Rhetorics of Asylum: A Study on the Public Debate About Asylum Policy in Germany During the Era of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, 1982-98

The “refugee crisis” has kept Germany and Europe in suspense since the summer of 2015. Controversial arguments about potential legislative reactions to a vast influx of asylum seekers have dominated the political debate, led to a strengthening of right-wing players, and influenced the outcome of elections. The phenomenon of the past few years is not a novelty, however. Germany already experienced a political polarisation caused by what was then called the “asylum debate” (Asyldebatte) during the 1980s and 1990s. Just like in recent years, political actors ramped up their rhetoric and drifted into radical territory. The dispute almost paralysed German politics for a while and led to a tightening of the constitutional right to asylum through a change of Article 16 of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz).

This PhD project centres on the asylum debate during the era of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, starting in 1982 when West German politics was still mostly concerned with the failed reduction of the number of Turkish migrants who had once arrived as guest workers. While legislative initiatives under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and his successor did not achieve the desired reduction and not support the integration of foreigners, the Federal Republic had to face another challenge in regards to immigration. The beginning global south-north migration led to an increase in asylum applicants. Even though only a portion of applicants had a justified claim for political asylum, many were allowed to stay at least temporarily.

The number of applicants continued to rise in 1985 and 1986 when the German Democratic Republic let migrants enter the country at the Schönefeld Airport and transported them to the border between West Berlin and East Berlin at Friedrichstraße. Since the Federal Republic did not establish any border controls in order to avoid officially recognising East Berlin as a separated territory, those migrants could just walk over and claim asylum. The conservative-led federal government saw itself under mounting pressure and the necessity to act. Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Christian Social Union, launched an anti-asylum campaign ahead of the 1987 general election. From then on, asylum remained a major talking point on the political scene and beyond for about ten years.

This project 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 identity and wealth 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 nationalistic-minded and the morally focussed and the dispute between isolationists 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’, meaning that proponents of a liberal right to asylum highlighted the misery single refugees and their families had to go through in their countries of origin, during the journey to Europe, and once they arrived in Germany and had to stay in collection camps. That device was supposed to neutralise the depersonalisation of refugees by those who portrayed immigrants as a faceless and uncontrollable mass, using buzzwords such as ‘asylum flood’, ‘refugee wave’ or ‘dam break’ 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, often remained relevant throughout the history of the Federal Republic and then gained in importance during the asylum debate.

Third, the project takes a specific look at the rise of the extreme and how parts of political conservatism engaged with right-wing parties and even adopted some of the rhetoric used by the parties The Republicans and the German People’s Union. Particularly when these two parties enjoyed success at polling booths at state elections and pulled 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 or were perhaps enabled by the debate is discussed.

Fourth, since the asylum debate was quite special in the way that a variety of actors outside the parliaments did engage in it, the project also intends to work out what role intellectuals and the media played. Many newspapers went from being mere rapporteurs to opinion leaders. Objectivism 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 an objective to point out 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 European solutions in order to achieve certain political goals.

The project 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). The main sources for the research are newspapers, records of the German Bundestag and the federal cabinet, promotional pamphlets put out by parties, and manuscripts of marquee speeches at party conventions and other events.