"First, the Nazis did us the favour of kicking out the Jews. Then we kicked out the Germans from Czechoslovakia and then the Slovaks. Now we have to deal with the last problem we have, with the Roma." So went the sarcastic argument of a Czech historian. The historian expressed this sentiment at a series of talks, "The Prague Talks," hosted by the Goethe Institute in Prague. Could this possibly be the Czech ideal for the Czech Republic?
A slip of the tongue?
Ever since the fateful day of 19 October when Friedrich Merz, leader of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) parliamentary group in the Bundestag (the lower chamber of the German parliament), used the term "Leitkultur von Deutschland" (leading, or hegemonic, culture of Germany) to describe what immigrants coming to Germany might aspire to, the debate and controversy surrounding this term has been enormous. Indeed, there has been a veritable uproar, at least among Germans, who have debated this term with a veracity that has hardly dissipated in over a month.
This uproar has been confined to the borders of Germany. Poles in East Prussia certainly couldn't care less, nor could the Czechs, judging by the lack of media reaction. This is supposedly a German problem, and only a German problem, and yet another example of the Germans forcing their culture on others. Foreigners coming to live in Germany should follow our ways, Leitkultur says. And to make matters worse, while Merz stood by his words, Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, posed this question to the 200,000 people gathered at the "We Stand Up for Humanity and Tolerance" demonstration held in Berlin on 9 November: "What's all this talk of Leitkultur? Does German Leitkultur include hunting down foreigners, burning synagogues and killing the homeless?"
While the current debate has remained on German territory, and may well have deeper implications within Germany, many European nations live by this same leitmotiv— that their own culture is superior, something from which others (foreigners and tourists from America) should benefit. Why not? Is not the Czech Republic also the country of "František" Kafka, Gustav Mahler, Rainer Maria Rilke and even the great emperor Charles (Karel) the Fourth? Is there not something "cultural" contained therein, of which Czechs should be proud and from which we all could learn?
Not just for Germans
In several respects, the German term "Leitkultur" should be raised as a question in many of the homogeneous states of the former Eastern bloc. But the basic question of what Leitkultur is and why it has fostered such controversy still remains.
However, it is to those who used it first, the Germans, that we must turn in an attempt to define this notion. Michael Friedman, vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and himself a member of the CDU, called the term a "dangerous soap bubble, which turns towards the past and contradicts a modern understanding of integration" in an interview with the German daily newspaper Die Welt. Is the term really so empty and, furthermore, "dangerous"?
"It is a CDU invention," says Michael de la Fontaine, program director at the Goethe Institute in Prague. "It is a political construct, an anti-concept," he continues, "used to denote a return to the more homogeneous culture that many Germans, especially those in the five new Bundesländer [states, ed], can relate to. It is a construct through which the CDU would like to gain the vote of those not yet used to the concept of multiculturalism, as few in the former East are."
In a recent interview with Central Europe Review, de la Fontaine explained his own personal situation growing up in the Federal Republic of Germany: an identity was quickly formed in which the presence of the German Democratic Republic played a major role. Any identity, he says, that was shaped by Cold War relations with the East—so close in proximity and yet so far away ideologically.
"These wounds from the Second World War could not be healed so quickly and not even by the reunification... With the falling of the Wall, all of a sudden the identity towards the former enemy did not work anymore. There was no more global Communism. So, German cultural identity had to be redefined on both sides: in the East and in the West."
After reunification, in October 1990, German culture had to reform itself once again from ground zero, much as it did after the Second World War. After the Second World War, in the West the Allies were present to make sure there was no strong German culture, and in the East, the Soviets were responsible for spreading the "culture" of the Communist brotherhood. In the East, with little freedom of movement, multiculturalism did not flourish easily.
According to de la Fontaine, the CDU is attempting to appeal to the homogeneous Eastern voter who would like to see the old way of life preserved, culturally at least. Do fewer, more Germanised foreigners mean more jobs and a better economy? Or is there a need for better organisation so that foreigners could come to Germany and fit in as Germans?
Homogeneous across the board
Allegedly, the West was exposed to the idea of multiculturalism while the East was not; however, even the former West looks solidly homogeneous to the average "uncultured" visitor from the New World. November's demonstration for tolerance, too, was unified in the colours and faces of those who attended—red was the predominant hue, the colour of Communist solidarity, again perpetuating the false notion of the tolerant and multicultural Communist state.
Antje Fritz (26) from Stuttgart, in Berlin during November's demonstration for tolerance, expressed her bewilderment at how such a phrase could be used, precisely because, in her view, it evoked such negative associations.
"The term itself is the problem," she said. "Sure, people coming to this country will adopt some aspects of German culture; it happens naturally. And I have no problem with certain requirements being made of foreigners who want to settle here. Every country has these. But that such a term, that cannot be defined, should be used to describe these requirements, that is the problem."
200,000 people—young and old—gathered for this demonstration. The faces of mothers and the dreadlocks of teens bobbed among the crowd. The streets were so full that the parade to the Brandenburg Gate could only but inch along. The demonstration in Berlin was a statement against a recent string of anti-Semitic and racist crimes in Germany that spanned both former East and former West—from Potsdam to Düsseldorf.
Thus, this demonstration would be remembered as one against Leitkultur and also as one in which Spiegel managed to equate the criminal acts of a few with the culture of a nation, all as manifested in the cultural policy of the CDU. Hardly an intellectual discussion of what it means to be German but rather an underhanded attempt to make the CDU into a group of subtle Nazi sympathisers.
Free love and a good Techno beat
What did the demonstration accomplish? "I personally would say nothing," de la Fontaine says with little hesitation. He points out that 200,000 people gathering to make a statement of sympathy with the victims of racially motivated crimes is little in comparison to the well over a million who consistently gather to celebrate Berin's annual Love Parade.
"If you ask me about Leitkultur, I would say Love Parade and Big Brother [the television series—which originated in the Netherlands but has a German mutation—in which a group of "real" people living together in one house are filmed 24 hours a day]... Here you see the new identity," says de la Fontaine. Free love and a good Techno beat—the new German Leitkultur? Is Goethe dancing or turning in his grave?
But this debate, which is currently being waged in Germany, could apply just as well in the equally homogeneous environments to the east. The Roma are not accepted throughout the region nor have historical tensions diminished between Czechs and Germans or Poles and Germans, to name but two of the neighbouring countries concerned.
The Goethe Institute in Prague acts as a purveyor of German culture, of all kinds, in the Czech Republic. Discussions are held in which both sides can voice their opinions to each other. Some Czechs might wish to follow their own Leitkultur; some Germans may too. On a continent where each nation is so concerned with the finer points of its own civilising culture, we need not be strictly focused on the German example, only because it was there that the term Leitkultur was raised.
de la Fontaine says quite adamantly that in his day-to-day work at the Goethe Institute in Prague he encounters Czechs who hold a very old-fashioned view of what it means to be German. Perhaps it is because non-Germans cannot shake old-fashioned, out-of-date perceptions of Germans and Germany that the
Andrea Mrozek, 4 December 2000
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