“We are more” and “We can do it”
From Volume 7 of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center
By Marion Detjen
I am aware of the fact that the last German who stood here in a Hannah Arendt conference to speak to you about Germany was Marc Jongen, the so-called party philosopher of the AfD, the German extreme right-wing party. While I am not going to apologize for my bad English, one could easily get the impression that Jongen and I represent the two opposing and conflicting camps which these days challenge and strain the cohesion of German society, each claiming to fight for the “true“ Germany, the “good“ Germany, the “other“ Germany, appropriating the tradition of the emigrants and resistance fighters of the Nazi period.1
On some fundamental questions Marc Jongen and I are indeed symmetrically opposed: there exists a deep rift in German society over the question whether Germany should be an immigration country or not; whether citizenship and belonging in Germany have to be ethnically and culturally defined or not. In these questions, Marc Jongen and I have a harsh political conflict. He wants ethnicity and “culture,“ whatever that is for him, as the decisive criteria for being German. I want civil and political rights and duties as the decisive criteria. This can be a matter of negotiation and public debate, and I am prepared to discuss this with everyone, even with extreme right wingers.
But here the symmetry ends, because the far right usually does not argue with negotiable goals but with unnegotiable alleged realities, insisting that the ethnocultural identity of the German people is a given. This is simply not true. The Basic Law, our constitution, is ambiguous and full of tensions with regard to who belongs and who doesn’t belong.2 It does have an ethnonational dimension, but it also and more effectively opens up to multiple ways of belonging that work with our common humanity and human dignity, with civic and political rights, with social and material contributions, apart from the fact that ethnoculturalism is highly contradictory in itself when it has to determine the ethnos and culture that it pleads to. In the face of these ambiguities it is more important than ever to keep up the distinction between our negotiable differerences in what we want, and our nonnegotiable differences in how we treat reality.
Let me now (1) first give you a personal account of how I experienced the “pro-refugee“ movement in Germany that I consider myself part of in 2015–16; its political agendas and maybe protorevolutionary impetus; then (2) analyze two claims of that movement and why they are so ambivalent and even futile in the current political situation in Germany; and (3) conclude with a suggestion on how to read Hannah Arendt and what to take from her thinking into the future.
1) The “summer of welcome“ in Germany 2015, when thousands and thousands of asylum seekers poured into the country every week and met a wave of solidarity and willingness to help, has long passed. While German society and government are taking a more and more anti-immigrant stance, it has now become customary to belittle the solidarity movement of those days as naive, and to discredit the helpers as “Gutmenschen,“ goody-goodies who didn’t really know what they were doing. There is a denial of the fact that the solidarity movement in 2015 was broadly perceived as a novum in history, a big surprise, a new spirit to acknowledge global realities and to finally embrace the immigration society. More than 10 percent of the grown-up population in Germany were actively involved in a huge volunteer struggle; around fifteen thousand initiatives and projects emerged.3 I myself got involved with an NGO organizing private sponsorships for family reunifications,4 and then quickly moved on to activities more in my professional field,5 until I ended up at Bard College Berlin, where we have up to this moment achieved thirty-two full scholarships for displaced students in the liberal arts.6
In 2015 and even 2016 there was an overwhelming optimism. History seemed to be on our side. We seemed to bring into completion what we had left incomplete and flawed in the previous “refugee crisis” more than twenty years ago, in the mid-1990s. Then, there had already been a huge humanitarian engagement, an engagement which had not managed to articulate itself in political terms though. While we—I was a student then—were volunteering as German teachers in refugee camps, we had not been prepared to fight for consequential, rational, and fair political solutions to the migration and asylum issues. We stood by helplessly and eventually withdrew as the government under Helmut Kohl, with the support of the Social Democrats, changed the constitution and installed their infamous “asylum compromise,” cutting down the refugee numbers with the introduction of so-called safe third countries and making it impossible to ever find a fair European solution.7 Twenty years later, in 2015, we were determined not to make that mistake again. Our activities were humanitarian, but we brought them into the political arena—we had a political agenda.
Another cause for our optimism was that in the twenty years between these “crises“ the relationship of the German public to the Nazi past seemed to have undergone a fundamental change: while in the 1990s a toxic memory discourse about the uniqueness or comparability of the Holocaust and the role of the Wehrmacht obstructed any attempts to reach an inclusive understanding of what it means to be German, in 2015–16 the memory discourse on flight and expulsion after the Second World War actually helped to create or allow empathy. A lot of people related to family experiences and traumas of having been a refugee oneself when getting involved, and the media were full of comparisons between the refugee situation in Germany after the war and today.8
The political activism of the “pro-refugee“ mass movement of 2015–16, its political agenda, even if it wasn’t always explicit, played out on three levels.
