Reflections on “Our” German Cultural Heritage and Identity

Author: Cornelia SyllaHaw HamburgGermany

As researchers, working for the CHIEF project, our current task is trying to find answers to questions on cultural heritage and identity. Which influences, which knowledge, which stories come to be the cultural heritage of a certain group? Which factors define someone’s cultural identity? Which roles do nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, politics, history, or other factors that we might not have thought about yet play?

While it seems fairly easy to state someone’s very personal cultural heritage, their familial history, their individual experiences and practices, what they like or do not like doing, it becomes problematic as soon as we start looking for identities and the factors constituting these. Things get even more problematic, when we try to find not only individual but collective identities. Is there such a thing as “a German identity” or a “European identity”? Where could we look for those? What could be the relevant factors defining them?

In the political field, nationalist arguments seemingly provide answers to these questions. Nationalistic groups tend to be convinced to have an answer to the question of what defines their national identity. All over Europe tendencies to new nationalist ideas can be observed at present. These ideas are usually growing in regions or societies where social inequalities are blamed on migration phenomena. In Germany some of these ideas appear in groups that claim to protect “the occident against Islamic influence”1. This wording seems especially interesting from a postcolonial perspective. Since Edward Said first published Orientalism in 19782 contrasting the occident as the superior “we” and the orient as the inferior “other” it has been known as a patronizing mechanism used by western states to justify colonialism. The argument today (at least in Germany) has shifted from a more general understanding of the orient to a still generalizing but more specific religious construction of Islam.3 When discussing migration phenomena, religion seems to be used as a synonym for culture, especially stating Islam as a barrier for inclusion into the German society.4 This discussion is not only taking part in explicitly nationalist groups.

Since 2010 there has been an ongoing debate on whether or not Islam is or should be considered as “belonging” to Germany. Different politicians have given different statements on this issue. Some stating that Islam has recently become a part of German culture, while others argue that Muslims might belong to Germany but Islam cannot be part of German culture, because German culture is clearly shaped by Christianity.5 In the whole debate, there seems to be no doubt at all that Christianity is a major influence to German culture. This implies to some extent that there is a “we” that agrees on the idea that Christian values are part of “our culture” which might now be threatened by “foreigners” moving into “our country” bringing with them different ideas, which could potentially become part of “our culture”. According to nationalists, this is to be avoided by all means. But even moderate mainstream politicians who would accept changes to society through migration do not seem to argue the importance of Christian values for German culture and identity. Research results produced by the CHIEF project, especially the national cultural educational policy review6 and the national curricula review7 in Germany, proved that the official notion of “German culture” contains certain historical perspectives while ignoring others: The Roman Empire is said to have provided the roots of modern Europe, the Prussian heritage is considered especially important for “our national culture”, remembering the NS-regime and the German separation and reunification are also strong narratives in official papers, while Germany’s responsibility in colonialism is barely recognised. The role of religion is not always made clear in these papers.

Although in Germany, officially state and religion are separate, the strongest party in the parliament is explicitly Christian. While the Christian Church and the state are constitutionally linked in a cooperative relationship, official institutions are required to remain neutral regarding religion.8 Anyhow, Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas are protected by the German state, they are nation-wide official holidays. The traditions linked to these Christian holidays however are much older than Christianity, they are older that current national territorial borders and especially older than any church on German territory. Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, possibly even the name of the holiday stem from ancient Germanic beliefs.

From a postcolonial perspective the historical contingency of values and cultural practices needs to be analysed. If, for arguments sake, we agree that Christian values are part of the core of German culture, we would need to ask: When did that start? Who invented it? Which power relations made that development possible?

Even without going deep into theological and historical discussions by only relying on the minimal consensus, one answer to these questions is that Christianity was brought to the geographic region that is now considered Germany, through colonization. When the Roman Empire colonized large parts of the European continent, they brought with them a new religion and a new life style. It can certainly be discussed to what extent the new faith and the new lifestyle and regime was willingly accepted, but there also is lots of historical evidence stating that it did not happen without force.

Therefore, if today we are insisting on “our Christian values” and “our traditions” based on Roman history, we are in fact celebrating having been enslaved by Romans.


Image Credit

Ostara Pagan

The Goddess of Spring and Ostara



[2] Said, Edward, 1978. Orientalism, Routledge and Paul, London

[3] Daniel, Anna 2012. Der Islam als das Andere – Postkoloniale Perspektiven, in: Daniel, A., Schäfer, F., Hillebrandt, F., Wienold, H. (Eds.), Doing Modernity – Doing Religion. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden, pp. 143–167.

[4] Krieger, D., 2012. Was ist aus der Religionskritik der Moderne geworden nachdem die Moderne nicht stattgefunden hat?, in: Daniel, A., Schäfer, F., Hillebrandt, F., Wienold, H. (Eds.), Doing Modernity – Doing Religion. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden, pp. 15–24.


[6]Seukwa, Marmer, Sylla, 2018:

[7]Sylla, Marmer, Seukwa, 2019:


About the author

Cornelia Sylla, is a PhD student in Sociology at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Germany.