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15/03/2006

Taking the immigrant test

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht challenges the notion of a defining German culture

Gerald Asamoah from Ghana, who Schalke 04 fans call their "Schwatten" (Blackie) in a friendly, jocular way, is in the German squad for the soccer world championships. Whether he will really play and have the opportunity to score goals for Germany remains to be seen. It will depend if he's in good shape and if he can adapt his technique to that of the national team. A lot of money and athletic honour is up for grabs for Asamoah. But it's definitely not about German citizenship, which he acquired a few years ago, thanks presumably to the respectable salary he receives from the Bundesliga and not to his enthusiasm for German culture.

His naturalization must have been a quite normal process, with an outcome that serves both Asamoah's interests and those of German soccer. But would it have been legitimate to make him fill out a form as a prerequisite of citizenship, as Islamic candidates wanting a German passport may soon be asked to do? (more here) It depends, in my opinion, on the content of the questions. More specifically, on whether the questions respect the difference between the "state" on the one hand and "culture" or "society" on the other. As a citizen, one is member of a political system and receives certain duties and rights, most importantly the right to a life-long residency in the territory within whose borders the power of the particular political system applies. Obligations to the dominant culture or social form of a country are not, however, implicit.

It would be alright if one were to apply this requirement to every candidate for German citizenship - as is the case in the USA; if all candidates were asked to pass a test that checked whether they fulfill the criteria required to conform to the country's political system. These criteria could include basic knowledge of the constitution, political history, language and certainly the willingness to subject oneself to particular forms of public debate. Political opinions, religious conviction or basic personal values, however, should not be considered criteria of citizenship, nor the style with which a professional soccer player plays his game.

The disastrous term "Leitkultur" (something like, "defining culture") should therefore be dissociated from institutions of citizenship as soon as possible – and then forgotten, never to be replaced. One can hope that new citizens will be open to the culture of their new country but this can definitely not be forced by means of state institutions, and the word "Leitkultur" seems to mask the wish to implement cultural adaptation through legislation.

Why should the state hold back on the matter of cultural unification? The non-legal answer to this question would be, firstly, that the transforming of existing cultures by new social groups is the center of the dynamic we call "history" and secondly, that societies' survival depends on such constant transformation.

There is a sense within standardized national self-criticism that the term "Leitkultur" and with it, the wish to ensure cultural homogeneity with state force, is something "typically German." There may be some truth to that. But has the opposite tendency not become even more "typically German"? Do the educated and semi-educated middle-aged Germans of today not look like bland multicultural wannabes, who subject their own lifestyle to constant self-flagellation and at the same time get teary-eyed when they discover scope for feminism in the institution of the harem and father love in Saddam Hussein?

In the debate that flared up with the publication of Botho Strauss' essay (in German here) on the tension between European nations and Islamic immigrants, the Strauss opponents respond as though they wanted to make multiculturalism and extreme individualism the defining values, historically and possibly legally, of German "Leitkultur". Strauss, on the other hand, is using polemics to look for a polemic, and he's getting it. With his collision course, he's enlivening the public space – which is what those intellectuals who avoid the collision course also do. It's clear that in the long run, their ideal of infinite cultural individualization will lead to indifference and a dissolution of the public space.

It's just like in soccer. Gerald Asamoah should not play in the national team just because it will improve Germany's image and warm certain hearts to see a black player singing the German anthem. He should only play if he can contribute more to the success of the national team than others. It is assumed that Asamoah, like all other national players, will and does fulfill the criteria that the German state expects of all its citizens.

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Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is professor of French & Italian and Comparative Literature at Stanford Univerity, author and journalist.

Translation: nb.

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