The first level was internal German politics. There was a strong impetus to give the finishing blow to Germany’s self-denial of not being an immigration country. With 20 percent of the German population nowadays having a so-called immigration background, either born or with one or two parents born as foreigners, and Germany suddenly showing such surprising generosity as a nation, it seemed possible to get rid of the ethnonational dimension of the German state construction altogether and to base the country on a new, inclusive identity.9
The second level was European and international: without really offering alternatives, the “pro-refugee“ movement implicated a protest against the EU border regime, the illegalization and criminalization of migrants, the horrible dying in the Mediterranean, and the unfair system that puts most of the burden of unregulated migration to the southern states of Europe, where they arrive with their dinghies. The life-saving and refugee aid activities of young people like Sara Mardini, the Bard College Berlin student who was imprisoned in Greece, manifested a moral and political claim that the EU member states forcing the migrants to do such dangerous journeys and risk their lives is inacceptable. Projects, organizations, and coalitions like the “Seebrücke” demanding safe routes and safe havens for people who are forced to flee not only challenge the Dublin system but also address the erosion of the entire postwar international refugee order of the Geneva Convention.10
The third level for politicization is most far-reaching. It emerged in the conviviality with what we then called “newcomers“ from the Middle East, once they had arrived and we got to know each other. They brought their own realities, their own knowledge, and getting close to them, befriending them, meant that we started to connect to these realities. The causes and consequences of the Arabellion and especially the Syrian revolution suddenly became real to us: the dictatorships, the crimes, the murdering, the torturing, the misery, the persecutions, the bravery of the people in their battle for freedom, and the complicated reasons for people to flee. Suddenly we realized how near the Middle East is to Europe and felt the postcolonial connections. This new sense of transnational and global responsibility was threatening for many, but for others to discover it and share it in public settings like demonstrations, cultural events, and volunteer activities created a profound happiness, a special kind of public happiness that I have only found described adequately in Hannah Arendt’s descriptions of the revolutionary experience.
But what does it need for such political activism to qualify as civil disobedience?
Did the movement violate laws for the purpose of testing their constitutionality, which is the main criteria of civil disobedience according to Arendt? There was, and still is, definitely a preparedness, a negotiation of the possibilities and necessities to break the law. Projects like the International Conference of Traffickers and People Smugglers in Munich, Fluchthilfe & Du (Refugee Help and You), and the Peng Collective developed strategies against the criminalization of migration in the German residency law, calling for breaking the law but in an artistic context. But in 2015 we had parts of the authorities on our side, and all of these projects received public funding. Since then, with the dramatic political shift going on, I think that we have drifted into a situation of uncertainty and suspense. Right now, politics and the authorities are definitely pressed toward a course that contradicts the human rights and human diginity principles of the German constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights—for example, by limiting the right to family reunification for refugees who only received subsidiary protection even though they will never be able to return to Syria without a regime change there.11 The protest against this development is still very much focused on advocacy, on using legal loopholes and finding solutions for individual cases. It remains to be seen what will happen when the situation aggravates further and measures against refugees are being tightened—whether the movement altogether falls back into a purely humanitarian mode, giving up on its political potential, or whether parts of it will cross the line to break inhuman and unconstitutional laws and turn into true civil disobedience.
What about another criterium set by Hannah Arendt to qualify civil disobedience: did the movement claim to represent the majority of the German people? Its complicated and unresolved relationship to the majority society has to be analyzed in two different claims:
First of all, the movement had a strong connection to Angela Merkel’s famous sentence: “Wir schaffen das”—“We can do it,” or “We can work on it,” “We can manage.” The NGO I myself got involved in called itself Wir Machen Das—“We are doing it”—to enforce Merkel’s claim in an avangardist approach: “We are doing it anyway.” The verb used by Merkel, “schaffen,” literally means “to accomplish.” It has the notion of working hard, and once you have finished the job, then you can rest. That you work so hard, that you show sweat and really lean into it while being confident in your abilities, is part of the moral justification of what you do. It has the intrinsic value of Protestant work ethics.
