Monthly Archives: December 2015

Merkel’s Speech at the CDU Party Meeting

On December 14th, Angela Merkel gave an hour-long speech to members of her party the CDU. She’s been having quite a run, especially after being named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year, and the speech has been widely covered by English-language media.

The Washington Post published a piece with the title “Multiculturalism is a sham, says Merkel” on December 14th. There’s not much more to that piece than its title, with one reference to her 2010 speech where she declared that “Multiculturalism has failed.” This article by the Guardian is evidence of much more responsible reporting, including several direct quotations on many issues from Merkel’s almost 80 minute speech. The Guardian also includes the statement on multiculturalism and links it to Merkel’s 2010 speech, but tempers this statement with criticisms of aid organizations as well as Merkel’s attempt to position German politics on the landscape of European integration.

What is missing from this English-language reporting is an understanding of what multiculturalism means in a German context.

Germany has never had a state-sponsored program of multicultural rights. Canada is a much better model of multicultural policy. Germans thus mean something different when they speak of multiculturalism – it’s a mix of having a diverse population, accompanied by the notion that civic participation and assimilation will happen without policies that provide access to populations of color and without having to discuss racism or equal opportunity. Multiculturalism doesn’t mean multiculturalism at all in this idiom: it is German shorthand for a policy of neglect. True multiculturalism seeks to strike a balance between group and individual rights in a way that is legally protected and does not infringe too much on human rights (although the criticisms are prevalent). German Multikulti is as much of a misnomer as using the English word “handy” to describe a cell phone.

Merkel’s speech – as is to be expected – is a political utterance. Because of its length, it also has a political logic all its own.

The speech begins with a list of events, month by month, that affected Europe. Merkel seems to be doing this intentionally: she emphasizes the role of Germany in Europe rather than allowing the nationalism of the CSU to taint her own speech. The banner raised behind her on the stage reads “For Germany and Europe,” the bright orange letters standing out against the blue banner as a political slogan.

The list is overwhelming. January: Charlie Hebdo. February: Minsk negotiations for peace in Ukraine. March: the German Wings crash. April: a special meeting of European leaders in the face of hundreds of deaths in the Mediterranean. June and July: Greek negotiations, a test of strength for Europe that has not yet been passed. June: G7 summit about climate change and the recognition of climate refugees. August: Prognosis of asylum seekers for this year: 800,000. Sept. 4-5: Thousands of refugees were stranded in Budapest, and Germany and Austria’s decided to allow them free entry. Merkel calls this decision “a humanitarian imperative.”  October 4: 25 years of German Reunification. November 13: the attacks in Paris. November 15: Cancellation of the German soccer match in Hannover.

By twenty minutes in, Merkel begins her historical rallying cry. Germany survived the Cold War and rebuilt itself out of rubble after the Holocaust. It is a country which doesn’t hedge its bets. Citing several famous historical utterances, Merkel insists that Germany chose freedom, not *some* freedom. (Wir wählen die Freiheit, nicht *etwa* Freiheit.) The economic miracle which followed World War II brought affluence for everyone, not affluence for almost everyone (Wohlstand für alle, nicht Wohlstand für *fast* alle).

This historical precedent also applies to the refugee crisis. After thanking the volunteers who are serving across the country to assist the processing of refugees, Merkel does the exact opposite of what her speech has set us up to expect. She hedges her bets. Germany can do it, but only if they reduce the number of refugees. According to Merkel, this is in no way contradictory and is in everyone’s best interest: Germany can only integrate so many refugees; Europe can only house so many refugees, and as for the refugees – well, no one leaves their homeland lightly, she says.

Germany can do it, but only with European help and partners like Greece and Turkey securing their borders. Refugees – at least some of them – have to be deported so that it becomes clear that legal protection is a status and laws have consequences.

And all of this takes time. Merkel undergoes a thought experiment about halfway through the speech. She asks her audience to imagine Germany in 2025. Later she will talk about imagining Germany 25 years from now. That repetition of 25, even though mathematically inconsistent, is important. 2015 is the 25th anniversary year of German reunification. It’s a symbolic gesture towards the unforeseeable changes Germany has already undergone since the Fall of the Iron Curtain, and an acknowledgement that just as many changes await them in the coming 25 years.

She uses this thought experiment to point out how young the refugee problem is. In ten years, she posits, Germans will look back on the actors of today and judge them for their lack of imagination. It’s only been four months! How impatient are we if we later look back and realize that we didn’t even allow ourselves the necessary time to arrive at a solution to a massive problem.

Some of her sustainable solutions to the refugee problem have ominous overtones: the establishment of a central database at all levels of civil society for refugees, as well as a two-year waiting period for family togetherness if subjects do not receive immediate refugee status. Merkel lauds Turkey, despite recent claims of humanitarian abuses by Amnesty International, as a primary partner in solving this global problem.  Rich countries are to be criticized for allowing aid organizations like UNHCR and the World Food Program to run out of funding, she says.

