Border Talk in Dresden: Imagining Cohesion through Difference with Zafer Şenocak

In this thoughtful commentary, UC Berkeley Class of 2021 alumna and MGP contributor Ardo Ali, who participated in our workshop with Turkish-German author Zafer Şenocak, grapples with the troubled legacy of German reunification as reflected in the rise of so-called right-wing populism in Germany, which has been disproportionately steep in the formerly socialist East. Ali chronicles how, as the institutions of social security in the German Democratic Republic are looted by Western capital, the resurgent ethnic nationalism of Kohl-era West Germany is discredited, returning as counterculture in the form of far-right social movements in the 2010s after being sidelined by the neoliberal spirit of globalization which saw conservative and center-left governments alike embrace both a more pluralistic German national identity and the intensification of capitalist exploitation.

“Es wäre vermessen, so zu tun, als gäbe es diese Welt nicht, die hermetisch sein möchte, mit Bewohnern, die untereinanderbleiben wollen. Ein abgeschottetes Kindheitsparadies? Eine Idylle, wenn man bedenkt, wie viele Kinderheitshöllen es gibt. Aber zur Idylle gehört Harmonie und zur Harmonie eben auch Homogenität. So wird landauf, landab gedacht.”

“It would be presumptuous to pretend that this world does not exist, which wants to be hermetic, with inhabitants who want to stay among themselves. A secluded childhood paradise? A sealed-off childhood hell there is. But to the ideal belongs to harmony and through harmony also homogeneity. That’s the way people think up and down the country.”

Zafer Şenocak, Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt: Wie Unterschiede unsere Gesellschaft zusammenhalten (2018, p. 152)

Is social harmony a symbiotic relationship between different individuals or those bearing the same beliefs, identities, and cultures? Zafer Şenocak’s recent semi-autobiographical compilation of essays, Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt: Wie Unterschiede unsere Gesellschaft zusammenhalten, raises this question and more, touching on facets of identity and belonging in era of social media where, inflammatory verbiage often triggers resentful rejection of those perceived as “other” or foreign.

In his book, Şenocak contrasts the wide-spread desire for hermetically sealed and homogeneous group identities, as in the opening quote, with a focus on the internal differences and foreignness in the self, which makes the vilification of the perceived “other” a hypocritical standpoint. Concepts of social cohesion, in German “sozialer Zusammenhalt,” speak to larger themes within Germany today, where authors, private organizations, and governmental officials are all seeking to address and solve polarization on issues ranging from immigration to employment, but disagree on the best means to do so.

Social cohesion is particularly important within Germany because of the nation’s tenuous history with immigration and ethnic diversity. Developing a means of engaging with issues of social cohesion is imperative so that the fallout of occurrences like the 2015 European migrant crisis can become instances of mass cooperation and social endurance instead of schismatic breaking points within German cultural society. Ethnic minorities and immigrants are often scapegoated for social, political, and economic shortcomings.

It has become evident through the recent resurgence of German right-wing populist parties in the 2010s that top-down mechanisms of bringing about integration and acceptance are not enough to counteract opposition to cohesion efforts. This top-down mechanism has been lead by conservatives in government, who have focused on the formation of a strong national narrative of cohesion, perpetuated by federal ministries like the Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat.

Groups like the Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (PEGIDA) represent the right-wing opposition to Germany’s social cohesion project. The group comes out of the politically polarizing city of Dresden, believing the best means of creating “Zusammenhalt” is based on a foundation of prejudice, xenophobic, and sheltered imagery paired with hateful verbiage. The city of Dresden is uniquely situated in the social cohesion debate, harboring citizens who identify with PEGIDA’s messaging, while also being a space for open debate for more understanding and inclusive forms of social cohesion as in the Landpartie oder “Die Haut musst du schützen” section of Şenocak’s Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt: Wie Unterschiede unsere Gesellschaft zusammenhalten.

This essay analyzes the debate about social cohesion coming out of Dresden on both ends of the ideological spectrum, looking to see if the city’s social, cultural, and political differences can be used as the social adhesive for a more interactive future. In particular, analyzing whether interpersonal understanding develops linkages between established frameworks for integration like that developed by the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU) and those that seek to counteract those initiatives like the rising radical right. 

Historical Background

In order to understand the basis of the social cohesion debate, Germany’s complicated social and political makeup must first be discussed, beginning with the widely disputed issue of immigration. The stance of the conservative CDU party during the 1980s, particularly that of their party-leader Helmut Kohl, who later became Chancellor of Germany both prior to and throughout the reunification period, is of particular importance.

Kohl fervently stood against the notion of Germany as a country of immigration, arguing that specifically, Turkish immigrants could not assimilate due to perceived “cultural differences”. He and his party perpetuated conflicting narratives of immigrant populations, stating that immigrants took away jobs while also claiming that immigrants were lazy and had low contribution to the German economic sphere.

