Who defines identity? Germany’s struggle with inclusivity.
This last week in class, we discussed the limits of Germany’s capacity to take in immigrants and what it means to be German. Proponents of reducing the number of foreigners in Germany believe that the “boat” of Germany’s capacity for incorporation of foreigners is “full.” To these native-born Germans, there exists an exclusive space of “Germanness” where German identity is linked to history and lineage. Historically, arbitrary lines have been drawn by citizenship and naturalization laws to institutionalize German identity, where citizenship was used as a bureaucratic tool to reject those who did not fit. At Germany’s most extreme phase of institutional rejection of non-Germans, the German government in 1983 offered monetary incentives for guest workers to return to their home countries, rejecting the guest workers as part of German society. Reunification of West Germany and East Germany in 1990 exacerbated the exclusion of non-ethnic Germans, after which nationalistic terms such as “fatherland,” “homeland,” and “patriotism” took on new meaning and relevance. This renewed/reunified national identity came with a reprioritization of individuals with German heritage over migrants who then had to fight (sometimes literally) to prove their German identity.
So what does it mean to be German? In the 1992 song “Foreign in My Own Country” (“Fremd im eigenen Land”) by German hip hop group Advanced Chemistry, the lyrics allude to the complex nature of identities and groupings. The song responds to the xenophobia towards groups that do not look like the typical blue-eyed, blond-haired German by describing slights and aggressions faced by Afro-Germans in German society. The lyrics unite Afro-Germans together with foreign immigrants to demonstrate the extent of discrimination faced by those deemed as “other,” yet keeps them distinct to underscore Afro-Germans’ actual German nationality. The repeated emphasis on passports throughout the song linking individual identity to legal status highlights the ability of public policy to influence cultural identity. The fact that the speaker is actually a German citizen indicates that discrepancies between society’s prescription of individuals’ identities and these individuals’ self-identities can cause harmful psychological dissonance. That dissonance combined with political showmanship lead to these individuals feeling like disposable, second-class outcasts. The music video for “Foreign in My Own Country” displays striking similarities to the music video of the popular 1989 social empowerment song “Fight the Power” by American hip hop group Public Enemy which encouraged resistance against acceptance of abuses of power and racism in the United States.
The struggle for these individuals to determine their own identities between the black and white becomes further complicated by the addition of the issue of dual citizenship. Those in favor of multiple citizenships argue that having ties to other countries and the addition of diverse perspectives benefit the countries involved by fostering unity between these countries. This stance is reminiscent of sentiments espoused by politicians looking to begin an era of a transnational Europe in 1955 when West Germany signed the Labor Recruitment Agreement with Italy. Ultimately, the proponents of multiple citizenships advocate for people taking on multiple nationalities such that national allegiance would broaden to encompass multiple nations, thus eliminating the nation-state idea. However, opponents note the need for national allegiance, a commonality among citizens, and loyalty to each other. Multiple citizenships, these opponents argue, would not only dilute this societal bond but would also call into question how loyal to each country one of these citizens could be. In the case of Turkish migrants, acceptance of German citizenship can be seen as betrayal of cultural roots, again illustrating how legal status strongly influences an individual’s perception of his or her own cultural identity.
Today, these conversations and discussions are repeating themselves in the face of the Syrian migrant crisis. Concerns for the economic and cultural protection of Germany and for humanitarian aid to the enormous influx of refugees are being debated, with the key point of contention being whether or not the “boat is full.” Acceptance of refugees has been positively influenced by the introduction of jus soli (now existing in conjunction with jus sanguinis) in the year 2000. However, this acceptance has also been negatively influenced by the December 1992 amendment to Basic Law that made the acceptance criteria of asylum seekers more stringent. Even a cursory comparison between citizenship tests from Germany and the United States shows that the German test is more difficult because it tests both knowledge of German government and history, as well as knowledge of German language, while the American test only tests rote memorization of American government and history.
Future discourse and research should focus on comparing multiculturalism and integration policies and their effects on societal acceptance of immigrants. Given the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, we should anticipate and track the long term economic and demographic impact of migration. #Blacklivesmatter also offers us the opportunity to compare the dynamics of race relations and identity in the transatlantic theater.