A Nazi term or a legal concept? Germany’s debate over ‘Rasse’

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BERLIN — As protesters around the world tear down monuments of slave traders and corporations eliminate brands linked to unpleasant stereotypes, Germany is facing a different purging effort.

Activists and lawmakers are calling to remove the term “race” from the country’s constitution, saying the term is anachronistic at best and only fosters racist thinking. There’s also the underlying uneasiness that “Rasse” — the term in German — is a holdover from the Nazis, whose obsession with a superior Aryan race laid the pseudo-scientific foundation for the Holocaust.

The country’s Basic Law, the constitution adopted in 1949 as a direct reaction to the horrors of World War II, states in Article 3 that “no person shall be favored or disfavored because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith or religious or political opinions.”

“There are no races, there are only humans,” Green co-party leader Robert Habeck and Aminata Toure, vice president of the Schleswig-Holstein state legislature, wrote in a joint article for Germany’s daily Tageszeitung. “It’s time we unlearn racism. A strong sign would be to cut the term ‘race’ from the Basic Law.”

The opposition Green party was quickly joined by other parties and the country’s justice minister, and even Chancellor Angela Merkel was “open” to the discussion, her spokesman told reporters in a recent government news conference.

The Basic Law, initially thought to be merely provisional, has over the decades become a central pillar of the identity of country where the atrocities of the Nazis made people avoid anything resembling national pride.

Instead, the term “Verfassungspatriotismus” -– constitutional patriotism -– emerged and judges have stressed in landmark rulings that the Basic Law with its list of civil rights was Germany’s u-turn answer to Nazism.

“Rasse” was a central term of Nazi ideology, built on the idea that “real Germans” belong to a superior “Aryan race,” and that Jews, Blacks and others, including Sinti, Roma and people of Slavic origin, could be considered inferior.

Germany’s diversity increased after its government invited workers from southern Europe to help build Europe’s strongest economy in the 1950s and 1960s, and wider migration trends also added to the population. Still, the country doesn’t register the skin color of inhabitants.

In 2018, about 20.8 million people, about a quarter of the population, had a “migration background,” meaning either the person or one of her parents didn’t have German citizenship at birth, according to the country’s statistical office. Half of them are now German citizens.

Calls to change the language aren’t really new. The German Institute for Human Rights, a Berlin-based think tank funded by the government, 10 years ago proposed to replace the term with language that bans racist action. Some German states followed suit and changed their constitutions. On the federal level, parliament in 2012 debated a proposal by the opposition party Die Linke but didn’t back the change.

The Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, or ISD, an action group for Blacks in Germany, in 2015 published an open letter endorsing the change proposal.

“This is less about cutting or not cutting a term, but more about what happens to people,” said Tahir Della, spokesman for the ISD. “That’s why we want to have language introduced that clearly shows this is about racism and about banning it, and that allows victims to sue.”

Changing the German constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the members of both houses of parliament. The Basic Law has been amended many times so if the political will is there, it’s not difficult to do.

The use of the term “race” leads to an unsolvable contradiction as victims of racism are forced to define themselves as belonging to a race and thus to use racist terminology when invoking their rights, said Hendrik Cremer, author of the German Institute for Human Rights’s position paper on the issue.

“The language suggests that there are different races among humans,” Cremer said. “But only racist theories argue that. In the end, the term promotes racist thinking.”

The term “race,” however is widely used in national and international anti-discrimination law. The European Union in 2000 adopted rules to combat racism and the text of the directive uses “race” throughout. However, the EU also included language in the document, saying it rejects theories that claim there are separate races.

Not everyone shares the call for changing the language.

Race has become a central term of anti-discrimination law internationally, said Cengiz Barkanmaz, a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany.

The term makes it easier to address discrimination. Changing the language would undermine the coherence of laws that always refer to social designations that people use as a basis for discrimination, and it’s important to spell that out, he said.

“I understand the irritations the term causes, especially in Germany,” Barkanmaz said. “But the Basic Law doesn’t regulate race, instead it bans discrimination on the basis of race.”

Purging legal texts is a symbolic move and doesn’t really entail real action against racism, he said. European courts have shown their ability to judge race cases properly and the Black community in the U.S. has used term to challenge legal practices that were discriminatory, Barkanmaz said.

Still, the uneasiness with the idea of race is also felt elsewhere.

France eliminated the term from its laws two years ago, and Austria, Sweden and Finland did so earlier, as a reaction to the EU’s directive against racism.

The Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the association of Jews in Germany, also advocates change. The authors of the constitution were right to address racism, but their language was shaped by the times and is no longer adequate, Josef Schuster, the Zentralrat’s president, said in a statement.

“Today, we should avoid the term race when we talk about humans,” Schuster said.


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