We in Germany were delighted in August 2015 when Angela Merkel brazenly declared “Wir schaffen das” (“We are able to do this”) amid the arrival of thousands of refugees every day. Or rather, some of us — and in the late summer and autumn of that year, the majority of us — not only were convinced that the chancellor’s optimism was well-founded but also believed it was Germany’s duty to accommodate people seeking its protection.
That attitude was by no means universal. Others in Germany had no interest in smooth management of the influx. Some even took to the streets to demand Germany’s borders be closed and asylum seekers already in the country expelled. When it comes to accommodating people seeking Germany’s protection, we in Germany have remained bitterly divided.
Politicians, particularly those on the right, frequently decry a division that extends well beyond attitudes towards refugees and call for policies to reunite Germany. Often, they simply mean that the government ought to give in to their demands: by closing Germany’s borders to migrants (at least to those who hail from outside Europe or are Muslims), for example, or by indefinitely allowing Germans to drive petrol-fuelled cars and rely on oil and gas heaters, or by discontinuing the official use of gender-neutral language, or by appeasing Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The Scholz government has been sufficiently concerned about the electoral impact of the little that’s left of its reformist agenda that it too has vowed to heal the rift bemoaned by the naysayers, whose mantra seems to be: “Wir schaffen das nicht.”
Much less attention has been paid to another fault line that is both imagined and very real: between residents who consider themselves genuine Germans, on the one hand, and those who are, or descend from, migrants, on the other. Even those who said “Wir schaffen das” with Merkel rarely imagined an inclusive “we” that encompassed migrants and non-migrants. The “we” Merkel conjured in her famous line would have included the Germans flocking to railway stations to hand out teddy bears to Syrian children, but not those children and their parents.
In fact, “we” often doesn’t even include migrants who settled in Germany many years ago. They supposedly don’t belong, because they aren’t German citizens, don’t speak “proper” German, are of the wrong faith or don’t look the part.
Or because they don’t share “our” history. At least that perceived shortcoming can be easily remedied. Whether migrants are an integral part of Germany’s history and have played a crucial role in shaping today’s society is a matter of interpretation. All that’s required for a shared history is a persuasive narrative.
Jan Plamper, who previously wrote mainly about twentieth-century Russia — his doctoral dissertation examined Stalin’s personality cult — and the history of emotions, has offered such a narrative. Four years ago he published a book about postwar Germany as a country of immigration, and he has now translated that book into English.
The German edition was titled Das neue Wir: Warum Migration dazugehört — Eine andere Geschichte der Deutschen (“The New We: Why Migration Is Part of It — An Alternative History of the Germans”). His English publisher opted for a very different title, which is no less provocative but in my view misses the point of the book: We Are All Migrants: A History of Multicultural Germany.
No, we in Germany are not all migrants, although many of us emigrated, particularly in the nineteenth century, and although close to one in four of us has at least one parent who wasn’t born a German citizen. Plamper opens with a prologue of sorts about German emigration, but other than that his book begins at the end of the second world war. Was Germany already a multicultural nation in the 1950s? Hardly. Even today, large swathes of rural and regional East Germany are arguably not part of “multicultural Germany.”
We Are All Migrants is not a history of postwar Germany with a particular focus on its migration history. Nor is it a comprehensive chronological account of immigration and of migrants in Germany. Plamper decided to focus on some aspects: the resettlement of ethnic Germans fleeing or expelled from Eastern Europe, including Germany’s former eastern provinces, in the aftermath of the war; labour migration to West Germany; labour migrants in East Germany; the so-called Aussiedler and Spätaussiedler, ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and Central Asia (in the last two decades of the twentieth century alone, more than three million Aussiedler and their families settled in the Federal Republic); Jewish migrants from the Soviet Union and its successor states; and the so-called refugee crisis of 2015–16. Two additional chapters provide snapshots of Germany in 1945 and 1989 respectively.
