Family politics moves centre stage in Germany ahead of election

Wunderbar: same-sex marriage gets approval in Germany. Marc Mueller/EPA

As Germany heads towards federal elections in September, two new laws have opened up debates about family values, multiculturalism and diversity in the country. The first banned child marriages, the second legalised same-sex marriage. Neither law came out of nowhere, and the discussions about them – and political calculations behind their introduction – are directly related.

In 2015, 890,000 Syrians and other immigrants from across the Middle East, North Africa and south-eastern Europe registered for asylum in Germany. This sparked heated debates across the country about the limits of multiculturalism. Child marriage among immigrants seemed to symbolise the failure of Germany to integrate its new residents – especially in matters related to sexuality and the treatment of women. It also flashed up more longstanding resentment about the level of integration of Germany’s large, predominantly Turkish Muslim population.

After months of debate, in early June the German Bundestag declared a ban on marriages involving under 18-year-olds. Marriages involving minors under 16 that had been conducted abroad are also no longer valid, even if the minors are not German citizens. And, courts will be allowed to void marriages in which a spouse was 16 or 17 at the time of the wedding. Case-by-case exceptions will be made only for marriages involving adults who had been wed as children.

Despite the movement against child marriage, the phenomenon was not particularly widespread in Germany. In July 2016, there were 1,475 recorded cases of married minors, with the majority from Syria. Nonetheless, the law easily passed in parliament and went into effect on July 22.

Same-sex marriage struggle

In contrast to the movement against child marriage, the campaign for same-sex marriage had been brewing for over a decade. Germany enacted a law on civil partnerships in 2001. It gave same-sex couples some – but not all – rights enjoyed by married spouses. As numerous other countries passed laws on same-sex marriage, Germany remained resolute in its position against the policy.

Since 2005, Germany has had a conservative government led by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has upheld traditional notions about the family, with marriage seen as heterosexual, monogamous and patriarchal. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, had long been clear about her opposition to same-sex marriage. However, she allowed a free parliamentary vote to take place on the issue in late June and the Bundestag overwhelmingly approved the legislation. Merkel actually voted against the policy. Nonetheless, the first same-sex weddings can take place as early as October 2017.

Outnumbered: Angel Merkel voted against same-sex marriage but the law passed on June 30. Oliver Lang/EPA

Both marriage policies proved convenient tools for Merkel’s government to garner popularity ahead of the elections. The ban on child marriage could assuage CDU voters wary of immigration. At the same time, it could ensure that CDU voters steered clear of the siren calls of Alternative for Germany, a right-wing, anti-immigrant party. And, the free vote on same-sex marriage stole the thunder of the rival Social Democratic Party (SDP), which had emphasised the policy as part of its platform.

Questions about multiculturalism and about sexuality rights were both addressed in one fell swoop with these two new laws, perhaps shaping the CDU’s chances at the polls in the upcoming election. Since early June, the CDU has been predicted to hold around 38% of the vote in September, around ten to fifteen points ahead of the SDP.

Family politics

These debates in contemporary Germany about the nature of the family – with marriage as its linchpin – have much deeper roots. They go back to conflicts over the family, diversity and different meanings of modernity since the late 19th century. In 1875, four years after Germany was created, marriage suddenly became the uncontested domain of the state rather than the church. Couples from different religions could now marry easily in civil ceremonies, without having to worry about converting to another confession or gaining special dispensations from their parish priest.

The move to liberalise marriage was, however, short-lived. In the early 20th century, marriages between “whites” and “natives” were banned in parts of Germany’s growing overseas empire. The policy sought to ensure the racial and cultural purity of the family. Only those children of mixed marriages who seemed culturally “German” enough could pass as German. The rest were relegated to the status of “natives” and stripped of full inheritance and citizenship rights.

Bans on mixed-marriage served, in some ways, as precursors to Germany’s most infamous marriage policy: the ban on marriage with Jews (as well as the disabled and other “undesirables”) in the Third Reich in 1935.

Four years after Hitler’s Germany collapsed in 1945, marriage again became the subject of a national reform project. Under the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, the new constitution in a newly Christian Democratic West Germany, marriage and the family garnered pride of place, meriting special protection. The family once again stood at the core of German state projects. It was both a symbol of national identity and central to the law. After a period of war and dictatorship, the family after 1945 seemed a bulwark of stability that could be guaranteed by clear-cut gender roles and hierarchies for women, men and children.

The new laws on child marriage and same-sex marriage point to a specific understanding of the family in Germany that embraces certain forms of diversity and restricts others. Constitutional understandings of the family have come open to new interpretations that prioritise the protection of children alongside the right to choose one’s sexuality. But these debates also echo a longstanding consensus within Germany that the family is central to the nation and a matter to be governed by the state.