Immigration has long been a peculiarly sensitive subject to debate in Germany, tangled as it is with memories of the abuse of national identity and the persecution of Jews, gypsies and other minorities during the Nazi times.

Normally, however, it does not involve the mighty Bundesbank, an institution that is committed to steering clear of emotional controversies.

Thilo Sarrazin has put paid to that. As a board member of the German central bank, the controversial former Social Democrat finance minister of the city of Berlin has tipped the country into a furious debate on immigration and the integration of immigrants – especially Muslims – into society.

His new book – “Deutschland schafft sich ab”, which translates roughly as “Germany’s getting rid of itself” – is an undisguised attack on the perils of excessive immigration. Its attack on the failure of Muslim migrants to integrate into German society has become the principal topic of political debate in Berlin. It has also sorely embarrassed the Bundesbank and the Social Democratic party.

His critics claim that far from launching a necessary debate on immigration, he has stifled it by encouraging a stand-off between popular prejudice and political correctness.

Mr Sarrazin’s core argument is that the indigenous German population is in terminal demographic decline. It is threatened by an “underclass” of Islamic immigrants that is growing faster, while refusing to integrate into German society, he says.

Many commentators agree that Germany needs a more open debate on immigration and integration. But they condemn Mr Sarrazin for undermining reasoned argument, especially when he went on to suggest in interviews that “all Jews share a certain gene”.

“The political correctness of one side prevents sober consideration of the problem,” said Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, in an article for Spiegel magazine. The other side “confuses half-truths with prejudices” to produce such a negative image of immigrants that any reasonable policy became impossible.

Yet the debate in Germany has changed over the past two decades, since a wave of asylum-seekers in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in the Balkans and the collapse of the Soviet Union, caused a backlash against further immigration.

At that time, the official line of the federal government was that “Germany is not a land of immigration” – in contrast to countries such as Britain and France, with former empires and a tradition of migration from their colonies.

It was a question of semantics. Hundreds of thousands of migrants who came to work for the postwar German economic miracle in the 1960s from Turkey and southern Europe were called “guest workers”, on the confident if spurious assumption that they would go home when their contracts finished.

Not recognised as immigrants, they could not claim citizenship. German nationality law was based exclusively on blood, not place of birth. Only in 1999 were second generation immigrants finally given a limited right to choose German citizenship (they have to decide before the age of 23) if they were born in the country.

Today Jörg Dräger, executive board member of the Bertelsmann Foundation, believes the debate has matured and the idea of immigration – at least of skilled workers – is increasingly accepted. Government statistics suggest some 16m people are of “migrant origin” in Germany (in a population of 80m). A Bertelsmann survey last year found that two-thirds of migrants felt at home in Germany, and identified with the country.

Yet the idea of a “managed immigration” policy is still controversial. A survey by the Allensbach polling institute last month suggested that only 26 per cent of voters would favour immigration as a partial solution to the skill shortage in the German labour market.

An attempt by the pro-business Free Democrats to encourage skilled migrants by introducing a “points system” in the coalition agreement foundered on objections from conservative Christian Democrats. They believe that employers want cheap labour, and should do more to train domestic workers.

The reality is that the past two years have seen net immigration reversed into a net outflow. But few politicians seem to know or care. It is a statistic that does not fit with the popular perception.

Get alerts on Columnists when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article