The Anatolian Swabian

Cem Özdemir

Cem Özdemir. Foto: Stefan Baudy. Copyright: Bündnis 90/Die Grünen
Cem Özdemir. Foto: Stefan Baudy. Copyright: Bündnis 90/Die Grünen
‘Yes, we Cem!’ Since 15th November 2008, over forty years after the arrival in West Germany of the first ‘guest workers’ from southern Europe, many of whom were from Turkey – and in the shadow of the historic election of Barack Obama as US president - Germany has in Cem Özdemir its first ever party leader who is the son of immigrants, or someone, as the clumsy neo-German phrase puts it, with ‘a migration background’. At the same time, the recent rise of the man with the trademark bushy sideburns represents the remarkable comeback of a politician in whom much hope is invested.

Özdemir was born in 1965 in the little village of Bad Urach, in the Swabian part of the southern state of Baden-Württemberg. He speaks German as well as Turkish, and also the Swabian dialect. He uses the latter, he told SPIEGEL International in October 2008, as a “friendly provocation” if someone takes him for a foreigner. After taking his ‘Mittlere Reife’ exams (the German equivalent to the British GCSE), he first trained as a teacher and then studied social education at the Christian Polytechnic at nearby Reutlingen, graduating in 1994.

As a teenager, Özdemir joined the Green Party in 1981, which had only been established the previous year as the political organization of West Germany’s peace and ecology movement. In 1983, the Greens entered the national parliament, the ‘Bundestag’, for the first time, and developed into a political force to be reckoned with. After reunification the party merged with its East German sister organisation and renamed itself ‘Bündnis 90/Die Grünen’.

In 1994 Özdemir became a national news story when he was voted into the Bundestag and became the first member of parliament of Turkish descent. He told SPIEGEL International that his desire to enter into politics was stimulated by the infamous arson attack on a house of Turkish immigrants in the Western German city of Solingen in 1993. This incident marked the high-point of a wave of anti-‘foreigner’ crimes that swept through Germany in the years after reunification. Two women and three young girls died in the flames. Özdemir decided to put his name forward “…in order to help symbolize the fact that things are changing, just by having a foreign-sounding name - a name which doesn’t sound like a typical German name.”

At the start of his parliamentary career he was given the immigration/refugees portfolio – a result of the stereotypical thinking that still hampers Germans from immigrant families who start out in politics. The media dubbed Özdemir ‘Spätzletürke’ (after the Swabian pasta dish called ‘Spätzle’), or ‘anatolischer Schwabe’ (‘Anatolian Swabian’), and his presence on the political scene made the German majority gradually come to terms with the realities of Germany as a country of immigration. In his party, which was in the grip of political in-fighting between the ‘Fundis’ and ‘Realos’ (‘fundamentalists’ and ‘realists’), Özdemir became one of the leading figures of the non-ideological wing and a close ally of Joschka Fischer, the de-facto party leader and later German foreign minister.

When the Greens came into office for the first time in 1998, as the junior partner in the ‘Red-Green’ coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Özdemir became domestic affairs spokesman of the Green parliamentary party. He made a great contribution to the overdue reforms of Germany’s citizen laws, which came into effect in 2000, making easier the adoption of German citizenship for immigrants and their German-born children.

Cover: Die Türkei. Copyright: Beltz and GelbergÖzdemir also wrote books to publicise his aims. In 1997 he published his autobiography ‘Ich bin Inländer’ (‘I am a native citizen’), and he was voted ‘multi-cultural man of the year’ by Berlin broadcaster SFB (today RBB). In 1999 he wrote ‘Currywurst und Döner’ (‘Sausages and Kebabs’) about the history and politics of integration in Germany, and in 2008 he published a profile of Turkey for younger readers.

In July 2002 Özdemir suddenly made negative headlines. Like a number of other politicians he had used bonus flight miles, earned when travelling on parliamentary duties, for private flights. In addition, a private loan he had taken from a PR advisor, Moritz Hunzinger, became public knowledge. Hunzinger had previously been in the news for rather disastrously advising the then Social Democrat defence minister, Rudolf Scharping. Özdemir resigned as a spokesman of the parliamentary party and let it be known that he would not seek re-election to the Bundestag.

This low point was followed by a year abroad as a Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC, which he used to explore foreign policy issues. To gradually get back into German politics, he worked for the European Parliament. He became an MEP in 2004 for the Greens/Free European Alliance and mainly worked in the field of international and security policy.

His rapid comeback all the way to the top of the Green Party, which he now leads with co-chairwomen Claudia Roth, has been noted with much pride, not least at home in Swabia. There he is now known as ‘unser Obamale’ (‘our little Obama’).

Henning Hoff
is a correspondent and contemporary historian, focusing on international affairs, media, and cultural issues.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut London
December 2008

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