Germany is a country of immigration

von Wir Machen Das

Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson. Your Country Doesn’t Exist, 2013 (Your Country Doesn’t Exist, 2003 – ongoing). Photo: Castro and Ólafsson

Migration – forced or voluntary – is the ur-narrative of humankind. Threads of migration over millennia have created the fabric of the world as we know it. There have been all kinds of knots, tangles and ruptures everywhere as people have moved, but essential and enduring patterns – social, cultural, political, economic – have also been woven. Germany is no exception.

Germany did not turn into a country of immigration in the summer of 2015. Nor did Europe become a continent of immigration because of Lampedusa and Lesbos. Europe has long been a locus of exchanges, with peoples and goods crisscrossing its landmass and shores, many coming from or heading to the other side of the globe. Throughout its history, as empires waxed and waned, as wars erupted and ceased, as economies thrived and stagnated, one thing above all has defined the continent: movement. Europe has always been in a state of flux, with ever-shifting borders and populations. Today, ‘united in diversity’ is the motto of the European Union, and the free movement of peoples one of its founding principles.

Similarly, the German Confederation of the mid-nineteenth century was an entity encompassing many languages and nationalities. Its regions were amongst the most diverse in Europe, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Later, many thousands of Poles moved to the Ruhr area. Early in the twentieth century great numbers of Russians came to Germany – during the Weimar Republic there were enough to guarantee a readership for over eighty Russian-language newspapers. The false notion of an ethnically homogenous land was only propagated, and violently enforced, by the Nazis. Since the end of the Third Reich, many newcomers have settled in the country including, from the 1960s, numerous Turks who were decisive in achieving West Germany’s ‘economic miracle’. More recently, hundreds of thousands of citizens have moved to Germany from all over Europe and beyond. All this belies the attempts by some, including the former Helmut Kohl government, to dissociate Germany from its own migration reality. Indeed, Germans themselves have also long emigrated in great numbers. During the post-Napoleonic era in the early 1800s the wish to escape oppression and privation in Europe led many to Brazil, and millions more to America. It was ever thus, and remains so – 800,000 people left Germany in 2013 alone. Such strands of migration have always enriched the receiving country. Newcomers bring new energy, ideas, stories, images, hopes and possibilities into our midst.

Yet anxieties about ‘the other’ persist. This is most evident in the fear of those now arriving after fleeing war or want. There’s a sense that these people are ‘too strange’, ‘too different’ from ‘us’. Not only are these fears misplaced, they also stem from a failure to recognize that instances of estrangement and misunderstanding are part of being in a truly pluralistic society. Think of the rapper bewildered by the priest living one-floor above her, the charity worker who fights over a parking place with a preppy banker, the sausage-maker who shakes his head at the vegan. Think of yourself, of the people you dislike or disagree with, of the moments when anger has alienated you even from those you hold most dear. If belonging were contingent on sameness and agreement, none of us would ever fit in. Belonging is the end of an effort, an effort to understand and accept. The challenge is always how far are we willing to make the effort and extend the circle of empathy.

Refusing to engage with newcomers to a society, or even actively resisting their presence, diminishes all of us. At the state level, moves to tighten up asylum laws only constrict our imagination of how people can live together, thus limiting the possibilities for a just and inclusive society. It might feel better to hunker down in the comfort zone of the familiar, but the sense of security is false. True self-confidence in oneself and one’s values involves being able to step into uncertainty, reach out to others and try another way of doing things.

The newcomers may be on terra incognita, but we are on very old ground, fertile with the experiences of countless ‘others’ who came before. We have the extraordinary chance of continuing a different journey in familiar terrain, of seeing ourselves afresh through someone else’s eyes, of re-discovering what we have through what we share. We open ourselves to this new reality. We extend a hand to the newcomers. We write this chapter of the story together. Wir machen das.

„Your Country Doesn’t Exist“ by Libia Castro and Olafur Ólafsson (2003-ongoing) is an ongoing campaign, which started in 2003 in Istanbul, the beginning of which year was marked by global antiwar protests against the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies. Since then, the project developed to include different forms and formats and it traveled the world spreading the message, “Your country doesn’t exist” in different languages and through various visual modes, including a.o billboards, TV, radio and newspaper´s advertisements, post-stamps, soda drinking cans and a a can´s self service machine, magazine covers, performances, a video work, public outdoor neon graffities and wall-drawings. At the Icelandic Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennial, Castro and Ólafsson presented the campaign in three iterations. A neon text work, an ongoing public out door musical performance during the opening days of the Biennial and a video work.