The “wir schaffen das,” to be able to do it and work for it, referred to the challenge of housing and feeding and clothing and providing an income for the one million refugees in 2015–16. But it also connected to a much larger challenge, the challenge of transforming Germany into an immigration country—that first-activism level that I mentioned before. The immense struggle to achieve and acknowledge this transformation had been going on for decades. The years between 2000 and 2014, with new citizenship laws and new residency laws, could be seen as a breakthrough. But that acknowledgment and that change were heavily conditioned. The 2005 law providing for immigration is, strictly speaking, not an immigration law at all; it is an integration law, putting all immigration under the condition of integration. Without integration, no immigration.12
What does integration in the German context mean? It implies that you start off with a unified, whole community. Then a new, a foreign, element enters, and then this element as well as the entire community have to change and to assimilate to each other and to merge until you can‘t tell the difference anymore, until the foreigness is gone and the wholeness and unity are reestablished. The enigmatic “it“ in Merkel‘s sentence “We can do it“ can be specified as integration. We can “do“ the integration of all these refugees, and once that is done we will enjoy German wholeness again.
I and my fellow activists never subscribed to this integration concept. We are inclusionists, not integrationists. We want citizenship and belonging based on political and social rights and duties, and we find the cultural notions of integration dubious and unsatisfactory. But in the situation of 2015–16 we aligned with the integrationists, and were to a certain degree grateful for the Merkel government. We thought that we could work with that approach, that we were allies.
Now with the hindsight of more than two years and confronted with an ever-rising AfD, the problems of this alliance between integrationists and inclusionists are starting to show: driven by that shift in immigration politics in 2000–5, an ethnopluralist-cultural-racist movement had formed that differed from former racists and Nazis by allegedly not claiming genetic superiority over other “races“ but insisting on the existence of distinct ethnocultural circles and identities. These people were able to make use of the integration paradigm by taking it dead seriously. They said goodbye to the former Germanic exclusionism, expanded their understanding of what it means to be German to what they call the “Christian-Judeo community of tradition,“ and made cultural integration the main criteria. They claimed that Muslims can never be integrated simply because they are Muslims, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then they grabbed all the racist notions floating around and attached them to Muslimhood and to the alleged “Muslim Kulturkreis,” the parts of the world where the refugees come from.
Now—even if you don‘t want to share the plain and obvious racism, but do share the integration paradigm and believe in cultural integration, it‘s hard to deny that it won‘t be possible to melt all these newcomers into that alleged Christian-Judeo community of tradition. The dominance of the integration paradigm shifts the whole discourse about refugees and immigration to a field where we can only lose. More and more people in the political center now also believe that Merkel was wrong and that Germany actually cannot “do it,” no matter how good or bad the economic and social situation is.
By arranging ourselves with the integration concept and jumping onto the “Wir schaffen das“ mantra of the chancellor, we failed to develop the political ideas needed to create the political and social conditions for the inclusion—not the integration—of the newcomers. We failed to problematize those parts of the German constitution that legitimize ethnonationalist and culturalist concepts of belonging. We shuffled ourselves into a corner where we now seem like naive “Gutmenschen,” stupid and irresponsible agents and accomplices of an immigration experiment that was bound to fail, and find ourselves entangled in all kinds of absurd discussions, like whether Islam belongs to Germany or not.
The other claim made by us has only recently found its slogan in the anti-AfD demonstrations in Chemnitz: “Wir sind mehr”—“We are more.” In 2015–16 we were absolutely sure that the inclusionists together with the integrationists formed a majority, an impression also based on the media discourse that, with the yellow-press Bild Zeitung leading from the front, was almost unanimously pro-refugee in those days. But the right wingers put another claim against it which extracted legitimacy exactly out of being the minority: “Wir sind das Volk”—“We are the people”—became their slogan. You have to know about the iridescent meaning of that term, the Volk, in German history, to understand that. “We are the Volk“ appeals to the people as the ruled against the rulers, but also to the volonté générale, the will and the essence of the nation, and that can be represented by an avant-gardist minority. The far right took a new pride in being marginalized. They sucked coolness out of being at the fringe, and gave their position a pseudorevolutionary veneer. They hijacked all the scarce tradition of revolution, civil disobedience, and resistance that we have in Germany to bolster their struggle against Merkel, the “system,” the “mainstream,” the “establishment,” which in their ideology betrays the Volk. In the latest polls, the AfD has an 18.5 percent approval rate—a terrifying number, but still very clearly the minority. Nevertheless, the majority-minority relationship is shifting and shaking these days. The Bild and parts of the governing coalition have long adopted positions that very tragically do the business for the AfD. And we now have to face the paradoxical situation that, on the one hand, our majority claim makes us look boring, while on the other hand, we are not sure anymore whether we still really are the majority, as more and more former integrationists are now adopting anti-immigration positions.
