Interview with Rita Süssmuth: ‘We Cannot Continue Wasting Immigrants’ Potential’

Former German cabinet member and parliamentary president Rita Süssmuth has long been a heavy hitter in the field of immigration and education. She spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about Turkish entrepreneurs, improving opportunities for immigrants in Germany, and the need to teach Turkish mothers German.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Süssmuth, you have recently been appointed president of a new private university — the OTA Hochschule — in Berlin. The school focuses on improving higher education opportunities among Germany’s Turkish population. Why this focus?

Rita Süssmuth: In Germany, lots of people complain about the problems migration brings. But we hardly ever speak about migrants as entrepreneurs. We have more than 60,000 Turkish entrepreneurs in this country but only have 26,000 Turkish students at university. We need to bring together business and academia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And you think a new university is the way to do that?

Süssmuth: We are showing people what Turkish students are capable of and how they can contribute to German society. Integration is not only possible but an advantage to Germany. There are highly skilled people living in our country, and we cannot continue wasting their potential. We can contribute to fighting prejudice.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: According to the most recent PISA study — the OECD’s comparative analysis of primary and secondary education — young people from immigrant backgrounds are significantly less likely to attend a university-track high school in Germany that those of German background. In other words, they have trouble even getting as far as university. How can a new university help?

Süssmuth: We have a duty to ensure that children learn German before they even start school. That means we have to promote all efforts to teach the German language — including programs to teach the mothers as well. They can’t help their children when they themselves can’t speak the language. So, what is our function before they come to us? To promote all activities that help bring more children to the gymnasium.

We also have to cooperate with gymnasiums and urge them to have a lower selectivity when dealing with youngsters with a migrant background. At the moment, children with an immigration background are three times more likely to leave school without a certificate than children of German origin. More of these children have to receive their diplomas from either top-tier gymnasiums or from second and third tier high schools. We need to increase the proportion of migrant youngsters within higher education and within higher positions in the workforce.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You’ve written a lot about the importance of intercultural education. Is that what’s missing in Germany?

Süssmuth: We speak a lot about diversity, diversity of gender, diversity of ages, diversity of cultures, but we have very little access to knowledge about other cultures, about other religions. When you don’t have an educator within the kindergarten who knows something about the culture of the migrant children, then very often you ignore the history and culture which shaped them. Education plays a central role. It’s not something that’s only important in Germany, but vital in a globalized world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And in a Europe that seems to be having problems with integration?

Süssmuth: It’s not sufficient to just learn the language. What we have learned from all the studies is that there are two dominant factors: education and work. But education without work, education without having the opportunity to be included in a society, gives you the impression you don’t belong — that you are excluded. The whole philosophy of the OTA Hochschule is that we are committed not only to their studies but to their integration in the workforce, whether they are German or not German.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, fix unemployment problems in the banlieus and there will be no more rioting in France?

Süssmuth: The situation is different in Germany and France, but unemployment is an overwhelming factor. People experience inclusion or exclusion, and they either have the feeling they are needed or not needed, and it’s important to have this feeling of being needed. In France, immigrants may have the French passport, but they nevertheless feel excluded. We have to provide them with a better education and a better integration into the work force.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the integration model in Germany more successful than the French model? After all, there weren’t any riots here.

Süssmuth: We have only just started an official integration policy. But during the many years when we pretended that Germany was not a classical country of immigration, immigrants were living here — a lot of them for 20, 30, 40 years. During that time civil society, business, trade unions, churches, associations, citizen initiatives did a lot for integration. But unlike France, we avoided the housing projects which became immigrant ghettos. But if we look here in Berlin — at the neighborhood of Neukölln for example — there are areas where youngsters need a better environment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For decades, Germany had no solid legal foundation for regulating immigration. Finally, in 2005, the Immigration Law came into effect. Is this a significant step towards better integration of immigrants?

Süssmuth: Yes. Before the law, people were taught that foreigners came to Germany temporarily and that they would go back home. That had a major impact, particularly on education. On the one hand, the immigrants’ priority was to learn the mother tongue and not German. And in the minds of the German public, there was the idea that the immigrants would not stay in Germany. This new law brought quite clearly to the public awareness that foreigners in Germany have to be integrated. But it’s still not enough. We have to improve our schools and occupational training for immigrants.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds very progressive. France too tried a number of different strategies to help out its immigrant population, but it doesn’t seem to have helped.

Süssmuth: The tradition of the German society is different from the French one. The French people believed “we don’t need integration, we have assimilation.” That was not the German position. The Germans did perhaps more for integration and often lived together with its immigrant communities instead of completely separately. But despite these efforts, we do have problems in some areas of our big cities where immigrants are living separately from the German society.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think Turkey’s accession to the European Union would help the Turkish immigrant community integrate in Germany?

Süssmuth: I am convinced of it. If you look at the Turkish community in Germany, the majority is in favor of membership. They are pushing for more democratic reform in Turkey to raise the chances of Turkish EU accession.

Dr. Rita Süssmuth, 69, worked as a professor of education before entering politics in the 1980s. A member of the conservative Christian Democrats, she became minister of youth, family and health in 1985 and a member of German parliament in 1987. From 1988 to 1998, she was president of the Bundestag. She has long been a champion of integration Germany’s immigrant population and has often turned heads in her party with her outspoken support of immigration.

Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International:,1518,394301,00.html


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