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Alternatives for Germany: The Rise and Demise of Key Players in German Politics

The World | Constance Quinlan

In a recent incarnation as ‘Gretel’, the cleaning lady, in a pantomime in her home-state of Saarland, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) lamented the mess she had been tasked with cleaning up. Whether in the context of an amateur theatre production, or within the walls of the Reichstag, AKK’s task is certainly unenviable. In 2009, the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) had seemingly consolidated their dominant position in German politics, amassing over three-quarters of votes in that year’s federal election. Yet, just over a decade later, they barely account for half of the electorate. Meanwhile, the final party of the post-war West German political triptych, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), failed to even reach the minimum requirement of five percent of votes for the first time in history in 2013. In the next election of 2017, it reclaimed eighty seats, but the Bundestag it returned to four years later had undergone remarkable changes, not least the jarring addition to the political landscape of one particular party- Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The far-right populist party, chaired by Jörg Meuthen, is now the third largest party in parliament. Its manifesto reads like the bizarre logic textbook of other contemporary alt-right parties, to which European citizens have become accustomed in recent years. The manifesto boasts all of the current far-right contentions, conspiracies and policies that one could imagine- anti-immigration nationalism combines with global trading ambitions, despite the apparent juxtaposition with the proposal of either a departure from the Eurozone, or a reformation of the trading area which would see its geographical extent centred on a smaller core of northern European countries. Even the polarity of both proposed economic policies suggests a reactionary policy attitude, rather than one of meticulous premeditation. The analogy between AfD’s political ascension and that of other European right-wing parties, has led contemporary commentators to relate the rise of the AfD to a continent-wide upsurge in neoconservatism.

Yet the particular German context has disturbed both domestic and international observers, equally within and outside of political circles. The fact that Germany, popularly perceived as a stabilising force in European politics (albeit a force that has been regarded with ire in some circles) is experiencing an increase in the prominence of fringe politics is largely seen as distressing. Furthermore, such growing radicalisation in a country that perhaps, in the public’s imagination, has not been fully absolved of the atrocities of the second world war has led to (often hyperbolic) comparisons between the the AfD and the National Socialism of the nineteen-thirties and forties. The latter aspect of the reaction to the rise of radicalism in Germany, in particular, however exaggerated it may be, seems to demand a reconciliation of the AfD’s position in contemporary politics not only with a dissolving centrist order, but also with a seemingly inescapable historical context.

Whether in the context of an amateur theatre production, or within the walls of the Reichstag, AKK’s task is certainly unenviable.

The dissolution of centrism has been a notable aspect of recent German political developments, not only with respect to the rise of the AfD but also to the rise of minor parties from across the political spectrum. Not all parties that predate the AfD’s establishment have scarpered into the wings: a solid actor has remained on the political stage and is increasingly attracting the spotlight- the Green Party. The party, co-led by Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, has received much contemporary laudation, despite the fact that in recent years the media has preferred to focus on the other key minority party, AfD. Nonetheless, since 1983 the party has maintained its presence in parliament, been part of two German federal governments, and polling figures from February 2019 indicate a slight majority in support for the Greens over the AfD (about eighteen percent compared to thirteen percent respectively).

Certainly, the palpable fragility of the current coalition has aided the Greens as much as it has the AfD. For example, much of the support lost by the nominally centre-left SPD is estimated to have been captured by the Green Party. In order to reverse these trends, recapture its wandering sheep (who have developed a preference for more left-wing parties), and likely embittered by its twenty-year-long decline in popularity as a CDU coalition party, the SPD released a series of progressive proposals in February that further distinguished it from its fiscally conservative fellow-party-in-government. The positive reception these welfare policies received from voters, which encompass relaxing regulations on unemployment benefits, increasing state pensions and a rise of the minimum wage, may well encourage the SPD’s party leadership to mould this policy distinction into a tool for attack on the largest party, the CDU. It will at least affect the preferences of an electorate that is increasingly volatile in its political preferences: if it can demonstrate its superiority not only to the CDU but also to the Green Party (the AfD support base remains unfazed), the SDP may well be able to tip the balance of power in its favour. Yet much like the Greens, its success will likely depend on how well it can define itself in opposition to the ever more dissatisfactory ‘establishment’- a task not easy for a party that has been on the governing side of the Bundestag for two decades.

Looming omnipresent, however, is the party that still outstrips the SDP in popularity. The notable presence of the AfD in parliament has presented Germany with an uncomfortable, and now unavoidable, facet of its political landscape. Yet the ‘New Right’, as the German phrase for the alt-Right translates, is not as new as the moniker suggests. A smattering of small national-conservative parties founded in the immediacy of the war’s conclusion enjoyed some limited electoral success in the 1950s, before seventy of these like-minded groups united ‘in the national interest’ to form the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). Yet it was the unwillingness to be represented by a party reminiscent of the Nazis, nor for the German reputation to be tarnished by the public appraisal of such a party, that prevented the NPD’s success in the 1969 national elections, and its support has dwindled significantly in the intervening decades.

It is telling, to a degree, that ‘Erinnerungskultur’ (literally translated, ‘Culture of remembrance’) which describes the post-Nazi era reconciliation of the German people with their country’s recent brutal past, did not emerge as an identifiable cultural phenomenon until the 1980s. It followed decades of nationwide emotional suppression and, even with its advent in the 1980s, was predominantly visible only within the Western dominion of the Allies. Its emergence decades after the end of the Second World War, after several decades of growing, albeit numerically insignificant, ultra-conservative political movements, could potentially act as a precursive signal of today’s dilemmas.

AfD support is generally higher behind the borders of former East Germany. However, socio-economic concerns are an inefficient indicator of AfD support when one considers that Saxony, now an AfD stronghold and whose city Chemnitz was the site of mass xenophobic attacks, has one of the strongest economies of the former post-East German states. Although the efficacy of the denazification process in the West was certainly debatable, the process’ execution in the area that found itself under Soviet control could potentially have set the scene for the contemporary political situation. Today’s competitive historiography, in which both the Western and Eastern government’s recording of the denazification efforts are often linked to defining the countries’ legacies, makes it difficult to determine which country’s mechanisms for eliminating Nazi influence were the most effective. It is at least evident that both countries to some extent relied on pragmatism rather than ideology in creating the infrastructure of their new states, with previously Nazi-aligned officials continuing to fulfil administrative, legislative and political roles postwar.

Yet the different framing of denazification in the East perhaps sowed the seeds of future political disquiet. Whereas the communist Soviet governance consciously and publicly propounded its anti-fascist virtues, the Western government- though practicing an analogical denazification process- found itself the subject of accusations of cosmetic measures and other criticisms in the country’s free press and in the government where a genuine opposition force existed. The East German government, as one German historian once put it, which was still ‘basking in a self-satisfied triumphalism about its anti-fascist purity’ did not experience the same. Whether a link may be made between the historical difficulty of reconciling the violent period of Nazism with the post-War Stunde Null society, and the modern challenge posed by the presence of the alt-right is speculatory. Yet it is perhaps a perspective worth considering if one wishes to avoid making the mistakes of the past in today’s political arena.

Germany is on the hunt for alternatives. Even within the CDU itself, AKK narrowly won the vote for the position of chairperson over Friedrich Merz, who claims to stand for ‘a cosmopolitan Germany whose roots lie in Christian ethics and the European Enlightenment’ and whose most important allies are the democracies of the West’, his rhetoric blurring preconceived notions one may have of the ideological distinctions between establishment and non-establishment politicians. The rising popularity of both the Green Party and the AfD signifies the inadequate response of the political establishment to both the progressive demands of German society as well as the political disquiet of post-War and post-Reunification Germany. To have any chance of solving this political disarray, the Bundestag will have to take the modern demands and complex needs of the German people on board, and soon. If Gretel wants to clean this mess up, she’s going to have to scrub a lot harder.


Originally published 18.04.19 in Vol. 2 No. 2.

Photo Credit: Photo by CDU Saar / CC BY 1.0 ( gret_Kramp-Karrenbauer.png) Image modified.


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