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8 February 2024

Germany and its discontents

Protests, purges and the crack-up of a nation.

By Adrian Daub

It was a scene straight from Babylon Berlin, the Netflix show set in early 1930s Germany about a moribund democracy and the rise of fascism: a meeting at a historic countryside lodge near Potsdam, a few miles from the “Wannsee Conference” villa, attended by right-wing politicians, conservative moneymen, lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs. Even a board member of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache – a club for people who complain about too many Anglicisms in the German language – was present. Held on 25 November 2023, the meeting teetered between the ridiculous and the demonic.

Its purpose was to connect deep-pocketed donors with right-wing political projects. A foremost theme among them was “re-migration”, a word that has dominated political discussions in Germany ever since the investigative magazine Correctiv first reported on the conclave at the Landhaus Adlon. “Re-migration” designates nothing less than the deportation of “foreigners”, and of Germans with “foreign” roots. An Austrian neo-Nazi, Martin Sellner, the event’s keynote speaker, presented plans for a “model state” in northern Africa where expelled populations (about two million) could be moved. There were proposals for contesting future election results in case the “wrong” kinds of citizens voted. 

The reaction to the report was explosive. Protests swept the country. Around three million Germans have participated in them so far. Some marches, especially those in large cities such as Hamburg and Berlin, have been enormous – several had to be cancelled for fear of overcrowding. But even in small and medium-sized towns, the crowds have been record-breaking in size. In some of these areas, such as Bautzen in eastern Saxony, where the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) plays a significant role in local politics, and where neo-Nazis intimidate all who oppose them, this takes considerable courage.

Whatever comes of the protests or the efforts to curb the AfD by legal means, the feeling across the country is that forces committed to the German constitutional order and to a multicultural society are reclaiming ground that was, perhaps hastily, ceded to the hard and even far right. Much about the reaction to the revelations in the Correctiv article gives one hope; but much of the reaction also ought to give one pause. For in rushing to embrace the protests against the AfD and its allies, many across German media and politics maintain the impulses and positions that helped the populist right thrive. In reaction to various protests in Germany over the past 12 months, German politicians, journalists and public intellectuals have hardened their understanding of who “the people” constitutes, and who it doesn’t; whose fears must be taken seriously, and whose anxieties – about the spectre of the far right or ecological collapse – can simply be taken under advisement.

Germany finds itself at a historic inflection point. The presence of the populist right isn’t new to postwar Germany. But for decades, it seemed like a known quantity. Parties such as the National Democratic Party, the German People’s Union and the Republicans emerged on to the political scene at various points and won a few per cent of votes in state and federal elections, before breaking down in recrimination and dysfunction. But that pattern is over: in early October, the AfD won 18 per cent of the votes in the Hesse state election in central Germany, emerging as the second-strongest party. A party whose support was traditionally confined to the eastern half of the country had now arrived in the old Federal German Republic. This year the scene looks more ominous: in September, three East German Länder – Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg – will vote for their state parliaments. If polling holds, the AfD would be the strongest party in all three elections.

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The rise of the AfD has caught both the ruling “traffic light” coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Liberals (FDP) – and the non-AfD opposition off guard. Under the leadership of Friedrich Merz, who can’t decide whether he wants to be a German Donald Trump or a respectable statesman, and is good at neither, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) alternates between mantric-like invocations of the non-negotiable “firewall” separating it from working with the far right, and tearing down that firewall. But the general air of disorientation is not limited to party politics; it has taken hold of civil society. Germany’s generally admirable dedication to working through its past is threatening to ossify into a particularly narcissistic form of identity politics. For a country deeply worried about ceding ground to the populist right, the public spends an awful lot of time on immigration freakouts and culture-war inanities.

Why, then, are we seeing these anti-far-right protests now? Perhaps because of the sheer self-confidence with which wealthy and well-connected populist-right operators are planning for what comes after their assumed accession to power. Germans who happen to believe that refugees have a dignified place in the country, that democracy is overall a good thing, and that neither the human rights charter nor the German Grundgesetz are soft-hearted hippy tracts, have had all kinds of epithets thrown at them over the years. They’ve been called elitist, privileged, have been told they are cloistered in their “filthy left-green” bubbles. All this while people with truly dangerous beliefs – about “foreigners”, about Ukraine, about vaccines – have been made to feel that they represent the real Germany, the real citizenry. Much of the joy in these protests seems to emanate from just how many are turning out against the far right. They are the majority, and what is more, “we”, as the most recent slogan goes, “are the firewall”.

