Angela Merkel Speaks Truth to Multiculturalism

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. David Gannon / AFP-Getty Images

When Chancellor Angela Merkel said multiculturalism in Germany has "utterly failed," the commentariat revolt was swift, and way off the mark. Merkel was accused of pandering to her right-wing constituency and lurching right in the face of rising anti-Muslim sentiment. Unjustly accused, she has delivered a refreshing, no-nonsense message that Germany, and other Western nations, should take to heart.

As Merkel pointed out, Germans have a long history of willfully deceiving themselves about the people they often call their "foreigners." The "guest workers" they began recruiting from Southern Europe and Turkey in the 1960s—in the case of the Italians, as early as 1955—were officially treated as temporary residents, even when they settled in and produced children and grandchildren on German soil. Helmut Kohl, the last Christian Democratic chancellor before Merkel, kept repeating right up until he lost office in 1998: "We are not a country of immigration." He kept saying that even though the number of "foreigners" had already swollen to nearly 9 percent of the population.

Germany was a country of immigration in severe denial. And that denial meant official policy discouraged guest workers and others from integrating into society; citizenship requirements were designed to keep them on the outside, while "bloodline" Germans—Russians with 18th-century German ancestors, for example—were easily accepted.

Gradually, citizenship requirements were liberalized, particularly under Kohl's successor, Gerhard Schröder. But the problem is far from solved. While some German Turks, the country's largest ethnic minority, have prospered in politics, the arts, and business, others have remained isolated in mono-cultural communities. Many German Turks have shown little interest in filing for citizenship or in integrating into a society that they believe is still prejudiced against them. This breeds resentment on both sides—and, in some cases, radicalism. In that sense, the vision of multiculturalism, allowing separate communities to live happily side by side, has failed indeed.

Merkel's conclusions deserve serious attention. By saying "we lied to ourselves" about the role of immigration in German society, she was clearing the way for an honest discussion about what needs to be done now. Merkel's message is that Germany needs to do a better job of offering opportunities to immigrants to integrate into society and gain real acceptance. She pointed out that any abrupt moves to reject anyone who doesn't speak good German will backfire. With an aging population, Germany needs a stronger workforce. But with much of Merkel's constituency, that kind of realism doesn't go over well. Last week Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière rejected appeals to ease current laws and allow in more skilled workers.

For immigrants, Merkel's message is that they should take advantage of new opportunities. In other words, they need to integrate, learning German as a first step to breaking out of their cultural isolation. That doesn't mean rejecting their own roots, but it does mean thinking of themselves as full-fledged members of German society. If the door is opened wider, they need to walk through it.

That's the deal the United States offered generations of immigrants, including my parents. They never forgot their Polish roots, and they insisted that my sisters and I speak Polish at home. But they fully expected and wanted us to become Americans, which we did. We saw no contradiction in any of this. Merkel's message that there needs to be a similar two-way understanding for all modern—and, yes, multicultural—societies to thrive is right on target. The German chancellor wasn't pandering; she was just offering a common-sense recipe for integration. It's one that the United States, the original land of opportunity, would also do well not to forget, at a time of new heated debates about its own immigration policies.

Nagorski is a former Berlin bureau chief for NEWSWEEK and is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute.