Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière wrote in Bild’s Sunday publication ten theses describing his idea of Germany’s Leitkultur – a term meaning leading or guiding culture.
“We place value in certain social customs… We say our names. We shake hands upon greetings… We show our faces. We are not the burqa,” de Maizière wrote.
The Interior Minister described his intent in writing the piece as fostering a further discussion for the integration of immigrants.
He went on to describe Germany as a country of education, social safety nets, history, philosophy and “enlightened patriots”. And while he noted that not just Christian churches but also “synagogues and mosques” are part of the glue of society, de Maizière also described Germany as being “shaped by Christianity”.
Being a part of “the West” is also essential to this culture, de Maizière said, mentioning in particular the country’s relationship with the United States, and that Germans are also Europeans.
Politicians from outside de Maizière's, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s, conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) were quick to criticize de Maizière’s rhetoric, as well as the timing ahead of September’s national election.
“Debates about German Leitkultur is a beloved diversion tactic,” wrote Die Linke (Left Party) politician Katja Kipping.
“They are distracting us from what is actually urgent, like the fight against poverty.”
Debatten um deutsche #Leitkultur sind ein beliebtes Ablenkungsmanöver. Sie lenken ab von dem, was wirklich dringend ist wie Kampf gg Armut.
— Katja Kipping (@katjakipping) May 2, 2017
“De Maizière’s burqa ban is pure right-wing, cheap propaganda,” wrote Green party politician Jürgen Trittin, including a graph claiming that virtually no one would actually be impacted by a burqa ban, especially not right-wing populists from whom the conservative parties are trying to win votes.
The German parliament (Bundestag) last week passed a partial burqa ban for public servants, including soldiers and judicial staff.
— Jürgen Trittin (@JTrittin) April 30, 2017
On Twitter the hashtag #Leitkultur has been a top trend so far this week. Social media users used the term to define their own vision of German culture, albeit often satirically.
“Socks in sandals,” wrote one person.
“Wurst. Simply just Wurst. Wurst above all,” tweeted another.
Wurst. Einfach nur Wurst. Wurst über alles. #Leitkultur
— Fraeulein Bruenett (@Frl_Bruenett) April 30, 2017
Reserving pool or beach chairs with towels early in the morning is apparently another identifying feature of German culture, as many non-Germans may have noticed while on vacation.
Peeing in public – in German Wildpinkeln – was also another common suggestion.
One social media user used de Maizière's words against him with a picture of public urinaters, quoting: “We place value in certain social customs, not because of their substance, but because they are an expression of certain attitudes.”
But others also took aim at what they perceived as nationalistic undertones in the Interior Minister’s theses.
The term Leitkultur was first coined in the 1990s by Syrian-German political scientist Bassam Tibi. The academic did not use it specifically about German culture, but rather about European values – such as human rights and democracy.
In the roughly two decades since then, it has continued to stir up debate about what it means to be truly German, especially in times like the present when immigration into the country is particularly high.
The most recent government report on immigration released last year showed that between 2014 and 2015, around 2.14 million people moved to Germany, including asylum seekers and EU citizens. This was an increase of about 46 percent over 2014 and a record since the country started keeping statistics in 1950.
A poll in February showed that about two-thirds of respondents said being truly German has nothing to do with being born in the country. The vast majority – 80 percent – said speaking German was important for the national identity, while just 11 percent of Germans felt that being Christian was key.