Immigration And Nationalism: A Challenge For Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) – OpEd


According to a September 2023 article in Politico, immigration remains a major topic of contention in German politics. The article states, for example, that the hard-right, anti-immigration party AfD (Alternativ fur Deutschland) maintains strong polling as a result of its stance on the topic.

According to the same article, the AfD is perceived by German authorities as a security threat. Indeed, the AfD’s xenophobic rhetoric may sow the seeds for nativist political violence. However, this does not seem to abate the increased popularity of rhetoric advocating for a harsher immigration policy in Germany.  

This challenge is not particularly new: in 2017, the AfD attempted to ride the wave of insurgent right-wing nationalism spreading across the globe during the second half of the previous decade. Although this challenge is not new, however, it is consistent; the AfD, along with the anti-immigrant rhetoric it relies on, poses a particular challenge for Germany’s left-wing parties, including the Social Democratic Party (SPD). 

According to a 2023 article by Hans Von Der Burchard, the left-wing German Green Party called earlier this year for “a crackdown on illegal asylum seekers”. The challenge here is apparent – German left-wing parties have historically billed themselves as liberal on immigration matters, eschewing securitization in favor of reducing barriers to residency or citizenship. What does this mean for the SPD? 

According to the website InfoMigrants, “the Social Democrats consider immigration an enrichment that advances Germany. They call for a humanitarian EU asylum system and solidarity with refugees and migrants.” As a result, the SPD is left to contend with its integrity as a pro-immigration party, while simultaneously pushing back against public pressure built by increased nationalist sentiment. This leaves the SPD with two potential paths. One path entails following the lead of public demands for a more restrictive immigration policy, potentially leaving little room for pro-immigration discourse in Germany’s political system. The other path entails risking future elections while maintaining the party’s sense of integrity as the guardians and protectors of an immigration policy that welcomes migrants. 

The construction of the SPD’s identity and the history behind this construction is essential to understanding such a dilemma. The SPD, for example, were one of several left-wing parties vocally opposed to the rise of the NSDAP (better known, colloquially, simply as the “Nazi Party”) and the rise of Hitler in the 1930s.  As such, the SPD maintains a strong sense of its history as an anti-nationalist party that advocates for cultural pluralism within German borders. 

Additionally, the SPD also faces the embarrassment of having been the party with the greatest amount of power in Germany immediately prior to the rise of the NSDAP. This, in effect, means that numerous historical analyses of the era place the brunt of the blame for the rise of 20th-century German Fascism on the SPD. 

The SPD, in facing the choice of whether to maintain its liberal stance on immigration policy or follow popular demands and move to the right, must therefore contend with this difficult and complicated history. While an argument might exist that a more restrictive immigration policy embraced by left wing parties would prevent the rise of hard-right nationalists like the AfD, this argument leaves little room for the political pluralism that the SPD seeks to consistently represent. 

In choosing its future path on immigration issues, the SPD must also contend with the realistic security challenges posted by the open borders of Europe’s Schengen area. This arrangement, allowing visa-free travel for European Union citizens, proves advantageous for commerce, tourism, and trade. It is without a doubt an economic boon for the entirety of the European Union, Germany included. However, this arrangement of open borders also opens European states including Germany to challenges posed by irregular migration – including the legitimate risk of irregular migration as a vector for terrorism, smuggling, or organized crime. 

The SPD is thus faced with a harsh choice as to whether to maintain its integrity and advocate for a more open immigration policy in Germany, or whether to take a high-risk turn to the right by restricting the flow of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants into Germany’s borders. 

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