How Should a German Be?

Rasande Tyskar, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A number of countries, like the United States, have been multiethnic and multireligious since their founding. In the Hapsburg Empire or the Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire, different cultures coexisted under the rule of a tolerant monarch, yet people mostly ate, lived, and married among those of the same ilk. What much of Europe is currently attempting is historically unique. Never before has a democracy that defined itself by its ethnic or religious homogeneity managed to broaden its self-conception and recognize millions of immigrants as members of the nation. No precedent suggests that it can be done.

Germany has become the most important test site in this grand experiment. For decades, the conditions for membership in the German nation were clear and rigid. A true German was a descendant of those brave warriors who roamed the Teutonic woods and intimidated Julius Caesar’s legions — or somebody who could at least pass for one.

There are some signs of change. Immigrants and their children, mostly invisible in the public sphere a few decades ago, are starting to find success in business, sports, music, journalism, and even politics. In the most mixed neighborhoods of the country’s biggest cities, it is starting to seem obvious that a true German might be Asian or African.

In Harper’s, German-born Yascha Mounk details the ways recent Islamic immigration has not only given rise to vocal anti-migrant factions, but challenges many Germans’ core idea of their national identity.

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