We are the people, too

Within two years, the rise of the AfD has caused a backlash in German discourse that Angela Merkel, fearing the loss of conservative voters to the right, has proved incapable of quelling. As the new German parliament reconvenes, it remains to be seen whose votes are worth more, writes Jagoda Marinic

By Jagoda Marinic

On the day of the German general election, Alexander Gauland, a newly elected member of the parliament and leading politician of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany), used his thirty seconds on public television to yell into the microphone: ″We will take back our country and our land.″

There has been much talk about the so-called ″Wutburger″, the angry Germans, in the last two years. German angst has spawned German anger. Angst seems to be an emotion that for Germans justifies all sorts of misbehaviour.

Ever since the AfD showed up on the political scene they′ve been talking about taking back ″their country″. Very little has been said about those they want to take this country back from. German public discourse on immigration has always lagged behind German reality. Yet the country is much more diverse than its political representatives suggest.

This time, the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), the traditional conservative party, brought a mere 2.6 percent of politicians with a non-German background into parliament. Even the AfD fielded three times as many. However, what both these numbers do show, is that while German cities have become visibly diverse – one in four has a migration background – politically this group remains marginalised, to put it mildly.

Limited political clout

Decades ago, when the first guest workers arrived, steps were taken to ensure that immigrants were not granted citizenship. These days, by contrast, almost half of the twenty million with a migration background hold a German passport.

Turkish guest workers in a Cologne car factory, 1964 (photo: picture-alliance/CPA Media Co. Ltd)
Half a century ago the German state was driven by the assumption that the migrants would place the emphasis on the first part of the term "guest workers" and return home after providing their labour. Yet as the author Max Frisch observed in 1965, ″We called for labour and what came were people″

Yet, surprisingly, their political clout remains limited. Both politicians and the general public are stuck in a rut, preferring to talk about immigrants and what they want to offer to them, rather than engaging with minority representatives and their demands. The latter, for their part, remain relatively disorganised as a group, as a result failing to take sufficient advantage of the democratic structures available to foster their interests.

It has become a staple of the German media: old white men discussing immigrants on talk shows. Alexander Gauland is one of them. Instead of making it clear to him that he had crossed a red line on election night, he was invited onto the panel of the most popular talk shows in Germany for the 27th anniversary of German unity – to talk about national identity. Once again, no minority voice was invited to represent the perspective of those Gauland talks about.

Nor has Germany's public media made any concerted attempt to disqualify the new extremists. On the contrary: the right-wing party succeeded in blackmailing large sections of the German media into disproportionate coverage, contributing strongly to the normalisation of extremist positions that would have been unacceptable two years ago. At the same time the voices of immigrants and their descendants were overlooked.Many German children have a migrant background

Yet, German reality today tells a different story: Among first graders in Hamburg, for instance, every second German child has a migrant background. Rather than paving the path for more coherence, however, Germany is focusing on questions of national identity and how to calm the angry 13 percent – thus providing the AfD with the attention that helped them gain acceptance in the first place.

Not long ago, before the rise of the AfD, Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to pay tribute to immigrants and their contribution to Germany′s wealth and success. She knew that her much criticised refugee policy would only be successful if the narrative of Germany as an immigration country were to become part of the national conscience.

So she invited hundreds of activists, former guest workers and their children to the ″Kanzleramt″ to celebrate sixty years of recruitment treaties between Germany and Italy, Turkey, Greece, former Yugoslavia and others. Merkel raised the hopes of many of us sitting in the audience. She earned our trust when, on that day in 2015, she poignantly stated: ″You are as much a part of Germany as everybody else who lives here.″ Without its immigrants Germany would not be as prosperous as it is, she concluded.

Second-class citizens

And yet, within two years, the rise of the AfD has caused a backlash in German discourse that Merkel, fearing the loss of conservative voters to the right, has proved incapable  of quelling. Our votes, apparently, are worth less. My generation, it seems, must accept that democracy is not something that counts for us.

It took a long time for Germany to bid farewell to jus sanguinis and – despite our foreign blood – grant us the right to be Germans. These days, hyphenated Germans are often called the New Germans. Yet, the AfD even found a way of attacking that, too. During their electoral campaign, they put up posters stating: ″New Germans? We′ll make them ourselves.″

Initially the far-right movement claimed that German politics did not focus on the German people any more. It is about time the New Germans let them know: our parents were guest workers, not guest citizens, granted. They were denied the right to vote on any level. But their children are not ″foreigners with German passports″, as the far-right likes to call us. We are the people, too.

Jagoda Marinic

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