Crowds gather for a street festival in the Kreuzberg district, an area of Berlin with a large immigrant population, on May Day this year
Crowds gather for a street festival in the Kreuzberg district, an area of Berlin with a large immigrant population, on May Day this year © Getty

The Berlitz language school in Berlin shares a glamorous location with the boutiques of the Kurfürstendamm, the city’s top shopping street. But there is nothing glamorous about the classrooms once you get inside: chairs and desks are squeezed in front of a blackboard on which relative clauses are written out in chalk, the old-fashioned way. The teacher listens silently as her students discuss their lives, plans and impressions of Germany. Some are almost fluent; others struggle to find the right words. They are serious learners, signed up to an intensive six-month German course. The youngest is a newly arrived Syrian refugee of 28; the oldest a Ukrainian grandmother.

I have come here to see the faces of a new Germany. A country that once saw immigrants as temporary guest workers has become home to about 10 million foreign-born people – Europe’s largest immigrant population. According to EU statistics, that is nearly 13 per cent of the 80 million German total, which puts the country about a percentage point ahead of France and the UK respectively, two countries with much longer histories of immigration dating back to colonial times.

Germany has accepted immigrants from all over the world, including refugees from the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria. But the main contingents have been composed of job seekers: Italians, Yugoslavs and Turks in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by Poles in the 1980s, ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and, more recently, unemployed southern Europeans fleeing the euro crisis, as well as more east Europeans, including Romanians and Bulgarians.

Native Germans have for decades produced too few children to supply enough young workers for the country’s factories and offices, let alone the hospitals and care homes that a rapidly ageing population requires. While much of Europe struggles with high unemployment, Germany’s jobless rate stands at less than 7 per cent. As Chancellor Angela Merkel has said, Germany needs to be “an open country that is very welcoming to skilled workers”.

Aydan Ozoğuz
Aydan Ozoğuz, 46. The integration minister is the first Turkish-origin politician to secure a ministerial post in Germany © Dominik Butzmann /laif/camera press

But however open Germany has become in practice, many Germans remain wary of accepting that their country is changing in a fundamental way. They worry immigration could overburden the welfare system. And they fret about losing their national identity in the face of rising numbers of settlers of ­foreign origin, especially Muslims from Turkey and the Middle East. The ending this year of EU freedom-of-movement curbs on Bulgarians and Romanians has prompted a new bout of angst.

Opinion polls suggest that in this regard, Germans are little different from Britons and the French. But what is different in Germany is that the public debate about the topic was delayed for decades. Partly, the country lived under the illusion that migrants were guest workers who would go “home” when their labours were done. Partly, politicians were scared of discussing issues of immigration, culture and race for fear of evoking ghosts of the Nazi past. Immigration will be on the agenda in the European parliamentary elections, but sotto voce.

The old head-in-the-sand attitude dies hard. As President Joachim Gauck admitted earlier this year, “We are still learning to be a diverse society.” Under the sheer weight of numbers, however, politicians are now responding to the challenges of immigration and integration.

Not least of their worries is the German language, not so much because it is difficult but because it is spoken almost only in central Europe. Unlike in Britain and France, there are almost no former colonial territories to supply native speakers – the three million ethnic Germans who have arrived mainly from the former Soviet Union come closest. But, as descendants of people who left German soil centuries ago, their knowledge of their ancestral language is often limited. Everyone else starts from scratch.

“My first priority is to learn German,” 41-year-old Avraham Granov tells his Berlitz classmates. “Without German you can’t get a good job. I understand I can’t expect to become a top manager with Deutsche Bank but I want a normal life.”

Karamba Diaby
Karamba Diaby, 52. The first African-born MP in the Bundestag, Diaby left Senegal in 1985 to study chemistry in the former East Germany © Getty

The Soviet-born Jewish retail trader and his wife moved first to Israel and then back to Russia before finally settling in Berlin. They have two young children, with a third on the way. Enunciating his sentences with care, Granov says: “We saw how society worked in Germany and decided it felt better than Russia or Israel. Germany is a good place to bring up children.”

Esther Nseh, a 45-year-old mother of four from Cameroon, agrees. A refugee, she struggled when she first arrived in Germany over a decade ago. “When I took my first child to kindergarten, it was very difficult. I couldn’t explain anything to the teacher,” she says. Now, with four children, aged five, seven, nine and 11, she finds it much easier because she knows enough German. And she wants to improve – so that she can find a job in teaching and put down roots in Germany. “I might like, one day, to retire and return to Cameroon. But my children will be here. So I will probably stay and help with the grandchildren.”

It is not only the committed long-term immigrants from poor countries who are coming to Germany. Alongside them are a new wave of young people from rich states, who are drawn not only by Germany’s economic prowess but also by the excitement of its big three cities – Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. Take, for ­example, Patrick Kua, a 32-year-old Australian who has spent the past few years in London working as an IT programmer. He is learning German in the formerly communist east Berlin at the Goethe Institute, the government-backed network of cultural and study centres. The school is in a converted factory in Hackescher Markt, a district once known for its workshops and now a vibrant tourist destination full of bars and restaurants.

