Understanding Angela Merkel

By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

WASHINGTON -- Angela Merkel, German chancellor, is said to be the most powerful woman on earth. But even by these standards, the global media tsunami that followed her remarks about the failure of multiculturalism in Germany must have caught her by surprise. Her every word was dissected in every corner of the world, and here is how that reads: The Australian found that Merkel "rejected the idea of cultural pluralism." Columnist Esther J. Cepeda of the Washington Post Writers Group understood that Merkel called "the very idea" of immigrants living "happily side by side" with native-born Germans "an illusion." Russia's lRT TV asked, "Is diversity dead?" The Miami Herald translated her remark to mean, "Muhammad, go home." And, adding some historical gravitas, the paper concluded, "We should all be alive to the grim historical resonance of a German chancellor declaring the idea of disparate cultures living peaceably side by side a failure. What, after all, is the alternative? Shall Germany officially declare itself a nation with room enough for one culture only? For the record, that's been tried already. And it didn't work so well, either."

Got that. Been tried. Didn't work. Which then raises the question: Why would an otherwise moderate woman adopt the views of the modern-day anti-immigrant populists? Why would she endorse a position that could be called relativist at best and racist at worst? Is it simply her Germanic gene, as the Miami Herald's op-ed historians seem to suggest? The answer is simple - Angela Merkel is not the woman she is currently made out to be. It is time to consider what she really said and really meant. It is time to put her remarks into context.

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A good place to start is the quote itself, the full quote, in a translation as colloquial as her speech: "We are a country that invited guest workers to come to Germany in the 1960s. Now they live among us. For a while we kidded ourselves. We said: They won't stay, they'll be gone at some point. But that is not the reality. And most certainly the approach failed to say: We'll do a multi-kulti thing here; we'll just live next to and detached from each other and declare how happy we are with each other - this approach has failed, utterly failed." Germans are not known for their humor, but they do do irony and sarcasm. Both traits rarely convey in translation. But the video of the speech reveals that Merkel displayed utter sarcasm when she disparaged the "multi-kulti thing" as a hippie vision of peace, love, and brotherhood; as some sort of German adaptation of a multi-ethnic Haight Ashbury.

The German term "multi-kulti" is commonly translated to mean "multiculturalism." But multiculturalism has two meanings. As a descriptive term, it simply refers to cultural diversity. As a normative term, it implies a positive endorsement, even celebration, of communal diversity, typically based on certain group rights and the absence of pressure or even incentives to assimilate. The German term "multi-kulti" only captures the second, normative meaning. That's why "multi-kulti," to Merkel, is a synonym for leftism and early Green utopianism. She thinks it has produced not-so-benign neglect and, as she has put it multiple times, will lead to "parallel societies" of immigrants that have no connection to German mainstream society. Not even the German language is spoken in the neighborhoods that she pictures when using this term.

Angela Merkel is a conservative. A "salad bowl" approach to integration is not hers - too hands off. She would not endorse a version of a melting pot in which cultures integrate with each other to create a new society. Her concept sees immigrants who integrate into a culturally dominant mainstream society. Her conservative party takes an aggressive, state-centered, and hands-on stance toward integration best summed up in six words: assimilate - take it or leave it! It is debatable whether this concept is appropriate for a multi-religious, multi-ethnic Europe, in which the free movement of people is the norm. But the end of cultural pluralism it is not; racism it is not. And that makes all the difference. In fact, in the very same speech, Merkel emphasized that "Islam is now a part of Germany." She is preparing her party and her country for more, not less, immigration, and she is explicitly rejecting the views of the populists and the anti-Islamic hatemongers.

The global economic crisis has propelled us into a (hopefully) brief period of de-globalization. Nationalism is on the rise, as are anti-free-trade and anti-immigrant sentiments. An anti-establishment mood is part of that package. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Thilo Sarrazin in Germany, Jimmie Akesson in Sweden, and large parts of the Tea Party movement in the United States are products of that wave. It is dauntingly difficult to run a country in this environment. Especially now, we should be careful not to paint those who govern us into a corner where they don't belong.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is the Senior Director for Policy Programs at the German Marshall Fund.

German Marshall Fund of the United States

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