But what the protests don’t express is shock. Nothing that was said at the Landhaus Adlon in November comes as a surprise to anyone who has been listening to what the AfD has been saying publicly about immigration, and who it does and does not consider to belong to the citizenry – and not just the AfD. 

Much of the focus since the November meeting has been on the AfD – several of their members were in attendance, including an aide to Alice Weidel, the party leader. But other attendees reportedly included two members of the CDU, the party once headed by Angela Merkel. When the right-wing conclave discussed the formation of a commission to create the legal basis for their deportation scheme, they seized on Hans-Georg Maaßen, who was not in attendance, as someone to lead it. Maaßen was a CDU member when the meeting took place, and – in a deeply un-German bout of excellent comic timing – launched his own hard-right party, the Values Union (WerteUnion), on 20 January, just as the protests first started.

This wasn’t an AfD meeting, but a confab between members of several parties, somewhere on the political spectrum between right and far right. If the parties of the attendees were to enter a coalition, under current polling, they would win majorities in all state parliaments except for the three city-states of Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin. Correctiv’s reporting, and the sub rosa nature of the meeting itself, suggested that something clandestine, even conspiratorial, was going on. But the gathering, its attendants, agenda and planning, throws into sharp relief how deeply the populist right’s views and phobias – on immigration, culture wars and identity politics – have spread and are now openly accommodated throughout Germany’s political class.

Merz has spent the last couple of years emitting barely sanitised AfD talking points, describing asylum seekers as “social safety net tourists”, calling immigrant children “little pashas”, and designating the Green Party as the CDU’s “main enemy”. The ruling coalition of SPD, Greens and FDP, while condemning AfD talk of “re-migration”, has dramatically eased rules for deportations of asylum seekers, irregular immigrants and others. And on 31 January, when the nationwide protests were in their second week, the head of the SPD demanded that “the state must do its job when it comes to repatriating people who cannot stay with us”.

It wasn’t that the SPD, and the government it led, seemed unmoved by the protests. Politicians from the governing coalition, including Olaf Scholz and his cabinet, have joined the protests at least once. But it feels no need to transmute this outpouring of popular anxiety and anger towards the populist right into an adjustment of policy that might countermand its ascension. This is remarkable given how quick, almost reflexive, it has been to oblige the other side.

The first large-scale demonstrations against the populist right in mid-January coincided with another set of ongoing protests. At the start of this year, German farmers took to the streets and autobahns. Thousands of them, with tractors, gathered in Mitte and Tiergarten, Berlin’s government district. They had come to protest the end of tax breaks for agri-businesses, a scale-back in subventions, and the centre-left government more generally. Hard-right forces have been linked to the protests.

The government had pre-capitulated and cut back its cutbacks before the protests even started. That didn’t prevent activists from hanging the ruling coalition in effigy or storming a ferry carrying the minister for the economy, Robert Habeck. Further concessions followed. At their rally at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the sitting minister of finance and leader of the FDP Christian Lindner spoke to the revolting farmers: “I understand this protest,” he said. “I say very clearly: your protest is legitimate.” The Brandenburg Gate, he then pointed out, had been doused in orange paint by activists from the climate group Last Generation in September. “The climate activists defiled the Brandenburg Gate. The farmers honoured it.” Rather than worry about whether the farmers’ protests had been co-opted by the populist right, he suggested, perhaps “politicians and media” should talk about how climate activists “had been infiltrated by the radical left”. A German friend of mine joked darkly that perhaps if he’d brought a tractor to the anti-AfD protests, they might have been taken more seriously.

This is another way of telling the story of the past six months in Germany: it is, in the winter of 2024, a country disoriented, with people locked in a mode of anxious self-interrogation while deeply unsure about who represents them and who doesn’t. Small events are blown up to huge proportions, while deep societal problems barely register. The week before the meeting near Potsdam, Der Spiegel’s cover story was a 6,000-word takedown of Greta Thunberg, who had stood next to someone at a protest who referred to Israel’s war in Gaza as a “genocide”. Bad-faith credentialling is rampant, and leftists and climate activists find themselves constantly asked to defend positions or persons they’ve never before heard about, but who are supposed to represent them.

