An Inclusive Germany

09/26/2013 08:37 am ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013
  • John Feffer Director, Foreign Policy In Focus and Editor, LobeLog

The reunification of Germany was all about Germans.

This might seem obvious. After all, reunification focused largely on the coming together of ethnic Germans living on either side of the Berlin Wall. Demonstrators in East Germany initially focused on das Volk (the people) but switched after the fall of the Wall to ein Volk (one people), putting the emphasis on the national rather than the civic.

This upsurge in national sentiment, however, obscured the fact that West Germany had become a de facto multicultural country during the Cold War, as a result of immigration, the inflow of refugees, and the need for guest workers, many of whom eventually brought over their families and decided to stay. East Germany, meanwhile, had pockets of non-Germans, mostly "fraternal socialists" from other countries in the Communist world including 70,000 Vietnamese contract workers. In the 1990s, a united Germany became home to many fleeing the wars in former Yugoslavia and the chaos in former Soviet Union.

Germany eventually adjusted its nationality law to reflect the increased diversity of people living within its borders. Until 1999, German law was based on jus sanguinis: you were German by bloodline. But the law changed that year to reflect jus soli: you could be a German citizen if you were born in Germany and your parents had permanent residence or had been living there for at least eight years. Today, nearly one-fifth of people living in Germany have foreign roots (that is, either they or their parents came to Germany after 1955).

I met Matthias Schwerendt in 1990 when he was the clerk of the Young Friends, the small group of German Quakers who lived in East Germany. At the time he was working with disabled children as an alternative to military service. This experience, coupled with his Quaker background and later academic work on anti-Semitism and education during the Nazi period, has sensitized him to questions of social inclusion. It has also led him to see the changes of 1989 through the eyes of those on the margins of society.

"For us, the change in 1989 was a sort of liberation, and we had to fight for it," he told me after Quaker meeting in Berlin one Sunday in February. "But for the Turkish community, it was a huge backlash. From one day to the next, they got the idea that 'There's no place for us. They don't want us at all.' A lot of the problems with the radicalization in the Turkish and Arab communities here come from that. If not for the fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe a new generation of middle-class Turkish Arab immigrants would have emerged earlier."

In the period after 1989, united Germany has begun to grapple with the fact that it is a multicultural society. "We're just on the threshold where people here realize that we are a developed immigrant country," he told me. "Of course, we're just at the beginning of this discussion of inclusion. Also, inclusion means how to approach the training and educating of so-called 'handicapped people.' We are much more aware that we have to change our education system on this issue. So, on this question of the human rights of inclusion, we have made a huge step, but it's only a first step."

In 1990, Matthias Schwerendt helped guide me through the changing youth culture of East Berlin. In 2013, he was my guide once again, this time describing to me the trajectory of someone for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall came at just the right moment. We talked about how his life changed after the Wall fell and he was able to pursue his interest in education. We also talked about the trajectory of eastern Germany.

"From the eastern side, the generation of my parents felt that they'd wasted their time, their lives," he said. "There were quite a lot of people on the periphery, with no economic base any more, because of the huge deindustrialization of East Germany. For quite a lot of reasons, many people wanted to skip over the GDR and these experiences very quickly. In one sense it was necessary. But in another sense, there were times when people should have said, 'Stop!'"

The Interview

What do you think remains of the culture of the GDR?

This is such a difficult question. After 1989, it was important not to make the same mistake after the Nazi era to integrate too quickly the people who were very much involved in the dictatorship. There was not much of a debate about what it means to have a divided Germany and then what would be the place of a united Germany in Europe. The debate that did take place, and this was not the most important debate, was about the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and how there was too much from the old system in this new Left party. This was a mistake of the intellectuals from East and West Germany. Most of the so-called Left intellectuals were a bit ashamed about their view of East Germany, their positive impressions of this "other" state. But this was not an anti-fascist state, it was not a liberal state, it was not even a socialist state. It was a sort of corporatist state. People were shocked about the lack of civil society here. So there was a perceived need to build up civil society here.

And from the eastern side, the generation of my parents felt that they'd wasted their time, their lives. There were quite a lot of people on the periphery, with no economic base any more, because of the huge deindustrialization of East Germany. For quite a lot of reasons, many people wanted to skip over the GDR and these experiences very quickly. In one sense it was necessary. But in another sense, there were times when people should have said, "Stop!"

One of the biggest mistakes is that we haven't had a debate about a common constitution. We had to take over the Grundgesetz, the Basic Law of West Germany, but there was no debate about our common purposes, our common values and how we should live together today and tomorrow. This was a huge frustration for a lot of East German people. And this was the beginning of the rise of the extreme Right, the right-wing populist groups and movements, which said, "We have to make a Volkish community and go back to the Third Reich." On the other extreme, people were saying, "We want to live in the socialist wonderland again." It was best to keep out of this kind of debate. I lived for a short time in a special district where there were a lot of people who served in the military service around the Berlin Wall in the so-called Feliks Dzierdzinsky Wachregiment. This was the Cheka of East Germany. They still have their meetings and groups and whatever. With such people and such culture, you can't have an open debate. So for me it is important that you have these memorial places of East German oppression, like the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen. But I wish we could have another political debate about East German history, about the daily experience in East Germany.

There is group called Third Generation East. These are people who were teenagers or younger around 1990. They want to keep this experience and start new debates about what it meant to be brought up in East Germany, to live with parents who are deeply frustrated, to live in a society far away from the idea of democracy and minorities, what it means to feel like the losers of history. This was a missed opportunity. You can have part of this debate with young people with reports and films and exhibitions. But you can't have this public debate in common, because it's 20 years later, and it's gone. Maybe 10 years ago we should have had this debate, but now it's gone. It's interesting that quite a number of Western intellectuals are irritated that now we have a chancellor who is an East German Protestant. Twenty years later, people are realizing that East Germany is not only a place for consumption, a place to invest money, to buy houses. It is a place that had a special experience and that has its own intellectual resources as well.

You said earlier that you felt that you were drawn to looking at minority questions in part because when you were growing up you felt like a minority as a Quaker. Are there other aspects of your life before the Wall fell that are still with you very strongly in the way you think and the way you act?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.