Though a hot button issue for Kohl himself, immigration and citizenship policy fell to the wayside in the 1990’s with Kohl’s CDU/CSU and FDP coalition losing confidence and support amongst the nation’s reunified population. Germany either due to the reunifying spirit of the fall of the Berlin wall at the beginning of the decade or the impending pressures of the economic and social issues that reunification brought up, produced legislation under the new political guard of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD)  and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen in the late 1990s. This established Germany more formally as an immigration state. Germany, thus, produced its first substantive immigration policy in 2005, the nation’s first true Immigration Act. 

Though such legislation proved politically salient, fissures within Germany’s social sphere would surface when challenged with the 2015 migrant crisis. PEGIDA’s position paper largely encompasses the means by which the right-wing factionalists intend to reach “Zusammenhalt”. Though its goal is cohesion on their terms, it produces a more difficult means of achieving widespread cohesion because of its exclusionary nature. Upon reading the text it becomes increasingly evident that many social issues brought up are often shied away from in contemporary realms of German popular social discourse, but are hot button issues for members of the organization.

PEGIDA quite craftily attempts to employ a means of developing a perceived shared social and political ideology, while also alienating large portions of the German population, most notably those who practice Islam. PEGIDA in this way aims to cast a wider net, perhaps, gaining followers by co-opting those who agree with their more moderate claims. This population otherwise could have been on the fence with their radical agenda. An example of this is in their second declaration in the position paper, where they claim to want to develop a means for the integration under basic German law, 

2. PEGIDA ist FÜR die Aufnahme des Rechtes auf und die Pflicht zur Integration ins Grundgesetz der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (bis jetzt ist da nur ein Recht auf Asyl verankert)!  

2. PEGIDA is FOR the inclusion of the right to and the duty of integration in the Basic Law of the

Federal Republic of Germany (until now only a right to asylum is anchored there)!

Though they quickly change their tune in the following points, contradicting themselves by saying in point eleven that Germany should assume the immigration and integration policy of states like Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Switzerland, 

11. PEGIDA ist FÜR eine Zuwanderung nach dem Vorbild der Schweiz, Australiens, Kanadas oder Südafrikas!

11. PEGIDA is FOR immigration along the lines of Switzerland, Australia, Canada or South Africa!

These nations have some of the most difficult roads to citizenship and permanent legal status, as well as few efforts on the front of integration. Therefore, there is no legal space where the German model for integration can effectively be carried out while also employing the methods of these vastly stricter states. 

PEGIDA’s fight for their voice to be heard can be summed up in their mission statement, “Zusammenhalt macht stark”, which brings up the organization’s ultimate goal of social cohesion. How could it be that groups and individuals spanning the German social and political spectrum are all calling for the same results? How they define cohesion is what is important. Organizations like the Forschungsinstitut Gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhalt (FGZ), funded by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, seeks to bring about social cohesion by researching how solidarity is developed in Germany today as compared to previous historical models, where conflict culture in media today presents differently than the modes of the past.

FGZ’s system is decentralized and spread over eleven universities within Germany, with the goal of giving all minority groups a seat at the table in developing a shared sense of understanding amongst the population. PEGIDA, on the other end of the spectrum as previously outlined, aims to develop their social cohesion amongst like-minded individuals, relegating those who oppose their ideals to a minority position. 

Literary Connections

The shifting political and social landscape within Germany and more specifically in border regions near Dresden are captured in the following quote by Zafer Şenocak. The section Landpartie oder “Die Haut musst du schützen” from the text Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt, looks into the life events of a woman called Luiza and her father. It provides insight into another population of Germans “on the border”, which is applicable in multiple respects, geographically between Germany and the Czech Republic, and experientially having lived through both a divided and reunified Germany.

Luiza herself has multiple ties of regional identity, having lived on both sides of the German-Czech border in Dresden and Prague respectively. She shows the dual nature of Dresdenerin voice, through being a product of diverse experience while still entertaining ideas of national cohesion. Here the skin of Şenocak’s titled section perhaps doubles as a metaphorical protective layer not only of the individual’s identity but over the Dresden region as well.

Furthermore in this section, the optimism of her father is highlighted, which Luiza reviews quite critically. While the ruins and debris of the fall of the Berlin Wall were still fresh, she insinuates pushes were made for progress legislatively, with steps like the Immigration Act of 2005, and while structural social programs were also developed, they lacked the required to widespread engagement necessary to bolster a sense unified German identity. Thus, those clinging to a socialist German past were relegated to “other” status, because the popular promoted narrative pushed for dissociation with that portion of the nation’s past. 