Now, my conclusion:
Revolutions fail when and because they cannot institutionalize. The pro-refugee movement has failed in many respects and will surely fail more in the future. We need to get a lot better in developing convincing ideas about how inclusion can work, and reconceptualize the nation state and international system. But reading Hannah Arendt can help us on another level. Rereading On Revolution I realized that she was probably at least as preoccupied with the failings of revolutions as with their success. Failed revolutions have one thing that can live on even when the revolution dies: they can create traditions. On the penultimate page of the text Arendt writes:
There is nothing that could compensate for this failure or prevent it from becoming final, except memory and recollection. And since the storehouse of memory is kept and watched over by the poets, whose business it is to find and make the words we live by, it may be wise to turn in conclusion to two of them.
And she turns to the poet René Char to explain what could be remembered as the lost treasure of the revolution:
The treasure was no more and no less than he himself. That he had “found himself,“ that he no longer suspected himself of “insincerity,“ that he needed no mask and no play-acting to appear, that he, whereever he went, appeared to others and to himself as who he was, that he could afford “to go naked.“13
One of my Syrian students said it in other words: “Freedom is a way of life.” And this discovery will survive, no matter what happens.
. “The other Germany“ originally was the title of a pacifist-republican magazine forbidden by the Nazis in 1933, and then served as a title for various anti-national-socialist publications by German emigrants like Erika and Klaus Mann (1940), Heinrich Fraenkel (1942), and Bertolt Brecht (1943–44). Recently, two authors from the extreme right, Erik Lehnert and Wiggo Mann, appropriated it for a book that claims to describe nine phenotypes of nationalist opposition against the German “red-green mainstream“: Erik Lehnert and Wiggo Mann, Das andere Deutschland: Neun Typen (Schnellroda: Verlag Antaios, 2017).
2. See Douglas B. Klusmeyer and Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Immigration Policy in the Federal Republic of Germany: Negotiating Membership and Remaking the Nation (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2009).
3. Werner Schiffauer, So schaffen wir das—eine Zivilgesellschaft im Aufbruch. 90 wegweisende Projekte mit Geflüchteten, ed. Anne Eilert and Marlene Rudloff (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2017).
7. See the historical account in Marcus Engler and Jan Schneider, “German Asylum Policy and EU Refugee Protection: The Prospects of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS),” Focus Migration, no. 29 (May 2015), published by the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies of the University of Osnabrück. For the proponents’ perspective, see Kay Hailbronner, “Asylum Law Reform in the German Constitution,“ American University International Law Review 9, no. 4 (1994): 159–79.
8. See Mathias Beer, “Die ‘Flüchtlingsfrage’ in Deutschland nach 1945 und heute. Ein Vergleich.” Zeitgeschichte-online (April 2016). zeitgeschichte-online.de/thema/die-fluechtlingsfrage-deutschland-nach-1945-und-heute.
9. For the numbers of Germans with a “migration background,“ see destatis.de/DE/Themen/Gesellschaft-Umwelt/Bevoelkerung/Migration-Integration/Tabellen/migrationshintergrund-geschlecht-insgesamt.html. For the changing attitudes, see Orkan Kösemen, “Bürgersinn in der Einwanderungsgesellschaft. Was Menschen in Deutschland unter einem guten Bürger verstehen,” published by the Bertelsmann Foundation, December 2018. bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/Projekte/Migration_fair_gestalten/IB_Buergersinn_in_der_Einwanderungsgesellschaft_2018.pdf.
0. See the Seebrücke’s political statement: seebruecke.org/en/startpage-2/.
1. See the overview by the Informationsverbund Asyl und Migration, “Country Report: Germany,” last updated April 2018, asylumineurope.org/reports/country/germany/content-international-protection/family-reunification/criteria-and.
2. Ulrike Davy, “Integration of Immigrants in Germany: A Slowly Evolving Concept.” European Journal of Migration and Law 7 (2005): 123–44.
3. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1963; London: Penguin Books, 1990), 280. The passage on René Char is clearer and better understandable in the German version, translated by Hannah Arendt herself for publication in Germany in 1965, and I therefore retranslated it into English here; see Hannah Arendt, Über die Revolution (Munich: Piper Verlag 1974), 361.