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Germans, More or Less

Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab: Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen (Germany Abolishes Itself: How We Are Putting Our Country at Risk)

by Thilo Sarrazin
Munich: DVA, 463 pp., €22.99
Boris Roessler/epa/Corbis
Thilo Sarrazin, left, a former finance ministry official who resigned as a director of the Bundesbank after the publication of his controversial book Germany Abolishes Itself, at a ceremony in Mainz to honor the comedian Lars Reichow, January 2011

Like a neurotic student, united Germany celebrated its twentieth birthday by contemplating its own extinction. Published in the summer of 2010, Germany Abolishes Itself topped the best-seller lists throughout the autumn—straddling the twentieth anniversary of German unification on October 3—with 1.2 million copies delivered to bookshops by the end of the year. The author, Thilo Sarrazin, is a former finance ministry official and finance senator (in effect, finance minister) of the city of Berlin. He was until recently a director of the Bundesbank, a post from which he was persuaded to resign following the controversy around this book. He is, at this writing, still a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, although steps have been taken to propose his expulsion from it.

Sarrazin proceeds from two familiar observations—that Germany’s native-born population has a very low birthrate, and that the country has a lot of poorly integrated Muslim immigrants with (currently) a higher birthrate—to conjure a nightmare scenario in which, by the year 2100, a dwindling puddle of perhaps as few as twenty million true German Germans are dominated and pushed around by the descendants of Turkish and other Muslim immigrants, who build mosques and “Koran schools” while the country’s “churches, castles and museums” fall into decay.

Oswald Spengler, thou shouldst be living at this hour! Der Untergang des Abendlandes! 1 Finis Germaniae! The people Tacitus incompletely described around the year 100 AD in his Germania, all those manly Hermanns wandering the Teutonic forest, turning aside from their reading of Goethe and Schiller only to sire upon stout, fecund blond maidens many hearty, cultured little Sarrazins, will be no more. Germania, 100–2100, RIP. Unless, that is, Germania pulls itself together and takes the medicine prescribed by Dr. Sarrazin.


Concern about the fact that Germany’s native-born population, along with that of several other West European countries, has a very low birthrate is not new. Some thirty years ago, a British postgraduate teaching at a West German university shared with his class a magazine article suggesting that according to current trends—the birthrate having plummeted from the mid-1960s on—there would eventually be no Germans left at all. He asked his students what they thought of this. After a long silence, one of them said, “Find’ ich gut!” (“I think that’s good!”) The remark was gloriously, ridiculously expressive of a now defunct West German attitude of self-abasement, after the horror and shame of Nazism.

Sarrazin does not find this prospect good. He is horrified by statistical projections that do indeed suggest that the German population would drop to 24 million by 2100—though only at current birthrates and assuming no further immigration.2 He is even more horrified that Germany, instead of attracting more highly qualified immigrants, has acquired a large number of poorly educated Muslims, many of whom—he argues—refuse to integrate, and instead sit around in poor neighborhoods such as Neukölln in Berlin, living off the overgenerous German welfare state. He describes West Germany’s import of so-called “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter), from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, as a “gigantic mistake.” (He doesn’t pause to ask how exactly West Germany—facing a labor shortage that resulted from its economic boom and was exacerbated by the Berlin Wall cutting the flow of people from the East—could have attracted highly educated immigrants to do hard manual labor in its factories and sweep its streets.)

Sarrazin has nothing against the many immigrants of German origin (the so-called Aussiedler) from Eastern Europe, the Asians, and the East Europeans, who, he argues, generally integrate, do reasonably well at school, and contribute to society. It’s those who don’t who are the problem. And they, he claims, are currently those mainly Muslim families and descendants of the Gastarbeiter, living in the poorer parts of Berlin and other cities.

Now if Sarrazin had left it at that, this would have been a distinctly conservative but entirely reasonable challenge. At the end of this long book, his four-page alternative to his Spenglerian nightmare scenario contains a number of policy prescriptions, with all but one of which most liberal conservative or conservative liberal Europeans could readily agree. (I’ll come back to the one.)

Immigration policy, he argues, should be more rigorous and selective. All-day, universal kindergartens and schools should be introduced, with a free lunch for every child. Great attention should be paid to teaching children of migrants the German language and math. I would only add: also to teaching them history, civics, and a skill that would enable them to get a job. Here, all too briefly sketched, is a recipe for more active policies of what one might call civic national integration, of a kind that many West European countries are now adopting—policies that I, too, believe are overdue.

Unfortunately, Sarrazin does not leave it at that. He claims in the introduction that he is concerned above all to achieve “clarity and accuracy.” But Germany Abolishes Itself is actually a huge, indigestible pot of goulash, mixing numerous statistical tables and bullet-point lists, of the kind you might find in a German finance ministry internal report, with amateur history and philosophy, fragments of autobiography, and a meandering rant about Islam and the decline of the West. The finance ministry official plays Oswald Spengler.

He is, for example, obsessed with the hijab. “Millions of women in our midst,” he writes, “are compelled by the social pressure of their religion and culture to abide by clothing rules that abase them as autonomous individuals….” Millions? Even on his (high) estimate that among Germany’s 15 million people “with a migration background”—out of a total population of 82 million—there could be more than 6 million Muslims, this implies that almost all the Muslim women in Germany must be wearing the hijab. But later in the book he says that only 33 percent of German Muslim women wear the hijab. Math? Accuracy?

