The person responsible for spoiling the mood is Thilo Sarrazin, an obscure member of the Bundesbank’s board, who in August published a controversial book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany does away with itself”). The dour economist reached this conclusion—surprising in light of Germany’s splendid economic performance—from his reading of the demographic future: with the country's population shrinking overall, immigrants and the underclass are having too many children, well-educated native Germans too few. Biologically, culturally and professionally Germany is dumbing down, Mr Sarrazin argued (and was then forced out of his job).
The insult to the poor was quickly forgotten but the anti-immigrant line snowballed into a ferocious debate about how Germany should deal with its 16m immigrants (or people with “migrant backgrounds”), especially its 4m or so Muslims. Even those who revile Mr Sarrazin accept that he has struck a nerve. Germany clearly isn’t doing enough to bring immigrants into the social and economic mainstream. Too many drop out of school and live off the dole. A worrying minority form “parallel societies”, and a few actively plot harm against their German neighbours.
Germans accentuate the negative, according to a raft of recent polls. Most favour “sharply restricting” Muslim religious practice, a third think the country is overrun with foreigners and a tenth say they want a strong Führer (though presumably not the Führer again). Some conservative politicians have been eager to clamber aboard this unpleasant bandwagon, partly out of fear that if they don’t irresponsible populists will take their places. Horst Seehofer, the premier of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU), went furthest among respectable politicians: Germany is not an “immigration land”, he proclaimed, and it certainly does not need more immigrants from “other cultural backgrounds”, such as Turkish or Arabic.
Angela Merkel tried to get into the spirit of things by declaring that multiculturalism has “failed, absolutely failed.” On so-called "guest workers", whose descendants make up a large share of the immigrant population: “We kidded ourselves that they wouldn’t stay, but that’s not the reality.” These were platitudes dressed up as epiphanies to suit the populist mood. But Mrs Merkel does not really do populism. While bashing multiculturalism she also admitted that Islam is “part of Germany.”
The chancellor's ambivalence is the key to understanding where Germany is right now. The fact is that for several decades the country did expect workers from Turkey and elsewhere to leave like polite guests. It then flirted with the multi-kulti idea that they could dwell in Germany without fully belonging to it. Recently Germans, or at least the political class, had begun to accept that Germany is an “immigration country” with a responsibility to integrate immigrants fully into national life. Mrs Merkel has made this a hallmark of her chancellorship, holding “integration summits” and developing a “national integration plan”, which mandates German language courses and seeks to shepherd immigrants into employment. The new conventional wisdom is that integration is a “two-way street”, making demands on both hosts and newcomers.
Christian Wulff, the country's president, used the occasion of the 20th anniversary of German unification on October 3rd to affirm Islam’s place in Germany more ringingly and convincingly than Mrs Merkel (this week on a trip to Turkey he reminded Turks that Christianity has a place there). German business is clamouring for more immigration, regardless of where it comes from, so long as the newcomers have useful skills. The government is working on a law that would make it easier for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in Germany with professional qualifications to have them recognised so that they can do something more rewarding than cleaning houses.
All this is fine. But perhaps government ought to be moving faster. Welfare makes it too easy to do nothing; schools have to do a better job of bringing pupils with foreign backgrounds up to academic speed. But the idea that Mr Sarrazin has discovered a problem that Germany’s leaders had been ignoring is wrong.
What they have apparently failed to do is to persuade Germans to come to terms with the changes they are witnessing. This is worrying. It points to a broader estrangement between citizens and politics, which manifests itself in falling voter participation, the long-term decline of the two biggest political parties (the CDU and the Social Democrats) and the rise of political action outside the party system, as in Stuttgart, where an ambitious railway project has been snarled by months of street protests.
At stake in the current debate are the terms on which immigrants will be accepted. Will they be told to embrace the German Leitkultur (“leading culture”), as some conservatives demand? That sounds like a reasonable request, but to many immigrants it smacks of arrogance. Will Muslims be forced to choose between practising their religion and adopting a German identity? That would be both unreasonable and self-destructive. Or will politicians speak out for the give and take, the bundle of benefits and obligations, that can make immigration tolerable for both sides? Germany’s leaders had basically the right approach before Mr Sarrazin came along. They need to put it into practice and, just as important, to defend it.