Prime Minister Erdoğan's trip to Cologne on May 24 stirred a lively debate. Some German media outlets and politicians denounced Erdoğan's visit as controversial and polarizing. In response, some accused Germany of malice.
This recent infatuation with Erdoğan raises a number of larger issues about Germany and Europe. But a few things need to be made clear first. The hostile attitude that some showed toward the Turkish prime minister does not represent the view of all Germans, in the same way racist groups do not speak for all Germans. The neo-Nazi attacks on Turks and other minorities do not reflect the overall views of the German nation. The anti-immigration groups do not exemplify all Germans. The Euro-sceptics do not prevent the Bundestag from playing a leading role in the European Union.
So the context is important. For instance, the "disproportionate" use of water cannons and tear gas shocked Germany during the Stuttgart 21 events in 2010. But the German police said its actions against the protesters were "not only legal but completely appropriate".
Chancellor Merkel said, "I would like it if such demonstrations proceeded peacefully." She called the Stuttgart train station project "sensible and right." The project was later withdrawn.
There are other issues that require context for a proper understanding without necessarily justifying them. For instance, successive German governments have taken measures against racism and anti-Semitism that led to the emergence of Nazi rule in the 1930s. Yet, anti-Semitism does not seem to be going away easily.
In this context, just like anti-Semitism, the rise of Islamophobia needs to be taken seriously. If nothing else, it is a desecration of core European values. Europe's responsible political leaders will certainly not allow the abuse of minority communities that contribute to European politics, economy, culture, education, art, sports and communal life.
Yet, the current debate about multiculturalism in Germany is not very promising. Some deride it as "multikulti," suggesting that it is a rosy view of society that does not exist in reality. It is not difficult to see the connection between this dismissive attitude toward multiculturalism and widening Euroscepticism.
If individual European countries cannot accommodate multiculturalism at home, how can they sustain a strong and integrated European Union across the continent?
The rise of the extreme right in the recent European Parliament elections can be seen as a warning sign. Germany can play a leadership role here but seems to shy away from it. So, some ask: Is this a war between German "kultur" and Western civilization? From political leaders and soldiers to intellectuals, scientists and artists, this question has haunted the minds of many Germans. They have seen themselves above what they considered to be a materialistic and soulless Western civilization.
The British, French or Italian ways of life, society, religion or aesthetics are considered to be vastly different from those of the Germans. Many of them look at Europe as too shallow, too pragmatic, too utilitarian. For many, "kulturkrieg" was one in which German "kultur" had to defend itself against a decadent Western civilization. The economist Werner Sombart contrasted the German "hero" to the British "trader." The hero always wanted to give, the trader always wanted to take. Thomas Mann famously rejected the French concept of civilization and defended "kultur" as "nature, wholeness, style, form, attitude, taste… intellectual organization of the world…" – the "spiritual" qualities that only Germans can have. When America rose to prominence, the German reaction was the same: America is a more sophisticated and alluring version of the same materialistic, shallow and opportunistic civilization. In the 1950s, Heidegger considered Soviet communism and American capitalism as two sides of the same coin. They both were based on "the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organization of the average man." Germany needed to nurture its "kultur" rather than let itself be assimilated by Western civilization.
This narrow definition of "kultur" causes unnecessary difficulties in social participation, cohesion and sharing. It makes integration and living together harder than it should be. It turns multiculturalism into treachery. To their credit, the German humanists tried to make Germany a member of the family of European nations after World War II. Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Jurgen Habermas and others wanted to overcome Germany's war past by connecting it with the more established traditions of European humanism. Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard and other political leaders worked to position Germany within the European/Atlantic alliance. For the advocates of economic development, Germany was now expected to produce safe cars rather than dangerous socio-political ideas. The sense of German distinctiveness, however, has remained an elusive force in the eyes of other Europeans.
The Economist takes a look at this in the context of the recent Ukraine crisis. It claims that German Russophilia is based on a certain notion of history, culture and economics. The term "Russlandversteher," one who understands Russia better than others, refers to Germany's claim to privileged knowledge and understanding of Russia – a country which is neither part of Europe nor fully outside it. It also hints at a hidden sympathy for Russia. Some analysts criticize Germany for low-key performance in the Ukrainian crisis and blame it on its special relationship with Russia. I beg to differ. Chancellor Merkel has taken a clear stance on Ukraine and worked with world leaders including Erdoğan to resolve the crisis. Looking beyond current affairs, the German "kultur" is here to stay. So is Western civilization. How they will interact is up to Germans and Europeans to decide. One thing is clear: It is an important decision for the future of Europe.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey