European Affairs

In the 19th and early 20th centuries these areas attracted, among others, Polish-speaking coal miners and steel workers, Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia, servants, maids and nannies from Bohemia, members of the Russian aristocracy and bourgeoisie after the Bolshevik revolution, day laborers from Austria's Alpine regions, and textile workers from Italy.

This immigration, and the recruitment of foreign labor before World War I, during the Nazi period, and again in West Germany during the 1960s and early 1970s, did not change the general public perception of labor migration as a temporary phenomenon.

The job-seekers arriving from Eastern and Central Europe, and from Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, and Turkey, were not seen as immigrants. Only after 1973 when foreign labor recruitment was suspended, did it become clear that many foreigners had come for good.

Gradually, it also became clear that many more were continuing to come, either through marriage and family unification, or as refugees and asylum seekers. Most politicians, however, as well as the general public, insisted that Germany was still not a country of immigration. More importantly, they insisted that it should not become one.

The official view had little to do with demographic realities. Between the mid-1950s and the year 2000, 25 million foreigners came to Germany. During the same period, 18.5 million foreigners left the country - a net gain of 6.5 million immigrants in 50 years.

During the same period some four million ethnic Germans were also admitted to Germany from Poland, Romania, Siberia and Kazakhstan. If we combine the two groups, the share of Germany's foreign-born population (11 percent) is higher than the share of the foreign-born population of the United States (9 percent). Public perception in both countries, however, would suggest the opposite.

When former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democrats lost the last general elections in 1998, many observers expected that the new red-green government would change Germany's official position on immigration. But the Social Democrats (SPD) refused even to discuss the issue in their coalition agreement with the Greens. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder even characterized immigration an issue for losers.

Then the contested reform of Germany's citizenship law entered into the debate. The conservative Christian Democratic opposition (CDU/CSU) launched a successful campaign against a key element of the reform that would have allowed immigrants to keep their original citizenship when naturalizing. In 1999, more than five million people signed petitions opposing dual citizenship.

Interviews with people who signed the petitions seemed to suggest that many of them were less interested in changing the procedural details of naturalization than in protesting against the presence of foreign immigrants and asylum-seekers in general. Most political analysts agree that the campaign helped the Christian Democrats to win the state elections in Hesse, a former stronghold of the Social Democrats and the Greens.

Since the year 2000 everything has been different. German elites no longer pretend that their country wants and needs no immigrants. On the contrary, several German industries cannot fill vacancies any longer. There is a particularly acute shortage of skilled workers.

In February 2000, as a first measure, Mr. Schröder announced the introduction of special immigration visas for software and IT-experts. And in June 2000, the red-green government appointed a high-level commission on immigration reform headed by Rita Süssmuth, the former speaker of the German parliament and a prominent member of the Christian Democratic opposition.

The message is clear: Germany needs immigrants. And opinion polls show that the message is being heard and understood by more and more people. The main reason is the aging and shrinking of the population.

As in many other European countries, life expectancy in Germany is increasing while fertility is low. On average, German women have 1.3 children, compared with 2.0 children per woman in the United States.

In the long run, this will have a lasting impact on the size and structure of the population and the labor market. During the 21st century, the American population will continue to grow, and despite demographic aging, the United States will have a much younger population than Western Europe.

The contrasts between Germany and the United States could hardly be greater. In Germany, without future immigration, the population is projected to fall over the next half century to 58 million in 2050 from 82 million today. The proportion of people older than 60 would rise to 40 percent in 2050 from today's level of 23 percent.

Politically, the so-called "green card" immigrant visa initiative has opened the door. And a widely-discussed reform of the public pension system has made it clear to many Germans that they will have to contribute more while receiving less than today's retirees. This seems to have softened the originally widespread popular resistance to immigration and the integration of immigrants into German society.

Meanwhile, the two Christian Democratic parties - the CDU, as well as the Bavarian CSU - have given up their long-standing support for the simple formula: we are not an immigration country. Both parties are coming up with new proposals of their own.

They have dropped their long-standing insistence that the government would have to restrict access to asylum in Germany before they would even discuss more liberal admission policies for other groups. Currently, they blame the red-green government for not dealing quickly and decisively enough with immigration reform.

The Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP) are also pressing for change. They want a new immigration law before the next general elections in the fall of 2002. The German employers associations are actively lobbying for the recruitment of skilled migrants, while labor unions and the traditional wing of the Social Democrats remain reluctant.

They point to the four million unemployed, to two million people in pre-retirement plans, and many more who have given up looking for work. And they fear that after the enlargement of the European Union, Germany will become a magnet for labor and other migrants from Poland and other new EU member countries.

Sooner or later, Germany may face the opposite problem. Owing to its shrinking native population, the country will have to look for large numbers of immigrants - particularly skilled workers. But many other countries will be doing the same.

Germany will face stiff competition. People with skills will have a choice of destinations, and many will find the United States and Canada a lot more attractive. In this respect, Germany still has a long way to go. The comprehensive policy recommendations of the Commission on Immigration Reform that are due to be published in July will be only a first step.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number II in the Spring of 2001.