Diagnosing some of Germany’s angst

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 5, 2021

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Europe’s big three have their own way of making sense of things. France has philosophers, Britain its economists and Germany, sociologists. That’s the way German sociologist Helmut K. Anheier explains why he’s decoding “Germany’s modern angst” for Project Syndicate.

He notes the facts of Germany’s current situation:

** a new coalition government, its first in 16 years without Angela Merkel as chancellor and its first comprising the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats.

** one-in-five of Germany’s population of 83 million people is a first- or second-generation immigrant.

** it essentially has open borders with all nine of its neighbours.

** Germany is rich enough too and not given to “Brexit-style magical thinking or American-style polarization”. And yet, it is uneasy.

Professor Anheier proceeds to put Germany on the couch, using four books to aid the diagnosis. They have titles like (in English) ‘The Reinvention of the Border in the Twenty-First Century’ and ‘Late Modernity in Crisis’. It is the first of these on which we will concentrate.

Sortiermaschinen: Die Neuerfindung der Grenze im 21. Jahrhundert’ or Sorting Machines: The Reinvention of the Border in the Twenty-First Century, Edition Mercator C.H. Beck, 2021. It’s by Steffen Mau, a sociology professor at Humboldt University. Professor Anheier cites Professor Mau when he makes the astonishing assertion: “the world has erected more walls and fortified borders in the last 20 years than in the five decades before. In 1990, there were 12 border walls worldwide; today, there are more than 70. In the 1990s, 5% of all international borders were fortified; today, about 20% are.”

This is quite remarkable considering the fall of the Berlin Wall 32 years ago was “supposed to signal a new openness, especially in terms of human mobility”. Yes, but Professor Mau argues, that greater mobility was only for the few, not the many. Professor Anheier writes that the “function of borders” too has changed. “Whereas borders used to represent a hard separation between countries, now they play a more complicated role. They are a mechanism by which countries decide who is trustworthy (EU nationals, United States citizens), economically useful (information-technology specialists from India), or politically salient (Turkish dissidents, Afghan refugees). Modern borders thus are the ‘sorting machines’ in the title of Mau’s book.”

The machines work at different levels:

**  the macro territory such as the European Union’s Schengen area

** the visa sorting machine that “controls who is even allowed to approach the macro territory in the first place”

** holding facilities for illegal migrants, most of which are concentrated in Turkey and other peripheral countries, where they are paid for by the EU

** the sorting process within Germany, where hierarchies grant or deny privileges such as the permission to stay or work.

“Germany,” concludes Professor Anheier, “may be an exponent of globalization; but open it is not.” He ends this section of his analysis by noting that “Germans can visit 190 countries without a visa, whereas citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria can visit fewer than 30. Thus does the sorting machinery maintain global inequality.”