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The Germany Crisis: Angela Merkel, refugees and the rise of the right

How Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis emboldened the far right and led to troubling questions about her future as chancellor.

For Michael Rusheinsky, it all started in August 2015. Huge numbers of refugees were arriving. It was 35 degrees in the shade. There was no water. No food. No medical support. This was central Berlin – but it looked to him like Kabul. “There were volunteers from Doctors Without Borders who have worked in Gaza and Afghanistan but these were the worst conditions they have ever had to deal with,” he told me.

Rusheinsky was a jobbing actor at the time, but soon became a professional refugee handler, co-ordinating volunteers at the main reception centre in the German capital. He is a manifestation of what the tabloid Bild called “Helles Deutschland” – a light and moral Germany; yet as the country prepares for regional elections on 13 March, it is “Dunkles [‘dark’] Deutschland” that is capturing the headlines.

Most prominent is the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which is using the dislocation caused by the refugee crisis to shake up the German political scene. Not only is the AfD – Germany’s equivalent of Ukip – likely to pass the 5 per cent threshold for entering parliaments in all three states that are holding elections, it threatens to push the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) into fourth place in Saxony-Anhalt and may get into double digits into Rhineland Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. If it succeeds, it will break one of the cast-iron rules of postwar German politics – that no party to the right of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) grouping should be allowed into the legislature.

The rise of the AfD is the most marked sign of the fraying of the Merkel supremacy. The party was founded in 2013, its name a response to the German chancellor’s frequent claims that there is no alternative to her policy on the euro (her favourite term for this, “alternativlos”, was elected Unwort des Jahres, “non-word of the year”, in 2010, at the height of her powers).

The novelty of the AfD, when it was launched by the economics professor Bernd Lucke and other activists, was that it was a bourgeois, right-wing party that was going to great lengths to disavow the neo-Nazi street. Lucke and the leadership went through all the applications to join the party and excluded anyone with negative associations. The result of this triage was that so many of its first official supporters had postgraduate degrees that the AfD was nicknamed “the professors’ party”. Its anti-euro stance (the founders wanted to split the euro into a northern European “neuro” and a southern “seuro”) helped it to take seven seats in the 2014 European parliamentary elections, but it had failed to win enough votes the previous year to enter the federal Bundestag.

Then in 2015, encouraged by Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, 1.1 million asylum-seekers arrived in Germany. The resulting refugee crisis has afforded the AfD a second chance. After a period of infighting, the party transformed itself into a more run-of-the-mill, populist, right-wing party. Lucke left in 2015 to found the Alliance for Progress and Departure, following the failure of his attempt to become the AfD’s sole leader. The more strident Frauke Petry – a self-made businesswoman from eastern Germany – emerged as the AfD’s main spokesperson, and was soon joined as co-leader by Jörg Meuthen, another professor of economics, from the west. Petry has succeeded in shifting the party to the right, concentrating less on the euro and more on issues such as migration, Islam and closer ties with Russia. This led a bitter Lucke to claim in July 2015 that the AfD was turning into a “PEGIDA party”, a reference to Germany’s far-right movement of “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”, a label he had refuted as party leader.

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What is interesting about the AfD is what it tells us about the changes afoot in Germany. Its rise is a product of the constrained and elitist nature of German politics, in which – after the experience of Nazism – many subjects are declared to be outside the realm of political competition. All the mainstream parties are in favour of EU membership, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism.

What this leaves is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – as in the decision to replace the popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro in 1999. But those who dare to cross the threshold of political correctness tap in to a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow. A CSU minister recently told me that the German debate on refugees reminded him of the old East Germany, where there was a fundamental disconnection between what people thought and what they thought was acceptable to say in public. According to a recent poll, nearly half of all Germans are afraid to voice their opinion about the refugee crisis.

Today in Germany, ever greater numbers claim that they are unrepresented in the media and in politics. They claim the refugee crisis is leading to a clash of civilisations between the political and journalistic elites, on the one hand, and the (allegedly) censored, disenfranchised “masses” on the other, who express their discontent by appropriating the anti-Berlin Wall cry “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”).

The AfD is making great play of standing up for two different groups that feel disenfranchised in Germany, still largely separated between east and west. In the east, the core audience is the young, white losers of globalisation who cannot find jobs or companions. In the west, it is more the educated middle class that supports the AfD. These western supporters are often not anti-immigration per se, but see the refugee crisis as proof of a loss of control by the state. A study by the Otto Brenner Stiftung, a Frankfurt-based research foundation, shows that the AfD, with its two very different leaders in Petry and Meuthen, is using separate strategies for the east and west of the country, a tactic that seems to be working: the party is polling at 11 per cent in the west and 14 per cent in the east. In the west the party tries to portray itself as a moderate and educated option for the middle class, while in the east it is unashamedly populist.

