GHDI logo

Documents - Immigration, Xenophobia, and Multiculturalism

The collapse of Communism intensified the ongoing immigration debate in Germany, because the lifting of the Iron Curtain unleashed a new and unexpected wave of immigration. Public opinion remained deeply divided over whether Germany should become an open multicultural republic or a closed country that pursued its own national interests (see Volume 9, “Two Germanies,” Chapter 4). Three distinct streams of migrants converged on the Federal Republic in 1989-90, the year of unification. First, over 400,000 refugees from conflict regions in the Balkans, Africa, and Asia sought asylum, provoking calls for tighter admissions processes (Doc. 1). Second, almost 400,000 ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union resettled in the Federal Republic of Germany to escape discrimination and pursue a better life (Doc. 2). Third, over half a million East Germans moved across the crumbling border to West Germany, where the ample social support they received triggered West German resentment (Doc. 3). Between 1989 and 2002, the number of foreigners increased by 2.3 million, heightening nativist fears that Germany would be overrun.

This unexpected influx strained the aid-giving capacity of the welfare state and led to a marked increase in xenophobia and social envy. Churches, trade unions, employers, sports organizations, and youth groups appealed for tolerance and spoke out against xenophobia (Doc. 5), but their efforts met with little success. As part of a disturbing wave of xenophobic violence in the early 1990s, skinheads in the East German city of Rostock attacked asylum homes to the applause of spectators, and in the West German town of Mölln they burned down two apartment buildings, killing three Turkish residents (Doc. 6). No wonder that many young Turks felt rejected and feared for their lives, even though they had been living in the FRG for decades (Doc. 7). Government efforts to counter intolerance among young people had little effect, since experts were at a loss to explain the rise of right-wing extremism, attributing it mostly to material causes (Doc. 9). Candlelight vigils for greater cosmopolitanism failed to provide sufficient reassurance to many Turkish immigrants, and they remained stuck in a kind of limbo, only partly integrating themselves into German society (Doc. 10).

Politicians were caught in the middle; they were concerned about the international reaction to xenophobic acts in Germany but also worried about domestic resentments. They responded only slowly to the mounting crisis. The conservative CDU-led government in particular paid more attention to popular xenophobia than to the position of immigrants and looked for ways to reduce the influx. One strategy was to increase economic assistance to the new federal states in the hope that more East Germans would remain in their hometowns if employment prospects improved there (see Chapter 3). As part of another measure, the application process for ethnic German “remigrants” was changed. Would-be remigrants had to file applications in their home countries, and they were also required to show better proof of German ethnicity. This led to a dramatic drop in their numbers (Doc. 4). A final controversial effort involved the rewriting of the constitutional guarantee of asylum (Article 16 of the Basic Law) to exclude asylum seekers who had come from states where there was no overt violation of human rights, as well as those who had travelled to Germany through other EU countries or other safe states to which they could return. The possibility of immediate expulsion, the shortening of the procedure for recognition, and the conversion of cash payments into in-kind support created such disincentives that the number of asylum seekers dropped dramatically (Doc. 8).

After the immigration crisis began to abate in the mid-1990s, the political struggle focused on revising the citizenship law and reforming immigration provisions. When the leftist Schröder-Fischer government wanted to offer bicultural residents the chance to acquire dual citizenship, CDU leader Roland Koch unleashed a vicious signature campaign that got him elected as minister president of Hesse in 1999 (Doc. 11). Shocked by this outcome, the cabinet proposed a revised version of the citizenship law – one that broke with the tradition of ethnic origin, offered all children born in Germany the chance to claim citizenship before the age of 23, and reduced the waiting time for naturalization to eight years of residence (Doc. 12). In order to break the legislative deadlock on immigration, Federal President Johannes Rau, in his Berlin speech of 2000, made a moving appeal for greater tolerance toward immigrants (Doc. 13). But seeking to further exploit popular resentment against foreigners, conservative circles insisted that immigrants be required to adapt to a Christian-German Leitkultur (“lead culture”) to ensure better integration into native society (Doc. 14). Only after long and difficult negotiations did the red-green government succeed in passing a reformed immigration law that sought to channel and limit the influx of immigrants.

Thus far, efforts to improve integration (Doc. 15) have progressed only slowly, largely on account of mutual misunderstanding. The German Islam Conference, a discussion forum between Muslims and representatives of the Ministry of the Interior (Doc. 16), is one new tool for advancing cross-cultural dialogue. It was founded in 2006 by then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. A 2010 opinion survey of 5,600 immigrants and native Germans offered reason for hope. Although the results suggested that additional work needs to be done, particularly in areas like schooling, where more emphasis needs to be placed on improving the performance of children whose first language is not German (Doc. 17), the survey also showed that immigrants and native Germans have a great deal of mutual respect. On the whole, German society is gradually realizing that it needs immigration to fortify its skilled workforce, while immigrants are realizing that they need to make greater efforts to integrate to improve their life prospects.

List of Documents