Leitkultur Debate

Holding on to What We Have

File photo of Salma who chose to wear the niqab after converting to Islam
Germany's interior minister said "We are not the burqa." Gerhart Baum doesn't agree. Picture source: Reuters

The reaction to Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière’s 10-point plan for ensuring social cohesion in Germany made one thing clear: The debate should really come to an end right now. After all, previous attempts at formulating a kind of definitive core culture, or “Leitkultur” in Germany, all came to nothing.

Norbert Lammert (president of the German Bundestag, the lower house of parliament) tried far harder over the past two years than Mr. de Maizière did this week, and even he was not successful. Why? Because it’s impossible to define arbitrarily chosen topics as part of a Leitkultur that should sit next to the country’s constitution. For this reason alone, it’s unnecessary to even discuss the German minister’s 10 points as facets of a Leitkultur.

Things like this are a mere distraction from the real task of our society, namely to affirm again and again those core values that make it possible for us to live together – and to live these values every day. These vales are already stipulated in the German constitution (or “Basic Law” as it is known here) with its inalienable rights based on universal human rights. In addition, we should let ourselves be led by the awareness of being global citizens, living in an ethical “Kantian project” within a framework of universal constitutional law and peace.

It is often repeated that all people who want to live here must accept the values of our constitution. This same constitution holds our multicultural society together.

Why do I mention this? Because in determining our identity as a people, we must look beyond the borders of our country. We should behave like the preamble of our constitution says when it calls on Germans “to promote world peace in a united Europe.” This is a responsibility that we live every day. It is something that applies to immigrants and to Germans alike. It is often repeated that all people who want to live here must accept the values of our constitution. This same constitution holds our multicultural society together.

Everyone has the right to his own culture and religion – except for practices that are inconsistent with the constitution. Protecting the constitution is, in fact, the German interior minister’s duty and he should be worried about serious threats to it. These surely include the unconstitutional behavior coming from some corners of Islam, among others from radical imams who have influence on young Muslims. It is a difficult task keeping naïve young people from being exposed to any kind of radicalization.

Something does have to be done about this, but the way in which Mr. de Maizière is doing it will turn defining into exclusion. We are only believable if we practice the values of our constitution ourselves. This means applying the constitution’s basic principle of protecting human dignity to new situations over and over again.

With some amount of effort, we were able to create what has turned out to be a successful democracy. Building an identity is the way we live our values.

Throughout the history of our country, this has always been a huge effort for us. German society, including our politicians, has always suffered from what the sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf so rightly termed “the temptation of discontentment.” Why are laws passed that cry out “unconstitutional,” and which then have to be overturned by the courts? Why do many German voters, who feel that their problems are not taken seriously, react with contempt for politics and political parties? What has led to this skepticism and a certain weariness for democracy itself?

And finally, why are there so few protests in our society against political positions that amount to attacks on the constitutional order? I am thinking, for instance, of attacks on our freedom of religion, often directed towards Islam, but I’m primarily refering to positions and actions inspired by xenophobia and racism in a country that bears responsibility for the Holocaust.

So how should the state execute its function to protect us, while finding the right balance both between security and freedom, and between the welfare state imperative and freedom? What can the state do against massive limitations being imposed on our free self-determination through new communications technologies (which threaten our privacy)? I would have understood it, had the Interior Minister – who has so often shown himself to be a reasonable man – used these and other challenges to call for a discussion about the strengthening of our democracy.

Our identity – and I am speaking as one who experienced war and collapse – has been able to evolve because we dealt openly with our own history. With some amount of effort, we were able to create what has turned out to be a successful democracy. Building an identity is the way we live our values, even during periods of crisis. This tradition is something we have to communicate to those who have come to our country. We must explain to them, how our constitution came about.

Of course there is a common German consciousness and German interests, and each of us sees this as our home country. But all of this is inseparably linked to being open to the world and tolerant. This includes science and the arts, which have never had borders. This is why we cannot assign Goethe or Bach to any national Leitkultur, any more than we can Shakespeare, Dante or Mozart, contrary to what the minister might say.

To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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