Christopher Caldwell

You can’t say that here!

Thilo Sarrazin is breaking Germany’s taboos on welfare and immigration – and selling over a million books in the process

You can’t say that here!
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Thilo Sarrazin is breaking Germany’s taboos on welfare and immigration – and selling over a million books in the process

In Berlin in September, I noticed that Deutschland schafft sich ab (‘The Abolition of Germany’), a taboo-breaking blockbuster by Bundesbank governor Thilo Sarrazin, had just come through a new printing after having been sold out for a week. In the morning, as I walked off to work, there would always be a large table near the front of the Hugendubel bookstore on Tauntzienstrasse stacked two feet high with bright red copies. In the evening, as I returned to my hotel, the table would be denuded, or have just a few scattered copies, like the bar after an undergraduate drinks party.

Sarrazin had at that point given a few interviews, and the wildest nonsense was being said about him in the feuilletons. He was making eugenics respectable. He was a racist. He was rallying native Germans to xeno- (or Islamo- or some other kind o-) phobia. In short, he had written a Mein Kampf for our times. The Bundesbank and chancellor Angela Merkel bullied him into leaving his post. The Social Democratic Party moved to expel him. And although the Pope’s book of interviews managed to dislodge Sarrazin for a few days in November and a crime thriller called Snow White Must Die bumped him this week, his book is still near the top of the bestseller lists, having sold 1.2 million copies. It is the most important publishing event in Germany since the war.

Sarrazin’s book is no tract. It is a subtle, well-documented, almost literary argument about the failings of the German welfare state by a top-rank labour economist. Inevitably, though, it is also an attack on the political correctness that has constrained German political discourse for decades. Half a century ago Germany’s citizens — with good reason — came to a consensus that they could not soon afford another freewheeling Teutonic discussion on the matter of, let’s say, Lebensraum.

Today, though, this limited scope for public discussion stymies the tiniest steps to fix problems that have been obvious in other countries for decades. You cannot say that Germany’s asylum policy draws idlers as well as refugees. You cannot say, as Sarrazin discovered during his time as a ‘finance senator’ in Berlin a few years ago, that welfare payments are more than sufficient to feed and shelter all but the most extravagant poor person, and ought to be reduced. Sarrazin apparently came to believe his country was dying of its etiquette, and spoke up. ‘I don’t have to respect a person who lives off the state while expressing contempt for it,’ he said in 2009, ‘who doesn’t plan for the education of his children in a rational way, and is constantly producing new little headscarf girls.’

Rough stuff, but really there is little in Deutschland schafft sich ab that has not been said at a respectable free-market think tank some time in the last quarter-century. Two things, though, are new about this book. First, Sarrazin is more comprehensive than his predecessors. Much like the German constitution, the German welfare state is elaborate and complicated by design. So this book is an interconnected discussion, at a very high level of sophistication, of German anti-poverty policy (which has promoted the growth of an underclass), the globalised labour market, the modern education system, the (small) successes and (big) failures of the Turkish guest-worker programme, and the predicament of Germany’s low birthrate.

Second, Sarrazin is not a conservative but a Social Democrat who believes in ‘emancipation through education, organisation and dogged, persistent efforts at reform’. Sarrazin considers the welfare state a mismanaged triumph, not, like most Anglo-Saxon conservatives, a sentimental mistake. Where a conservative would quote De Maistre, he quotes the Indian Nobel Prize-winner and theorist of justice Amartya Sen. Mr Sarrazin does occasionally say hurtful things (in a discussion of my own writing on Muslim immigration to Europe, for instance, he wrongly describes me as British), but never with any glee. This is the work of a social scientist, who happily deploys page after page of statistics and tables that assume you know the difference between Hartz IV and Arbeitslosengeld II unemployment payments, or between Kindergeld and Elterngeld.

‘Poverty’, Sarrazin shows, is a powerful tool of governmental mobilisation even though it does not, strictly speaking, exist. Today’s ‘poverty line’ measures inequality, not want. It is set at 60 per cent of average income — higher than the German average income in the 1970s. If everyone in Germany saw his income quadruple tomorrow, the poverty rate would not budge. And the payments to the poor create incentives for childbearing and against work.

German public-policy debates have been carried out with Victorian euphemism. Fuzzing up matters so that they cannot be acted upon is the aim. Germany’s poorer communities are often described with such odd terms as geistesfern, or bildungsfern. They are, em, er, ah, not close acquaintances of matters intellectual. They have, ahem, hmm, kept their distance from mental exertion. In such a climate of hemming and hawing, seeking truth requires breaching etiquette, as when Sarrazin writes: ‘On purely demographic grounds, the fact that the so-called bildungsfern classes, with their frequently lower-than-average intelligence, are having a higher-than-normal number of children makes us, on average, stupider.’

Hence one of Sarrazin’s most controversial arguments: that well-educated Germans should have more children. If you believe intelligence is in any degree inherited and in any degree correlated with income level, then giving the poor more incentives to have children than the rich will reduce society’s intelligence. This perfectly logical argument is similar to ones made in The Bell Curve (1994), the US bestseller by the social scientist Richard Herrnstein and the political scientist Charles Murray. Like The Bell Curve, Sarrazin’s book has been read as making invidious comparisons based on race — and this is one area where all of us might wish the post-war German reticence to last a while longer. But in fact, the heart of Sarrazin’s discussion of IQ lies elsewhere — in the perverse class effects of meritocracy that Michael Young first laid out in 1958. A meritocracy drains poorer neighbourhoods of brains with astounding efficiency. The more open a society is, the faster this drain takes place. It is a terrible paradox. Social mobility not only doesn’t fix the problem of the underclass — it is the problem of the underclass.

What Sarrazin has to say about immigration has raised almost as much fury. ‘In hindsight,’ he writes, ‘the guest-worker immigration of the 1960s and ’70s was a colossal mistake.’ For two reasons. First, immigrant populations did not shrink once the work they had been invited to do was done. They rose, thanks to ongoing ‘family reunification’, and so did their level of welfare dependence. Second, those immigrants altered the culture in a way that no one had anticipated. Only 550,000 Italians remain in Germany of the 2 million who came decades ago, but the Turkish population has burgeoned from 750,000 to (by Sarrazin’s conservative estimate) 3 million today. It is not living near Turks that Sarrazin minds, but the prospect that no one in Germany will be reading Goethe in a hundred years. Germany’s immigrant life now has a Muslim character that worries him, although he notes that ‘a host of integration specialists, Islam scholars, sociologists, political scientists, and activists, and a raft of naive politicians work hand in hand, and tirelessly, on belittlement, self-deception and denial’.

That is why Sarrazin has struck a nerve in areas that go far beyond immigrati on and poverty policy. The regime of euphemism has not just led to mistakes. It has also empowered a class of so-called Gutmenschen in government and the academy. If Sarrazin is right, then much of what they have lately done is not just misguided but, however good their intentions, corrupt. They are fighting with considerable skill for their political lives. Sarrazin’s few political defenders, meanwhile, tend to have one thing in common — they are retired. A decade or so from now, Germans will be surprised that they ever looked on Sarrazin’s observations as anything but common sense. And that will be true whether they act on them or not.