The country’s cultural institutions have spent the past few months swinging heedlessly from yelling about “cancel culture” to disinviting those who speak in favour of Palestinians, a series of denunciations that are remarkable not for their scale, which is quite limited, but for how ham-fisted and inelegant they are. The more the country tries to be part of an international conversation, the more provincial it becomes.

After Hamas massacred 1,200 Israeli civilians on 7 October, German media figures expressed their disappointment with the size of solidarity marches against anti-Semitism, especially compared with the large crowds that had turned out for the George Floyd protests in 2020. Journalists meanwhile trawled for protests in support of the terrorist group, on university campuses or in urban quarters with larger migrant populations, their outrage ready-made before encountering any. This were then used to condemn – take your pick – “the left”, “the Green Party”, “the woke”, “identity politics”, “postcolonial studies”, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter (BLM).

It is true the solidarity marches of autumn 2023 could have been larger, but the size of BLM-protests in Germany has swelled considerably in the rear-view mirror. On 6 June 2020, 15,000 people protested in central Berlin in support of the movement; the Israel solidarity demonstrations on 22 October numbered 25,000.

[See also: The Masha Gessen affair and Germany’s ignorance about Jews]

It is no accident that through the well-oiled carousel of “anti-wokeness” a perfectly legitimate hope for solidarity with Jewish Germans somehow turned into an opportunity for delegitimising social justice movements. For the aftermath of 7 October has become in Germany an opportunity for the “alman” majority to assign itself the role of ultimate arbiter. The press and political discourse were all about what was “expected” of various immigrant groups, what was “required” of them to be tolerated. And even where there was a call to show solidarity with Jewish Germans, that solidarity could sound troublingly seigneurial. “The Jews or the Aggro-Arabs,” one conservative columnist wrote in the news magazine Focus: “We have to decide, which one of the two we want to keep.”

Even beyond such rhetorical excesses, a striking number of the artists, influencers, politicians and activists that have been called out, disinvited or even fired for their positions on Palestine are either Jewish (Masha Gessen, Candice Breitz) or people of colour (the writer Sharon Dodua Otoo). These cases aren’t particularly frequent, but they command attention. Which seems to be the point: the white ethnic German majority taking great joy in making judgements, in getting to decide about others: who belongs, who doesn’t, who gets to stay, who doesn’t, who counts, who doesn’t. It’s not the nuances in those decisions that is the problem. It’s the deciding.   

Most troublingly, the governing coalition used the massacre to push a hard line on immigration. On 21 October, Scholz was on the cover of Der Spiegel. The title quote was, “We finally have to deport people at a large scale.” The subhead explained: “Olaf Scholz’s new toughness on refugee policy.” No single politician sets a national agenda, but here was the chancellor, in the country’s largest and most influential news-weekly title, adopting the framing of the hard right: “we” must deport people, the number of refugees is a problem, and lowering it is a good thing – and in some inchoate way this needs to be done for “Germany’s Jews”. The irony is, of course, that the group that ended up with all the power, a literal power over life and death were “we” – the people who claimed to be working through their past.

This revanchist approach is beginning to be marshalled against the new wave of anti-far-right protests: Paul Ronzheimer, deputy editor-in-chief of Bild, Germany’s largest tabloid, wondered why “so few of those who are sharing pictures and calls for protests via Instagram and [Twitter]… said nothing about the outrages perpetrated by Hamas”. A journalist at the conservative Welt detected “in parts of the protests sympathy for enemies of Israel”. The implied message: unless you drive a tractor, don’t protest.

During the protests against the populist right, Michael Kretschmer, the CDU governor of the state of Saxony, sent a tweet in support of them. In Saxony, where there will be an election in September, the AfD is expected to win a majority of the votes (35 per cent to the CDU’s 30 per cent). “Everywhere in Germany people are protesting for democracy and against right-wing extremism,” he wrote and could have stopped there. But it says much about the trap German politics finds itself in that he didn’t and perhaps couldn’t. “We will protect our fellow citizens” – first qualification – “who were not born here but nevertheless enrich our country” – second qualification – “and live and work here” – third qualification. “They are welcome here.” As impressive as the outpouring of popular support has been, those threatened by the AfD’s and the hard right’s plans will find little succour in it. Because that kind of welcome is no welcome at all.

[See also: John Gray: The conservative paradox]

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