The Scandal Behind the Sarrazin Scandal

Decades after such figures appeared elsewhere in Europe, Germany finally has produced its own high-profile star of the anti-immigrant right. But only for about a week. Thilo Sarrazin, a former Social Democratic politician, set off the fiercest storm of public outrage in recent memory with his new book, Germany Abolishes Itself, in which he lays bare the failures of German education, migration, and welfare policies. At No. 1 on the Amazon bestseller list for Germany even before it was released last week, the book also makes eccentric forays into the heritability of intelligence and claims that something in the culture of Islam keeps Muslims from getting educated. Even more upsetting in a country that prides itself on having drawn the right lessons from history, he made an offhand reference in an interview to research showing that "Jews have a shared gene," for which he later apologized.

The retribution has been nothing short of a public lynching. Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced him before the book and interview appeared. She, President Christian Wulff, and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble put pressure on Sarrazin's current employer, the Bundesbank, to fire him. The supposedly independent central bank readily agreed. His talk-show appearances have been set up as inquisitions, and the press has vilified him in unison, one commentary calling him a "Nazi in pinstripes." The Social Democrats have set up a party tribunal to strip his membership. As of last week, only three public figures in Germany dared defend him (though not his gene theories), a Turkish-German rights activist, a Jewish-German commentator, and a retired professor of politics.

That Germany remains hostile to any mingling of genetic theories with social policy is all to the good. But the banishment of Sarrazin began long before his comments on heredity and genes, and says more about the nature of German political discourse than the boundary of decency Sarrazin crossed last week. He's often provoked with blunt speech on hot-button issues that much of German officialdom painfully avoids, and so last week's spectacle convinced many ordinary Germans that their leaders are yet again quashing debate on vital issues. Between 50 and 90 percent of Germans supported Sarrazin in polls last week—in almost complete contrast to the media reaction—saying that he should keep his job and be free to speak and that they agreed with his views on immigration. Judging by conversations, blog debates, and reader comments, they are not focusing on the gene remark but on Sarrazin's dissident views on immigration and the role of the welfare state in perpetuating Germany's underclass. Those include much that is interesting and legitimate—such as a call for mandatory German-language kindergarten, the tying of school budgets to educational success, the adoption of workfare programs, and a 10-year ban on welfare payments for new migrants.

A growing disconnect between government and the governed is familiar stuff around the world. But Germany's political and media establishment seems more confined than most by political correctness, which leads to stale debates over what one is and isn't allowed to say about an issue, instead of debating the issue itself.

That race and genetics are off limits is clear. But the taboos extend surprisingly far. Earlier this year, Free Democrat leader Guido Westerwelle scandalized the nation when he said that the expanding welfare state, with its free housing and indefinite payments, led to conditions of "late Roman decadence," and suggested benefits be cut in order to encourage recipients to find work—a mildly conservative position in most countries but a political no-no in Germany. Media punishment was shrill and swift. His party's support has since shriveled from 10 percent to 5 percent. Public figures who question why parts of eastern Germany remain backwaters quickly find themselves pilloried for "discriminating" against east Germans—as happened to Jörg Schönbohm, former governor of Brandenburg, when he dared suggest that six decades of dictatorship might have left an imprint on the region's values.

On few issues have Germans been less candid with themselves than on immigration. The country has done just about everything wrong, importing a large and unskilled underclass while continuing to close its labor market to skilled migrants, even as other European countries like Britain and Sweden welcome educated foreigners. Turks and Arabs, in particular, are poorly integrated, three times as likely to drop out of school and four times as likely to be on welfare than the average German. Integration of Muslims is a problem across Europe, made worse in Germany by schools that cement social differences across generations. In no other developed country is the achievement gap between native children and native-born children of immigrants greater. Integration critics like Sarrazin connect many of these problems to welfare dependency, arguing that freely available child subsidies, housing, and other benefits encourage unemployment, high birthrates, and social isolation, but most German politicians don't want to discuss that point. They are probably aware that Ronald Reagan triggered a similar debate in the U.S. over welfare dependency, which led to deep welfare reforms under Bill Clinton in 1996.

In Germany, any critique of the welfare state quickly gets tarred as "social Darwinism," which fed into Nazi ideology. That has made rational debate of the welfare system almost impossible, says Thomas Petersen, political analyst at the Allensbach Institute. But no one—not even Sarrazin—is calling on immigrants to go home, as former chancellor Helmut Kohl did in the 1990s. Most Germans have come to accept the idea that their nation has become more multiethnic. And unlike in France or Austria, in Germany the far right is a tiny fringe, and there is little chance that German society would ever allow such a party to grow. That's all the more reason for Germany's establishment to stop thwarting public debates. Germany's political culture seems less threatened by the extreme right than by its tendency to publicly destroy contrarian thinkers.