Other possible chapters could have featured the Romanians and Bulgarians who accounted for one out of five new immigrants before the intensification of Russia’s war against Ukraine in February 2022, or the 3.8 million citizens of the German Democratic Republic who settled in the Federal Republic between 1949 and 1990, or the Indochinese “boat people” resettled in Germany in the late 1970s and early 1980s, or the Bosnian nurses who helped to keep the German hospitals afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But I’m not taking issue with Plamper’s selection of cases. That it partly reflects his earlier specialisation as a historian of the Soviet Union is appropriate, because We Are All Migrants is also a highly personal book. It mentions Plamper’s father, an ethnic German who was expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1946 and later, after he retired in 2011, taught German to refugees. Plamper’s daughter Olga, who grew up speaking Russian and moved to Germany when she was eleven, features too. When once, while the family was living in Berlin, asked by her father what nationality she identifies with, she replied “Ausländerin natürlich,” meaning “of course” she considered herself a foreigner living in Germany.
We Are All Migrants is also a personal book in the sense that it features the lives of individual migrants. Among them are Hassan Ali Djan, who fled Afghanistan aged sixteen, Ibraimo Alberto, a Mozambique-born former labour migrant in East Germany, and the Spanish “guest worker” Carlos Pérez. Their stories, as well as the author’s own, contribute to the book’s readability. So does its prose.
Often non-fiction suffers when it is rendered into English because long sentences that read well in German can appear convoluted. Not in this case, because Plamper’s German is that of somebody who for many years has worked in an English-speaking environment. His writing is economical and engaging. Both the German original and the English translation are a pleasure to read.
Plamper is optimistic about the viability of what he calls a “New We” made up of both migrants (“PlusGermans”) and non-migrants. I suspect two factors contribute to his optimism: the impression left by the Willkommenskultur, Germany’s welcoming culture of 2015, was still fresh when he completed Das neue Wir, and he wrote as an outsider who hadn’t lived in Germany for many years and was teaching in Britain. I found his optimism endearing and the vision of a new Germany informed by it appealing.
In the English edition, too, Plamper lets his history end in 2018. I suppose the past five years would have provided him with more grounds for optimism. Since February 2022, Germany has accommodated more than a million refugees from Ukraine without much fuss. Optimism helps us to envision alternative futures, and that may be reason enough to focus on success stories. Yet I don’t entirely share Plamper’s optimism — for four reasons.
First, he may underestimate the disillusionment of “PlusGermans” about the willingness of non-migrant Germans and government institutions to respect and protect migrants. True, hundreds of thousands of people attended the candle-lit demonstrations against xenophobia held in 1992 and 1993 after migrants had died in arson attacks, but these rallies weren’t able to stop the racist violence. Nor were they accompanied by legislation to allow all long-term residents to vote and make it easier for migrants to become citizens.
When the terrorist group National Socialist Underground, or NSU, murdered a policewoman and nine migrants between 2000 and 2006, the police focused their suspicions on associates and family rather than far-right terrorists. Only after two of the perpetrators committed suicide did the police conclude that the murders were related and had all been motivated by racist hatred.
Only last month, in the city-state of Hamburg, the ruling Social Democrats and Greens once again decided against setting up a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the investigation into the murder of the Hamburg greengrocer Süleyman Taşköprü by members of the NSU in 2001. The response to the NSU murders, by the state but also by society at large, has disabused many migrants of the idea that it’s easy to become part of Germany.
Second, Merkel’s departure paved the way for the return of conservative ideologues who argue that migrants need to adapt to German values. Her Christian Democrats are now led by Friedrich Merz, who in 2000 had initiated a debate about the need for migrants to adhere to a Leitkultur, a set of allegedly essential German values and principles. Merz’s resurrection marks not only a shift to the right by Germany’s largest party but also a validation of an ethno-nationalism that pretends to be culturally determined, and a return to debates about parallel societies and migrants as welfare bludgers.
Third, the demand for more rights and the discourse against racism are now too often couched in the terms of identity politics — which, incidentally, also inform far-right discourses about Germanness. Calls for social justice seem to have gone out of fashion. And the focus is too often on symbolic gestures. What’s the point of avoiding terms with racist connotations when the historical injustice they represent is not dealt with?
Fourth, migrants remain disadvantaged. It’s true that it is now easier for them to take out German citizenship than it was, say, thirty years ago. It also true that the immigration of large numbers of Syrians since 2014 and Ukrainians since 2022 has not met with the same hysterical response as the arrival of refugees from former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. And yes, migrants do play an increasingly prominent role in Germany, even in German politics. But Plamper’s “PlusGermans” tend to be poorer than non-migrant Germans and, even more concerning, second-generation migrants still typically lag behind their non-migrant peers.
