It’s always dangerous to assume that translation is unproblematic: that words and concepts mean the same in one community as they do in another. Failure to allow for the change in context can result in misleading conclusions — as with the widely reported remarks of German chancellor Angela Merkel on the weekend that multicultural policies have “utterly failed”.

Ironically enough, the translation out of German is the least of the problems. The word Merkel used, “multi-kulti”, is a common shortening of the more formal “multikulturalismus”; either way, “multiculturalism” is the obvious English equivalent. But the English word itself is so freighted with ambiguity that debate can quickly descend into meaninglessness unless care is taken to work out just what people are talking about.

In the context of a settler society such as Australia, we have at least a rough idea what multiculturalism involves. It signals giving up the attempt to impose the culture of a particular ethnic group — the first settlers, in our case the British — on all newcomers. Settler societies typically start out as outposts of the mother country’s culture, but that status becomes more and more unrealistic as ethnic diversity grows and the old monoculture comes to appear increasingly “foreign” and outdated.

Eventually those societies develop an autonomous cultural identity of their own, which subsumes to a greater or lesser extent the immigrant cultures that have contributed to it. Societies where the distinct cultures remain very much alive may describe themselves as “multicultural”, while those that stress the common identity more may refer to a “melting pot”, but the difference is a matter of degree, and in all cases it is more informative to look at the actual policies and their results rather than the words used to describe them.

A country like Germany, however, is in a very different position. There, the idea that anyone can become a citizen without sharing a particular ethno-cultural identity is still new and revolutionary.

Wherever it takes place, the debate about multiculturalism usually turns out to be a debate about immigration. But whereas countries like Australia are built on immigration, large-scale immigration in Europe is mostly or recent origins, and many European countries are having difficulty with its implications.

For many years, Germany was one of the least hospitable places for immigrants in western Europe. Although it welcomed foreign workers — particularly from Turkey — they were only intended to be temporary residents: they lived separately from the ethnic Germans, it was difficult for them to bring families with them and almost impossible for those without German heritage to become citizens.

While those policies have changed, they have left a legacy of division and ill-feeling. But attempts to overcome that are very much a two-edged sword: they hold out the prospect of genuine integration (with considerable success in recent years), but they also involve making it explicit that the “foreigners” are there to stay and therefore arousing the xenophobia that most countries harbor somewhere beneath the surface – including its fashionable new form, anti-Muslim bigotry.

Merkel is pro-immigration and pro-integration, but she heads a centre-right party with its fair share of scaremongers on the issue. It seems she was trying — perhaps with a degree of clumsiness — to tell them that the old cold-hearted tolerance of immigrants was a dead end and that it’s time to start treating them not as Turks but as Germans.

In saying multiculturalism has failed, Merkel was making what in the German context is a valid and important point. But in the way we use the term — as a genuine acceptance of immigrants and their associated cultures — it would be much more correct to say that the Germans haven’t yet given it a real try.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey