Reviews | “We are not burqas”: what does German culture even mean?

For about 24 hours, one of the most depressing aspects of German national culture was exposed: a sickening mixture of pride and self-loathing. Then the noise died down.

In all of this, most German policymakers have remained as silent as possible. Mr. de Maizière had facilitated the rejection of his statement in the din of the election campaign, citing several of the new far-right’s favorite memes (the burqa, the tendency of some Muslim men to refuse to shake hands with a woman) . Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic chancellor candidate, called it a “phantom debate”, fabricated to divert public attention from a right-wing terrorist who had just been discovered in the German army.

As frustrating as Mr. de Maizière’s article was, Mr. Schulz’s response was even more depressing. To dismiss it all as a conspiracy means that once again Germany refuses to engage in a long overdue discussion of national principles at a time when the question of what exactly Germany means is itself even in game.

In 2015, a million people came to this country, many of whom have no experience of liberal democracy. At the same time, 8 to 10% of voters say they support the Alternative for Germany party, which has just adopted a downright anti-feminist, anti-gay-rights, anti-Muslim, aggressively nationalist program. And last month nearly half a million Germans of Turkish descent voted to help Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rid himself of any remaining parliamentary control in his country.

In Germany, there is still a strong belief that you can change the minds of dissenters by erecting national cultural guidelines – in other words, by controlling thought. If it hadn’t been for the radio, Hitler wouldn’t have happened, we think. The Germans think they can change the beliefs of Turkish-German supporters of Mr. Erdogan by not letting him speak in Germany. They believe they can instill a love of liberal democracy by having immigrants take an integration course. They believe they can defeat the Alternative for Germany simply by not giving the party too much TV time. And they believe they can get people to embrace values ​​by making a bulleted list of values ​​our national mantra.

But national culture cannot be transmitted by force. All you can do is live it, promote it, and hope others follow suit. The answer to challenges to our core values ​​is not to force people to shake hands. The country must accept that it will be less homogeneous.

James R. Rhodes