Integration debate
The Leitkultur renaissance

What is the basis for German society? This is what the debate about a Leitkultur is all about.;
What is the basis for German society? This is what the debate about a Leitkultur is all about.; | Photo (detail): © lassedesignen/Fotolia

The Leitkultur debate is back, its renaissance boosted by the sharp rise in refugee numbers. What is new this time is that the discussion is more objective and is being pursued less doggedly.

The concept of a Leitkultur – a guiding, dominant or leading culture – is back after the debate had died down somewhat for a while. This controversial term, which has been haunting Germany since the start of the millennium, is now experiencing a renaissance in view of the sharp rise in refugee numbers. Everything revolves around one fundamental question: what is the basis for Germany society? Although the dispute is less heated and dogged than in the early years following 2000, there is still no consensus about what Leitkultur actually is, whether it exists or whether we need such a thing.

The term Leitkultur found its way into the political arena back in October 2000 courtesy of a former politician named Friedrich Merz, who at the time was the chairman of the parliamentary group of the conservative CDU and CSU parties. In a newspaper interview, he demanded that immigrants wishing to live permanently in Germany should “adapt to an established, liberal German Leitkultur”. He explained that he was convinced that they needed to make “their own contribution to integration” and “should adapt to the fundamental cultural values that have evolved in this country”. The term was first coined in 1996 by Bassam Tibi, a political scientist from Göttingen, in his essay Multikultureller Werte-Relativismus und Werte-Verlust (i.e. Multicultural Value-Relativism and the Loss of Values). Unlike Merz, however, Syrian-born Tibi, who has held German citizenship since 1976, was propagating not a “German” but a “European Leitkultur”.

Friedrich Merz was expressing his views against the backdrop of Germany’s reformed citizenship law, which came into force in January 2000 and saw the jus sanguinis (right of blood) principle supplemented by the jus soli (right of the soil) principle. Ever since, anyone who is born in Germany can – under certain conditions – have German citizenship. This constituted de facto acknowledgement by Germany that it was a country of immigration. The CDU/CSU union had voted against the reform in the Bundestag, the German parliament. While conservative CDU/CSU politicians agreed with Merz, he met with fierce opposition from the social-democratic, liberal, green and left-wing camps. His critics accused him of using “racist vocabulary” and of being “sentimentally obsessed with all things German”. Anyone who talks of “German Leitkultur”, they claimed, is using a “polemical term” to elevate one’s own culture above others.

Renaissance of a controversial term

Just a few years later, the term Leitkultur was no longer playing any significant role in public debate. This changed in 2015. The hundreds of thousands of people who are fleeing to Germany from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries have now caused the integration debate to flare up again. How can social cohesion be ensured among the “old” and the “new” citizens of Germany? What is the basis for a thriving German society? Is it enough simply to abide by the laws which apply in Germany?

The term Leitkultur is experiencing a boom, though the tone this time is more considered and the controversy less heated. The old frontline positions have shifted. Raed Saleh, the chairman of the SPD faction in Berlin’s House of Representatives, has also called for “a new German Leitkultur”. He believes this should describe “a consensus about the society we wish to be” rather than merely maintaining the status quo, and says that it should be based on the country’s constitution.

Leitkultur: a question for each generation

How any such Leitkultur should be defined in other respects remains the subject of some dispute, however – and is difficult to specify. CDU Secretary General Peter Tauber likewise regards the constitution as the “basis of our Leitkultur”, but believes that each generation should “work out for itself which values form part of the German Leitkultur”, saying that this process is by no means complete. Tauber also provides a good example of what he means by this: in his view, Leitkultur signifies not only a willingness to engage in voluntary activities, a “pride in Germany” and the desire to sing along with the German national anthem “not only at football matches”, but also “that it is completely natural for two men to kiss in the street”. Not very long ago any expression of such views would have sparked storms of outrage and indignation in the CDU.

For political scientist Gesine Schwan, a Leitkultur which she believes worthy of respect would follow the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “which is not German but universal”. Beneath this general level, there are also “cultural specificities which we view as indispensable”, as she wrote in the magazine Cicero. In her view, these arise “as a result of the constitution or indeed the European conventions on liberal and social human rights”. By contrast, she feels that any attempt to create a standard Leitkultur on the basis of “German cultural specificities” would be problematic. After all, she points out that the political culture in Germany was once before “truly not always democratic and based on human rights”. Schwan recalled to mind the “specifically German cultural – and above all authoritarian – roots of National Socialism”.

Even if it is still not entirely clear what exactly a Leitkultur refers to, one thing seems certain: Germany will see this debate continue in the coming years.