Germany and the Lessons of Immigration Policy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel declare multiculturalism in Germany to be a "failure." Proof that anti-immigration activists in the United States are correct, right?

Via the BBC:  Merkel says German multicultural society has failed

Attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany have “utterly failed”, Chancellor Angela Merkel says.

She said the so-called “multikulti” concept – where people would “live side-by-side” happily – did not work, and immigrants needed to do more to integrate – including learning German.

Merkel is primarily addressing the issue of foreign workers encouraged to come Germany starting back in the 1960s.

“We kidded ourselves a while, we said: ‘They won’t stay, sometime they will be gone’, but this isn’t reality.”

“And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other… has failed, utterly failed.”

The workers in question were primarily Turks and they were admitted as guest workers, although permanent ones for all practical purposes.  Indeed, there are currently 2.5 million Turks living in Germany, many of which were born in Germany.  I suspect that a lot of anti-immigrant commentators in the US will take this as evidence of the perils of immigration.  However, let’s consider the root of the problem:  the workers were invited in but not given a path to citizenship nor were their children until a change in the citizenship law in 2000.

Under the German Nationality Law of 1913 (which was in place until the Germany Nationality Act of 2000) the principle for citizenship was one of jus sanguinis (i.e., right of blood) rather than jus soli (i.e., the right of the soil).   As such, the children of immigrants had a very difficult time becoming citizens of Germany.

So let’s consider the following scenario:  you invite a large number of persons to come to your country to work, often doing menial labor.  You tell them, however, that they can never be truly part of you country.  And then you are surprised when they aren’t integrated into your society?  Why act like a German if you are never going to be allowed to be one?

Proponents of amending the 14th Amendment take heed, as this is what you are asking for.

Germany’s 2000 law does change this circumstance (source):

A child born in Germany (on or after 1 January 2000) can acquire German nationality, even if neither of the parents is German. The only precondition is that one of the parents has been legally and habitually resident in Germany for eight years and has a permanent right of residence. The child must however decide at some stage between the age of 18 and 23 whether to retain his/her German nationality or another nationality acquired by birth.

This is a significant change, to be sure, but let’s consider two points.  First, while a substantial change from the 1913 law, it still treats such children as different than the children of German citizens given such children have to make a choice between 18-23.  Second, the oldest person currently being affected by this law is 10 years of age and so the law has hardly come to fruition as yet.

It should noted noted also that Merkel’s message is not an anti-immigration one, but a pro-integration one:

In her speech in Potsdam, however, the chancellor made clear that immigrants were welcome in Germany.

She specifically referred to recent comments by German President Christian Wulff who said that Islam was “part of Germany”, like Christianity and Judaism.

Mrs Merkel said: “We should not be a country either which gives the impression to the outside world that those who don’t speak German immediately or who were not raised speaking German are not welcome here.”

I will conclude with this:  the headlines and stories focus on Merkel’s declaration of the failures of multiculturalism, but the stories don’t actually state what the precise policy changes she will be proposing apart from promoting German language skills amongst immigrants.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Europe, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Gustopher says:

    Well, there’s also the little fact that Germany has a history of genocide that resulted in a very homogenous society.

    We shouldn’t be trying to apply lessons from Germany’s treatment of minorities to ourselves.

  2. john personna says:

    I like what I’d call multicultural societies, but I think a common language is pretty critical to a working one.

  3. Justin Bowen says:

    It’s not just in Germany that the effects of diversity can be seen. Robert Putnam of Harvard conducted a study that concluded that diversity has a negative effect on social cohesiveness even here in the US (which is, relative to much of the rest of the world, welcoming of immigrants). Apparently people still don’t like people who are different than they are and respond in a predictable manner when their governments are made up of people who aren’t like them.

    Also, according to Bryan Caplan, countries with more diversity have weaker entitlement systems than countries with less diversity. While I haven’t done any research of my own to see if what he’s saying is correct or not, the claim does make sense. European countries, especially the Nordic countries, are much less diverse than the US and they have notoriously-generous entitlement systems.

