On October 30, 1961, Germany and Turkey signed a recruitment agreement that would change German society inexorably for decades to come. The agreement brought hundreds of thousands of Turkish Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, to Germany to work in coal mines and steel factories, providing a vital and inexpensive labor supply that fueled the country's booming postwar economy. Today, there are as many as three million people of Turkish heritage living in the country, making up Germany's largest ethnic minority.

On Sunday, Germans will mark the fiftieth anniversary of this recruitment agreement with commemorations and reflections on immigration and its legacy. "The new German history began 50 years ago," an article last week in Süddeutsche Zeitung read. Germany has become "multicultural," the article continues, "whether one likes the word or not." Yet half a century after the first Turkish guest workers arrived, Germany remains uneasy, if not downright schizophrenic, about the role immigration has played in the country. The anniversary comes amid what has been an especially fraught time in an incessant German debate about the integration of immigrants and their descendants, including senseless political attacks on Multikulti, a German nickname, often uttered with a hint of derision, for multiculturalism.

But, worryingly for Germany, if the divisive political rhetoric is poised to accomplish anything of lasting significance, it will be to alienate many of the most successful and well-educated Germans of diverse backgrounds -- those in the best position to help fix many of the problems ailing German society.

Germany's policy toward its immigrants and their descendants has made an about-face since the turn of the millennium. Even through the beginning of the 1990s, that policy revolved largely around the expectation that guest workers would return home. Prominent right-leaning politicians such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl made a mantra out of saying that Germany was not a land of immigration. Government policies focused on the "return readiness" of guest workers, which meant that little emphasis was placed on language training, and in the 1980s guest workers and their families were offered cash to return to their country of origin. German-born children of guest workers were often ineligible for citizenship, resulting in a generation of foreigners born and raised in Germany.

By the beginning of the new millennium, German polticians began to accept, ableit often with reluctance, that immigrants were there to stay. Policies moved toward integration of immigrants into the society, emphasizing German-language instruction and improving educational opportunities for children with a migration background. In 2000, Germany began to give many children born of foreign parents citizenship at birth (although if that child has another citizenship as well, he or she has to relinquish it by age 23 in order to retain German citizenship).

Despite such policies intended to make Germany a more inclusive society, much of the political rhetoric has remained far behind. The so-called integration debate reached a fever pitch after August 2010, when the then Bundesbank official Thilo Sarrazin published Germany Abolishes Itself, a best-selling book warning of the alleged economic and cultural dangers posed by immigration, with special attention paid to Muslims. His book includes a dubious argument about the connections between immigration and the genetic reduction in intelligence in Germany. It sold 1.2 million copies by the year's end, a sign of the widespread sympathies to Sarrazin's arguments.

Shortly therafter, several German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, offered damnations of Multikulti. Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, said in October 2010 in front if a conservative audience, "We as a union stand for the German leading culture," and "Multikulti is dead!" Merkel followed him, assuring the crowd that the Multikulti approach had "absolutely failed."

The statements won rounds of applause from the crowd, but what exactly such assertions mean is very hard to decipher. Multikulti has often been defined as the promotion of separate cultural identities, be they religious or ethnic, within a single society, leading to the creation of what are sometimes called parallel societies, in which immigrants live cloistered from the rest of society and suffer from higher than average unemployement, higher school dropout rates, and for some disaffected Muslim youth, the lure of radical Islam. But parallel societies have come into being in Germany not because of active promotion of cultural difference but because of a decades-long lack of coherent policy when it came to the role of immigration.

Merkel's and Seehofer's declarations about the failure of Multikulti ring hollow because the German state has never adopted an intentional policy of multiculturalism in the first place. "This backlash discourse is a type of political rhetoric where multiculturalism is imagined and constructed so it can be attacked," Steven Vertovec, director of the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, told me. "The M-word is a kind of bogeyman. This is a constant trope to paint multiculturalism as a single 'ism,' as a doctrine. But it doesn't exist."

Moreover, as Vertovec points out, Germany's National Integration Plan, rolled out by Merkel's administration, outlines a concept of integration that largely contradicts her anti-multiculturalism rhetoric. The plan calls not only for the acceptance and respect of cultural differences but also for the "recognition and advancement of cultural diversity."

Merkel is also the patron of the Diversity Charter, a pledge to promote diversity in business that has been signed by over 600 German companies. By decrying Multikulti and praising cultural diversity -- clearly contradictory standpoints -- Merkel is playing to two audiences: those discontented with immigration, including many in her conservative base, and Germans with a migration background, which, at one-fifth of the population, represents a large part of the electorate.