And how can he be sure that donning the hijab is always the result of social pressure? Has he never met, as some of us have, young, well-educated European Muslim women who wear the headscarf as a conscious, articulate choice? But he knows better:

The wearing of the headscarf never only expresses religiosity…. The headscarf means at the same time the acceptance of the subordination of woman to man, that is to say, the rejection of the emancipation of women on the Western [abendländlischen] model.”


Dr. Sarrazin is as competent to explain the subjective “meaning” of wearing the headscarf for a German Muslim woman as a German Muslim woman would be to explain the meaning of Dr. Sarrazin’s moustache. And, by the way, in the 1950s of his childhood, which occasionally pops up in his text as a kind of golden age, many conservative Christian women—not to mention nuns—regularly wore a headscarf in public. Were they betraying the Abendland too?

Just how intemperate, illiberal, and inaccurate his views on these matters are can be seen in a comment he made during an interview with the German edition of Lettre Internationale in 2009, which began the furor:

I don’t need to respect anyone who lives off this state, rejects this state, does not properly provide for the education of his children, and constantly produces new headscarf-girls. That’s true of 70 percent of the Turkish and 90 percent of the Arab population in Berlin.


At times, we hear the plaintive tones of a crusty old man who no longer understands the world around him. After evoking some happy hours of his own childhood, spent reading to his heart’s content, curled up in a wingbacked armchair under a portrait of Goethe, he muses, “often I ask myself, where I would now be” if instead he had passed his time with the computer game World of Warcraft.

He makes the valid and important (though hardly original) observation that undiscriminatingly generous European welfare benefits have encouraged a culture of welfare dependency in many families of immigrant origin, and hindered the kind of work-based integration that one sees with immigrants to the United States.5 He combines this, however, with an idiosyncratic concern to demonstrate that one can live perfectly well on the basic German social security benefit. This produces a passage whose unintended comedy has been insufficiently remarked upon by German reviewers. He reports that he got one of his officials in the Berlin city finance department to work out in detail how one could feed oneself for three days on the €4.25 a day that (in 2008) was allowed for food. He reprints here the resulting menu, which he describes as providing four meals a day and being “very balanced and varied.” One of the four meals is “1 glass of tea + 3 biscuits.” The sum total of one supper is “1/2 gherkin, 130g sausage loaf (1 slice), 200g potato salad.” Who could ask for more?

Better still, he reports that he and his wife nourished themselves for several days “without any special effort at all” on this social security food allowance. Oh, had I the pen of Charles Dickens to conjure the scene! Herr Dr. Finanzsenator (salary in 2008: €138,000 a year) and his good lady sit down, in their presumably not uncomfortable abode, to sample the delights of living like the poor. Carefully they weigh out the potato salad. They slice the sausage loaf. They halve the gherkin. As they enjoy this ample meal, helped down with a glass of fine Berlin tap water, they talk of books, history, the decline of the West. A Schubert quintet sounds quietly in the background, from the gramophone under the portrait of Goethe. Then, replete, Dr. Sarrazin leans back and says, “You see, my dear, really the poor live quite well!”

Less amusing are his claims about the genetic inheritance of intelligence among different ethnic groups. In this German version of the Bell Curve, Sarrazin says that intelligence is 50 to 80 percent inherited. He then spends four pages explaining in some detail how intelligence research reveals that the Jews are 15 percent more intelligent than those around them. This was true in early-twentieth-century Germany, he asserts, “and to this day a similar order of magnitude is discovered among the Jews of North America.” Among the historical reasons for this is that “the rabbi had higher chances of passing on his seed [Fortpflanzungs-chancen] because he could marry the rich Jewish businessman’s daughter.” The Nazis, he explains, denounced intelligence tests as a Jewish discovery, designed to privilege a certain Jewish kind of intelligence. And he comments: “For the German Herrenmenschen an intelligence test in which the Jews got 115 but German Herrenmenschen on average only 100 was unacceptable.”

So clearly the Germans made a bad mistake by getting rid of their Jews. “The Turks are conquering Germany as the Kosovars have conquered Kosovo: by a higher birthrate,” Sarrazin told Lettre Internationale in his 2009 interview, adding, “That would please me if they were East European Jews with an IQ 15 percent higher than that of the German population.” Dr. Sarrazin is a great philo-Semite.

  1. 1

    Spengler’s title is conventionally translated as The Decline of the West, but the conservative flavor of the word Abendland is perhaps better captured by the now archaic “Occident.” 

  2. 2

    See Steffen Kroehnert et al., The Demographic State of the Nation (Berlin-Institute for Population and Development, 2006). 

  3. 3

    Just two pages after this sweeping generalization, he himself summarizes the observations of the mayor of the Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln thus: “The girls with the strictest headscarves come from the religiously orthodox families and are mainly rather well educated. The especially strictly veiled [ sic ] are often the best at speaking German.” For a realistic and nuanced account of the different kinds of hijab that German Muslims wear, and their diverse reasons for wearing it, see Ahmet Toprak, Integrationsunwillige Muslime? Ein Milieubericht (Lambertus, 2010). 

  4. 4

    Klasse statt Masse,” Lettre Internationale (German edition), No. 86, Autumn 2009. Another tiny example of his accuracy: on page 274 he attributes a quotation to one Timothy Gordon Ash. 

  5. 5

    In his excellent comparative account of immigration in Western Europe, published in German as Die Eingewanderten: Toleranz in einer grenzenlosen Welt (Carl Hanser Verlag, 2007), Paul Scheffer records that roughly half the people of Moroccan and Turkish origin in Amsterdam were not employed, whereas one study found some 90 percent of first-generation immigrants in New York had work. 

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