Of Hyphenated, “Migrantized” and Xenophobic Germans
As a child growing up in Nuremberg, Ferda Ataman was spared Germany’s obsession with integration. But people are always asking her where is really from. That exasperates her – so she decided to write a book about it.
By Holger Moos
Ich bin von hier. Hört auf zu fragen! (“I'm from Here, So Stop Asking!”) is its straightforward title. In the book, Ataman argues that “purebred Germans without any immigrant background” – whom she also calls “Wurzeldeutsche” (literally “Root Germans”, i.e. Germans of German stock) – are labouring under a delusion: namely, that “we can seriously decide whether we want immigrants in the country or not”, when in point of fact they’ve already been here and part and parcel of our society for a long time. This phenomenon resurged with a vengeance in 2015 in the wake of a huge influx of refugees to Germany.
Since then, she adds, immigrants of long standing and what she calls “hyphenated Germans” have been made to feel that the upper limit on the number of immigrants German society can supposedly absorb – a notion repeated ad nauseam even though the figure is obviously unquantifiable – now applies not only to “newcomers”, but also, all of a sudden, to them, too. Which effectively “migrantizes” them, i.e. turns them into migrants too.
Germany has a democracy problemIn her book, Ataman clears up five widespread misunderstandings and suggests five ways to remedy this state of affairs. First of all, we should be grateful to immigrant generations and their descendants: “They did jobs native Germans didn’t want to do anymore.” She breaks the term Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) down into its lexical components to get at the gist of it: “They’re supposed to slave away like workers, but behave demurely like guests.” Instead of viewing migration as a problem, people ought to acknowledge the fact that immigrants and their children are an important part of this country and that they helped build up post-war Germany.
What’s more, the time has come to kiss goodbye to the whole ethnic concept of “Germanness” and to the idée fixe that immigrants are under an eternal obligation to assimilate. Nowadays immigrants here feel like “Germans on probation”, she says. In one digression she points up the hypocrisy exemplified by the German Federal Expellee Law, which “rewards” ethnic Germans abroad for refusing to assimilate and retaining their “Germanness” for generations, whereas immigrants in Germany are expected to assimilate unconditionally. This is why she calls for an end to all the “senseless blather about integration”.
People also seem to assume that migration is the exception, when in fact, historically speaking, the opposite is true: migration is the norm. There is no “genetic clique” of Germans. All things considered, Germany doesn’t have a migration problem, it has a democracy problem. The media are creating the impression that the minorities are to blame for the rightward shift in politics and society. Quite a few politicians make symbolic political gestures for “concerned” citizens who, for example, vote AfD (the xenophobic “Alternative for Germany” party) or march with Pegida (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident”, a German Islamophobic movement), but “deportations won’t make radical right-wingers any more openminded”.
Less apocalypse, more good cheerSo what does the author propose we do about this state of affairs? First off, we need to redefine the issue of integration. “New Germans” shouldn’t have to assimilate into a German Leitkultur or “dominant culture”, which is hard to define anyway, but should be integrated much more effectively through pragmatic programmes and concrete efforts in politics, society and the economy.
Furthermore, Ataman recommends using the aforementioned neologism Migrantisierte (“migrantized”) instead of expressions like “Germans with Turkish roots” as a way to avoid xenophobic attributions based on ethnic or cultural roots. She also makes a case for political correctness in order to combat racist discourse, i.e. accepting “restrictions on what is verbally permissible”, as well as promoting equal opportunity in the job market: “Those who insist on integration will have to make room in the German clan.” And last but not least, she calls for a new conception of Heimat (i.e. “homeland” or “native country”) that is not exclusive or based on genetic descent and related anxieties about Überfremdung (fear of being “swamped” by foreigners) and the like, but one that is absolutely inclusive. This new conception of Heimat is about a shared culture of remembrance, cosmopolitanism and freedom of religion: “Less apocalypse, more good cheer – that would be nice” is her closing exhortation.
Ataman makes her arguments rigorously, pointedly and very concretely. In contrast to many academically-geared publications on this issue, she writes in a non-alarmist style that is personal and casual, ironic and tongue-in-cheek, which makes for enjoyable and edifying reading.
Ataman, Ferda: Ich bin von hier. Hört auf zu fragen!
Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer, 2019. 208 S.