Top-down attempts to impose a Leitkultur failed in the GDR too

Martin Patzelt, Member of the German Bundestag

The discussion which has once again unfolded on a German Leitkultur – a ‘leading’ or dominant culture in German society – is taking place on a number of different levels. The motivation behind this debate varies and there is no generally accepted definition of what the term actually means. Thus, the debate will remain a difficult one, which will make little headway and is certainly not especially productive.

Attempts by political leaders in our country to react to uncertainties and fears within society and to counter this uncertainty (and even risks) through suitable measures are in themselves understandable and reflect a sense of duty.

In the first instance, a public debate is one political instrument. It showcases parties’ views on the current situation and indicates what political measures they see as helpful or even necessary. This shall suffice in terms of general preliminary remarks concerning the ongoing political debate on the necessity and value of establishing guidelines on cultural identity for people with German citizenship and those who wish to live in Germany permanently or for a longer period of time.

Aside from the financial and logistical challenge created in our society by the new arrivals (asylum seekers, refugees and labour migrants), feelings of uncertainty on how to appropriately react to and interact with them have grown amongst the German population, in view of their unfamiliar culture and characteristics.

This uncertainty is fuelled by the lack of opportunities for communication, by disconcerting and even repellent forms of behaviour, including in public, and by a growing threat of terrorist attacks. At the same time, terrorists sometimes use refugee status – the impacts of which should not be underestimated though it is a rare occurrence. And, last but not least, an extremely contentious political debate on the overall situation, along with corresponding political measures, also contributes to the uncertainty.

The extreme positions are diametrically opposed: on the one hand, we see an absolute insistence on maintaining and demanding adherence to German customs, traditions and patterns of behaviour and, on the other, we see an unconditional openness towards multicultural ways of life. More moderate positions can also be found between these two poles. In some cases, a feeling of helplessness can also be observed.

The models of society on which calls for a German Leitkultur and its definition are based vary. We can assume, however, that even proponents of the extreme positions are unequivocal on the necessity of abiding by the law. There is also agreement on the fact that a German Leitkultur cannot be prescribed by law, meaning that failure to accept or live by this code of behaviour cannot be sanctioned.

In this context, I am particularly interested in two questions:

1. Is it possible in such a culturally complex society to develop guidelines for a specific type of behaviour?

2. How effective can we expect developing and demanding adherence to such a code of conduct to be?

My first point is that our laws form the framework for our culture and protect it against transgressions. Various types of behaviour exist in our country which are not accepted to the same degree in all regions, by all groups or by all sections of society or exist in an alternative form. Even just the inter-generational and urban-rural contrasts, the differences among international or globally oriented people, the diversity of beliefs and approaches to bringing up children, variations between groups with different educational or immigration backgrounds are so great as to preclude the possibility of a generally accepted Leitkultur in our country.

My second point is that I am unsure about the necessity and value of defining a Leitkultur which is supported by a majority in society. The internalisation of such a Leitkultur is to a large extent the result of forms of expression and ways of life, family patterns of behaviour, which are learnt early on in life.

Trying to force people to change their identities can only end in failure. It is always a good idea to think about culture, but this should never take the form of mandatory criteria. Culture is mainly a question of reason. In a democracy, each individual defines for him or herself what culture means. Nobody wants to force something on someone else.

The way in which personal or cultural identity develops or changes depends on various factors. It is, however, in principle linked with changes to the person which are relatively voluntary and these changes build on the foundations of the identity which already exists. The roots which a person has are always bound to influence his or her identity.

For example, all attempts by ideological dictatorships to sustainably create the desired identity by decree or by force have failed. The intensive efforts by the German Democratic Republic over a period of forty years to enforce a certain culture are one well-known example. Top-down attempts to automatically impose a Leitkultur failed in the GDR too.

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