The part to her speech which is being picked up in these English language articles is actually a very small portion placed near the end. During this section, Merkel ponders the effects of cultural contact. After such an influx, what will remain of the Germany we know?

After stating her opposition to multiculturalism, she states: “The opposite of that [Multikulti] is integration. Integration that demands the openness to those who come to us, but as well as the readiness of those who come to us to adhere to our values and traditions. […] We will learn from our mistakes. […] Countries always profit from successful immigration, but that requires integration.”

She portrays the CDU as a people’s party; a party that creates bridges; a party that is neither a worker’s party nor a party of the elite, but which can cross borders and recognize individual dignity. The positioning is strategic – and pits the CDU against the SPD (traditionally blue-collar) and die Linke (a socialist party). More importantly, Merkel comes full circle and portrays the CDU as the party which developed the European vision and led directly to the integration of European countries into the EU.

This is, most likely, a simplification – but it is a strategic one.

English-language coverage of this speech misrepresents Merkel’s positioning by focusing on one line with a certain cultural connotation in Germany. Merkel agitates in this speech primarily for the German position within Europe – which, of course, requires an articulation of national identity and preservation of purportedly German values. But she is primarily pushing back against the anti-European sentiments of PEGIDA and the AfD party; she is cajoling her European partners to participate in solving the refugee problem together; and she is no more racist than any other central right party (and probably only moderately racist when compared to the rhetoric coming from the CSU, the AfD and PEGIDA). (It’s also ridiculous that I find myself in a position where I am quantifying levels of racism.) But it’s important to see the shades of intensity when comparing Merkel to some of the more populist elements of her party.

A better title? “Merkel insists on German Role in European Union and Stakes CDU’s Distance from German Far-Right.” But that’s not so catchy, is it?

I guess that’s why I’m not writing for the Washington Post. 

Digital Narratives

North German Radio (NDR – a subsidiary of ARD) has started a new long-form narrative storytelling series they are promoting with the hashtag #EinMomentDerBleibt  (A Moment Which Remains). In twenty to thirty minute videos, refugees to Germany – all shot standing or sitting next to a wooden chair against a white photostudio paper background – tell their stories about how they came to Germany.

Here is the story of Aeda and Bassam, from Syria. They tell their story in Arabic, and are dubbed in German in a way where viewers can still hear their own voices. They are from Damascus, and Bassam came along the sea route to Germany, where he watched another boat perish before his eyes. He himself developed heart problems from the journey. His wife often defers to him, and walks out of the frame at the beginning of the video as the story becomes too painful. The family patriarch standing on the sterile, white background looks lonely. The mood, in this story as well as some of the other videos available, bears a testament to the strengths of the traumatized. His wife walks off the stage, but he remains standing. She rejoins him and finds her voice. Bassam was the first to make it to Greece. After a long time, Aeda decided to take the children and join him, without his knowing, and with the help of a trafficker. There’s a steeliness to both of them. Aeda and the children were imprisoned twice, once on the Turkish coast and once in Greece. They travelled as a family from Greece to Macedonia by train, where they witnessed the death of a forty-year old man on the train. The man’s 15 year old son, who has some kind of mental disability, was taken along by his father on the trip, and was left alone after his death.

The family travelled by foot through Serbia and Hungary. Bassam reports that the Hungarian police were by far the most brutal, and had no empathy for the differences between children and adults making the journey, especially very small children.

According to the NDR schedule from last week, these short narrative films are airing late at night – after 11pm. There are ten portraits listed on the NDR website with refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, and other countries.

Given the escalating violence against homes for asylum seekers, refugee children in schools, and even the violence incurred by the policing of left-wing demonstrations to occupy buildings with the hopes of finding refugees housing, this kind of storytelling is imminently political and a laudable intervention to allow refugees to speak for themselves over a long period of time (rather than in soundbytes) or to merely be spoken about by politicians and journalists. I don’t know if these videos always air at night, but rather than filling airtime after most people have gone to bed, this series should be playing at prime time. Air them in the late afternoon, cut out a rereun of the odious Two and a Half Men, and then show another one after parents and adults get home from work. Cut the piano music that introduces the trailer and story; make the entry into the storytelling as steely as the narrative that follows. Find a way to market not to the volunteers who are already sympathetic, but to the tough brutes who think that the AfD and Pegida offer viable alternatives.

The lines between agitprop, propaganda and publicity are so porous. And in this age of populist Hetze – whether it’s Donald Trump, Horst Seehofer or Marine LePen – the only thing we might have going for the rest of us is spin. So spin this. Spin people’s stories and give them as much agency as possible (at least 30 minutes worth) for them to wind up and come back down.