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The end of German stability?

Years of complacency has seen right wing populism surge in the holy land of centrism

Artillery Row

For a long time Germany has been seen as a paragon of political stability. Western Germany never had to grapple with the threat posed by a radical left-wing party (as opposed to France and Italy before 1989); neither did a right wing party that openly challenged the post-war centrist political consensus manage to gain seats in the Federal parliament. This was true before reunification, and it remained true thereafter — until 2017. With the election held in that year, this changed. The AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) managed to obtain more than 12 per cent of the popular vote. The party had been founded in 2013 by Bernd Lucke, a professor of economics, to protest against the fact that as a result of the euro crisis the legal rules (no bailouts, no monetary financing of government spending by the ECB), which had been designed to protect German interests when the euro was created, had been largely abandoned under French and southern European pressure.

European unification had always been an almost sacred ideal for the (Western) German political class after the war. To even ask the question whether the monetary union had been a step too far was widely seen as heretical, despite the fact that the German constitutional court had at times taken a more critical attitude towards the EU. The traditional parties were convinced that they could see off the challenge posed to their authority by the AfD by depicting the party as profoundly nationalistic and extremist. In some ways that tactic became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The radicals in the new party, who early on had come to dominate the regional leadership in Eastern Germany, had probably always intended to make the new party entirely their own by ousting the moderates. They soon came to argue that it was useless to play the game according to the rules, the AfD would always be depicted by the political establishment and the media as extremist, no matter what efforts it might make to soften its message. That was certainly not the only reason that the right wing of the party managed to topple the somewhat inept Lucke in 2015 — they were clearly more ruthless and better organised — but it certainly helped that the party had successfully been pushed into a sort of political ghetto from the word go.

Voters feel that politicians are not prepared to listen to their concerns

From 2015 onwards the party came to be dominated increasingly by Björn Höcke and his followers. Höcke was and is the leader of the AfD in Thuringia. By profession a school teacher, he makes no bones about being inspired by the so-called Conservative Revolution of the 1920s and early 1930s. The catchword “conservative revolution” is often used to identify an intellectual movement in the Weimar Republic that was anti-democratic and nationalistic, but pursued objectives that were not necessarily identical with those of the NSDAP. In fact some representatives of the movement like Edgar Julius Jung (1894-1934) were murdered by the Nazi regime, whilst others quietly kept their distance from the regime after 1933 such as the writer Ernst Jünger. Nonetheless, Höcke’s attitude to Hitler’s tyranny and the fascist movement of the earlier 20th century seems to be ambivalent to say the least. In Italy such ambivalence when dealing with the country’s history of fascism may be seen as permissible — the present Italian government is the best proof of that — but in Germany, the refusal to condemn the barbarity of the Nazi regime without qualification is rightly seen as an attack against the very spirit of liberal democracy and against the essence of the post war political settlement.

It is all the more surprising that despite these clearly extremist tendencies — not shared by all party members and even less so by the bulk of AfD-voters, but strong enough all the same — recent polls show that up to 20 per cent of all German voters are now prepared to vote for the AfD. Admittedly support is much stronger in the East — where many people tend to sympathise with Russia in the ongoing war in Ukraine and where the AfD can garner a support of 25 per cent and more — than in the West, where it struggles to gain more than half that per centage. One might argue that such polls only document a fleeting mood. After all, at the height of the refugee crisis in 2018 the AfD had already won similarly high support in the polls that later partly collapsed. It is still quite stunning how a party that is only very rarely allowed to present its point of view on television, has little media support and is widely seen as lacking respectability, which moreover is led by two politicians, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla (Höcke so far has not tried to run for the office of party leader) who are neither charismatic nor particularly popular, can manage to drum up so much support.

Clearly trust in government, but also in the ability of the traditional political parties to solve the considerable problems Germany is facing, is at a very low ebb. Polls show that when asked which party they believe to be capable of solving any serious problems, more than half of all voters answer: none of the above. Not to say that the AfD is doing any better in such polls, but clearly it is favoured by some voters because they want to register their protest against the political class as such. They feel that politicians are not prepared to listen to their concerns. Immigration is one of the most contentious fields where both the government and the present main opposition party, the CDU, have proved in the past to be largely tone deaf. They have tried to pretend that there is no need to have any kind of real debate, although that is just about to begin to change ever so slightly.

