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Finance senator to fire starter

Joachim Güntner reviews Thilo Sarrazin's book on Germany's slow death by immigration, which has ignited a debate of almost unprecedented ferocity.

Thilo Sarrazin was born in 1945, the son of a doctor in Gera. He studied economics and became a member of the SPD in 1973: "No other party at the time dared to look so far into the future," he once explained. Since 1975 he has worked in the public sector. Between 2000 and 2001 he worked for Deutsche Bahn until he was thrown out by then CEO, Hartmut Mehdorn, in the conflict over the train company's privatisation plans. He was Finance Senator in Berlin between 2002 to 2009, taking office when the city was 60 billion Euro in debt. His strict and heavily criticised savings plan meant that in 2007, for the first time since WWII, the city accrued no more debt. In 2009, Sarrazin stepped down as senator and became a member of the board of the Bundesbank.

Sarrazin is famous for his abrasive, often offensive, remarks. To his credit, these are at least directed up as well as downwards. On the Berlin body politic he said: "I have never encountered more people slouching around publicly in tracksuits"; on the former head of Deutsche Bahn: "Dwarf"; on inefficiency in the workplace: "It smells like civil servants"; on Chancellor Angela Merkel: "I advise the Chancellor to shut herself away quietly in a little chamber, think it over for two days, work out what she really wants - and then actually make it happen"; on immigrants: "Large numbers of the Arabs and Turks in this city have no productive function other than selling fruit and veg"; on whether unemployment benefit is sufficient for people to feed themselves: "One look at Hartz IV recipients will tell you that being underweight is the least of their problems."

Sentence has been passed on Thilo Sarrazin, now only enforcement awaits: his expulsion from the SPD and his dismissal from the board of Germany's central Bundesbank. After nearly two weeks of media outrage Chancellor Angela Merkel seems satisfied and the newly elected President Christian Wulff will be hoping that punishing the offender will ensure that "the discussion does no damage to Germany – particularly on an international level." What a free-thinking president! The only hiccup in the trial of the newly-hatched bestselling author and former finance senator to Berlin, is that Thilo Sarrazin has offered neither confession nor apology, and he denies preaching either racism or eugenics. And despite the media tribunal, much of Germany regards him as the man who is simply telling the truth, and this is why he has become a persona non grata.

Thilo Sarrazin has written a book whose alarmist title translates as "Germany is doing away with itself - How we are putting our country at risk". In it he outlines his concerns about the scientific/academic and economic competencies of the German republic and diagnoses a failure of immigration and welfare policies, and demographic and educational problems. The author's collection of data and opinions on the aging of German society, the weaknesses revealed in school pupils by the PISA educational tests, and the lack of engineers and "talented natural scientists" - all solidly underscored with statistics - is nothing new, let alone surprising.

That he repeats the calculation that he made in his days as finance senator, demonstrating that even recipients of the basic Hartz IV welfare package are perfectly able to afford a "healthy and balanced diet" (on 4,25 Euro per day), speaks volumes about the modesty of our financial expert's culinary expectations, and as an implicit vindication of cheap industrial food production it is certainly annoying, but none of this is more than minimally scandalous. His attack on Berlin as the "capital of welfare transfer" and his criticism of the scale and abuse of state support, does not make him a bad social democrat who deserves to be expelled from his party. Nor does his standing in line with the phalanx of militant Islam critics, looking to feminists of Turkish origin and conservative liberals to back him up, whether these be Necla Kelek or Dutch sociologist Paul Scheffer.

You can read seven, perhaps even eight or nine chapters of "Deutschland schafft sich ab" and come across plenty of nay-saying but little of real offence. Its praise of the natural scientific intelligence as the only guarantor of progress is of course insulting to creative minds. And because the view he opens over the "quiet passing away of the German people" is a broad panorama in which state and people, culture and society, education and reproduction all demand sufficient thematic coverage, a master omniscient is needed. Such an approach is treacherous. Philosophers, for example, will find that Sarrazin's little jaunt into theories of justice fails to get off the ground, that John Rawls is sold too cheaply, and Amartya Sen curtailed. But at least these excursions show that that this man, who has been publicly exposed as a racist and numbers fetishist, has more than just balances and nasty thoughts about Muslims in his head.

The author undoubtedly has a merciless streak. If you are worried about the increasing division of German society into high and low earners, you will be surprised to discover that Sarrazin the banker openly denies any such rich-poor divide. For friends of equality, the ideas on equal opportunities which are spread throughout the book make for grim reading: scrupulous support of individual talents to which everyone should be entitled, only highlights the inequalities, Sarrazin says, calling upon the intelligence researcher Elsbeth Stern of the ETH Zürich (she has since distanced herself from him, but not on this point). Street workers will rightly tell you that his description of socially deprived areas like Berlin Neukölln, is based on second-hand information, gleaned from conversations with the local mayor. The author lacks empiricism and empathy, and this only serves to further disqualify many an already dubious blanket judgement – on Muslim women, for example, who he says "have nothing better to do" than bear children, or Hartz IV recipients who, he says, never switch off the TV, or the headscarf, which he brands a clear sign of a parallel society. (That the headscarf also demonstrates much else besides is not only described but also photographically documented in Ahmet Toprak's recently published milieu study "Integrationsunwillige Muslime?" or "Are Muslims unwilling to integrate?".)

There is a lot of armchair philosophising in Thilo Sarrazin's book and the pleasure he derives from straight talking is difficult to distinguish from his enjoyment at being plain rude every now and then. After his scandal-provoking interview with the Lettre International last autumn, he now appears as a multiple offender who has committed to paper the comments he made back then: that he feels no obligation to respect a person "who lives off the state, refuses to recognise this state, fails to ensure that his children get a decent education and constantly produces more headscarf girls." He has since been informed that of these girls, "it is often the most strictly veiled who are the best at German" and are actually "pretty educated" (p. 301), but this seems to have made no dent in his convictions. Why should it? Because – let's put polemics aside for a moment – his credo that immigrants must assimilate, show a zeal for education and not bite the hand that feeds them, is guaranteed to meet with wide approval. The readers' letters, comments online and protests against his expulsion from the party indicate that Sarrazin's followers are not celebrating his crude words on genetics but his outspoken demands on integration policy.

But there is also an unsavoury side to Thilo Sarrazin's flights of fancy on the occidental sunset. The defamatory way he combines remarks on the "uneducated" milieus of Muslim migrants in Germany with dubious sentences about hereditary intelligence, culminating in the Chapter 8 proclamation: "More children from clever people, before it's too late." Sarrazin manages to call on Darwin, Mendel, Galton and even the Swedish researcher pair Myrdal (Myrdal, like Sarrazin was a social democrat, economist and not a trained geneticist), without mentioning that it was this strain of research that led to the eugenic idea of forced sterilising of the "less well-off". Embarrassingly for the SPD, it was social democratic Saxony, which passed the first German law on sterlisation in 1923.

That the "instruments" Sarrazin recommends for raising the birth rate among the educated classes are of a socio-political and fiscal nature and have nothing to do with the biology of breeding, should be added to his defence. One could also quote passages in which the author specifically explains the failures of Muslim immigrants with reference to their cultural background. But this does not alter his fundamental belief that the intelligence of the population can be boosted by the mating of bright minds (and vice versa). Elsbeth Stern, who is no longer Sarrazin's right-hand woman on this point but rather his adversary, recently contradicted him in die Zeit. "We will not see a collapse of average IQ levels in Germany if the people who constitute the lower half of the division of intelligence have more children."

Sarrazin has only himself to blame for his being given the role of the bogeyman. Although the "vulgarised Darwinian society theory", which Frank Schirrmacher accuses him of propagating in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is developed suggestively rather than explicitly, the book does have a nasty tendency to steer thoughts. But it would have managed perfectly well without the vile Chapter 8. Then it would have been a work that we might be able to discuss very differently – as a popular scientific contribution to the sociology of exclusion, which deals with the modern paradox of how people on benefits, who are blessed with state care, become the "excluded" and "superfluous" at the same time. And also because social handouts erode the pride of the recipients and stunt their activity. It is no accident that Sarrazin cites the sociologist Heinz Bude, who directed attention to this phenomenon. What he said can be roughly summed up as: "You don't help someone by doing everything for them." Put like that it sounds like more inclusive and understandable, no? But these are unfortunately the words of the ever-popular Joachim Gauck (more here). And Thilo Sarrazin doesn't have his way with words.


This article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 4 September, 2010.

Joachim Güntner is the Berlin cultural correspondent for the NZZ.


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