In their 2015 book Strangers No More, Richard Alba and Nancy Foner compared the long-term disadvantages of people with a migrant history in Canada, the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany. Germany’s report card was particularly poor, even when compared with the three other European countries. Alba and Foner found that “the chance of a German native obtaining some level of post-secondary education was about three times that of a youth from a Turkish immigrant family.” That’s not least because the highly stratified German school system favours children from native German-speaking families.
This is where another recent book, Betiel Berhe’s Nie mehr leise: Die neue migrantische Mittelschicht (“No Longer Quiet: The New Migrant Middle Class”), comes in. Berhe, the daughter of Eritrean refugees, grew up in West Germany. Her book is concerned with class prejudices and class-based structural inequalities as well as with racism. She knows from first-hand experience how rarely migrant children are promoted to the Gymnasium, the German high school, and how the school system reproduces inequality.
Berhe is impatient and angry. She has little time for a well-meaning white middle class unwilling to give up its privileges, and she mounts a spirited defence of identity politics. But she also concedes that the issue is not whether identity politics divides society, but what kind of identity politics produces a more just society in which everybody has the chance to participate meaningfully. Such a society, she says, would eventually make identity politics redundant.
She is sick and tired of being invited to “sit at the table,” for that table no longer fits. “True change will only happen,” she writes, “if we smash the old table that’s much too small, to make room for a new large table that can accommodate everyone.”
Nie Mehr Leise is a reality check for Plamper’s “success story.” But Berhe too is an optimist. And, like Plamper, she imagines a new “we.” Her starting point is not an imagined community of non-migrants and “PlusGermans”; it is those “who feel how I feel.” And that’s not where the story ought to end, she says: “We: that’s all those who demand that all forms of structural discrimination, repression and exploitation are abolished.”
Berhe’s book is trying to lay the groundwork for the formation of a new “we” by enabling Germans other than women of colour to empathise and extend their solidarity — and not to stop there: “True solidarity would mean that we demand a distinctly different society for everybody, us included.”
Plamper and Berhe occupy privileged positions in the knowledge economy. He holds the chair of history at the University of Limerick; she is an economist who, according to the bio in her book, “gives talks, runs workshops and provides advice about issues of migration, (anti-)racism, diversity and education.” The author of a third recent book has never attended high school, is a poet and trained mechanic, and owns a small publishing company that he subsidises by working occasionally as a forklift driver.
Dinçer Güçyeter’s book Unser Deutschlandmärchen (which means “Our Fairytale about Germany” more than “Our German Fairytale”) has just won the Leipzig Book Fair’s prize for fiction, one of Germany’s most highly regarded literary awards. And while some observers were surprised by the shortlisting of a book from a publisher hardly anybody knew about, and written by an author who thus far had only published poetry, those who have read the book have expressed nothing but praise.
“The novel… lets the words soar into the sky, but is also attentive to the humiliations on the ground,” the judges of the Leipzig award wrote. “Dinçer Güçyeter catches stories with a net that’s more finely woven than a butterfly net… and has gifted us a polyphonic novel whose poetic chorus will reverberate.“
Please note the first person plural pronoun in the title of Güçyeter’s book, too. It refers to just two people: the author and his mother Fatma, a Turkish-born woman who in 1965 joined her husband, a Turkish labour migrant, in Germany, where their son Dinçer was born fourteen years later. The book is the story of Fatma’s and Dinçer’s lives, told by an author impersonating both of his characters.
“You have always shrouded your longing in silence. You thought that way nobody could see through you, nobody could hurt you,” Dinçer tells Fatma. “You see, years later your son tries to turn your silence into literature, ponders, rages, searches, loses…” Güçyeter is generous enough to share with his readers not just the result of his searches but also the searching. And we also learn about his anger — an anger that at times appears even more deep-seated than Berhe’s.
But Unser Deutschlandmärchen is not an angry book. It is often heartbreakingly sad but told in a way that makes sometimes make the reader laugh, albeit uneasily. This contradiction is in the nature of fairytales, which often hide unspeakable violence inside an enchanted world where all live happily ever after.
Güçyeter’s novel is a story of coming to terms: with living in a strange country (in the case of Fatma); with growing up and not conforming to society’s expectations of masculinity (in the case of Dinçer). Neither the author nor his mother always copes well with the challenges thrown in their paths. But then, it’s just a fairy tale, where bad things happen and all ends well.
