What did Angela Merkel really say?

If you read English-language news, you could be forgiven for thinking that Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel recently came out strongly against multiculturalism and immigration. You could be forgiven, but you’d be wrong! The incident makes me wish once again English-language journalists would gain an understanding of the language and history of the countries from which they report instead of presenting international news as if they were nothing but an extension of some national debate. So, what’s the story? Most English-language reporting drawing on an Agence France-Presse bulletin got it wrong in at least two ways:

  1. The headline “Multiculturalism has failed” is an incorrect translation of “Multikulti ist absolut gescheitert” because “Multikulti” is not “multiculturalism.” Germany has never had a policy of multiculturalism and the idea continues to be that migrants integrate into a dominant German culture. “Multikulti” could best be described as “flower power with diversity.” So, Merkel is saying that she doesn’t like the idea of everyone doing their own thing in all kinds of diverse ways and be happy. And who wouldn’t agree that “be happy” is a great motto for a party but maybe does not offer much guidance when it comes to thinking about an equitable and productive framework for living together in a diverse society?
  2. In the same speech, Merkel also repeated something much more amazing, and something, the English newspaper reports I have read chose to ignore completely: the assertion that Islam is now part of Germany! That statement was first made by German President Christian Wulff during the celebrations to mark 20 years of German reunification a few days earlier.

Anyone who knows anything about German politics and German views of the nation would have to recognize President Wulff’s speech as extraordinary. Most conservative German politicians find it hard to even acknowledge the fact that there is immigration into Germany. The mantra “Germany is not an immigration country” continues to define the nation. So, for the president to say that he is the president of everyone who *lives* in Germany (rather than “everyone who *is* German”) is extraordinary – and for the chancellor to repeat it a few days later is even more so!

The statement that “multikulti is dead” has been part of German political rhetoric for at least a decade. Not because they’ve tried it but because it makes good old divisive political rhetoric. Merkel, like all conservative German politicians, is walking a fine line between avoiding the sceptre of the unspeakable right and pandering to her party’s conservative sensibilities. Treating that pandering to conservative sensibilities, which is not new at all, as if it were new, while ignoring the new acceptance of diversity, and particularly Islam, by the conservative mainstream that is evident in the speech is ignorant or worse.

Focusing on the fact that Chancellor Merkel said “multikulti has completely failed” while ignoring that she also accepted diversity and particularly Muslims as a legitimate part of the imagined German nation is some pernicious form of overlooking the forest for the trees. A sentence spoken by a foreign politician has been taken out of the immediate context of the relatively minor party speech where it occurred and it has also been taken out of the wider historical and political context of the debate about migration and diversity in Germany.

Reporting this sentence misinforms and misleads the reader about contemporary German politics. However, it contributes to the national debates into which it is inserted by suggesting that if “it” doesn’t work “over there,” “it” can’t work “here,” either. Except that “it” is not the same thing.

The Sydney Morning Heralds’ web edition additionally ran a poll together with their report about the speech: “Do you agree with Angela Merkel that a multicultural society can’t succeed?” Apart from the fact that I don’t think it matters much what Sydney Morning Herald readers think about the internal politics of another country, if they had done their homework and listened to her whole speech in the original and placed it in its context, the poll question would have been something like this: “Do you agree with Angela Merkel that we are kidding ourselves if we keep saying living in a multicultural society is happy bliss but that the facts of life are such that we’ve got to make living together work?”

If this is the best international English-language journalism can do with a story from a country as well-observed as Germany and a language as widely-spoken as German, I don’t even want to think about the quality of some of the other stories we are being dished up from around the world …

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Jenny Zhang

    This blog post reminds me of an old Chinese proverb: 差之毫厘,谬以千里(A mininal error results in weld divergence ) I cant help thinking how present international politics and world opinions are influenced by intentional and unintentional language errors.

  • Thanks, Ingrid, for this. When I first read the SMH article, I was really puzzled. Not that I am following that closely to German politics, but the report just didn’t fit my image of Chancellor Merkel that I had formed in the past year. One commenter on Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies Facebook group says the damage to her image that has been done by this type of international article cannot be undone. Meanwhile I googled the topic in Japanese and found that it’s been widely reported as well. For example, MSN Sankei News on Merkel’s comment does include German President Christian Wulff’s comment as pretext and concludes with the objection from the UK Financial Times that “multiculturalism is not dead but needs more effort”, opposing “誤ったメッセージになりかねないメルケル発言 (Merkel’s message that could be misunderstood). http://sankei.jp.msn.com/world/europe/101019/erp1010192125014-n2.htm

  • vahid

    Thank you, Ingrid!

    Your post is a tangible piece of evidence against Hegel’s characterisation of reading the morning newspaper as the prayer of the realist. Today reading a newspaper is anything but a neutral exercise; rather, people hole up in their private spheres, into which meaning is constantly injected by the omnipresent media that simulate reality.

    Health Peace,

  • Peter Ives

    Thanks Ingrid, great point. Canada’s Globe and Mail did try to contextualize it a bit noting that ‘multikulti’ does not mean Canadian style official multiculturalism, but at least this editorial also ignored her statement that Islam is part of Germany (although that was reported in the main news story but only after the more ‘news worthy’ focus on multiculturalism having failed. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/editorials/germanys-multikulti-straw-man/article1766085/

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  • Soren

    “Multikulti” was the dream of the German Greens. However, “Multikulti” has served the German right well as a bogeyman. Helmut Kohl used it to mobilize the far right vote. His minister of internal affair Kanther would have rather committed suicide in a bunker than face Germany’s multicultural reality. Some of Angela Merkel’s colleagues in the smaller allied Christian Social Party have used “multikulti” as a synonym for international crime (e.g., former Bavarian minister for internal affairs Beckstein). The Social Democrats have rarely or never used the term “multikulti” even if their policy was to create a more realistic approach to migration. If Angela Merkel says that “multikulti has failed” you have to ask how something that never existed can fail. The only existence that “multikulti” has is as her party’s bogeyman. Of course, the multikulti bogeyman has failed. Now if someone in Australia translates the German MultiKulti with multiculturalism, they lack imagination and knowledge.

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  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Once taken out of the context where the utterance occurs, it can become something totally different from what it is meant to be. Ingrid’s post points to a problem that persists in international news reporting but hasn’t not taken seriously by journalists, who tend to make a fuss about some remarks by excluding its context or circumstances, either to make up some news stuff or to serve a certain purpose (i.e. to fit it into their framework of news reporting that cannot be averted).

  • Agi Bodis

    Hi Ingrid, thanks for the link. I must admit, I followed this on AlJazeera, which didn’t elaborate on multikulti either but had a person from Germany comment on the events – it didn’t help though, I remember he carried on Merkel’s comment on guest workers overstaying when in fact they were supposed to leave and in English it did come across as quite blunt. I looked up the report in Hungarian too (only one version) and it uses both the terms multikulti and multiculturalism, I assume interchangeably but explains it as “Germans and immigrants can live side by side but completely isolated”. Still a weak translation, I’m afraid – if the German version was used at all.
    In any case, this mistaken translation got picked up by David Cameron too a couple of months later, I assume.

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  • sunchris1979

    Thanks for this article. I grew suspicious about the reports on this speech when I tried to Youtube her speech and could only find this small part. Is there any chance you could post a full English translated version of this speech and put it on Youtube? I think it would be very important for people to see how the press and our leaders are misleading us.