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.
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.
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