It could have been foreseen that unlimited irregular immigration would cause all sorts of problems, for example at schools in the great cities or with regard to the housing market, but also regarding security. An overburdened welfare state is equally one of these problems. In Germany the welfare system, which has been further extended only recently, offers extremely generous support to those without a regular income in the form of the so-called citizen’s wage (“Bürgergeld”, a misnomer as non-citizens receive the same benefits as citizens). For parents with children and to some extent for others as well, it no longer makes much sense to even try to seek work — unless they are reasonably well qualified so that they are paid high wages, which unfortunately is no option for most refugees. At a time when due to inflation many Germans are becoming much poorer, such policies are not designed to win much support amongst those who work hard to gain a modest regular income.

Enormous costs are imposed on those living in older buildings

The present government, led by the inscrutable chancellor Scholz, has moreover tried to impose a net zero energy policy on the country. Whilst shutting down the last working nuclear power stations — for the time being, they have to be replaced by coal fired ones — the government wants heating for houses to become carbon neutral. That may be a commendable objective, but in practice enormous costs are imposed on those living in older buildings, which would need to be insulated much better. To the government’s surprise, this law provoked a widespread outcry of anger amongst the population. The Liberals, the smallest party of the government coalition, forced the flamboyant Green minister of economics and the environment, Habeck, to amend his law. How the new softer version of the law will work out in practice is difficult to foresee, and the conflict may have been defused only temporarily, to reemerge later this year.

In any case the overall mood in Germany is increasingly grim. The country is clearly in economic decline, probably terminally so. Energy prices are too high, traditional industries like auto manufacturing find it difficult to compete against foreign companies that are able to produce the new electric cars at much lower cost, and the working age population is rapidly declining — a problem exacerbated by the fact that many non-European immigrants find it difficult to come to terms with the German job market. As noted above the welfare system also works as a disincentive here, and it has, it seems, been deliberately designed by the SPD Minister of Labour Hubertus Heil to have this effect.

Matters are not improved by government policies that have imposed over the last 20 years or so ever more complicated rules and regulations on entrepreneurs and companies. This comes to some extent from EU pressure, but a lot of it is also home grown. Similar problems exist in other European countries, but whereas in Roumania or Italy, you might at least be able to persuade a civil servant to look the other way when you want to ignore some particularly stupid rules, that remains more difficult in Germany. Although the old Prussian spirit of German bureaucracy has otherwise disappeared completely — there is certainly not much efficiency in evidence today — that much of the old cultural legacy is still alive.

All of this creates a lot of discontent, and the AfD, however crude its rhetoric may be, is good at giving a voice to this discontent. It is the only party openly in favour of nuclear energy, the only one calling for a much harsher immigration policy, and the only one openly opposing affirmative action and woke policies in favour of all kinds of minorities. The CDU, the largest opposition party that governed Germany for 16 years until 2021, has become very much a centre left party under Merkel’s leadership. Its present chairman Friedrich Merz is from time to time making some half-hearted attempts to win back conservative voters, but these attempts are regularly undermined by the powerful left wing of the party and by his own lack of stamina and real courage. Should the CDU ever be able to claim the office of chancellor again, it would almost certainly need a left-wing coalition partner (the Greens or the SPD, as a coalition with the AfD would be self-destructive and taboo). It is very difficult to become credible again as a party that has something to offer to conservatives who dislike the prevailing left-wing policies.

The German political system is therefore likely to become even more unstable over the next couple of years, as it will be difficult to sideline completely a radical right-wing party that is supported by a fifth of the electorate and up to 30 per cent in the East completely. Perhaps German politicians have to learn the hard way that telling fairy tales to voters (such as “the Euro and European integration policies will make you ever more prosperous”) will only take you so far. One day you will have to face the truth and do something about the problems, which many voters feel to be of crucial importance.

For the immediate future, muddling through in many contested areas, and even more government inference in the economy and people’s lives in the name of “green” and woke aims, will probably remain at the heart of official policy. After all, Merkel — the great political fixer, still widely admired by many politicians in the SPD and CDU, and probably by chancellor Scholz himself — was a genius of muddling through. She, however, would probably have been too astute to provoke anger and frustration in the determined and single-minded way this government has done since it gained power.

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