What is “Multiculturalism?”


While being praised for her principled stand to accept Syrian refugees on moral grounds, Merkel also repeated a claim she has made before: that multiculturalism is a “living lie.”   I don’t think the Chancellor was rejecting diversity but instead reacting to a form of multiculturalism that divides a society.   So what is multiculturalism?

America has a multicultural past, and a past littered with bigotry and prejudice.  The Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, the Chinese…many groups came and were met with distrust and often violence.

Yet while it often takes a generation or two, these mistreated immigrants had a goal: to become Americans and succeed in the American dream.  My Grandfather Wilhelm Erb was born in 1889 – the same birth year as Hitler.  Yet his father had come to America.  He lived a very German life, went to a German Lutheran seminary in Missouri and then gave German language sermons until he retired in 1963.  He worked a long time in Lester Prairie, Minnesota – which had a strong German population – before finishing his career in South Dakota.


The US has been more of a melting pot than a smorgasbord.   Go to Lester Prairie today – or New Ulm or any of the old German enclaves – and you won’t hear German spoken.   How many Italian-Americans are still more Italian in their ways than American?   Simply, people came here to embrace an ideal – freedom.   Those ideals are enshrined in the constitution; a multiculturalism that doesn’t require agreement to core principles would be self-defeating.

The Europeans have a more difficult task since their states have ethnic origins.   To be German was to speak German and embrace German culture.  To be sure, the differences between Bavaria and Prussia could be as immense as between any two European states, and in both Italy and Germany late statehood meant a kind of artificial forced nationalism — probably one reason those two veered to fascism in the early 20th Century.

Consider the aftermath of  WWI – Poles, Latvians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbians, etc., all wanted states built on some kind of ethno-cultural connection and resented requirements to offer protection to minorities.  Until the EU redefined citizenship, many states had overt blood citizenship laws, connecting citizenship with ethno-cultural heritage.


The ethnic nationalism of the late 19th Century led to massive bloodshed in the first half of the 20th Century

That kind of nationalism is a recipe for disaster.  Even in small states like Belgium ethnic differences can render a government dysfunctional.

Luckily the EU has redefined citizenship and moved to steer Europeans away from that kind of ethnic nationalism.   Ethnic nationalism will cause conflicts in an increasingly globalizing world as its proponents use fear, hate and ignorance to try to stir emotion.

The European Union is becoming a community build on common shared ideals.  The reason Germans, Estonians, Latvians, Greeks, French and 14 others all use the same currency with one European Central Bank is because they see a need for a pan-European identity.  When young Estonians fly to Berlin for work, and Europeans take pride in being able to work anywhere in the 28 country Union, that’s a strong voice or values that transcend borders.   The French and Germans see more shared between their cultures than opposed — a marked improvement over a century ago!


Yet this weakening of ethnic nationalism requires a positive force – something to replace it.   The EU’s embrace of western enlightenment values – individual liberty, markets, equal justice under the law, protection of minority rights, etc. — fulfills that role.  The reason you need something positive is that for a civil society to thrive there must be a sense of community, and sense that ‘we’re in this together.’

There is nothing natural about ethnic communities – ethnicity is an imagined commonality, after all.  Ethnicity as a key component is in fact very recent, becoming a force in Europe only as recently as the 19th Century.   But if there are just different communities within the same city or state there will be no civil society.  The associations that do form will be fragmented and more likely to cause division and conflict than cooperation.

That’s the kind of multiculturalism doomed to fail, and I believe that is what Merkel was talking about.  There needs to be a positive set of values upon which to build civil society, which can unite people of diverse backgrounds.  The EU potentially has that.   Europeans have a right to expect that refugees who come and stay, or migrants that are storming Europe to look for a better life, to accept those values and adopt them as their own.

They don’t need the same cultural practices – diversity in culture, cuisine, and dress should be welcome, they strengthen a society.  But the core values have to be shared, otherwise it cannot function.   Moreover, civil society has to be riddled with common interests across diverse groups.  People have to be working together, they have to see themselves as part of the larger ‘nation’ – a nation built on common core values.

If you don’t have that, minority cultures will be ghettoized and likely to rebel – either become supporters of groups like ISIS or riot as they did in Paris a few years ago.

Can this work?   Yes, but it’s a task that spans at least a generation.  The initial immigrants will find it hard to leave their culture and language, and thus be less likely to mix.   Older Europeans (or Americans) will be more likely to see the change as a threat, and thus engage in a xenophobic backlash.  But as young people grow, if they connect with each other – the children of immigrants seeing Europe as home and embracing the same core values as the children of natives, over time a strong integrated civil society can form.

So no to a multiculturalism that says immigrants and new comers can simply keep their old culture and face no pressure to assimilate.   No to a nationalism that says new comers must give up all vestiges of their old culture and become “just like” the natives.  Yes to a multiculturalism that allows diversity only within the confine of shared core values that yield a strong integrated civil society.  Yes to a sense of nation that rejects ethnicity as the core and embraces individual liberty, human rights and mutual respect.


  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on December 15, 2015 - 07:44

    Nicely laid out Professor Erb

  2. #2 by Norbrook on December 15, 2015 - 11:11

    I’ve often thought that the study of history is given short shrift in most people’s education. I’ve pointed out to numerous people over the years that it wasn’t so long ago that their ancestors were considered a great threat to “the American Way of Life.”

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