If you squint hard enough, Germany in 2017 looks much like Germany in 1983. Fear of a nuclear war triggered by the twitchy thumb of an impulsive American showbiz president stalks the land. A new party with a radical agenda, then the Greens, now the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), is banging on the doors of the Bundestag. The SPD, the world’s oldest social-democratic party, is trying to unseat a conservative chancellor by promising more social justice and fewer nuclear weapons, though its candidate has all the energy and charisma of an overworked geography teacher.
That slightly blurry picture certainly fits with a common view of Germany in the Western world: Here is a country that looks like it is still trucking on the autobahn-concrete certainties of the 20th century, while the Anglosphere has dived head-first into a wobbly postmodern mess. Angela Merkel is Helmut Kohl with a bowl haircut. Right-wing upstarts AfD are the 1980s Green party, though they want to ban the burqa, not the bomb. This year’s SPD candidate, Martin Schulz, is 1983’s SPD candidate Hans-Jochen Vogel, and as likely to elicit cries of “who?” in 30 years’ time.
Viewed from America or Britain, Germany looks like a haven of stability. Earlier this year, I was at a dinner in an Italian restaurant in Berlin’s parliamentary district where German politicians and think-tankers tried to console former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, still visibly shaken by the Trump tremor. “If it’s any consolation,” one of them said, “I can assure you that Germany will remain centrist, pragmatic, and, above all, stable.”
To an extent, they were right. Merkel is all but certain to continue for a fourth term after September 24, with her party enjoying a comfortable double-digit lead over the second-placed center-left SPD. In the AfD, right-wing populists will enter the German parliament for the first time in over five decades, but they are expected be counterbalanced by three liberal and left-wing parties, each with a broadly similar share of the vote.
If you focus in a bit more, however, the continuities between the Germany of the early ’80s and the Germany of today become less clear, and the impression of continuity starts to fade. In March 1983, few voters would have complained that it didn’t matter behind which party they placed their cross. Christian Democrat Kohl, who had gained his seat at the top of German politics just a few months previously because of a vote of no-confidence regarding his predecessor, nonetheless ran on a heavily confrontational agenda.
Kohl promised to cut support for unemployed people without families, lower the capital-asset tax, and point US Pershing and cruise missiles toward Russia from German soil. His center-left opponent announced in a series of wordy typographic posters that he would do “everything in my strength” to keep US medium-range nukes out of the country and entrench welfare and housing benefits, despite unemployment levels’ having risen to a postwar record under his party’s recently ended watch. In 1983, Germany ended up choosing Kohl, but the choice had been real and the public had felt it: 89.1 percent of the population turned out to vote.
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Such a polarization of electoral options on offer is hardly to be found in Germany today. Only a few months ago, commentators had confidently predicted that Merkel would not be able to afford another campaign as void of real political content as in 2013, when she had summed up her agenda at the end of a TV debate with the words: “You know me.” After the refugee crisis, after Brexit, after Trump, after the Volkswagen emissions scandal, Merkel had to go on the attack.
As she has done so often, Germany’s chancellor confounded her critics. The CDU campaign strategy in September 2017 boils down to a picture of Merkel with a reassuring smile and the slogan Für ein Deutschland in dem wir gut und gerne leben, meaning “For a Germany in which we live well and gladly,” sometimes abbreviated into the Dada-esque hashtag #fedidwgugl.
Merkel, who was born in Hamburg but grew up on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, did not enter politics until she was 35. As she reminded readers in a recent interview with the left-leaning newspaper taz (Die Tageszeitung), she chose the Christian Democratic Union not because of an existential bond with the party’s brand of Rhineland Catholicism but because of pure pragmatism, having shopped around at the East German equivalents of the Social Democrats and the Greens.
In her 12 years in power, this has enabled Merkel to hoover up voters from an expanded center ground, ignoring the CDU’s traditional allergy to left-wing stances about workplace protection and immigration, though also its nervousness about the rise of new parties to its right. One of her posters this autumn shows a picture of a young man in a carpentry workshop, underneath the slogan “For good work and good wages”: as unabashed an appropriation of the language and iconography of the German left as ever there was one.
According to a recent poll by the Bertelsmann foundation, 80 percent of the German public regard themselves as center-left or center-right voters, and it shows in this year’s campaign more than ever before. Main challenger Martin Schulz, projected to come second with an underwhelming 20–24 percent, wobbles uneasily between attack-dog mode and consensus-seeking mission, somehow finding time in a sharply paced head-to-head TV debate to quote Rumi: “Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.”
Over the past 12 months Social Democrats have held regular talks with Die Linke, the successor party to the PDS, which in turn was the successor party to the ignominious ruling party of East Germany. Yet a year on, the two left-wing parties look no closer to bridging their historic differences—rooted in the early 20th century but further accentuated by the SPD’s labor-market reforms of the early noughties—and Schulz has found it much easier to talk the language of diplomacy with the center-right than the left. A poor regional election result in the tiny state of Saarland earlier this year was enough to instill in SPD HQ a fear of Merkel running a Rote Socken campaign, the German version of redbaiting.
