The German Identity

WILLIAM PFAFF

December 03, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- Germany's anguish today has two causes, one political and the other cultural and historical. The political problem is that the governing and opposition parties still cannot agree to change the German constitution to restrict the influx of foreigners demanding political refuge.

Some 2,000 people now arrive daily, most of them economic rather than political refugees, but all entitled to admission and a hearing by adjudicators who have a backlog, now, that approaches a half-million cases.

The situation is due originally to an honorable reluctance to amend a constitutional provision of noble intention. But as the abuse of this provision has created a situation in which the public order of the state itself is challenged, what is happening amounts to a calamitous abdication of political responsibility by the country's leaders.

Even without a constitutional amendment, the government could have assigned more adjudicators (there have been 1,200 of them, according to the New York Times) and speeded case procedures. Chancellor Helmut Kohl preferred to let the crisis intensify and blame the Social Democrats for opposing constitutional change.

There has also been a grave police failure, both to protect foreigners and to find and arrest the murderers and attackers of refugees (and foreign residents). The police structure in East Germany has been weak since unification, for obvious reasons, and Germany's federal government system has inhibited coordinated national action until very recently. But among the authorities there has seemed no urgency to overcome these obstacles, or to commit federal anti-terrorist police and intelligence units to the threat created by neo-Nazi and ''skinhead'' extremists.

Behind all this lies a controversy over what it is to be a German. There is no German tradition of immigration and assimilation. There are 5 million foreigners in the country, mainly Turks and Slavs, many of whom have lived in Germany much or all their lives and are culturally German. Few are permitted naturalization.

On the other hand, peoples of Historically, Germany's conception of nationhood was fundamentally racial.

German origin who have lived in Eastern Europe or Russia for generations, often for centuries, who speak old German dialects and are totally out of touch with modern Germany, have an automatic claim to citizenship and resettlement assistance.

This reflects an attitude about the nation which characterizes most, although not all, of the states in Central, Eastern and Balkan Europe that claimed independent existence as the quasi-feudal and multinational Holy Roman and Ottoman systems broke down in the 19th century.

''Germany,'' until Napoleon's time, consisted of hundreds of more or less autonomous political entities with loose feudal links to one anoth- er. The Hapsburg monarchy incorporated Hun- garians, Slavs and Italians, as well as Germans. However the German unification carried out by Bismarck, completed in 1871, rested on a conception of Ger- man nationhood that was fundamentally racial, in an old-fashioned but indispensable use of that term.

The modern expression, ''ethnicity,'' describes a combination of traits -- of ancestry, language, religion, geography -- ''seen to be the basis of a distinctive identity.'' (The definition is that of Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan.) This does not fit the German case. A fully acculturated, secularized Turk, or Catholic Slovenian or Croatian, born in Germany, is blocked from naturalization because his ancestry is not German. He is not of the German ''race.''

This is different from nationhood elsewhere in the West. The United States, Canada, etc., are, of course, immigrant nations by design. France and Italy are open to those prepared to become French or Italian in culture. Britain, the Netherlands, France -- the old imperial states -- have readily given citizenship to people from their ex-colonies. Their norms of nationality are political and cultural, not racial.

To talk about race as a criterion for German nationality makes everyone uncomfortable. However, this is a fundamental problem the Germans must confront. The liberal remedy to this problem, that Germans simply urge one another to change the way they look at these things, is not much help, at least in the short term. Such basic assumptions do not change other than through long and painful evolution. Change certainly should be encouraged, but this does not deal with today's problem.

Germans today must at the minimum demand of themselves that law reigns, public order is preserved, crimes are punished, and the security and rights of refugees and foreign residents are guaranteed. German public authorities, and Germany's friends and allies abroad, must also acknowledge that the continuing huge inflow of foreigners crucially challenges received and fundamental German assumptions concerning Germany's identity and nationhood. The problem has been worsened by denying its importance. This means limiting the influx of foreigners.

At the same time those who claim to represent the public conscience, have an obligation to address the immaturity of these national assumptions, and attempt to move Germany away from that identification of ''race'' with nation which has proved so lethal in Germany's past (and again in Yugoslavia's present), toward the secular and cultural definitions of nationhood that prevail elsewhere in the modern West.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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