Germany—Appearance and Reality

Germany—Appearance and Reality

Amid economic stagnation, polls show increasing skepticism about the competence of German elites. Can a resurgent Green Party bring political renewal?


Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has come to Washington to be honored at a state dinner at the White House tonight, will be welcomed as a loyal ally, a very competent leader and the representative of a successful nation. No doubt, President Obama has reason to envy her capacity to exploit the weaknesses of her situation to stay on top. It is not, however, the kind of thing that is decently said aloud. Commentators instead will remind Germany of its moral obligations: to accept US initiatives, large and small. Otherwise, after all, we might not defend it against Russian invasion or Iranian missiles.

In Washington the chancellor will pretend to agree with a worldview that in Berlin she ignores, since it is dismissed as preposterous by much of her citizenry as well as by intelligent bureaucrats and politicians. Once home, she will preside over the shrinkage of the German army and keep it out of disasters like the stalled NATO intervention in Libya. Before the next general election, two years hence, she will certainly recall German forces from Afghanistan. Since 1945, war has become deeply unpopular in Germany, and the Afghan war is viewed as especially senseless.

History counts for the chancellor. She grew up as a pastor’s daughter in Communist East Germany, became a physicist—and left criticism and resistance to others. After reunification in 1990, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, recognizing her gifts of timing and ideological flexibility, made her environmental minister. In the end she replaced him (none too elegantly) as leader of the Christian Democratic Party. She became chancellor in 2005, outmaneuvered her Social Democratic coalition partners and since the 2009 national elections has governed with the party of the market, the Free Democrats.

Recently, however, the ruling coalition has suffered large losses in both polls and state elections. This past March Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost to the Green Party the governorship of Baden-Württemberg, a wealthy and conservative southern state they had ruled for decades. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the German public forced her to reverse her own coalition’s policy and declare that Germany would end the use of nuclear power in ten years.

Merkel’s coalition and party are riven by recriminations. The chancellor has profited from the indecision and vacuity of the Christian Democrats’ traditional adversary, the Social Democrats. She has blocked the deregulatory and tax-cutting projects of the Free Democrats and the business wing of her own party. She judges, correctly, that the new German capitalism is undermining the power and reach of the welfare state. She allows its silent shrinkage to proceed somewhat shamefacedly, since she does think social solidarity is a necessary task of the state.

Everywhere in Western Europe, the political agents of capital are reclaiming for the market the ground they lost to the state over the past half-century. The resistance of the parties of the left, and of the social Christian parties with traditions of attachment to social justice, has been weak. Recently, the technocratic elements of the left (proclaiming themselves “modern”) have joined in reducing the welfare state—and that includes Germany’s Social Democrats. Under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, ostensibly to provide incentives to work, they cut disability, unemployment and retirement benefits, and introduced obligatory low-wage employment.

Merkel, not unlike Obama, presents herself as above or beyond party. She turned the recent loss of her majority in the second chamber of the Bundestag, in which the states are directly represented, to her advantage—by telling her own coalition that it had to compromise. Her domestic message is that there is little need to vote for the Greens or the Social Democrats, since she is committed to environmental regulation and the retention of as much of the welfare state as an effective capitalism will allow.

Were there to be a national election in Germany tomorrow, the Greens are the only party that would improve on their performance in the 2009 national elections. Then they had just under 11 percent of the vote; they are more than double that in today’s polls. The Greens are indispensable junior partners to the Social Democrats in major states and the senior partner, for the first time, in Baden-Württemberg. They may win the mayorship of Berlin later this year.

Some of the new Green strength comes from misfortune of the Free Democrats, who have plunged drastically, from nearly 15 percent in the 2009 elections to 5 percent, below which they cannot enter Parliament. Indeed, they lost their representation in some state parliaments, have fallen into bitter division and have little or nothing to offer but a market theology for which there is only a small German congregation. The new Green voters are socially those who in the 1960s and ’70s allied with the industrial working class to back the Social Democrats under Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. But the Social Democrats, with the working class reduced in size and changed in composition, have lost their sense of a historical mission. In state elections, their results have been so mediocre that in a national majority composed of Greens and Social Democrats, it is possible the Greens would obtain more votes and be able to name the chancellor.