The common thread behind the two groups is frustration with the political class. In fact, the word most often invoked in ­discussing the AfD is “Wut” – a visceral expression probably best translated as “rage”. The newspapers are full of talk about die Wutbürger, or enraged citizens, and the media have characterised one of the party’s key figures, Marc Jongen, a professor of philosophy at the small University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, as the Wutdenker: the “philosopher of rage”. Jongen is the AfD vice-chairman in Baden-Württemberg, one of the three states that will be holding elections this month. He has played up to the image of philosopher-king, writing an intellectual manifesto for the party which talks about the AfD as a spectre haunting the German establishment and which – he claims – is opposed by the country’s elites, from the Catholic Church to the chancellor and the president.

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The 13 March elections in the three states are being presented as a referendum on Merkel’s refugee policy. A recent poll showed that 81 per cent of German citizens believe her government has lost control of the crisis. There is still significant support for the Wilkommenskultur, as shown by the actor-turned-refugee-helper Michael Rusheinsky, and encapsulated in Merkel’s many statements that the welcoming reaction of many citizens around Germany shows the greatness of the country and its people. But the way the crisis has been handled goes against the trinity of order, predictability and balanced budgets that has defined the Federal Republic of Germany.

And yet Merkel is sticking firm to her refusal to close the borders and set a limit for inward migration. “I have no plan B,” she said last Sunday. “There’s no sense in working on two [plans] at the same time.” Many people have been puzzled by the way that this most pragmatic of politicians appears to have found an ideological core. Some claim that it is a product of her biography: with her background in East Germany, she does not want to be the chancellor who presides over the erection of new walls in Europe.

Others even see her predicament as a function of her pragmatism and scientific rationalism. She did not precipitate the crisis; she did not issue any pronouncements until huge numbers were already flowing into Germany, and then she simply described the status quo. Now that the crisis is here she refuses to sign up to ideas – such as a cap on refugee numbers – that will make no difference to the situation and will set her  on a slippery slope to closing the borders.

Whatever the reasoning, this stance has changed her role for ever. The über-realist, who never seemed much out of step with public opinion, has set herself down a path that many of her countrymen – as well as other countries in Europe – refuse to follow.

The consequences for the European Union could be even more drastic than those for Germany. Over the past five years, as Brussels lost the ability to lead a plethora of crises and to create trade-offs across different policy areas, Germany – and Merkel in particular – became the essential glue in a new, intergovernmental Europe on every issue from the euro and Ukraine to the British Question and the refugee crisis.

Yet the paradox of German power is that the more it has been exercised, the less it is desired and obeyed. From Paris and Rome to Budapest and Warsaw, there are complaints that the nature of German leadership is changing, and that the Germans are behaving in an increasingly hegemonic way to deal with a refugee crisis that many argue they have brought upon themselves.

The way Berlin has pushed through the relocation of refugees against the EU consensus – with quotas of refugees for all member states – has dealt a blow to German soft power. And the way member states that signed up to these have got away without implementing them has damaged Germany’s hard power. We are seeing a political geography emerging in Europe characterised by unilateral action and coalitions of the willing, rather than common action agreed in Brussels. There is a continent-sized gulf between rational ideas about European action and national politics in the EU 28.

So, will the regional elections end the Merkel era? For months already, members of the German elite have been talking about her in the way Tory MPs talked about Margaret Thatcher during the poll-tax riots: as if she had lost her grip on reality and her ability to adapt to circumstances. In December, I had lunch with a group that included a prominent businessman, a national newspaper editor and a couple of CDU politicians. Even before the drinks arrived, they began playing the parlour game of the moment: imagining alternatives to Merkel.

The discussion started by thinking about trigger points for her ejection or voluntary departure (there has been speculation that she might go to New York to become the next UN secretary general). Then there was talk about the finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, her only possible successor in the short term, and questions about his health, the policy options open to him, plus the fear that the SPD would not accept him and would call an election. In fact, the CDU/SPD grand coalition, which enjoys a super-majority in the Bundestag, has helped Merkel hang on to power, because it gives the SPD a de facto veto on her successor. A close associate of hers thinks she will use this electoral arithmetic to cling on to power: “It is almost impossible to dislodge a sitting chancellor, so they will have to pull her out of the chancellery by the hair.”

When pundits envisage the longer term they can think of options for political renewal – including the rising star of Merkel’s party, Julia Klöckner – but there is a familiar structure to the conversations, as in the one in which I took part, about the short term. Nobody feels that the status quo can hold, yet no one can see how to change it. And so our debate, like many others, foundered on the central problem of contemporary German politics. For now, whatever Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen would like to believe, there is no alternative.

Mark Leonard is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis

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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

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West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

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West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

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Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis