More than profound changes to German citizenship laws will be needed to render a diverse society harmonious.
The new government in Berlin is championing change which will reshape the global image of Germany and Germans, according to the coalition agreement.
Decades after the Nazis declared the country a Volksgemeinschaft or ‘people’s community’ of the Herrenrasse, the social-democratic SPD, Germany’s oldest political party—for which there has never been a ‘master race’, only a human race—is once again in government with the Green Party. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s ninth post-war chancellor, and his ‘traffic light’ coalition, which also includes the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), will change German laws on citizenship and nationalisation and by so doing redefine national identity in the long term.
The prior red-green coalition, led by Gerhard Schröder, passed in 1999 the Staatsangehörigkeitsgesetz, which chiselled at vintage claims that Germany was not ‘a country of immigration’ and emphatically dispensed with the racism underpinning the Nazi concept of a ‘non-German’, useful for dehumanising those who did not have ‘German blood’. And so since 2000, citizenship by birth (jus soli rather than jus sanguinis) has been possible, so long as one parent has legally lived in Germany for eight years. Anyone living in the country that long has been eligible for a German passport and dual nationality is possible until age 23, after which a choice must be made between nationalities.
These rules ripped at the seams of the Citizenship and Nationality Law of 1913. And the new coalition’s ‘understanding of Germany as a diverse immigration society’ will further tear at that antiquated law, as it seeks to enhance cultural diversity in Germany.
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Not only will some 14 million people now in Germany with ‘a migrant background’ be able to hold a German passport while retaining another. The maze of German bureaucracy they must traverse will also be much easier, so they can obtain German citizenship more quickly. The time to naturalisation will be reduced from eight to five years and in some cases three, the eligibility period for a settlement permit. Reduced also from eight to five years will be the time a parent must have been in the country before their German-born child is allowed citizenship.
Coalition members—who perhaps have read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language—aim to relieve ‘guest workers’, whose ‘integration was not supported for a long time’, from ever having to say words like Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen again. They will do so by lowering the proof of language proficiency required of Turkish men who responded to Germany’s Gastarbeiter invitation 60 years ago to help rebuild the country. Topping this all off, the new government will roll out a welcome to Germany, as it will ‘advertise the possibilities of acquiring German citizenship with a campaign and expressly welcome the holding of naturalisation ceremonies’.
The Schröder government had reduced the naturalisation residence requirement from 15 years. And despite the public mandate handed the incoming government, it is certain to face similar challenges—perhaps from the same antagonists—to those which forced the the 1999 compromise on dual citizenship.
The SPD is in government in 11 of the 16 Länder represented in the Bundesrat, the final legislative decision-making body at national level. But none of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, which each have the highest possible six votes in the Bundesrat, is run by the Ampelkoalition the federal government now comprises—only in Rhineland-Palatinate, with four votes, does this apply.
That minimally implies some political horse-trading to see through these changes. There will, though, be elections next year in Schleswig-Holstein, Saarland, North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, which potentially could give the government a majority in the upper house.
But look at the benefits embracing cultural diversity will bring to Germany. Twenty years ago, Rita Süssmuth’s ‘Shaping immigration—promoting integration’ report said that, without immigration and increased fertility, the German workforce would decline from 41 million in 2001 to 26 million by 2050. German’s total fertility rate, now at 1.54, will probably never return to its 2.54 peak. And an ageing population—in just under a generation, those ‘aged 67 or over will rise by 22 per cent from 16 million to an expected 20 million’—is no resource for a modern workforce which increasingly dispenses with factory machines.
Significant economic gains are to be had when 21.9 million individuals of migrant background—more than a quarter of the population—feel at home, when Germany sends a clear welcoming message to talents worldwide and when those wising to trade ‘good morning’ for Guten Morgen can see clear paths aligning their professional contributions and legal status. So the coalition’s united ‘understanding’ of cultural diversity is also good for a market economy. These facts may not have escaped the pro-business FDP, which supports dual citizenship and seeks to modernise Germany’s technology sector.
Transforming German society
The SPD of the 1970s was unmistakably and resolutely the champion of the German working class. Yet working-class Germans were given short shrift as the party drifted away from its fundamental values while in coalition the past 16 years with the conservative CDU/CSU union. But the SPD has reflected on its past, looking to a future more attuned to its history as a Volkspartei, and has emerged, along with its coalition partners, determined to reclaim its historic image by taking charge of a political mandate to transform German society.
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The new SPD sees itself as ‘the first party in Germany to develop a programme for the active, political shaping of globalisation’. It isn’t just cheaper goods that globalisation brings, however, but also competition for fruit-pickers, nurses and artificial-intelligence engineers. And this government will need more than just a modern citizenship framework to create the society described in its platform.
The undoing of institutionally racist laws in the United States has not automatically transformed that country into the harmonious society imagined by those killed fighting for that ideal. Managing cultural diversity in Germany will require this risky political lead to be matched by a determined change of mindset among the wider public, resilient to the seismic cultural shocks likely in the coming decades.
Earlier integration failures must not be repeated. The ‘comprehensive protection’ the coalition promises to counter ‘the increasing threat to Muslims and their institutions’ is a nice idea and its opposition to ‘group-based misanthropy, especially against black people’ is laudable. But tolerance and a preference for cultural diversity, as vital to a modern German society, are critical.
This isn’t actually a tall order and those who today plant the seeds will embed, for themselves and generations to come, values which enrich their humanity. And hopefully a majority will see the worth of a Germany which can add a plate of Sierra Leonean groundnut stew to its myriad potato salads.
Michael Davies-Venn is a public-policy analyst and political-communications expert, based in Berlin, focused on issues of global governance, including climate change and human rights. He is a guest researcher in the Ethics of the Anthropocene Programme at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.