The Green Party, still bruised after its courageous campaign on tax increases for high- and middle-income earners failed to light a spark in 2013, is running a much vaguer campaign this year, its TV ad trying to cloak a feel-bad message about climate change with a feel-good soundtrack. Their current poor polling figures are one reason a red-red-green coalition, still a mathematical possibility in 2013, is off the cards.
Even the party furthest to the right has one eye on the political center. The TV ad of the AfD, which was founded in 2013 in opposition to Greek bailout packages but could now become the third-biggest force in parliament on a more overtly nationalist, anti-immigration agenda, involves its candidate Alice Weidel coyly noting her friends’ embarrassment at her being associated with such a right-wing outfit. A relatively fresh face on the political circuit, the former Goldman Sachs employee plays an important role in giving an economically liberal face to a party whose candidates in the old east expound the kind of far-right views that were until recently deemed unacceptable in German mainstream debate.
As a result of this crowding of the center, the kind of issues that politicized the German public in 1983 are missing from the debate. Three big questions, in particular, are notable by their absence.
Question one: How much burden-sharing will Germany accept in order to save the eurozone? While all of the country’s six biggest parties—barring the AfD—describe themselves as pro-European, there has been no discussion on the campaign trail of ideas that would tackle the currency bloc’s long-term construction flaws while it enjoys a period of respite from Greek debt jitters.
Nigel Farage and other British Euroskeptics may still dismiss Germany’s political class as “federalists,” but to find truly bold proposals for European integration these days, one has to reach outside the party circuit, to political theorists like Ulrike Guerot.
“Germany doesn’t realize how much the rest of Europe is starting to hate us again,” she says. “But if you watch Polish TV or read Spanish newspapers, you would know that the rest of the continent is running out of patience with our Animal Farm approach to the EU that Germany is more equal than others.” If Germany wants to save Europe, she argues, it needs to start debating a eurozone parliament, the creation of eurobonds as a shield against the next debt crisis, and measures to strengthen European democracy.
Absent question number two: If Germany can no longer “rely completely” on the United States and Britain following the election of President Trump and Brexit, as Merkel herself has said, is it prepared to build up its own nuclear capacity? In a nod to Vogel’s failed run in 1983, Schulz has tried to revive the SPD’s image as a Friedenspartei, or “party of peace,” and vowed to oppose the 2 percent NATO spending target, which the Social Democratic candidate says is being forced on his country by the US president. The subject did not even get a mention in the TV debate, but, even if it hadn’t faded during the campaign, it would have only begun to scratch the surface. Even if Germany were to increase its military spending overnight, NATO would still be disproportionately reliant on America’s contribution, which covers 75 percent of NATO’s military expenditures.
Absent question number three: What happens when German politics can no longer protect the car industry from itself? For all of the chancellor’s lip-service to fighting climate change, she has done everything to shield the country’s biggest industry from the fallout of the diesel scandal, in which Merkel has said that her chiefs of industry need to “rebuild trust.” But ties between the world of German politics and car makers in Bavaria or Lower Saxony are so tight that the tone of outrage fails to convince: Her current deputy chancellor and the last German president from her party had both been on the supervisory board at Volkswagen. Merkel has rejected quotas that would force VW, BMW, & Co. to wean themselves off gas more quickly, and she waved away the suggestion that the same car makers who colluded to lie to their customers about their motors’ real emissions level should pay for hardware updates that make them cleaner.
Merkel pretends that it is still within her power to avert an existential crisis. But what if the electric car makes its breakthrough and Chinese or American companies simply leave German car makers trailing in their wake? As early as next spring, the country’s federal administrative court could decide to ban diesel cars from entering more than 90 German cities that are suffering from excessive levels of toxic smog, dispelling with the stroke of a pen the illusion of the chancellor’s ability to hold back the tide of change.
It is possible, of course, that Merkel has her eyes firmly set on these existential challenges lurking underneath the surface of this election. It is possible that she has simply not raised them because she knows she can win this election without breaking a sweat, and that she is saving her energy for bigger fights on the global stage. She may be plotting a historically novel coalition government with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democratic Party that both internalizes a progressive mandate on the environment and neutralizes the populists from the right, only to fold the momentum into Macron’s appetite for more European solidarity. In what is certainly her last term in power, she won’t have much to lose.
German politics works on a different logic than that of the Anglo-Saxon world, and it would do so even if the Trumps, Erdogans, and Putins of the world hadn’t scarecrowed the national mood into the political center. Its system of representative democracy makes coalition governments the norm and flexibility a requisite for political survival. In German plenary chambers, drama and passion are relative cultural values, as the poet Heinrich Heine once noted. If the English loved liberty like it was the rightful wife they would defend to the death, Heine wrote, and if the French adored liberty with the amour fou of a young lover lusting after a chosen bride, “then Germany loves liberty in the way it loves its old grandmother.” And the bond between a grandmother and her grandchildren should not be underestimated.
There is also a more terrifying possibility, however. It could be the case that Germany, far from being the antidote to the populist virus that has attacked America and Britain, has already been infected with the same virus—it’s just that its immune system processes the poison differently. If a crisis induced by the globalization of trade and information flows was able to amplify America’s appetite for drama and showmanship, it may amplify the European economic giant’s tendency to lethargy and introspection. Germany will fall asleep, and avoid the debates it needs to have until it is too late.
Germans may love their grandmother, but do they really believe they can stop her from dying?