In public discourse, integration is often spoken of solely as an immigrant's duty to accomodate German society. In her speech declaring Multikulti's failure, Merkel cited integration as the solution, but in doing so said, "Those who want to participate in our society must not only comply with the law and follow the constitution but above all, they must learn our language." No one argues about the value of learning the language. But the insinuation that migrants must adopt customs beyond mere adherence to the law is common, although those customs are difficult to articulate. Seehofer goes much further, linking his concept of "leading culture" with Christian values. "We have a Christian-oriented value orientation in Germany, and that is the norm for the culture of everyday life," he has said.

The most profound consequence of anti-multiculturalism rhetoric and integration double-talk is its power to antagonize those who are best positioned to bring about positive change. In Duisburg, a city notable for its large Turkish population, I met Abdulkadir Topal, an employee of the Mozilla Corporation and a founding member of Zahnräder, a network of young, successful German Muslims whose goal is to work for "innovation and cultural wealth" in Germany. He is just the kind of highly educated and highly skilled worker in demand in a needy German labor market, but around the time when what came to be known as the Sarrazin debate was in full swing, he told me that he felt unwelcome as a Muslim in Germany and was considering moving abroad. "I have the option to go," he told me, because his skills are in demand. Those with less marketable talents, he said, don't have that option. "It's my uneducated brothers and sisters who will stay."

In Istanbul recently, I met a number of young, well-educated Turkish-Germans -- lawyers, architects and Ph.D. students raised in Germany -- who moved to Turkey. In fact, since 2006, more people have migrated from Germany to Turkey than the other way around, with much attention in Germany paid to the fact that many of those leaving are highly qualified. Some of those who now live in Istanbul told me that the sense of alienation they felt in German society was a factor in their decision to leave.

It is not hard to see why. For many young Germans with migration backgrounds, the concept of integration has come to mean little more than a political bludgeoning tool. Kübra Gümüsay, raised in Germany of Turkish origin and one of Topal's colleagues in Zahnräder, writes a column for the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung. "To what shall I integrate?" she said to me one day earlier this year. In her view, being German is defined not by what you are but by what you are not. "Being German is not being Turkish," she said. "Being German is not being a Muslim." But beyond that, she says, no one can say what being German is. That is ironic, as the model laid out in Germany's National Integration Plan should make Gümüsay the paragon of integration success. Gümüsay, the daughter of parents who came to Germany as guest workers, is in her early twenties and has studied political science at the University of Hamburg; she is fluent in German, Turkish, and English, and she is a columnist for a national newspaper.

But still, in the eyes of many Germans, she says, she is not integrated. That may be because she chooses to wear a hijab. Earlier this year, Gümüsay participated in a discussion show featuring Sarrazin on BBC radio in Berlin. "What do you want me to do?" she asked Sarrazin at one point. "I want you to integrate," he answered. "If you wear the headscarf, it's your own choice. But if you wear the headscarf, you should not be surprised if you are regarded by your environment as something separate."

Later, Gümüsay reflected on his answer. "The only thing he wants is for me to not be myself," she said. When she was younger, she added, "I used to think everyone could integrate, that all you have to do is get involved and participate, to get educated and learn the language. Then I realized that it's not only about this, that I'll never be accepted by all parts of society as a citizen, as a German."

Too often, the political conversation in Germany breeds such sentiments among some of the country's most talented people with a migration background. In this regard, the integration effort is backfiring. Instead of focusing on abstractions such as the failure of multiculturalism or whether Islam "belongs" in Germany (the subject of another recent debate), the German political class should apply more of its energies to practical policies that will help solve real social problems. Improvements to the education system are most paramount: German states should continue to adopt school reforms to change the tracking system that often seperates students from as early as age ten.

More broadly, Germany should extend efforts to make society more inclusive. Recently, for example, the German government began financing Islamic theology programs so that German Muslims can study their religion in German universities alongside Catholics and Protestants. Seen in the context of the half century since the first Turkish guest workers arrived, these efforts are relatively new. But the crafting of such substantive polices is a hopeful sign for Germany's future, and the country's political class should beware of undermining this progress with senseless rhetoric that only serves to divide.

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  • JAMES ANGELOS is a former German Chancellor Fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He has written on religion and immigration in Germany for The Wall Street Journal, Spiegel Online International, and The New Republic.
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