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German polemic has resonance for West

Published in The Weekend Australian (Sydney), 4 December 2010

HE’S blunt, but Thilo Sarrazin makes a lot of sense.

BOOKS published solely in German seldom receive international attention. Rightly or wrongly, Deutsch has a reputation for being near-impenetrable to non-native speakers. As Mark Twain observed in his wonderful essay That Awful German Language more than 130 years ago, it “ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it”.

Thus when a German language book causes a global stir, it must be of relevance beyond the narrow national confines. This explains the scores of articles dedicated to Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany abolishes itself). Written by former politician and central banker Thilo Sarrazin, it covers topics such as the effects of the welfare state on the country’s underclass, demographic change and the ageing society, the failure of public education, and the problems of integrating Muslim migrants.

Without even being available outside German-speaking countries, the book has been discussed in newspapers from The Wall Street Journal to the Jerusalem Post. It was also reviewed positively in Britain’s prestigious Prospect Magazine – apparently a first for a foreign language publication.

In supposedly self-abolishing Germany, Sarrazin’s controversial book became an unlikely success, selling more than a million copies to date. The Germans, of course, have always had a propensity for doom and gloom, but what is it that makes Deutschland schafft sich ab such an international talking point?

The answer is that it does not have much to do with Germany. The emotional and intellectual appeal of Sarrazin’s theses in developed countries lies in the fact that the arguments blend seamlessly into the fin de siecle mood that has gripped the Western world.

Thanks to a once-in-a-century resources boom, it is difficult for Australians to grasp what a profound challenge the so-called global financial crisis has posed for other developed countries. In any case, the name given to the crisis is highly misleading. It is not global but predominantly North Atlantic. Neither is it just financial because it coincides with seismic shifts in the social structures of many Western nations.

Out of the diminutive acronym GFC, under which Australians have come to know this event, it is only the last letter that really encapsulates its significance. By their literal meaning, crises are decision times. This is the moment when the West will either recover or enter a phase of decline, which would turn the West’s crisis into its catastrophe.

It is in this context that Sarrazin’s book resonates in other Western countries. The sense of approaching the end of an epoch would be as familiar to the Americans, British and French as it is, indeed, to the Germans. Only the perspectives differ.

The French lament the decline of their cultural influence, while the Americans fear their global military and economic dominance will wither away. The British cannot find a replacement for their failed postmodern economy, whereas the Germans are waking up to the reality of their fast ageing society.

The symptoms vary in nuance but have a common denominator: confronted with growth-hungry countries, particularly along the Asian side of the Pacific Rim, Europe and North America can no longer pretend that the rest of the world does not affect them. This has shaken the West out of its complacency.

A look at population numbers, as presented by Sarrazin, is highly instructive. In 1950, the combined populations of North America and Europe represented more than 28 per cent of the world’s population. By 2050, this share will have more than halved to just over 12 per cent.

During the same period, Africa and Asia will correspondingly grow not just in relative terms but in absolute numbers.

In 1950, Europe was more than twice as populous as Africa. A hundred years later, there will be three times as many Africans as there will be Europeans. It does not require great imagination to understand the ensuing pressures on Europe’s borders.

The headline population numbers are impressive enough but they are not the whole story. At least equally important are the differences in median age. Whereas the old West continues to grey, with median ages in the mid-40s to low 50s predicted for the middle of the century, developing nations will remain considerably younger.

This has manifold consequences, not least for the global labour market. For demographic reasons alone, there will be a shortage of qualified labour in Western countries. Many developed nations are already suffering a lack of engineers. Meanwhile, India and China are producing 700,000 engineering graduates each year.

The demographic change also has strategic effects. Although European politicians are too embarrassed to admit this, recruiting armies from the dwindling pool of young adults will become increasingly difficult.

With the demographic and economic pressures on Western societies come the challenges brought by migration. As native populations age and shrink, while still accepting newcomers from vastly different cultural and religious backgrounds, it is inevitable that the faces of these countries will quite literally change.

Oxford demographer David Coleman recently pointed out that white Britons will be a minority in the UK in little more than 50 years. It is not racist to note such developments; it is merely stating the obvious. And it means asking the question how this enormous social change can happen without conflict.

The most controversial parts in Sarrazin’s book are those dealing with the integration of Muslims into German society. The problems he describes are too palpable to deny and they comprise widespread welfare dependency, poor education, and tendencies towards religious radicalisation. These phenomena are not new, nor are they exclusive to Germany; but of all the authors dealing with them, Sarrazin was probably the most blunt.

His book is as much about the West as it is about Germany. Mark Twain would be pleased to see “that awful German language” join the dead languages society.

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