“Sein Fehler war es gewesen zu glauben, dass nach dem Fall der Mauer etwas Neues kommen würde. Doch der Untergang des sozialistischen Staates blieb folgenlos. Du weißt, dass unter deinen Füßen Ruinen und Trümmer sind, aber keiner will etwas davon wissen.” (Şenocak, p. 155)

“His mistake had been to believe that something new would come after the fall of the Wall. But the demise of the socialist state remained inconsequential. You know that there are ruins and debris under your feet, but no one wants to know about it.”

The swift formulation of national unity in the late 1990s and early 2000s was an overambitious project. Though it prompted positive political changes, the national or even regional policy did not address the conceptions individuals had for what reunification meant for them. While many saw their political and social image of what Germany represented championed by the politically conservative CDU or the more liberal SPD, the radical right encompassed in the messages of PEGIDA and the AfD who did not fit within classical German social or political frameworks,  left unchecked inevitably boiled over in the 2010s. 

Zafer Şenocak goes on to dually comment former East and West Germany identity through the virtual case study of Dresden. This polarization is not only discussed in his text, but was also addressed during the “Archives on Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News” workshop series hosted jointly by UC Berkeley and UC Davis in April 2021.

During the workshop he highlighted the importance of dissolving this push for grand national narratives, no matter the ideology used to justify it. Şenocak emphasized both in his text Das Fremde, Das in Jedem Wohnt Wie Unterschiede Unsere Gesellschaft Zusammenhalten and during the workshop, the importance of individual responsibility in dissecting and coming to terms with other definitions and feelings of belonging, stating that only through this can essences of social cohesion be reached.

These sentiments are again woven into the story of Luiza’s father from Şenocak’s Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt, engaging with notions of what it means to establish “Heimat”.“Heimat” is a controversial term in the contemporary German cultural sphere, encompassing ideas of belonging that call back to a romanticized idea of what it means to be German and characteristics of the German “homeland”. These ideas of “Heimat” refer directly to conceptions of the ideal German prior to World War II, predominantly highlighting storylines of white male German heroic characters with a painted backdrop of distinctively German landscapes like the Alps or North Frisia.

The use of the word in this context makes for interesting insight into the perceived introduction of the Western people and ideals into the former East Germany. Where perhaps “Heimat” with its exclusionary foundation can be viewed as a preceding national narrative and example of why such means of forming cohesion and belonging in this way is ineffective. 

“Also baust du schnell eine Hütte an einer verwaisten Ecke des Landes, soll bloß keiner kommen aus dem Westen und Ansprüche stellen. Die kommen zuerst etwas verstohlen, bald aber schon in Scharen und sehen sich um. Aber so gewinnt niemand Heimat. Die alten verfallenen Gebäude sind nichts mehr wert. Mit einer von drüben hat er dann Luiza gezeugt. Drüben- so wird hier alles genannt, alles jenseits einer alten, neuen oder vermeintlichen Grenze, Tschechien, die alte BRD, Europa des Jahres 2015.” (Şenocak, p. 155)

“So you quickly build a hut in a deserted corner of the country, so that no one from the West can come and make demands. They come a little stealthily at first, but soon in droves and look around. But no one wins a home that way. The old dilapidated buildings are no longer worth anything. He then fathered Luiza with a woman from over there. Over there – that’s what everything is called here, everything beyond an old, new or supposed border, the Czech Republic, the old FRG, Europe of 2015.”

Moreover, Şenocak points out the underlying lack of inquiry and “othering” of Dresden’s populace in the struggle for social cohesion. “Othering” of groups or individuals inherently makes the social cohesion project more difficult, conservative West Germans writing off the radical right in the East and vice versa leads to further conflict instead of reflection and a semblance of understanding. This can be seen in the essence of mistrust or a perceived deception that comes across in the description of those from the West.

The use of “drüben” or “over there” in its generality speaks to this as well, in its connotation of what is far off and foreign should be less of a concern but in actuality it is quite vital to the German social structures. If West Germans are considered “others” to those in the East, where do immigrants and ethinic minorities land? They too in this framework must also be considered the “other”, which leads to the quandary Şenocak hints to in the final line of the quote. There exists no path to cohesion when “othering” is at the forefront of classification and the issue will persist, manifesting in whatever political and social issues arise in the future.

Calls for homogeneity are, thus, a futile argument, because individual differences in beliefs, identifications, and association make it nearly impossible to claim to be staunchly similar. Whether it be former West Germans, refugees and migrants, or ethnic minorities within Germany the issue remains the same, interpersonal understanding of the differences we all have is essential in developing any forms of local, regional, or national identity and cohesion.

About Kumars Salehi

Kumars Salehi is a PhD student in German Literature and Culture.
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