Kua became interested in Germany after working on an assignment in Hamburg. He chose Berlin because “it’s a great place, with lots of start-ups. It’s very open to people, you can find work and you can have a good time.”

The Goethe Institute says that in the past decade, the number of students learning the language at its schools in Germany has risen 50 per cent to more than 45,000 last year. There are no national statistics but other schools also report rapid increases, and the number of language schools has mushroomed.

Cem Ozdemir is the best-known politician from an immigrant background
Cem Ozdemir is the best-known politician from an immigrant background © Getty

Germany today is an age away from 1982, when Norbert Blüm, a conservative former labour minister, stoutly declared: “The most important basic point is that Germany is not a land of immigration. We have reached the limits of our capacity to accept and ­integrate people.”

Blüm stayed in office for another 16 years but was unable to prevent Germany following Britain and France in becoming – de facto – a land of immigration. Just as millions of new migrants were arriving, it became increasingly clear that large numbers of those who had arrived in earlier decades as temporary “guest workers”, notably Turks, were never going to leave.

Germany became home to them, their children and their grandchildren. Today, some 22 per cent of children born in Germany have either one or two foreign-born parents, compared to Britain at 31 per cent and France at 27 per cent.

The social and economic conditions of Germany’s immigrants are similar to those of the foreign-born populations of Britain and France. According to the EU data, foreign-born people in Germany in 2011 earned a median income of 81 per cent of the native population’s, compared to 82 per cent in France and 87 per cent in the UK. Yet thanks to its strong economy and easy-access social-security system, Germany has only 28 per cent of foreign-born people living below the poverty line, a smaller proportion than in Britain (31 per cent) and France (36 per cent), says Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency.

Germany’s immigrants and their descendants are certainly less prominent in public life than they are in Britain or France. There is no one to match, for example, the British Indian business leaders such as the billionaire Hinduja brothers or steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who have made a big impact on the UK economy. Nor is there a German equivalent of the three North African-origin Muslim ministers serving in French president François Hollande’s cabinet.

Miroslav Klose
Miroslav Klose. The Polish-born footballer is one of the star players on the German national team © Getty

But Germany’s immigrant community is steadily making progress. The national football team’s two top scorers are both Polish-born – Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski – while Sibel Kekilli, an actress of Turkish origin, is now making a name in the Game of Thrones television series. And Cem Ozdemir, the son of a Turkish guest worker, is the co-chairman of the Green party and the country’s best-known politician with an immigrant background.

In last year’s parliamentary election, the number of MPs with immigrant backgrounds soared 50 per cent to 37 out of 631. The new intake includes the country’s first African-born parliamentarian, 52-year-old Karamba Diaby, who arrived in the former communist East Germany in the 1980s as a student from Senegal. I visit him in his plush MP offices on Berlin’s Unter den Linden. The security guard struggles to find Herr Diaby in the internal phone book but when I say Karamba everything is clear. Everybody knows Karamba.

An affable man with a ready smile, Diaby is the classic ­immigrant-made-good. Having lost his parents in early childhood, he was brought up by a married older sister and managed to win a scholarship to Halle University in the former East Germany, where he emerged as a student leader. He remembers well the collapse of communist rule in 1989: “We foreign students didn’t know what would happen to us.”

In the confusion of the early 1990s, Diaby completed a PhD in chemistry but could not find a professional post in the ­recession-hit eastern German economy. Racism was rife. In one incident, he was assaulted by xenophobic thugs. “I was attacked in the street by young men. I defended myself,” he says in a matter-of-fact way. He went to work for a voluntary organisation, giving anti-racism lessons to young people, and later joined the Social Democrats, working in local politics before his election last September made him a celebrity.

Diaby understands the scale of the challenge Germany faces. “We are a migration country,” he says. “But we have not defined our understanding of what it means to be a migration country.” He smiles at the suggestion that he’s making history. “It’s not important but it’s a great challenge, because the expectations are very high – not just in Germany, in Senegal too. In Senegal, my family was for the first time confronted by the press. Some of my friends, and others, they see me as our man in parliament.”

But as Diaby is the first to say, one African MP doesn’t mean that Germany has overcome its immigration challenges. Far from it. First, there is the persistent argument about welfare abuse, revived this year by the arrival of Bulgarians and Romanians. Many Germans suspect that immigrants take advantage of their social security system – even though studies show that most immigrants find jobs and contribute more to the economy than they take out. One such study, published this year by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, said that migrants benefited Germany economically because they were younger and better qualified than the host population, and paid more in taxes than they took from the public purse. For example, 29 per cent of adult immigrants had university degrees, compared to 19 per cent for Germans.

However, though Germany as a whole profits, the gains and the costs are uneven. While well-qualified migrants fan out widely across the country, the unskilled tend to concentrate in industrial cities, where they settle close to their fellow countrymen, frequently in districts with high unemployment, crime and social tensions. In Dortmund, for example, in the depressed industrial Ruhr region, the immigrant unemployment rate is 27 per cent, nearly double the national rate for immigrants. The answer is to increase transfers of money from the richer regions, which attract better-qualified immigrants. But with Germany’s federal structure that is hard to do.

