Turkey’s announcement of its intention to open three Turkish schools in Germany has provoked a spate of critical reactions over the last week. The idea had been voiced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a way to balance out three German schools that are present in Turkey, one in the capital Ankara, the other two in Istanbul and Izmir. The officials negotiations between the governments of Germany and Turkey had already started several months ago, the German Foreign Ministry has informed.
In 2018 Turkey temporarily closed the German school in Izmir, reportedly because the school lacked an adequate legal status. After the episode, Turkey proposed to open Turkish schools on Germany territory, where millions of Turks and people of Turkish origin live.
Turkey’s idea, however, has not been received well by many in Germany. “It should never become a place where things that do not correspond to our values are taught”, said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Sevim Dagdelen, a German politician of Turkish origin and an MP of “DIE LINKE”, a leftist party and a descendant of the Communist party of Germany, commented bluntly: “His (Erdogan’s) schools are poison for integration and democracy. It is disastrous that our government is negotiating with Erdogan about the opening of private Turkish schools, while the Turkish autocrat sends the critical intelligentsia of his country to prison or forces it into exile”. Criticism came also from the opposite side of the political spectrum, with the leader of the far right party Alternative für Deutschland Alice Weidel saying: “A formal adherence to German laws and prescriptions would have little relevance in reality. The phrase “equivalent learning material” would leave the Turkish state and religion propaganda wide back doors open”. Thorsten Frei, the vice leader of the CDU/CSU fraction said: “It must be made sure that schools are freed of the ideological and political influence by the Turkish state”.
Over the last decade Germany has tried to reinvent itself as an open multicultural nation, promoting a radical change of image. It was not long ago when German politicians stated firmly and with unshakable self-assuredness, in typical German fashion, that “Germany is not an immigration country”. Even Chancellor Merkel, who after 2015 and the first refugee crisis came to be seen as the single figure who did the most to transform Germany into a open and welcoming country for foreigners from less privileged parts of the world, just a few years before that could declare: “Multiculturalism has failed”.
Germany did not have a vast colonial empire like France or the UK. However, after the devastation of the Second World War and having lost much of its male population, it was in desperate need for labour. The first foreigners who made it to Germany, however, were not expected to become part of the German society. They were Gastarbeiter, guest workers: they were expected to work for a couple of years, and then go back to their home countries. However, when millions between Italians, ex-Yugoslavs, Turks arrived between the 1950s and the 1980s, few of them made it back to where they came from. A generous welfare state provided to many a life in material terms much better than the one they could expect at home.
Germans have many virtues as a people but they are not exactly renown for their warmness or their hospitality. For millions of past and recent immigrants that has proved a huge burden: especially people coming from places where family and kinship ties are of paramount importance have found it extremely difficult to adapt to an emotionally restrained environment where everyone is supposed to live for himself. In the face of the refugee crisis of 2015, when hundred of thousands of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other parts of the world tried to make it and afterwards successfully made it into Germany, the country tried to promote itself as a safe asylum for the poor, victims of war and sufferers of the earth. This dramatic turn provided also a significant boost to German self-perception, in a country that was still plagued by the guilt for the horrors it had inflicted on many people in the Second World War and it is still uncomfortable to think about history.
When it became clear that millions of foreigners who had been living and working in Germany for years would not go anywhere, efforts were made to promote integration, that is assimilation into German society and way of life. Foreigners were offered language courses and assistance in the search of work. How much a couple of language courses could transform a person into a German remains debatable. The recent challenge posed by a further increase in the number of migrants put the system under an even greater strain. It has become impossible now to expect migrants to “become German”. For this reason the argument “We don’t need Turkish schools, we are in Germany and children need to learn the German language and familiarize themselves with German culture” sounds hollow; in today’s Germany, German culture is confined to some not entirely healthy culinary preferences and little more.
Over the last couple of years Erdogan, who at the time of the Arab Spring in 2011 was seen by some as a model of liberal Middle-Eastern leader, has come to be seen in Germany as the personification of evil, a ruthless tyrant that stands against these postmodern progressive values that today’s Germany so proudly wants to embody. It is hence even more surprising and telling that at the time of the last presidential election in Turkey Erdogan got a larger percentage of votes from the Turkish diaspora in Germany than from Turkish citizens in Turkey itself. Erdogan had been portrayed in German media as a despicable despot but he still won the consensus of two thirds of German Turks. Then there was, just before the football world cup two years ago, the outcry about the two football players Özil and Gündogan, who, being part of the German national team, posed with Erdogan for a photo and called him “our President”. Many called for their expulsion from the national team.
This is the reality of German multicultural dream. It is a place where the talk about opening three schools in the whole of country provokes shock waves of anger and recalls deep seated fears about the not to be trusted foreign people with mean intentions. Germany’s today prides itself of being at the forefront of social progress, for its openness towards issues such as gender equality and gay marriage for example. The constantly and demonstratively exhibited virtues of openness and tolerance for the other however reveal their very superficial quality when they are confronted with elements that are really foreign to German culture, like for example a figure of the mould Erdogan, and not just politely and innocuously “diverse”.