Bach vs burka: Germany debates identity ahead of election

What does it mean to be German? A minister close to Chancellor Angela Merkel has kicked off a divisive election-year debate about cultural identity - earning him praise, ridicule and charges of immigrant-bashing.

Bach vs burka: Germany debates identity ahead of election
A member of the Green party in Bavaria at an installation intended to question ideas about integration. Photo: DPA.

Some say it's high time to define shared values as Germany seeks to integrate more than a million mostly Muslim asylum seekers who arrived since 2015 under Merkel's open-door policy.

Others have slammed the initiative as a grab for right-wing voters who threaten to drift off to the nationalist, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in September elections.

The eye-catching opening salvo was fired by Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere in the top-selling tabloid Bild.   

The front page showed the politician in charge of police and migrant affairs before the national colours black, red and gold, with the grammatically dubious headline “We Are Not Burka”.

In a double-page spread, de Maiziere outlined in ten points what he considers core elements of the German “Leitkultur”, the guiding or dominant national culture.

SEE ALSO: Germans mock government ideals for immigrant integration

He listed a diligent work ethic, respect for others, being an “enlightened patriot”, a belief in Europe and NATO, and in education and the arts, including the works of Bach and Goethe.

The Christian Democrat also said being German means “showing our face” rather than wearing an Islamic full-face burka, and greeting others with handshakes, which some Muslims shun with non-family members of the opposite sex.

'Reject nationalism'

The loaded term “Leitkultur” was first used in German politics by the CDU in 2000 to suggest that immigrants, then mainly from the former Yugoslavia, must follow Germany's customs and traditions as well as its laws.

The word was revived by the AfD, a party now polling around 10 percent, which has urged Germans to rediscover national pride and a Christian-rooted heritage.

Now, four months before elections, de Maiziere has taken ownership of the term.

“Populist, empty and slightly nauseating,” was how Berlin graphic designer Bettina Braun, 37, characterized the phrase, adding that “if Germany needs a Leitkultur, it should be to reject nationalism.”

Retired teacher Gerda Felgner, 68, judged it “problematic”, because “if you want to exclude someone, you define what Leitkultur is”.

Others were more sympathetic, including Thai-born office worker Somkiat, who said “every country has common rules that define day-to-day life”. 

“Foreigners can't just come and do whatever they want, they have to integrate themselves,” said the 62-year-old.

Health care worker Uwe Liebrecht, 61, couldn't agree more, saying he felt ethnic Germans like him were “becoming a minority” and migrants “here should try to fit into our culture”.

Iraqi-born Nora, 28, said the hijab headscarf she wears had “sadly become a symbol” and had led strangers to tell her she looks “like a ghost”.

“Of course that hurts and I think to myself: 'you don't even know me',” she said. “I grew up in Germany and to a degree I can understand it. Many Germans don't know any foreigners and just see terror on TV.

“I think we need to talk to each other more and reduce those prejudices.”

Sandals with socks

On Twitter, outrage and mockery rained down on de Maiziere, garnished with memes of German sauerkraut and garden gnomes.

An alternative “Ten Commandments” suggested adding “towels on deck chairs” and “sandals with tennis socks” as uniquely German traits.

The Berlin daily Tagesspiegel charged “the CDU has discovered the AfD within”, while Greens party politician Juergen Trittin decried “right-wing rabble-rousing”.

Berlin state secretary Sawsan Chebli, the daughter of Palestinian refugees, said she found it “off-putting” to claim virtues such as respect for education as uniquely German.

Former president Christian Wulff – the first public official to proclaim that “Islam is part of Germany” – said the constitution provides all the rules needed for life in an open, democratic society.

Nonetheless, polls by Insa and YouGov found that around half of Germans agreed with the concept of a “Leitkultur”, which has been hotly debated in media columns and TV talk shows.

It is a painful debate in a country that, given its guilt over the Second World War and the Holocaust, long shunned open expressions of patriotism, but which is yet to fully embrace the concept of “multiculturalism”.

One fifth of Germans have a migrant background, and roughly four million of its 80 million people are Muslims, including a large Turkish diaspora, a legacy of post-war Germany's “guest worker” programme.

Yet the word “Multikulti” is still often used as a negative – to evoke urban migrant ghettos, “parallel societies” and no-go areas – rather than a rich, ethnically diverse society.

By Frank Zeller

For members


EXPLAINED: What to know about Germany’s youth culture pass

Young people turning 18 in Germany this year are getting a voucher 'birthday gift' to enjoy culture. Here's why and how they can use it.

EXPLAINED: What to know about Germany's youth culture pass

What’s Germany’s culture pass?

The KulturPass – or culture pass – is a bit like a voucher that young people in Germany can use to buy tickets to cultural events, or even products like books or sheet music.

Those turning 18 in 2023 – estimated to be about 750,000 people – can get their hands on the pass. They will have €200 credit that they can spend on a special culture pass platform over two years for event tickets and other cultural offers. 

It’s worth noting that the digital pass, which launches in mid-June, is available to all young people living in Germany, even if they don’t hold German citizenship.

How is it given out?

The pass won’t be handed out automatically – those who are eligible have to sign up and prove their identity and age.

Cultural venues can also sign up to sell their tickets or entrance cards via the Kulturpass app and website, so they can get a boost to their sales by promoting it on this central platform.

READ ALSO: Everything that changes in June 2023 in Germany

Why is Germany doing this?

The move follows similar youth culture projects by other countries, including France, Italy and Spain. 

The German government initiative has two major aims: the first is to give young people an opportunity to get out and experience live culture in a way they weren’t able to during the pandemic.

Culture Minister Claudia Roth said last year that she hoped the KulturPass would get “young people go out and experience culture, see how diverse and inspiring it is”.

The second aim is to help give a boost to cultural institutions like theatres, galleries, live music venues and similar businesses. 

The culture industry was one of the hardest hit in the pandemic, due to the Covid shutdowns put in place by the German government to combat the spread of the virus. 

Venues have struggled to encourage people to break out of their pandemic habits and get out to live events again.

What kind of events can young people go to?

The emphasis is on live events to get people away from their home and to give the arts scene a boost. Theatres and concert venues will likely be a popular choice, but also independent bookshops, art galleries, and small business cinemas.

Amazon, Spotify, big chain movie theatres – those kinds of vendors are excluded. So think local, think independent, think higher culture like opera, theatre, and concerts.

Are there plans to roll it out to other age groups?

At the moment, this is a pilot project for people turning 18 this year. Depending on how it goes, the government may be looking at plans to roll such a pass out for 16 and 17 year-olds as well.

To hear more on this story, tune into our Germany in Focus podcast episode released on Friday, March 26th.