Despite recent gains, children of immigrant families also fare badly at school, handicapping them for the rest of their lives. According to the widely followed Pisa international education tests run by the OECD, the rich economies’ club, immigrant-origin youngsters in Germany scored an average of 54 points below their non-immigrant classmates in mathematics in the latest study in 2012. That is a much smaller gap than the 81-point difference recorded in the same tests in 2003 but it is far bigger than the OECD average of 34. While top-performing immigrant-origin children do as well as their peers, there is a high concentration of underperforming immigrant-origin children in deprived city districts.

Sibel Kekilli
Sibel Kekilli. Born in Germany to Turkish parents, the 'Game of Thrones' actress is part of the new immigrant-origin generation © Getty

For Thilo Sarrazin, a former director of Germany’s central bank who has emerged as the country’s most outspoken immigration policy critic, this educational failure is crucial. In his controversial 2010 book Germany Is Eliminating Itself, he argued that rapid immigration was creating an undereducated welfare-dependent underclass. He denies he is racist but argues that Muslims do particularly badly because their culture undervalues education, in contrast to, for example, east Asian societies. So Germany is threatened by an undereducated Muslim underclass which will hold back the whole country. “It’s not a matter of white or brown. People from Islamic cultures are below average [in educational terms] and so become a burden on the rest of the country,” he says.

For mainstream German politicians such arguments are dangerous nonsense. The consensus remains that immigrant children can be successfully integrated through kindergartens and schools. Where results are poor, the authorities are responding with more resources, including in language teaching. As Diaby says: “Education is the key to ensuring people have equal rights. Children of migrant background do worse than German children because the German system of education reinforces social inequality. For too long, Germany has let this go unchallenged.”

Ultimately it is about identity. Under pressure of immigration, the definition of what it means to be German is changing. It has taken longer than in Britain and France but it is happening – and quite fast.

Under laws dating back to 1913, German citizenship is acquired primarily by parentage and not by place of birth. Even those whose ancestors left German soil hundreds of years ago, such as ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union, find it easier to become citizens than German-born ethnic Turks or Serbs. But reforms are coming. In 2000, the children of foreign-born parents were given the right to German citizenship provided that they had spent a large part of their childhood in the country and exercised this right by the age of 23.

For conservatives this was revolutionary, and for many immigrants it was still discriminatory. Children of EU family origin can – under EU law – retain their parents’ citizenship and hold two passports. But those of non-EU origin had to choose. The law is now being revised again to allow dual citizenship for Turks and others of non-EU origin who have spent a substantial chunk of their school years in Germany. Many of Turkish origin grumble that this remains unfair, as life is still easier for those of EU origin. But identity is not only about law. It is also about what people feel and say about themselves.

To try to get to the core of this debate, I speak to Aydan Ozoğuz, the newly appointed integration minister, and the first Turkish-origin politician to secure a ministerial post. Ozoğuz was born in Germany in 1967 to guest-worker parents living in Hamburg; she worked in Turkish-German community relations before joining the Social Democrats and became an MP in 2009.

She first felt the sting of discrimination at school. “My surname is difficult for native German speakers,” she says. “In the advanced classes in German schools, students are usually addressed by their teachers using the surnames. I was excluded from this rule because my name was too hard to pronounce. That was disrespectful.”

Thilo Sarrazin
Thilo Sarrazin, one of the most outspoken and controversial critics of Germany’s immigration policy © Getty

Later, when she was looking for a flat to rent in Hamburg, landlords rejected her applications but accepted those submitted by her ethnic German husband, Michael Neumann, who is also a prominent SPD politician. “Many owners discriminate against people looking for housing because of their migrant background,” she says. “The same phenomenon can be found in the labour market . . . This kind of discrimination is against the law . . . What has to follow now is a turnaround in people’s minds.”

I ask her whether she feels German. “I am a mix,” she says. “I am German-Turkish. I am certainly well grounded in Germany. I was brought up here. I have a child and she speaks only a little Turkish. I think my Turkish roots are important. Your roots influence what you are. But everybody is different. Your origins should not determine what you are.”

This is clear even in her own family. Her brothers Yavuz and Gürhan are self-described Islamists, run an Islamist site called Muslim-Markt and have published a book entitled We Are “Fundamentalist Islamists” in Germany. Her cousins Hakan and Gökhan are part of an Istanbul punk band called Athena.

So what does she think integration means? “Generally speaking, it means living together in Germany with people from different backgrounds without any fear. In many neighbourhoods, migrants and non-migrants living together does not create any major problems. However, when you ask about Germany as a whole people express a different opinion. There is the fear that too many people could come at once . . . There is a general conviction that immigration is necessary for our society and for our economy but there is no great enthusiasm about it.”

That may sound like faint praise. But for a country that was in denial for so long it is progress.

Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s chief Germany correspondent.

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