The December issue of the German magazine Compact is still on the shelves in some shops here in Berlin. From its cover gazes out the politician Sahra Wagenknecht in a heroic pose, her steely eyes fixed on some distant horizon. “The best chancellor” runs the headline: “A candidate for left and right.” Inside, the editor, Jürgen Elsässer, writes about “this mix of nitro and glycerine” capable of blowing up “the blockade with which the regime has walled in every discussion about Islam and asylum, gender and Transen [a derogatory term for trans people], Covid and Russia”. What makes this praise curious is that Wagenknecht is merely a back-bench MP in the post-communist Left Party, the smallest party in the Bundestag. What makes it even more so is that Compact is known primarily as a magazine of the far right.
To be clear: the chances of Wagenknecht ever becoming Germany’s chancellor are miniscule. The country’s political centre remains the broadest and most solid of any major European state. Speculation last year about its looming “deindustrialisation” due to devastating energy shortages has proven wildly overblown. A mild winter, energy diversification and saving measures have now pushed prices below pre-invasion levels.
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Yet, even taking all of that into account, the mood in Germany is tetchy. New polling shows a significant fall of trust in its major government institutions. “Monday demonstrations” have returned to the streets, especially in the former East German states. These are expressions of a broad protest movement, a palimpsest of recent anti-establishment causes: the anti-migrant backlash of 2015 and 2016, so-called Querdenker (“diagonalist”) opposition to Covid lockdowns and vaccines, the fusion of Russophile calls for “peace” in Ukraine and anger at living costs.
At its most extreme end, this movement encompasses violent elements in the police and military, and conspiracy theories ranging from the home-grown (such as the “Reich Citizens” claim that the Kaiser’s Germany was never legitimately abolished) to the international (such as QAnon, rooted in American Trumpism).
These came together in the eccentric – but nonetheless worrying – coup plot uncovered in December. But where this movement might yet have the most impact is where it abuts mainstream politics. For with each new layer of grievances, it has become more politically heterogeneous: drawing in elements of the radical right and left and, increasingly, ornery citizens of no particular ideological bent. Currently, there is no single initiative converting all these into an election-fighting political force under a unifying figurehead. And that is where Wagenknecht comes in.
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Born in East Germany in 1969 to a German mother and an Iranian father, Wagenknecht joined the Communist Party just before the Berlin Wall fell and then rose through the ranks of its successor organisations: first the Party of Democratic Socialism and then the Left Party, whose group in the Bundestag she led from 2015 to 2019. Yet during that time her brand of anti-metropolitan leftism increasingly set her apart from the party – particularly its left-libertarian clientele in major cities such as Berlin. “If you concentrate more on hip, urban sorts of voters – on identity and lifestyle debates – you don’t speak to the poorest in society,” she told me in 2018: “They no longer feel properly represented.”
As the Left Party’s influence has waned (it barely scraped back into the Bundestag in 2021) Wagenknecht’s has grown. She has toured the federal republic giving talks to promote her book The Self-Righteous. Her YouTube videos – 20-minute addresses on everything from Covid policy and freedom of speech to energy costs and supposed US and Nato aggression against Russia – typically get one to two million views. Crowds at the Monday demonstrations chant her name. The Left Party’s leadership has distanced itself from her, and at a crisis meeting in Berlin in December she was reportedly described as “Lady Voldemort”. Now she is openly flirting with breaking away and founding her own party.
One conceivable timeline would see Wagenknecht doing so in the coming autumn, ahead of the 2024 European Parliament elections – at which her new outfit would run on a Eurosceptic populist platform melding left and right, a strategy known in German politics as a “Querfront”.
Three polling firms have recently tested out potential support for such a party, finding that between 19 and 30 per cent of Germans could imagine voting for it, including majorities of current supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and her own Left Party.
One poll put potential support among voters in the east at 49 per cent. Still, it is far from certain that she will launch her own party. Though Germany’s proportional election system offers better prospects for start-up parties than do the majoritarian US or UK ones, previous anti-establishment spin-offs have not succeeded.
So no, Wagenknecht will not become German chancellor. But she does personify something significant: how in our age of declining trust, political volatility, online conspiracy theories and crises of state capacity and energy provision, new left-right alliances are coalescing on the political fringes. Such alliances have played a role in the rise of anti-establishment politics in France and Italy. They could yet change the party political landscape even in Europe’s stolidly centrist anchor state.
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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor