Why German migrants torment the liberal spirit

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YESTERDAY'S atrocities in Germany - the worst since the neo-Nazi offensive against foreigners began - were a scream of defiance but also of triumph. Five Turkish women and children were murdered in Solingen and 14 foreigners were injured in Munich, only days after the Constitution was changed to reduce the influx of asylum-seekers. This timing was no accident.

This is what the demonstrators feared, when last week they blocked the roads to the Bundestag. They warned that the far-right murder gangs might see the changes as a surrender to their campaign and take courage. Deputies attending the crucial debate had to arrive by boat, by helicopter or by scrambling through the bushes.

The German conservative press squalled that these demonstrations were 'shameless' and 'a closing scene for an elderly Republic grown somewhat infantile in its political culture'. But German political culture is not so much infantile as indecisive - a democratic weakness, for which we should all be grateful. There used to be a frightful Nazi word, Entschlussfreudigkeit, meaning: 'joy in taking decisions'. But Germany has grown out of that. 'Elderly' can also mean 'mature'.

The decision about asylum-seekers last week was taken without any joy at all. There was something noble about Article 16 of the Constitution which stated, simply that 'Persons persecuted on political grounds shall enjoy the right of asylum'. To qualify that is a sort of moral vandalism, and if I had been a Bundestag deputy that day I would have left part of my heart with the angry crowds outside. But I believe that it had to be qualified.

It was not a very decisive decision, anyway. The amended Article 16 can be paraphrased like this: Persons per secuted on political grounds shall enjoy the right of asylum. But if they arrive in Germany from another European Community state, or from any country on a list of third countries where they would not be persecuted, they will be sent back there without the right of appeal. Until now, the only 'third country' on the list is Poland, which - quite rightly - has forced Germany to pay the costs of looking after asylum-seekers sent back to Poland.

The pragmatic case for changing the German rules was overwhelming. Germany was taking in two-thirds of all asylum-seekers reaching the Community: last year's total was an incredible 440,000. Almost all their applications are eventually refused, on the grounds that they are so-called 'economic migrants'. But the processing takes years, while the applicants are housed in hostels at German expense or vanish into the undergrowth of the 'black' labour market. Last year, the German states (Lander) spent over pounds 4bn on asylum-seekers. All this is happening at a time when Germany is sliding into recession, when mass unemployment is still spreading uncontrollably in the eastern Lander, when neo-fascist extremism has sunk its fangs firmly into anti-foreigner prejudice.

But the symbolic meanings of the Bonn vote still lie over Germany like a polluted cloud. The controversy was misleading and hypocritical. This was not really a crisis about refugees from persecution, whose access to Germany is not much diminished. It was part of the collective European attempt to block the tide of immigration into the Community, a tide which in Germany, because of Article 16's 'open door', almost invariably takes the form of applications for political asylum.

Seen in this light, German principle and practice over immigration are thoroughly backward. At the core of the problem is an old-fashioned view of the nation-state as an ethnic community whose 'purity' must be preserved.

The current law (which may now be changed) forbids dual nationality. Any German resident who wishes to become a German citizen must give up his or her prior nationality: a condition which few other European states now impose. But even when the would-be German does agree to surrender previous nationality, an obstacle race still lies ahead. Assorted tests have to be passed, officially meant to prove that the applicant is familiar with German customs, language, culture and institutions. The process can and sometimes does last for up to 10 years. Each Land is responsible for devising these tests, more tortuous and unreasonable in conservative regions than in those with more liberal governments. But the result is the same: to make it extremely hard for non-Germans to become Germans. A Turkish worker educated in his own country and with an elementary level of German language stands a thin chance of making the grade.

The procedure for Austrian or Swiss applicants, from lands of German or part-German culture, is much simpler. It is argued that this is not so much racialism as ethnic exclusiveness. The criterion is not 'blood' or descent, but national culture - which, unlike ancestry, can be acquired. But the effect is much the same.

During the 'asylum' debate, which was really an immigration debate, the protagonists took care not to involve another category of immigrants seeking to enter Germany. These are the Germans who live abroad. Most are members of ancient colonies who left Germany centuries ago, like the Swabian and Saxon populations in Romania, or the huge 'Volga German' group deported to central Asia by Stalin. There are some 950,000 in Kazakhstan alone: the total is officially two million, although some estimates put it far higher, and since the 1989 revolutions and the collapse of the Soviet Union several hundred thousands have already migrated to Germany.

And they enjoy an automatic 'right of return'. It does not matter that these Rip-van-Winkles are more alien in a modern German city than any sophisticated immigrant from Ankara or Calcutta. Article 116 of the Constitution, based on 'Reich and State Citizenship' laws passed in the First World War, defines them as 'Germans' because they are of 'German stock'.

Here begins an agony for the liberal spirit. We live in multi-cultural societies which have no place for biological privilege of 'stock'. Justice should demand that the Volga Germans be treated like any other immigrants: if they cannot individually prove political persecution, then they should be sent back to Kazakhstan. And yet . . . these people are German. Even if ethnic identity is about songs and diet and language as well as about descent, they still qualify as ethnic Germans who regard the land between Rhine and Oder as 'home'. There is an underlying truth in their claim, and to ignore it would be doing violence to reality.

There is no way out. To give immigrants 'of German stock' free entry is unfair to other immigrants, and sanctifies a discredited idea of what a nation is. But to decree that they have no more right to live in Germany than a Tamil or a Korean would be, though brilliantly impartial, a lie about the nature of human society.

So the German government, hoping to square the circle, is trying to finance a new Volga Republic in which the Germans would no longer feel an urge to come 'home'. We may smile. But if the day comes when Hong Kong and Durban are in flames, when a ship full of Chinese refugees and a ship full of 'British' South African refugees arrive simultaneously at Dover, we will wish that we had paid more attention to the torments of the German conscience.