The book is unusual because of Güçyeter’s mastery of poetic language. It’s also unusual because of its format: a novel that’s not fiction, illustrated by — unfortunately poorly reproduced — photographs that make it resemble a family album, with the author writing in the first person, with that person being at times a guy named Dinçer and sometimes a woman named Fatma.
In his conclusion to We Are All Migrants, Jan Plamper writes that he used to assume, as “an internationalist of the Left,” that a collective national identity was unnecessary. He has since changed his mind. His book is a “plea for a collective identity.” He advocates a “national New We” because he believes it’s important to have an “effective emotional glue” and thereby meet the demand for a national German identity from non-migrants and migrants alike.
I still cringe when either of my nations’ national anthem (the German “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” or “Advance Australia Fair”) is played, and I am uncomfortable when I see others deeply moved by the display of national symbols. Mind you, I happily barrack for the German football team — for the women’s, not the men’s — though not because they are Germans but because they play such an attractive brand of football. And yes, I did cheer on the men’s team once, but that was when Mesut Özil and Miroslav Klose were its stars — not because they were PlusGermans but because I was seduced by their artistry, their ability to read the game and their skill in befuddling their opponents.
“What it means to be German remains a blank, is still missing something elementary — new terms, concepts, and stories,” Plamper claims. Not only do I think that shouldn’t alarm us. I’m also not sure that Plamper’s diagnosis is correct — unless of course the sense of being German is necessarily tied up with a territorially bounded nation-state.
I am emotionally attached to certain German landscapes, to some German music and, particularly, to some writing in German, including Unser Deutschlandmärchen. I was moved by Güçyeter’s book. I loved the rhythm and timbre of its language. It took me to places I had never visited. The book is part of a distinctly German universe I admire and cherish, a universe so much larger than the German nation. And wouldn’t an emotional attachment to a German nation inevitably entail an attachment to the German nation-state?
Plamper embraces what he calls the “open border position.” As a historian he also knows that there is nothing natural about what the anthropologist Liisa Malkki once referred to as the “national order of things. “One day national borders will seem like a remnant from a bygone epoch, much like slavery or the exclusion of women from general elections do in the Western world,” Plamper writes. “There will be a truly universal right, a human right, of freedom of movement.”
In the meantime, for strategic reasons, ought we nurture an emotional attachment to a German nation? To offer an alternative for the Turkish Germans who, come 14 May, may save Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bacon because they are emotionally attached to the nationalism he offers? Or to offer a less fraught option for those following PEGIDA, the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, to stop them from shouting “Absaufen! Absaufen! Absaufen!” (“Drown! Drown! Drown!”), as happened when a speaker at one of their demonstrations in 2018 referred to the German NGO Mission Lifeline, which has operated a search-and-rescue ship in the Mediterranean?
The PEGIDA followers are hardly going to be attracted by a “New We” that includes PlusGermans like Berhe and Güçyeter. They have shown little interest in defining and periodically redefining national collective identity through democratic processes — unless of course, they are promised that these processes will reflect their idea of an ethnically, if not racially, defined, homogenous nation. But let them pontificate about “we Germans” — and let us assure the targets of their racist vitriol that we in Germany do not wish to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens, nor between native and non-native speakers of the language of Goethe and Güçyeter.
I am not so worried about the rift between those who demand that Germany close its borders and those who believe we ought to respond to new arrivals with hospitality and solidarity. I can’t think of a compromise position that would allow Germany to uphold the human rights of migrants and at the same time exclude people seeking its protection.
I expect that “we Germans” are deeply concerned about the nation’s apparent lack of a unity of purpose. “We in Germany,” I would like to think, are more concerned about the fact that migrants are left to drown in the Mediterranean.
Unlike Jan Plamper, I fail when trying to envisage a day when “national borders will seem like a remnant from a bygone epoch.” But after having read his book, and Berhe’s and Güçyeter’s, I too am cautiously optimistic.
Over to Dinçer Güçyeter for the last word: “We will combine the past with what’s still to come and write our own fairy tale, mother.” •
We Are All Migrants: A History of Multicultural Germany
By Jan Plamper | Cambridge University Press | $43.95 | 274 pages
Nie mehr leise: Die neue migrantische Mittelschicht
By Betiel Berhe | Aufbau | €22.00 | 205 pages
By Dinçer Güçyeter | mikrotext | €25.00 | 213 pages