  4. ponce says:

    It’s the high birthrate of the immigrants that scare the racial purists here and in Germany the most.

  5. Trumwill says:

    I like what I’d call multicultural societies, but I think a common language is pretty critical to a working one.

    I’m something of a fan of assimilation in general. I certainly agree on the language thing. On the other hand, in the US English is pretty quickly picked up by succeeding generations. Does anyone know if Germany is having a bigger problem than we are in this regard? Merkel makes it sound like they are generationally not learning German.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I think “multiculturalism” has some different interpretations.

    One view is of cultures existing side by side more or less separate (but theoretically equal) in perpetuity. Picture a plate of crudites. Carrots here, cauliflower there, celery somewhere to the side.

    Another view is of cultures accepted into the country and then forming a common culture. Picture a stew: meat, onions, carrots, potatoes all still individually identifiable but also clearly all stew with a major melding of flavors.

    I think the Germans tried version 1. We’ve generally adopted version 2. I think version 1 was doomed from the start and version 2 has worked amazingly well.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    I suspect she’ll be backpedalling from this statement in a day or two since it’s clearly being focussed on out of context. It won’t be the first time for Mrs Merkel whose party is in some electoral trouble.

  8. sam says:

    Ah,hell, we monocultural multiculturists in this country. Go to any large city and revel in the ethnic stew. We’re Americans and we’re Irish, Italian, Mexican, African, Swedish, …on and on. I have this secret hope that some president will stand before Congress at the SOTU and begin by saying:

    “Prior to coming here tonight, I asked the Census Bureau to send me a list of those countries whose citizens have not immigrated to the United States. The Bureau couldn’t provide me a list because there are no such countries.”

    We pull it off, for the most part pull it off, because as a people we’re less interested in where you’re from than who you are. We don’t always live up to that, be mostly we do.

  9. nevrdull says:

    there have been concerns for some time now that some immigrants, especially among the turkish minority, have formed what has been called a “parallel society” (Parallelgesellschaft). the main issue with these groups is that their members have dismal educational careers and thus cant get jobs, both problems are confounded by the fact that they speak very little german (and often refuse to do so).

    merkels remarks have to be taken with caution: she spoke to the youth organisation of her party, many of whom share this sentiment.

  10. nevrdull says:

    PS: i should also say that it is hard for me to break this problem down into simple terms: while i obviously think that her remarks are overblown and don’t really relate to the facts, as is often the case with political speeches, the issue of immigration and integration of immigrants has definitely become more salient in the last five years or so.

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    “merkels remarks have to be taken with caution: she spoke to the youth organisation of her party, many of whom share this sentiment.”

    This is all over the European press. She will be “clarifying” her remarks is a day or two mark my words.

  12. Gerry W. says:

    From my experience in Europe, these people stick to themselves. They have their traditions and they are not German, French, or Belgian. I was in Brussels two years ago, and they were in the south area by the train station. The men sit together at restaurants and the women cover their heads. Very un-european.

  13. says:

    i just had this conversation with someone tonight, regarding can someone integrate into a society without accepting the norms and, therefore, be unworthy of a vote?

    (Or say in a society if they refuse to learn the language.)

    I took the devil’s advocate position and said if they contribute to society ,but expess individuality by refusing to learn the common language, they are still worthy of voting, but the oposition was that they can not understand the issues and therefore are unable to cast an informed vote. There was also a peer pressure argument in that everyone else requires a common language, but, frankly, I discount that.

    Any thoughts anyone is willing to contribute?

  14. derek sutton says:

    The people who were invited didn’t have to accept the invitation if they didn’t like the rules. You don’t have to be told to leave after dinner has been finished, you just leave because it’s polite and you have your own home. Thus the phrase, “Guest worker”. Germany is free set any policy they like, it’s there country.

  15. @Derek:

    This is all undoubtedly true as far as it goes. It is, however, a radically simplistic interpretation of the situation and really ignores the main point of the post.