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BERLIN — Can you begin a debate and miss out on it at the same time? Consider the topic of the moment among Germany’s political class — whether the country has a “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture, or whether it is a truly multicultural nation.
The “debate” began last Sunday, when the conservative German minister of the interior, Thomas de Maizière, published an op-ed essay in the newspaper Bild. In the article, Mr. de Maizière asks what constitutes being German, besides the German language and the German Constitution. Mr. de Maizière is decidedly pro-Leitkultur, both as a description of how Germany is and how it should continue to be.
He even listed 10 items, in bullet points, that he said define German culture: “We shake hands.” “We are not burqa” (whatever that means). We possess a diligent work ethic. We are committed to education and the arts. We are part of NATO, Europe and the West. And so on.
While conceding that a national culture cannot be more than a “guideline,” he went on to ask how the country should deal with people who object to adopting those guiding principles. Mr. de Maizière suggests that, alongside the characteristics of German Leitkultur, there are certain “nonnegotiable” values: the priority of law over religion, respectful manners in everyday life, being part of the West, being “proud Europeans” and being patriotic.
Mr. de Maizière is far from the first German to discuss Leitkultur. The term surfaced in 2000, when the Christian Democratic politician Friedrich Merz wrote an article in Die Welt asking whether it is enough for immigrants to obey German law or whether there are other manners, habits, traditions and conventions that everybody should respect as well.
Mr. Merz’s article set off a long, polemical debate in which one side made accusations of racism and the other side answered with accusations of cultural relativism; by the end, the question hadn’t been answered, but the fight was so vicious that the word was rendered unutterable in polite conversation.
And yet here we are, 17 years later, debating Leitkultur as if the Merz controversy had never happened.
Almost instantly, Germans took to Twitter and excoriated Mr. de Maizière’s take on Leitkultur. If such a thing existed, they wanted nothing of it: According to the Twitter crowd, the human equivalent of the predominant German culture is a xenophobic, homophobic, ignorant hick who eats nothing but eggs and potatoes and spinach, even abroad, proudly displaying his “Piefigkeit,” his petty-bourgeois small-mindedness, to the embarrassed global community.
For about 24 hours, one of the most depressing aspects of German national culture was on display: a sickening mix of hubris and self-hatred. Then the noise died down.
In all of this, most German policy makers kept as quiet as possible. Mr. de Maizière had made it easy to dismiss his statement as electoral campaign clatter, citing several of the new far-right’s favorite memes (the burqa, the tendency of some Muslim men to refuse to shake a woman’s hand). Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, called it a “phantom debate,” fabricated to divert public attention from a right-wing terrorist who had just been discovered in the German Army.
As frustrating as Mr. de Maizière’s article was, Mr. Schulz’s response was even more depressing. Dismissing it all as a conspiracy means that, once again, Germany is refusing to engage in a long-overdue discussion about national principles at a time when the question of what, exactly, Germany means is itself up for grabs.
In 2015, one million people came to this country, many of whom have no experience with liberal democracy. At the same time, 8 percent to 10 percent of voters say they support the Alternative for Germany party, which has just adopted a bluntly anti-feminist, anti-gay-rights, anti-Muslim, aggressively nationalist program. And last month almost half a million Germans of Turkish descent voted to help President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey rid himself of whatever parliamentary control is left in his country.
In Germany, there still is a strong belief that you can change dissenters’ minds by erecting national cultural guidelines — in other words, thought-policing. If it weren’t for the radio, Hitler wouldn’t have happened, we feel. Germans believe they can alter the beliefs of Turkish-German supporters of Mr. Erdogan by not letting him speak in Germany. They believe they can instill a love for liberal democracy by making immigrants take an integration class. They believe they can defeat the Alternative for Germany by simply not granting the party too much television time. And they believe they can make people adopt values by making a bullet-point list of values our national mantra.
But you can’t convey national culture by force. All you can do is live it, promote it and hope that others will follow suit. The answer to the challenges posed to our key values is not to make people shake hands. The country needs to accept that it will be less homogeneous.
Germany should finally do away with its “neutrality laws” and allow judges and teachers to wear head scarves. Germany should accept that putting your hand on your heart can be as much a gesture of respect as a handshake. Germany will have to accept that respecting the law is enough. Germans will have to accept habits and thoughts that are unfamiliar or even disturbing. Not because we accept them, but because we probably won’t change them.
In accepting pluralism, we will truly live up to our constitutional values. A guiding national culture that grants room for dissent and deviation within the boundaries of the law would be strong and convincing — to the newly arrived and the dog-tired. It is the German lack of liberalism, not mashed potatoes with spinach and eggs, that constitutes our Piefigkeit.


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