“Who are we? And who do we want to be?... What is German?” These are among the few questions Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière asked last month, reigniting an old debate surrounding the controversial term “Leitkultur”, or dominant culture.

In his guest column for the German tabloid Bild am Sonntag, de Maizière of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party, drew up a 10-point plan on what constitutes Germanness. He wrote: “Leitkultur can and should be presented above all. Those who are sure of their guiding culture are strong. Strength and inner security of one’s own culture leads to tolerance towards others.”

A popular term among right-wing circles in Germany, Leitkultur first found its way into the mainstream discourse in 2000 when Christian Democratic Union politician Friedrich Merz spoke about the need for immigrants to conform to a “liberal German leading culture”. It was considered an attack on multiculturalism. The word itself was originally an agricultural term used to describe dominant plant varieties in a natural environment. Syrian Islam expert Bassam Tibi first used it in a political context two decades ago, asking for a European Leitkultur that would fuse common values.

‘A guiding culture’

Until not so long ago, there was another buzzword in Germany: Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture. The word had become a siren call, attracting people from their war-ravaged homes in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq to Germany. This welcoming stance, at the heart of which stood Chancellor Merkel, saw the entry of more than a million asylum seekers over the last two years. Today, Willkommenskultur is slowly getting displaced by its almost antithetical successor.

How does de Maizière define Leitkultur? Underscored in his guidelines is the importance of social habits, values and a western lifestyle. He wrote: “We are an open society. We show our face and shake our hands. We are not burkha.” He also invoked a rich history in music and philosophy: “Bach and Goethe belong to the whole world and were Germans. We have our own understanding of the importance of culture in our society”, as well as Germany’s past, including the darkest chapter in history: “We are the heirs of our history with all its highs and lows. Our past shapes our present and our culture”. He brought up meritocracy: “We regard good performance as something that each individual can be proud of.”

De Maizière also put an accent on patriotism, Euro-centric pride and precedence of law over religion. A guiding culture, he said, would help in the integration of immigrants and refugees, ultimately leading to greater tolerance.

When asked about Leitkultur, Annette Widmann-Mauz, another Christian Democratic Union parliamentarian said: “Those who come to our country should respect the crucial ways in which we express our identity. We don’t want to set limitations on what people should wear or do, but we want them to live with us while respecting our liberal ways.”

People protest against the deportation of Iraqi refugees from Germany at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, in February. The banner should read: We are demanding right to stay for Iraqi refugees. Photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters.

Veiled criticism?

Critics however think that masked beneath this veneer of seeming congeniality is a strong condemnation of Muslims (there are about four million Muslims in Germany), an underlying assumption that other native cultures are inferior to the Deutsch way of life and a dodgy sense of national pride.

“The Leitkultur debate is a challenging discourse about core values and identity in Germany and Europe,” said Steffen Burkhardt, professor of media and culture theory, Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. “In a fast changing society there is a need to define basic principles of the civil society that guarantee social justice and cohesion. However, there is the danger that it could be misused for social exclusion. Therefore, we need a broad debate in which all groups of society participate.”

Indeed, the resurgence of the debate has brought to the fore the horrors of Germany’s past, rooted in which was this very idea of a robust German identity, which led the Nazi regime to commit ghastly atrocities. Many feel that this debate is particularly dangerous in the months leading to the national elections in Germany in September, especially in the wake of the popularity of the right-wing populist party, Alternative für Deutschland.

“To expect people who come from countries vastly different from ours to adopt our lifestyle immediately is risky,” said Felix Heimbach, a theatre producer in Stuttgart who volunteers at radio stations in refugee camps. “They come with their own set of experiences and we should see how we can learn from them. Integration is a two-way process. We Germans should also be open to understanding their lives and culture, instead of imposing ours.”

Hajera Sheikh, a 21-year-old media and anthropology student at the University of Tϋbingen, recollected her early days when her family migrated to Germany from Lahore. She was 12. “I went to preparatory class and all we did was learn German,” she said. “On the one hand, it was good to be immersed into the language, but on the other, we didn’t study anything else.”

She added: “The idea of Leitkultur stands in the way of acceptance of different cultures. Can one really have a pure culture in a globalised world?”