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As Germans voted in parliamentary elections on Sunday that will have wide repercussions across Europe, GlobalPost takes a look at some of the major issues. Senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of the continent’s most influential country.

Kreuzburg 09 11 2013
Kurds in Kreuzburg. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Multicultural Motherland

Germany wrestles with its new diversity.

Editor's note: As Germans prepare for parliamentary elections later this month, senior correspondent Paul Ames made a 900-mile roadtrip across all 16 German states to take the measure of Europe’s most influential country. This is the fourth in his five-part series.

BERLIN, Germany — If your idea of a typical German includes blond hair, blue eyes and a diet of sausage and beer, think again.

Decades of immigration have turned Germany into an ethnically diverse society.

Thirteen percent of the population was born outside the country — about the same level as the United States, higher than Britain or France.

The German soccer team has provided a barometer of the change: 20 years ago, the nationalmannschaft had an exclusively Teutonic lineup with stars named Kahn, Kuntz and Klinsmann. The current roster has players with roots in Ghana, Tunisia, Turkey, Poland, Nigeria, Spain and Britain.

"This is already a new Germany, it has been for a while, but it took some years for the change to become visible," says Khue Pham, a journalist with weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

"Twenty percent of people who live in Germany have an immigrant background," she says. "One-third of children born now, those under the age of five, come from immigrant families — second or third generation."

Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood has become a symbol of the diversity.

The working-class district bordering the wall that once divided the city between east and west became a hub of the city's Turkish community in the 1960s. Today, it's also home to migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, along with German hipsters attracted by low rents and multicultural buzz.

Nighttime crowds can move from traditional Berlin "kneipe" pubs, to bakeries serving freshly-made baklava, trendy cocktail bars, or doner kebab stands — the Turkish-style meat-filed flatbreads that have become Germany's favorite fast food. Up to 400 tons are consumed each day.

Some three million people of Turkish descent live in Germany, many first invited as so-called guest-workers to provide manpower for the country’s post-war economic miracle. Although the name implied they would eventually return home, most put down roots and made Germany their home.

In Kreuzberg housing precincts that once backed up against the Berlin Wall, older Turks in flat caps or bright headscarves chat through the summer evening while cracking sunflower seeds and watching their German-speaking grandchildren kick soccer balls. While their parents or grandparents came as industrial labor, a new generation of upwardly mobile Germans of immigrant descent is pushing its way into the middle class.

Well-dressed young Turks chill in Kreuzberg's chic Cafe Zera — which serves both apfelstrudel and watermelon-scented hooka pipes — and are as likely to be hanging out in the district's Mexican or Thai restaurants as ordering lamb skewers at the Adana grill house.

Immigrants and their descendents are increasingly visible in the arts, media and business as well as political life.

Vietnamese-born Philipp Roesler serves as economics minister and vice-chancellor. Cem Oezdemir, the son of Turkish guest-workers, heads the Green Party, which is expected to come third in September's parliamentary elections. Chemist Karamba Diaby, originally from Senegal, is hoping to become the first black politician elected to the Bundestag.

"We have to recognize the progress that has taken place in Germany over the past 15 years," Diaby said.

"There is a greater understanding now that people of foreign background represent a great potential for our society," he said in a telephone interview from the eastern city of Halle, where he’s campaigning ahead of the Sept. 22 elections.

Standing for the center-left opposition Social Democratic Party, Diaby says a revision of migration laws when the party was in power back in 2000 was key to changing attitudes by removing obstacles for immigrants to become German citizens.

"We have not yet reached the levels of integration of countries like Britain, France, Canada or the United States, but there are sufficient signs of progress that make me optimistic," he says.

Modern migration into Germany has gone through several phases. The Turks who came to toil for Germany industry in post-war boom years were joined by workers from Greece, Yugoslavia and other parts of southern Europe.

As the prosperity ground to a halt in the 1970s, the authorities stopped economic migration, but Germany opened up to refugees from conflict and oppression, bringing new communities from Iran,