Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor, has inflamed the country’s debate on immigration by saying that multiculturalism can only work under authoritarian regimes, and that bringing millions of Turkish guest workers to Germany was a mistake.
“The concept of multiculturalism is difficult to make fit with a democratic society,” he told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper.
He added that it had been a mistake that during “the early 1960s we brought guest workers from foreign cultures into the country”.
Mr Schmidt, 85, who was the Social Democratic chancellor from 1974 until 1982, said that the problems resulting from the influx of mostly Turkish Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, had been neglected in Germany and the rest of Europe. They could be overcome only by authoritarian governments, he added, naming Singapore as an example.
Yet many would suggest that Mr Schmidt himself was at least partly to blame for the problems he was raising.
Safter Cinar, a spokesman for Berlin and Brandenburg’s Turkish Association, said that bringing people into Germany was not the mistake, but refusing to call it immigration and failing to implement the necessary policies was. He said these errors were made during Mr Schmidt’s chancellorship.
“When he is talking about mistakes, he is talking about his own mistakes,” Mr Cinar said.
“They did not bring in the Gastarbeiter because they were feeling generous, it was an economic necessity.
“They may argue it was a mistake in 1973 when they put a halt on more Gastarbeiter coming in and another in 1974 when they allowed wives and families to join those who were here. It would have been possible, and legally feasible, to reduce numbers, to send back those who no longer had work.
“But if they are allowed to bring their families, that is immigration—and they didn’t develop policies for that. And this was when Mr Schmidt was chancellor.”
The Turkish population in Germany is the biggest outside of Turkey, numbering 2.3 million among Germany’s 82 million population. There are a further 500,000 former Turkish citizens who have taken German citizenship. Germany is home to five million other non-Germans.
Mr Cinar gave warning that the discussion on integration and multiculturalism sparked in Europe by the murder in Holland of Theo van Gogh, and the resulting deterioration in community relations, was being carried out in a manner likely to alienate young Muslims more than ever. “The way that people are talking about it could well encourage young migrants to embrace Turkish nationalism and even Islamic extremism—or worse, both at the same time,” he said.
“These are people who are born in Germany and only know Turkey from a couple of weeks holiday there, but are regarded in Germany as foreigners and disruptive elements. If they are assumed to be that way they will eventually decide to embrace it.
“Multiculturalism is not an option, it’s not an ideology or a concept, it is a reality. We have many different cultures living in the same society and we have to do that with mutual respect.”
Mr Cinar said that there were some values and concepts which should be taken as universal, and there were some people and groups which did not respect them.
“But not respecting those universal values is not a result of a multicultural society,” he said.