Germany's "welcoming culture" – for some a dirty word

Imperative for some, a dirty word for others: the term "welcome culture" is linked like no other to the debate on refugee policy in Germany.
Imperative for some, a dirty word for others: the term "welcome culture" is linked like no other to the debate on refugee policy in Germany.

Shortly after the expression was coined and found its way into German discourse, the concept of a "welcoming culture" was already being targeted by Islamophobic circles – and was finally taken down by them in a prolonged process. Joseph Croitoru on the history of a German hot-button topic

By Joseph Croitoru

In Germany, the term "welcoming culture" is linked like no other to the debate on refugee policy. For some it stands for cosmopolitanism and tolerance in dealing with immigrants, for others it is used as a dirty word in their campaign against the alleged threat of national decline. Today, it is easy to forget that people in this country actually began debating the notion of a welcoming culture a whole decade before the so-called refugee crisis that began in 2015.

The discussion originally took off under the red-red coalition (SPD/PDS) led by Klaus Wowereit in the Berlin Senate. And the introduction of the term into German discourse was already marked by a dichotomy that would continue to shape the later debate. Namely, when in 2004 the then Senator for Social Affairs Heidi Knake-Werner (PDS) declared the aim to "develop a new culture of welcome" and Berlin's Senator for the Interior, Erhart Korting (SPD), felt immediately obliged to clarify that illegal residents would continue to be deported: "Not everyone will be able to stay."

State "welcome packs"

Korting was referring mainly to Palestinian and Bosnian asylum seekers who had been merely "tolerated" in Berlin for some time. As an orientation aid for them and other migrants, Berlin's Commissioner for Integration and Migration, Günter Piening (2003–2012), published a year later what was apparently the first-ever "welcome pack" for immigrants, an 80-page brochure written in eight languages.

Piening, who today emphasises in conversation that the new welcoming campaign was aimed not so much at arriving refugees but more at those already living in Berlin, did not only reap praise with his initiative. The opposition Greens, who were in principle amenable to the creation of a "new welcoming culture", nonetheless criticised the Senate's concept because it contained "many fine words, but little in the way of concrete implementation guidelines". When a Berlin school then shortly afterward instructed its pupils to speak only German, the Green MP Ozcan Mutlu responded by turning the expression into political fighting words, saying that the school measure did not exactly demonstrate a welcoming culture.

Infographic showing German attitudes to immigration (photo: DW)
Solid approval for Germany's welcoming culture: according to a survey conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in August 2019, Germany's welcoming culture is "strong". Young people under the age of 30 clearly differ from the older generations in their assessment and perceptions regarding migration and integration

Divided over Muslim migrants

Resentment against Muslims was already being incited at the time by the right-wing conservative press, with the "honour killing" of the German-Kurdish woman Hatun Surucu in Berlin in 2005 only adding fuel to the fire.

By today at the latest, the debate on how to deal with migrants has also become a discussion on Germany's attitude toward Muslims. Opinions have long been divided. In February 2007, for example, the head of the Berlin CDU parliamentary group, Friedbert Pflüger, called for a "new culture of welcome towards Muslim migrants" but simultaneously rejected the Ahmadiyya community's proposal to build a mosque in Pankow on the grounds that the community of faith resembled a sect. The house of prayer was nevertheless built and opened a year later.

In the years that followed, calls for a "new welcoming culture" were voiced more and more frequently – whether at a federal, state or local level. In response to criticism of their allegedly overly liberal immigration policies, some politicians now advocated a welcoming culture only for "qualified immigrants". Others, by contrast, wanted to see a "welcoming climate" and accused the media of making it more difficult to create one by focusing on cases of "people unwilling to integrate".

Incidentally, the desire for a welcoming culture was also expressed outside the context of migration as early as the beginning of the 2010s. In 2011, for instance, a church representative from Goppingen said that such a culture was needed "for families who today no longer necessarily think of joining a church parish".

Opponents take up their positions

It thus seems that, long before 2015, Germans and the German state felt a growing desire for a – as it was often called – "genuine" welcoming culture. When the Federal Cabinet passed the draft law on the recognition of foreign professional and academic qualifications under this slogan in March 2011, many a German newspaper celebrated this development with the headline: "New Law on Welcoming Culture".


And yet the more self-assured its proponents became, the more resolutely others defended the opposite side in the discussion, which was still known at the time as the "integration debate". These opponents repeatedly cited the risk that Muslim migrants might wilfully contravene the constitutional state, a menacing scenario that had already proven effective before.

