The first law banned child marriages, and the second legalised same-sex marriage. Both directions were not a surprise, but the political calculations and discussions that led to their introduction are closely related.
In 2015, 890 000 Syrians, as well as other immigrants from the Middle East, in Africa, and South-Eastern Europe, registered to apply for asylum in Germany. The debate over the limits of multiculturalism was raging across the country. The child marriages among immigrants seem to symbolize the failure of Germany in integrating its new residents, especially in relation to sexuality or the treatment of women. The incident also sparked long-standing resentment over the integration of Germany’s large and predominantly Turkish Muslim community.
In early June, after months of discussion, the German Bundestag announced a ban on marriages between minors under 18. Even if they are not German citizens, marriages between children aged under 16 who were conducted outside of Germany are no longer valid. Courts will also be able to annul marriages where a spouse had been 16 or 17 years old at the time of their wedding. Only in rare cases will there be exceptions for adult couples who were married as children.
In spite of the growing movement against child marriages, it was not widespread in Germany. In July 2016, there were 1,475 cases where married minors were recorded, the majority of which came from Syria. The law was passed easily in parliament, and it went into effect on July 22.
Same-sex marriage is a struggle.
Contrary to the campaign against child marriages, the movement in favor of same-sex unions has been simmering for more than a decade. In 2001, Germany passed a civil partnership law. The law gave married couples certain rights, but not all. Numerous other countries have passed laws prohibiting same-sex marriages, but Germany has remained firm in its opposition.
Since 2005, Germany’s conservative government, led by the Christian Democratic Union, has reaffirmed traditional family values, including the view that marriage is heterosexual, monogamous, and patriarchal. Angela Merkel has been very clear in her opposition to same-gender marriage. The Bundestag passed legislation after a free vote in the Bundestag. Merkel voted in opposition to the policy. The first same-sex marriages could take place as soon as October 2017.
Angel Merkel was outnumbered when she voted against the same-sex marriage law, but it passed on June 30, 2009. Oliver Lang/EPA
Merkel’s government used both marriage policies to gain popularity before the election. The ban on child marriage may reassure CDU voters who are wary of immigration. It could also ensure that CDU voters avoid the anti-immigrant, right-wing Alternative for Germany party. The free vote on same-sex relationships stole the thunder from the Social Democratic Party, which had made the policy a part of their platform.
These two laws addressed questions about sexuality and multiculturalism in one go, which may have influenced the CDU’s chances in the next election. Since early June, has been predicted that the CDU will hold 38% of votes in September. This is around 10 to 15 points ahead of SDP.
The roots of these debates about the nature and role of the German family in the 21st century are much deeper. These debates in contemporary Germany about the heart of the family – with marriage as its linchpin – have much deeper roots. Marriage became the exclusive domain of the government in 1875, just four years after Germany’s creation. Couples of different faiths were now able to marry in civil ceremonies without the need to convert to another religion or gain special dispensations from their parish priest.
Marriage was liberalized, but the move was short-lived. In parts of Germany’s expanding overseas empire, marriages were prohibited in the early 20th Century. This policy was intended to maintain the racial purity and cultural purity of a family. Children of mixed marriages could only pass for German if they appeared to be culturally “German.” All others were stripped of their citizenship and inheritance rights and relegated to “natives.”
The ban on mixed marriages served as a precursor to Germany’s most notorious marriage policy in 1935: the ban on marriages with Jews, people with disabilities, and other “undesirables.”
After the fall of Hitler’s Germany in 1945, marriage was once again the focus of a major national reform. In the Fundamental Law for the Federal Republic of Germany – the new constitution of a newly Christian Democratic West Germany – marriage and family were given pride of place. They were also afforded special protection. In the new form of a recently Christian Democratic West Germany, marriage and family were given a prominent place. They deserved special protection. The family was both a symbol of national identity and a central part of the law. After a long period of war and dictator, the family seemed to be a stronghold of stability, which could be assured by gender roles and hierarchies that were clearly defined for men, women, and children.
The new laws regarding child marriage and marriages of the same gender in Germany reflect a particular understanding of family that is tolerant of certain forms of diversity but restricts others. The constitutional sense of the family has been open to new interpretations, which prioritize the protection of children along with the right to choose sexuality. These debates echo the long-standing German consensus that the family is the heart of the nation and should be governed by the state.