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Towards Demotic Cosmopolitanism


Ruth Ellen Mandel.  Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.  xxiv + 413 pp.  $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-4176-5; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-4193-2.

In September 1979, the first federal commissioner of foreigners’ affairs (Ausländerbeauftragte) Heinz Kühn declared Germany a country of immigration — a novel and controversial statement at the time.  The so-called Kühn Memorandum argued that Germany had to facilitate the integration of its postwar immigrants — mostly guest workers who had been recruited to work in Germany in the postwar years and their families.  Kühn’s assessment met with much resistance from the political establishment.  It challenged some of the most fundamental assumptions about the country by calling into question ideas about its national identity.  Thirty years after the publication of this document, immigration, nationhood, integration, and belonging — to only name a few of the most relevant related ideas — are still being heatedly discussed.  Because of this, the publication of Ruth Ellen Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties is rather timely, highlighting the “coming of age of the Turkish diaspora in Germany” (p. 1) and Germany’s ongoing struggles to come to terms with its status as an immigration country and to accept immigrants — especially Turks — as full and equal members of society.  Though the title suggests a focus on Germany at large, Mandel makes clear in her introductory remarks that the book centers on Berlin, which she considers a “symbolically, historically, and politically overloaded city-state” (p. 5) and therefore particularly useful for examining Germany’s struggle with what has long been perceived as the country’s “foreigner problem” (Ausländerproblem).

Mandel, an anthropologist, traces the various changes in the Turkish diaspora in Germany she has observed in the decades since the 1980s.  She situates her study within the larger framework of transnational movements to get away from a narrative that is too tightly circumscribed by national boundaries and ideas rooted in an understanding of identity as predetermined and unchanging.  Rather, the author emphasizes the mutable and contested nature of identity, while situating ethnicity “in the more generalized relations of class, race, gender, and generation in Germany, to relate it to the mimetic properties of the creation and recreation of groups, individuals, and transnational movements” (p. 86).

Mandel’s approach allows a broadening of our understanding of the constantly shifting landscape of identity formation and it introduces little-studied aspects of the immigrant community.  Her book is thematically organized, and a number of the chapters stand out in particular.  “Reimagining Islams in Berlin,” for example, examines relations between the dominant and immigrant society, but also debunks the idea of unity within the Turkish community.  Focusing on Alevis, she picks up a heretofore neglected topic and traces how the German immigrant context has affected this group and the changes it has undergone.  In other chapters, the author tackles a variety of additional issues, such as the immigrant elite and its complicity in as well as its break from the popular imaginings of foreigners, as well as the second generation.  In her analysis of the latter group, Mandel advocates a move away from the dominant discourse on this group’s “in-betweenness” and a shift towards an understanding of how its members have become active participants in shaping not only the immigrant community but also the German cultural landscape at large.  In the final chapter, “Veiling Modernities,” Mandel expands on insights first introduced in her seminal article of 1989 on the headscarf, published in a special issue on minorities in Germany in New German Critique.1  As her analysis reveals, while many in the dominant society dismiss it as the ultimate symbol of abjection and oppression, within the Muslim immigrant community it carries multiple, contested, and changing meanings.

Mandel’s choice to highlight Germany’s attitude toward Turkish Germans in relation to its attitudes about other minorities such as Jews and Aussiedler — descendants of historically German populations outside the borders of the BRD who were allowed to “rejoin” their fellow Germans — also brings into stark relief the underlying assumptions about the place of each group in Germany and their likelihood of integration.  Thus, Aussiedler whose families had lived outside the bounds of Germany for centuries were viewed by German officials as possessing more of a cultural affinity to Germany — and a correspondingly larger potential for integration — than Turkish immigrants who had lived in the Federal Republic itself for a number of decades by the end of the Cold War but who have continually been viewed (by politicians, the media, and the public at large) as inherently different and thus difficult, if not impossible, to integrate.  Not surprisingly, Mandel identifies the end of the Cold War and the aftermath of German unification as a watershed moment when questions of identity and belonging surfaced anew, not only in the wave of Russian German immigrants, but also in the context of resurgence of xenophobic violence perpetrated on both sides of the former Iron Curtain.  Even before the Cold War ended, however, the image of Turks as the “new Jews” became a familiar trope in public discourse.  Exploring what she calls the “Turkish-Jewish-German nexus” (p. 133), Mandel uncovers the historical cultural and ideological parallels between antisemitic views of Jews as unable to be integrated and irrevocably different and Turks in contemporary Germany as the quintessential “other.”  These observations fit well with recent scholarship that shows that the category of “race” did not become taboo in the postwar period, or disappear from public debates, but was understood in different ways and continued to inform them in an altered context.2

Ultimately, Mandel’s work shows that an analysis of the Turkish immigrants in Germany reveals at least as much about how Germans view themselves and their relationship to the country’s fascist past as it does about the shifting landscape of the Turkish diaspora in Germany.  As Mandel so insightfully argues, “writing a history of transnational Turkish practices, aesthetic sensibilities, and movement across time and space amounts to writing the very history of contemporary Germany” (p. 16), or at least a very important part of it.

Mandel has stated recently that it took quite a while for this project to move from manuscript to published work.3  This lengthy period of germination might help explain some of the problems with the book, which are related to at times outdated sources (as in the case of intermarriage statistics, for example) or the intermittent lack of proper contextualization of material, which can make it difficult to appreciate the historical nature of the sources.  Frequent consultation of the footnotes helps but does not solve the overall problem of a narrative that at times lacks signposts to help explain changes (or appreciate continuities, as the case may be) over time.

Overall, however, Mandel’s book is a very useful intervention in the discourse on multiculturalism in Germany.  It tries to break open long-held beliefs about binary oppositions of difference between so-called immigrants and natives.  As such, her work seeks to move the focus away from what she calls “benign multiculturalism,” which “often tends to be premised on the alternating fascination, threat, or even obsession with the exoticism of ‘other’ cultures, without fundamentally challenging the hegemony or false boundedness of one’s ‘own’ culture” (p. 323).  Instead, she argues for a rethinking of a traditional and elite notion of cosmopolitanism toward what she terms “demotic cosmopolitanism,” which acknowledges the way in which Germany’s immigrants have been involved in shaping the country and thus putting paid to representations of the Turkish community in Germany as “victim, downtrodden, socially excluded, incapable of speaking on her own behalf” (p. 312).  This new way of envisioning multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism will certainly prove helpful in guiding scholars as they continue to explore this topic further.


1  Ruth Mandel, “Turkish Headscarves and the ‘Foreigner Problem’,” New German Critique 46 (1989): 27-46.

2  One of the latest books to discuss this topic is Rita Chin, Heide Fehrenbach, Geoff Eley, and Atina Grossmann, After the Nazi Racial State: Difference and Democracy in Germany and Europe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009).

3  Round Table Discussion, German Studies Association Conference, October 11, 2009.

Julia M. Woesthoff, Department of History, DePaul University.  This article was first published by H-German (January 2010) under a Creative Commons license.

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