The mainstream parties reacted promptly by all making a strong case for a welcoming culture in their 2013 campaign platforms. Although the CDU advertised with the slogan "Diversity is enriching – create a welcoming culture" and praised Germany as a "successful country of integration", the party simultaneously opposed people's "isolation in parallel societies and Islamic special courts outside our legal system". The SPD for its part called for a welcoming culture that would be coupled with a "participatory structure", advocating for the transformation of "immigration offices into welcoming offices".

The latter were, in a sense, already in the making when, in its 2014 election campaign in Saxony, the far-right AfD party railed against the state government's "campaigns for cosmopolitanism or even anti-discrimination training", which it castigated as failed measures to "prevent parallel societies". When the party called instead for "an integration policy geared toward activating immigrants" and in the same breath mobilised against "building mosques with minarets", it immediately won 9.7 percent of the vote, a development that shocked many people at the time. Just a few months later, in December 2014, shouts both for and against the welcoming culture were an integral part of the rhetorical street battles at demonstrations by PEGIDA supporters and opponents in Dresden.

The climax of the welcoming culture in August 2015

The warm welcome shown to the crowds of refugees arriving at German railway stations from Hungary on 30 August 2015 and in the days that followed was therefore just another stage in a conflict over the welcoming culture that had been simmering for some time – something we have long since forgotten. Likewise forgotten is how its supporters did not feel at the time that the battle was even close to being won, despite all the media hype. Thus, the Munich City Council already felt compelled on 9 September to pass the resolution "Welcoming Culture in Munich".

There is no record of how many city and municipal councils as well as local party associations followed suit, but there must have been quite a few – the municipal administrations had after all long been supporting the many helpers' groups wherever possible.

Historian and journalist Joseph Croitoru (photo: Alexandra Vigelius)
Imperative for some, a dirty word for others: For some it stands for cosmopolitanism and tolerance in dealing with immigrants, for others it is used as a dirty word in their campaign against the alleged threat of national decline. "Today, it is easy to forget that people in this country actually began debating the notion of a welcoming culture a whole decade before the so-called refugee crisis," writes Joseph Croitoru

More and more "welcoming culture training" for community workers was accordingly offered, becoming a booming business even beyond refugee work. All sorts of activities were soon subsumed under the heading of welcoming culture. As early as 2016, for example, Bamberg was offering "welcome packs for newborns", and the city of Beelitz in Brandenburg launched a "baby-welcoming service" the following year. The last four years or so have seen an enormous increase in both journalistic and academic interest in the term "welcoming culture" and its reception in Germany. And researchers abroad are also taking an increasing interest in the topic.

In German party politics, however, a different trend has emerged. In their 2017 federal election campaigns, the CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP no longer focused on the topic of a welcoming culture, and the CDU/CSU explicitly warned against Multi-Kulti, or multiculturalism, echoing the AfD – and also the NPD in Saxony in 2014. The Greens, realistically and yet oblivious to history, stated that they were concerned: "After a year of welcoming culture, the concept is increasingly giving way to right-wing sentiments," while the left professed to be "part of the welcoming and solidarity movement for the refugees." Incidentally, the AfD was the only party to expressly call for a "welcoming culture" at the time. Chapter 7 of its campaign programme, which followed an alarmist chapter on Islam, was entitled "Welcoming culture for children: Family support and population development" – the AfD's preferred strategy against the "shrinking of our ancestral population".

Even though criticism of the culture of welcoming refugees has grown over the years, it is still practiced unwaveringly by socially committed German civil society. Evidence is easy to find, you just have to look for it.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Joseph Croitoru holds a doctorate in history and works as a freelance journalist. He studied history, art history and Jewish studies in Jerusalem and Freiburg. His book "Die Deutschen und der Orient: Faszination, Verachtung und die Widersprueche der Aufklaerung (The Germans and the Orient: Fascination, Contempt and the Contradictions of Enlightenment) was published in German by Carl Hanser in 2018 and is currently being translated into Arabic. C.H. Beck has scheduled the publication of his book "Al-Aqsa oder Tempelberg. Der ewige Kampf um Jerusalems heilige Stätten" (Al-Aqsa or Temple Mount: The Eternal Battle for Jerusalem's Holy Sites) for 22 February 2021.