There are certain points in history when it makes sense for a leader to define what it means to belong to a country and a culture. In 2017, quite a few countries appear to need a reminder. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just attempted, with equal measures of levity and earnestness, to define what it means to be German.
Her definition, published in the tabloid Bild on Thursday, takes the form of an alphabetical glossary of things and notions she considers quintessentially German, from A to Z. Some of the entries are deadly serious, such as “Germany’s eternal responsibility for the Holocaust” or “Article 1, paragraph 1 of the Constitution” (which proclaims the inviolability of human dignity). Others are quirky: carnival jesters’ traditional greetings “Helau” and “Alaaf” are included. Some are in line with what the world associates with Germans and their traditions: “punctuality,” “precision work,” “bratwurst,” “order,” “Octoberfest,” “Wagner in Bayreuth.” Some denote traditions that are less well-known: “collective bargaining,” “choral singing,” and the “church tax.” Then there’s a category that’s all about national pride: “the fourth star” for Germany’s fourth football World Cup, and “world champion in exports.”
This, of course, is something of an election campaign gimmick. During the 2013 campaign, a video that quickly went viral showed Merkel angrily taking a German flag away from a fellow party member who had tried to wave it while standing next to her. This year, the flags are back, and the flag colors get a mention on Merkel’s list. Her Christian Democratic Union is trying to reclaim the patriotic ground from the Alternative for Germany populists. Affirming the German Leitkultur, lead culture, is one of the CDU strategies. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a Merkel ally, published his own “Top 10” of the Leitkultur’s features in April, and it included Christianity but not any other religions; the Judeo-Christian tradition makes an appearance on Merkel’s list, too.
But, for everyone who might think she regrets letting in more than a million refugees into the country in 2015 and 2016, Merkel’s list also includes “Muslims” and “migration background” — something that 21 percent of Germany’s residents have today. In that, Merkel echoes a campaign speech by France’s new President Emmanuel Macron in Marseille, in which he held forth on how French national identity is driven by its diversity of immigrants: “Armenians, Comorans, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, Senegalese, Ivorians.” It amounted to a challenge to his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen.
The way these two leaders see national identity is a step away from the slogans of diversity, multiculturalism and supranational federalism. They’re talking about a deep-rooted, old culture taking on some new flavors without straying too far from its traditional mainstream. It only looks progressive compared with the alternatives — for example, the stump speeches of Le Pen or other nationalists across Europe.
At the same time, it’s somewhat similar to the vision of Russian national identity that Vladimir Putin laid down in a 2012 article. He described ethnic Russians and the Russian culture as a “binding fabric” for historically multiethnic society. Putin quoted Ivan Ilyin, his favorite emigre philosopher whom many consider an early fascist ideologue (despite his troubles with the Nazi regime in Germany): “Not to eradicate, not to suppress, not to enslave outsider blood, not to strangle foreign and non-Orthodox life but to let everyone breathe and give them a great Motherland; to watch over everyone, make peace, let everyone pray in their own way, work in their own way and involve the best from everywhere in building a state and a culture.”
Putin’s version of mild nationalism, in which everyone is welcome to the “lead culture” and full assimilation isn’t required as long as you’re involved in “state-building,” has been successful in Russia. Most people I know there, even those who dislike Putin, share this vision with little variation. But I’m also aware of the danger of politicians’ forays into cultural identity. After a while, the idea of a welcoming but dominant culture can morph into uglier forms, as it did for Russia when it went to war against Ukraine, a country with a similar but distinct identity that didn’t want join the Russian fold.
I don’t expect Merkel or Macron to go invading neighboring countries. But, as core European Union members, Germany and France are in a unique position to influence a large block of extremely diverse nations. Inclusive flag-waving is still flag-waving; though it’s easy to understand why some version of nationalism is necessary to win elections this year, it may develop into the kind of high-handed assertiveness that united Europe was meant to eliminate. That’s why I wonder which parts of that rather chaotic alphabetical exercise are really the most important to Merkel — the inclusion and openness bits or the tradition and identity bits. Her previous record says the former. But could it be that the latter are getting more important in 2017, not just for election-related reasons?