Rhetorics of Asylum: A Study on the Public Debate About Asylum Policy in Germany During the Era of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, 1982-94

A thesis written for the degree of PhD in Modern History at the University of St Andrews

This thesis provides the first thorough analysis of the so-called “asylum debate” (Asyldebatte) in Germany in the 1980s and early 1990s. The debate revolved around the subject of asylum policy and, in a broader sense, immigration into Germany in general. The study is bookended by two key events—the inauguration of Helmut Kohl as West Germany’s new Chancellor in 1982 and the 1993 decision by the Bundestag and Bundesrat to tighten the constitutional right to asylum through an amendment of Article 16 of the German Grundgesetz. This decision marked the first time in Germany’s post-war history that one of the 19 fundamental rights in the Grundgesetz was limited in its scope.

What exactly caused the asylum debate? What stoked its heated nature? And what factors led to the decision for a constitutional amendment? In answering these questions, this thesis offers a detailed study of the arguments and discursive strategies of prominent actors involved in the debate, including politicians and parties on the federal and local level, intellectuals, scholars, and journalists. It uses newspaper articles and editorials, the minutes of political meetings, electoral propaganda, party pamphlets, and a range of other sources to reconstruct how these actors pushed their respective agendas.

This thesis has five objectives: first, it intends to prove that the asylum debate was marked by the bipolarity between those who argued in favour of national interests and the preservation of national prosperity and those who argued on the basis of morality and human rights standards. What’s more, those who wanted to tighten the right to asylum were usually on the offense through a more drastic rhetoric, while the opposition tried to defend Article 16 and its universal approach to refugee protection. The bipolarity can be traced back to the drafting process of the Grundgesetz, with both sides continuously relying on specific concepts that barely changed throughout the years. In general, there were historical continuities regarding the dispute between the nationally minded and the morally focussed or the dispute between closed-border and open border proponents.

Second, the project focusses on communication techniques in political and public debates and the use of specific storytelling devices. One very distinct device was the narrative of ‘the fate of the refugee’. Proponents of a liberal right to asylum highlighted the misery single refugees and their families had to go through in their country of origin, during the journey to Europe, and once they arrived in Germany and had to stay in collection camps. This device was intended to neutralise the depersonalisation of refugees by those who portrayed immigrants as a faceless and uncontrollable mass, using buzzwords such as “asylum flood” (Asylflut), “refugee wave” (Flüchtlingswelle) or “dam break” (Dammbruch) and putting an emphasis on statistics or hypothetical estimations of the impact of continuous immigration. Conceptual and rhetorical elements can also be included in the category of historical continuities, as such buzzwords and specific notions, e.g. the denial that Germany was a country of immigration (Einwanderungsland), often remained relevant throughout the history of the Federal Republic and then gained in importance during the asylum debate.

Third, the project looks at the rise of the extreme right at the time and how parts of political conservatism engaged with right-wing parties and even adopted some of the rhetoric used by these parties. Particularly when The Republicans (REP) and the German People’s Union (DVU) enjoyed success in state elections and pulled away voters from the conservatives, the conservatives did not shy away from spicing up their rhetoric. In that regard, the occurrence of hate crimes in cities like Rostock, Hoyerswerda and Solingen and how they shaped the political debate, and were perhaps even enabled by this debate, is discussed.

Fourth, since the asylum debate was quite notable in the way that a large variety of actors outside the parliaments did engage in the debate, the project also ascertains the precise roles played by intellectuals and the media. Many newspapers went from being mere rapporteurs to opinion leaders. Ostensible objectivity was often neglected in order to promote a certain stance on immigration and asylum or to spice up controversy.

Last, the European and supranational perspective is also taken into account. It is necessary to understand how lawmakers became aware of the fact that asylum laws could no longer be discussed in a national vacuum with the establishment of the Schengen Area. The rhetoric on asylum gradually changed during the 1990s, and the arguments became increasingly shaped by the thinking about supranational solutions in order to achieve certain political goals.

This thesis should be understood as a contribution to the history of migration in Germany and Europe and to the late modern political history of Germany. It is informed by several methodologies including conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte).