opportunities for Action and Narrative Strategies

If narrations can be subject to historic transformation and cultural change, this also means that they can be changed! They can be reinterpreted, recombined, and retold actively by politics, science, as well as administrations. Nevertheless, they have to be credible and possess a certain plausibility in order to fulfil their function – which is the generation of a collective memory. German politics, and with that the German public, are lacking a political and public narrative that retells Germany as a migration country – not only cognitively, but also emotionally – developing over a long period and not ad hoc, as is so frequently perceived. ‘Re-’telling implies that migration and integration should no longer be described unidirectionally from a cost-benefit perspective of the established and the outsiders – according to the motto: “They can be here; if we get something out of them, I have nothing against that”. This will fail as the third and fourth generation of ‘migrants’ are already considered citizens. Their narratives of Germany must also find a way into the narrative of a collective tale. Narrative reinterpretation would furthermore help liberate Germany from its debate on national identity. To think of Germany based on value ideals, as opposed to a primarily historical construct, seems wholly plausible. How about, for example, understanding the ‘Welcoming Culture’ as an act of the narrative reinterpretation of being German? Euphemistic? More than ten million people helped refugees in the so-called summer of migration. More than half of them did so alongside their daily profession and not because they had too much time on their hands or nothing else to do.

From a foreign perspective, the story of Germany has sustainably changed as a result. Germany is suddenly considered a modern country of plural democracy alongside Canada. Who would have thought it? The new Germany now as a nation of compassion. With the objective of transforming into an integrative society that sanctions inequality? Equality of differences as a meaningful end point? Being German no longer intuitively interpreted in dependence on ancestors and phenotypes, but rather as a new story of citizens that share the common idea of a plural democracy as a basic value and goal of their national self-definition? This would allow for a new form of the narration of national identity, an aspirative, forward-looking story. Especially in times where the European identity is increasingly vanishing as a post-national reference anchor, this is opening up a space of collective identity. An identity that is consti­tuted more strongly through the establishment of a political community – therefore a mouldable, constructive, or inclusive narrative – than through a historically inherited, exclusive mentality of a dominant culture that cannot be shaped by everyone, but rather only by the ‘real Germans’.

Can human will really move anything? If yes, then we should now take efforts to do so. Feeding new narrative elements into collective thinking is sometimes difficult. Not only because it is met with consistent resis­tance through established discourse positions, but also because the new partial narrative must be compatible, credible, and logically stringent to allow its effects to unfold – and because more spokespeople must be mobilised to carry this narrative into the public discourse. They do not need to exclusively be migrants, but rather all people that share a normative perspective of this plural reality. Post-migrant alliances must be established in our country, between people who fight together for a shared understanding of a plural democracy and not for a shared origin. Whether originally German, organically German, migrant, East or West German, whatever their background is: the normative, meaningful end point of our national identity is the plural democracy. Protecting and implementing it is laid out in the constitution. This plural narrative of German identity therefore does not need to be invented – just liberated from all the stories concealing it.

National Identity

How We Must Act

So far, Germany has not politically formulated ideas of common coexistence which could be negotiated as a guiding principle of a new national narrative in a society that has essentially become more pluralist through migration. A narrative expansion of the German identity would result in migrants themselves becoming a constitutive element of the national narrative and German identity: Germany would then retell itself as a ‘unity of differences’, being German would be then inherent to migrants, and it would no longer constitute their opposite.

  • The migration society of Germany needs a political guiding principle that is aspirative, proactive, and that formulates a new pluralist and heterogeneous national identity that feeds into our collective memory.
  • The integration of newly arrived migrants must go hand in hand with the integration and qualification of the entire German society, into Germany as an immigration country.
  • Integration policy should have the following objective: the equal economic, legal, and political participation of all citizens in the central goods of society, for the purpose of producing equal opportunities and breaking down discrimination and inequality.

Prof. Dr. Naika Foroutan (46) is Professor of Inte­gration Research and Social Policy at the Humboldt University in Berlin, where she is also Director of the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM). In addition, she is Head of the German Centre for ­Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM), a state-­funded research centre for migration research networking in Germany. Her research focuses include the transformation of immigration societies and how to cope with diversity in post-migrant societies.