Germany’s Turkish Obama

Germany’s Turkish Obama

Might a Deutschturke one day become chancellor of Germany? The prospect lies in the distant future.




Cem Özdemir is referred to as Germany’s Obama, even if the 43-year-old Green politician modestly downplays the comparison. But the parallels are, at least in part, legitimate: Özdemir is the son of Turkish immigrants and, as newly elected co-chair of the Greens, the highest-ranking German politician with foreign-born parents.

The Özdemirs came to West Germany in the early 1960s with millions of other Turks, Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs who provided the booming economies of Northern Europe with badly needed unskilled labor. While most of the “guest workers” returned to their homelands as planned, many others stayed on, brought their families to join them or started new ones, and haltingly put down roots. Today in Germany there are 15 million “people with migration background,” the new PC term that designates people residing in Germany as of 1950 who were born abroad, as well as their offspring. This is 19 percent of the population; in major western German cities children with migration backgrounds make up 40 percent of all elementary school students. Roughly half of these people have German citizenship (and thus are no longer de jure “foreigners,” the old, non-PC term). The largest group after ethnic Germans from Russia is the cohort with Turkish roots, the Deutschtürken, like the Özdemirs.

Cem Özdemir grew up in southwestern Germany, where he joined the Greens as a teenager–because of the party’s environmental focus, not its multicultural ethos or liberal migration stance. In 1994 he became the first German Turk to enter the Bundestag (today twelve of 612 MPs have migration backgrounds, all of them in the left-wing parties). Since then Özdemir has soared through the ranks of the little ecological party, notably as a committed pragmatist, or in Green-speak a Realo, who leans toward free-market policies and endorses Germany’s humanitarian interventions abroad.

Soft-spoken and clean-cut with thick, jet-black hair and long sideburns, Özdemir’s initial reaction to Barack Obama’s election victory was that it could serve as an inspiring model for organizing an array of marginalized groups, including migrant communities. “Obama,” says the career social worker, “reached out to and mobilized groups that had been disenfranchised from politics in the US, particularly so many young people. We have to connect with young people who have a different conception of politics. They don’t join political parties but communicate through digital political networks. We have to learn from the Obama campaign and use media like Facebook and YouTube. The Greens can do this too–especially the Greens.” He says the Greens’ coalition partners of choice, the (currently badly flagging) Social Democrats, would do well to learn a few lessons here as well, considering that they have failed so spectacularly of late–to the detriment of the “red-green” coalition option–to attract new and younger voters.

In his home neighborhood, Berlin’s multicultural bastion of Kreuzberg, people stop Özdemir on the street to talk about politics. “Even if many of them wouldn’t vote for the Greens,” he says, conscious of his party’s tepid appeal to immigrants, “they see me as someone with similar roots. They say, We are part of this society too. These institutions and political parties are ours too. Kids look at me and say, Hey, we can do the same, be it in politics or law or medicine or whatever.”

The history of Germany’s relationship with its postwar immigrants and their subsequent generations is not one of the Federal Republic’s bright spots. Neither ordinary Germans nor most of the political elite regarded the labor migrants as a net gain for German society, even if the newcomers learned German, renounced their foreign citizenship and jumped through all the considerable hoops to naturalize. Germany’s Blut und Boden (blood and soil) law made citizenship difficult even for German-born children of émigrés, like the Özdemirs, who may have lived in Germany for decades. (Cem became a German at 18, when he returned his Turkish passport and met the other requirements–just in time to avoid military conscription in a country he knew mainly from summer visits.)

Despite their longtime residence in Germany, immigrant families remain stuck on the bottom rung of the social ladder. The lowest level of the three-tier German secondary school system, for example, is packed with children with migration backgrounds. Upon graduation, they are lucky to land even the lowest-paid, unskilled jobs, the kind their fathers took on as cold war-era guest workers. Over the years the migrant communities have faced racism, social exclusion, job discrimination and even violence. Özdemir may be the poster boy of integration in Germany, but he’s definitely the exception.

The very definition of being German is the key battleground for the cluster of issues–education, social and labor policies, cultural politics, EU expansion and of course immigration–that inform Germany’s relationship with its immigrants and their descendants. Conservatives still fight for an exclusive, Christian, ethnically based concept of Germanness. On the campaign trail they have won votes with jingoistic outbursts against “foreign-born criminals” and the supposed “flood” of immigrants. In 1999 the Social Democrat/Green government liberalized the jus sanguinis nationality law and scaled back the residency period required for citizenship. But over the Greens’ strenuous objections the new law ruled out dual citizenship for residents from non-EU countries, including Turkey.

Even though the new conditions for citizenship opened the door somewhat to immigrants, as did the red-green government’s moderate immigration reforms, there was neither an explosion of naturalizations nor a tidal wave of immigration. (Just about every German demographer admits that the declining birthrates make it imperative that Germany introduce regular immigration, something conservatives have blocked.) Many Turks find it difficult to give up their Turkish citizenship and “become German”–especially when it in no way guarantees respect, professional advancement or inclusion. But without German citizenship they cannot vote, and marginalization becomes a fait accompli. According to surveys, half of German Turks feel “unwanted,” even though they feel Germany is more home than Turkey. There is simply not enough incentive or trust in the system for them to give up their native nationality.

“There is deep resistance in Germany to the kind of changes necessary to open German society to the immigrant communities here,” explains Ahmet Iyidirli of the Federation of Turkish Social Democrats in Germany, a campaigner for voting rights for resident nonnationals. “There has to be a full-blown change in mentality, on both sides,” he says, acknowledging that many people with Turkish roots have not tried to integrate into German society and engage in the political process. Some of Germany’s migrant communities still live in isolated enclaves, with highly conservative and patriarchal family structures. And many Turkish men still travel back to the homeland to find a wife.

Together with friends at the Club of Turkish Social Democrats in Kreuzberg last year, Iyidirli says, he was spellbound watching Obama’s March 18 speech on race. “It was so direct, so in-your-face, I initially thought he’d alienate white voters,” says Iyidirli, who for years shied away from using the term “racism” in the German context. Among the euphemisms usually employed are “antiforeigner sentiment,” “xenophobia” and “right-wing extremism.” Even in his own party he has been criticized as “radical” and “unconstructive” for talking about racism. “It is racism and you have to call it that,” says Iyidirli, who, though having German citizenship for twenty-three years and having run for a seat in the Bundestag, is still not treated–or thought of–as a German. “This problem has to be tackled head-on, and Germany has to change,” he says. “I wish it for Germany.”

Might a Deutschtürke like Özdemir or Iyidirli one day become chancellor? If so, the prospect lies in the distant future; for now, people with migration backgrounds remain very poorly represented in the major parties. Perhaps a cabinet post is the next step. But judging by the electoral troubles of the parties most likely to furnish such a pioneer, this too could be a long time in coming.

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