The challenge to German liberalism

The first British review of the publishing sensation that trashes the pieties of the 1968 generation. Despite its needless racial provocations, it narrows the gap between the public and politicians
November 17, 2010
Thilo Sarrazin: are Muslims really lowering the intelligence of German society?

Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab: Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen [Germany Abolishes Itself: How we are putting our country at risk]By Thilo Sarrazin (Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, €22.99)

Thilo Sarrazin, a minor German politician on the technocratic wing of the country’s Social Democratic party, has just written what is probably the bestselling political book in postwar Europe (1m copies in hardback and counting). Everyone in Germany knows at least a simplified version of what Germany Abolishes Itself says, and the reaction to the book is helping to drive government policy on minority integration.

The message of the book, in headline form, is that Germany is becoming smaller (thanks to the familiar story of a falling birthrate among native Germans) and stupider (thanks to the fact that educated Germans are having fewer children and the fastest growing part of the population are poorly-integrated Muslim immigrants). That “stupider” is, of course, contested and has led to accusations of a flirtation with eugenics—of which more later.

But Sarrazin is no right-wing populist in the image of Jörg Haider, the late Austrian politician, or even Geert Wilders, the anti-Islamic leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Much of the book is a dry compendium of economic and social data. Indeed, I suspect his book is the political equivalent of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time—much purchased but little read. Although controversy has swirled around his comments on group intelligence and the failure of German immigration policy, there is little in German public policy that he does not also take his axe to: welfare policy, education and training policy (apparently Britain now has a much higher proportion of students studying maths, science and technology than Germany), the poverty lobby and more. In fact, it is a meticulously prepared trashing of the liberal pieties of the 1968 generation.

The political and media class’s initial instinct was to denounce the book, and Sarrazin was forced out of his job at the Bundesbank. But as sales started to take off and as the new social media—the bloggers and emailers—lined up overwhelmingly behind Sarrazin, the reaction of political Germany shifted, albeit grudgingly. Chancellor Angela Merkel opportunistically declared the happy-clappy multikulti of the German left to have “failed utterly.” There was even a respectful and self-critical essay in Der Spiegel magazine by a leading liberal, Peter Schneider.

This shift is rather remarkable and it may help to prevent the rise of a serious right-wing force equivalent to France’s National Front. As the book complains, German public debate has, for obvious historical reasons, been more constrained by various kinds of taboos about national culture than any other big European country. As recently as 2000 a leading Christian Democrat politician, Friedrich Merz, had his political career damaged by merely asking that minorities show respect for the law and institutions of the dominant culture (Leitkultur). In the ensuing row the then-president of Germany, Johannes Rau, declared that he was not proud to be German.

Nowhere in Europe is the gap between public opinion and published opinion as wide as in Germany. And nowhere has public policy been more influenced by a 1960s generation, post-national, society-is-to-blame kind of liberalism. Yet this “official” liberalism has never reflected the way people live and think, even in the German chattering classes. When I lived in the country, 20 years ago, it felt far more socially conservative than the similar circles I had come from in London.

Another difference that struck me was the invisibility of the Turks and the other big minorities living in Germany, compared with the relative visibility of Britain’s minorities. I later worked out why this was. There was what Peter Schneider calls an “unholy alliance” between left and right to pretend that Germany did not have an integration issue—especially amongst its Turkish, middle eastern and north African minorities. By 1990, there were more than 2m Turks living in Germany, many of them second and third generation. Yet the Christian Democratic right still refused to accept that some of the “guest workers” who had arrived in the 1950s and 1960s had come to stay—and rejected the idea that Germany was an “immigration country.” This meant that they put no effort or money into turning Turks into Germans. As for the anti-national left, the idea that the exotic Turks should be forced to learn the language of the SS was equally abhorrent. So the mainly Muslim minorities were left alone in their parallel worlds.

Things have got a lot better in the last 20 years. In 1999, the then Social Democrat government made it easier to become a German citizen and about 30 per cent of Turks now have full citizenship. Turks and other “New Germans” are more visible in political and public life. The flag waving at the 2006 World Cup in Germany seemed to herald a national “normalisation” and the multicoloured football team at the 2010 World Cup revealed a fully multi-racial land (although they continued to play German, not multicultural, football).

As Sarrazin himself describes, there have also been many successes of integration—not just the so-called Aussielder, people of German descent who lived, often for many generations, in eastern Europe or parts of the former Soviet Union. Also some “visible” minorities, such as Indians and Vietnamese, do well in the education system and the job market, as do many of the asylum seekers who stayed after the big inflow of the early 1990s.

