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What is German 'Leitkultur' and why is it controversial?

Kay-Alexander Scholz
May 6, 2024

The term "Leitkultur" (leading or guiding culture) is being used in Germany more frequently when debating to what extent migrants should integrate into society.

Germany supporters waving flags
These days, many Germans have a new sense of national prideImage: Getty Images

Friedrich Merz, chairman of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) launched the first mainstream German Leitkultur debate at the start of the millennium. The term originates from the agricultural sector, where it's used to describe the dominant plant varieties in a biotope.

At the time, Merz used the term less with regard to integration, and more as a counter to the model of multiculturalism. Immigrants, he said, should conform to the "liberal German leading culture" which is reflected in the German constitution, the German language and society's key values such as equality.

But politicians from the left of the political spectrum quickly derided the concept as an attempt at "assimilation" and at echoing the right-wing extremist ideology of the anti-immigration populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. 

The term was incorporated into the party programs of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) in 2007.

It was debated again in 2016, after hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Germany, mainly to flee the civil war in Syria, and needed to be integrated.

The term has triggered electioneering, or fishing for populist votes.

Germany’s problem with flags

European Leitkultur?

This term was first used in a political sense by Syrian Islam expert Bassam Tibi from the University of Göttingen. In 1998, he called for a European Leitkultur to cement values such as human rights, tolerance, and the separation of church and state.

In 2005, German Parliamentary President Norbert Lammert attempted to redefine Leitkultur not in a German national context, but rather as an explicitly European idea. Lammert called for a discussion about a "guiding European idea" that draws on "common cultural roots, common history, and common traditions."

But the Leitkultur debate in Germany has another dimension that has a lot to do with the Germans themselves, and their history. The crimes of the Nazi regime, committed in Germany's name, destroyed all of the country's patriotic traditions, and the deep shock that ensued meant that it was decades before anything approximating a new sense of national pride could be created.

Only in 2006, at the time of the FIFA World Cup — hosted by Germany — could one finally see German flags waving in the streets without it prompting negative associations, and that was more than 60 years after the end of World War II. It was the beginning of a new, healthier sense of patriotism, one that did not arise from excessive exaltation.

In 2024, opposition leader Friedrich Merz used the term again, saying Christmas trees are part of Germany's "guiding culture." This loaded term pervades German migration debates — whether it refers to required learning or action is often unclear. It is now enshrined in the CDU's new basic policy program.

This article was originally written in German. It was first published in 2018 and has been updated.

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