But Sarrazin is more interested in the failure of the Muslim background Turks and north Africans—about half of Germany’s ethnic minority population (which altogether is now about 15 per cent of the total). And he describes the failure in shocking and pitiless detail. The poor German spoken by third-generation immigrants, the abysmal performance in school (72 per cent of Turks living in Germany, aged 20 to 64, have no qualifications at all), the high crime rates, the fact that they take far more out of the welfare state than they put in (only 33 per cent of Muslim Germans live mainly from their labours). According to Christopher Caldwell—who is wrongly described by Sarrazin as British and liberal; in fact, he is American and conservative—the number of foreign-born residents rose from 3m to 8m between 1971 and 2000, but the number of employed foreigners stayed the same at 2m.

There are plenty of explanations for this failure. The fact, for example, that Muslims tend to come from poor, traditional societies and, thanks to the failure of integration, have reproduced those societies in Berlin, Duisburg and other German cities. And Islam itself may contribute to a greater cultural distance than is the case with some other minorities.

The fact that Muslim migrants perform poorly in the context of German society does not, however, support the outlandish claim that they are inherently stupider than Germans or other minorities. Sarrazin does not quite say this but he does assert that their poor performance is dragging down the country’s average ability level—something that could probably be said of most of Europe’s immigrant groups from poor countries, at least for a generation or two. But Sarrazin digs deeper into the intelligence story. He is fascinated by group IQ levels and includes a long discourse on the above-average IQ results for modern Jews—a product, he argues, of the ancient selection pressures on a persecuted minority which resulted in larger families for those who performed well in the trade, finance and intellectual pursuits that Jews were restricted to. Given that intelligence is at least 50 per cent inherited, Sarrazin claims that over many generations a cultural trait can thus become biologically “fixed” in a population.

It is an intriguing argument, but given the vast timescales over which evolutionary pressures usually operate, the complexities of genetics, and the slipperiness of the concept of intelligence, this kind of argument is at best highly speculative. Sarrazin does not provide evidence of low average IQs for Germany’s Muslims—and he is perfectly aware of how environmental factors affect IQ (he cites the famous Flynn effect, which has seen average IQ levels rise by a couple of points a decade in rich societies). Sarrazin is not a racist—and he happily talks about different historic ability levels in different regions of Germany—but he is an “intelligence determinist” and is surely wrong to link current performance outcomes in German society, and indeed the whole system of social stratification, so directly with underlying intelligence levels. There are simply too many other factors getting in the way, and ability can be acquired as well as inherited. As an interviewer in Die Zeit newspaper said to him: “My father was a gardener, I am an academic. It’s not because I am cleverer than him but because I had more educational opportunities.” Turks’ educational and career outcomes would have been vastly better if they had had the money and German-language classes lavished upon them that the Aussiedler have enjoyed—or indeed the educational resources enjoyed by underperforming Finns which Sarrazin praises.

It is a shame that an otherwise powerful and overdue argument about integration should be too easily reducible to a racist slogan: “The Turks are making us stupid.” Germany’s dismal failure to integrate something like 7 per cent of its population is clear enough without requiring a detour into intelligence theory. And the message from this book is hardly going to inspire Turks to become better citizens of Germany: already 58 per cent feel they are not welcome in the country.

Sarrazin’s policy solutions are relatively mainstream, echoing some of the new Labour reforms in Britain: tighter control of immigration and language tests for newcomers; steps towards compulsory citizenship for long-term residents; a sharp focus on teaching German at immigrant-dominated schools. Sarrazin is also concerned at how the welfare system creates alienation, saps initiative and prevents the workplace integration that countries like America are famous for, and so he recommends probationary periods before immigrants are entitled to benefit. The government is already acting on some of these points.

Ultimately, Sarrazin’s hard-headedness is a welcome counterpoint to the wishful thinking of the 1968 generation. The former finance minister of Berlin, who looks like a soldier in the Kaiser’s army, is a member of the awkward squad. You can imagine him causing minor riots at liberal Berlin dinner parties. Most of his argument is clear-eyed and well-informed, but he could not resist the provocations both on intelligence and on the nature of the underclass, which he never bothers to define. Yet the fact that his book has been so influential, despite the provocations, marks an important step forward for Germany—not only in facing up to the failures of its past immigration policies, but also in bridging the wide gap between popular opinion and the political class and thus preventing a German Haider.

David Goodhart is Prospect’s outgoing editor