The Greens are no longer the party of the countercultural young, environmental visionaries, militant feminists and committed Christians intent on applying the Gospel. They have won the votes of middle-class, professional and managerial voters. They seek local self-determination (they hold mayorships in many university towns) and a peaceful German international role. The Fukushima disaster helped the Greens, certainly—from their founding, the party has consistently opposed nuclear power—but ever since they entered Parliament in 1983 they have drawn upon growing dissatisfaction with the complacency and immobility of Germany’s elites. Their March victory in Baden-Württemberg followed not only Fukushima but also a protest by the citizens of Stuttgart against the leveling of the old city center to construct a new railway station. The new Green and Social Democratic coalition in the state will submit the project to a referendum—exceedingly rare in a political system that largely works from the top down.

The Greens started thirty-odd years ago with a strong commitment to an altered quality of consumption and work—reminiscent of German Christian traditions of which they are now the secular heirs. In national office from 1998 to 2005, they were instrumental in transforming Germany into a society in which environmental reconstruction is nearly consensual; industry has abandoned much of its earlier opposition. Indeed, windmills and solar equipment are now major German exports.

In the United States, the Greens are often viewed as younger siblings of the protesters in jeans and sneakers of the late 1970s and early ’80s. They (and others) still protest in the thousands—but their leaders are skilled parliamentarians and accomplished television performers, experienced in local, state and national office. Their emblematic figure, Joschka Fischer, who was foreign minister from 1998 to 2005 in Schröder’s Social Democratic government, has retired. The new Green Minister President (Governor) of Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, 63, is a former schoolteacher and an accomplished tactician. He has announced a long-term project to convert his highly industrialized state to ecologically positive modes of energy production—and the industrialists may well listen to him.

The Greens insist on the integration of immigrants to full civic status. One of their two national co-chairs is Cem Özdemir, born in Germany of Turkish parents. They also espouse unequivocal equality for women. The other national co-chair is Claudia Roth, a very effective parliamentary leader in recent years. Their mayoral candidate in Berlin is Renate Künast, a successful agricultural and consumer minister from 2001 to 2005. Their parliamentary leader, Jürgen Trittin, who was environmental minister in those years, is a person of intelligence, toughness and wit. Their senior figure in the European Parliament is Reinhard Bütikofer, who lived briefly as an adolescent in Wisconsin. He is at home in a range of German and international milieus, a global thinker with a local touch. The Greens are, not least, firm and even intransigent on the indispensability of European integration; they reject the Christian Democrats’ implacable opposition to Turkish membership in the EU.

The Greens can congratulate themselves on having a project about which to argue. Much of the argument inside the erstwhile leading party of the German left, the Social Democrats, entails a desperate search for new ideas. Its working-class base, with its familial and neighborhood continuities, has disintegrated, with a diminished industrial working class now precariously situated between the managerial and technical elite, the white-collar corps and a disorganized army of temporary and semi-skilled workers. The Social Democratic Party was an alliance of workers and the intelligentsia, but the working class has changed, and the university-educated are now everywhere in the political spectrum. Categories fixed decades ago are out of date. What would a modern idea of redistribution consist of? The Social Democrats cannot—yet—answer. Under Schröder in 1998 they received 41 percent of the vote. In the 2009 election they had only 23 percent, and they have hardly bettered themselves since in national polls. They depict themselves as sober managers of the threatened national firm—but their lack of fervor is too evident.

A spasmodic fervor for social transformation is represented by the Left Party, which had 11.9 percent of the 2009 vote but is now stagnant. It speaks in two tongues: much of the party suffers nostalgia for the ideological and social security of the Communist state. In the east, the party, led by former Communists, polls distinctly better than in the west, where it is the party of Social Democratic dissidents, mainly from the trade unions. The national party was led by Oskar Lafontaine, once the Social Democrats’ inspiring chairman and finance minister, but since Lafontaine’s retirement last year for health reasons, his successors have been convincingly uncompelling.

The Greens and Social Democrats together now have about 45 percent of the vote, and with the Left Party they might be able to form a government after the next election. But most Social Democrats and many Greens reject the idea; they think of the Left Party as systematically unreliable and consider its resolutely anti-NATO policy an electoral liability. (The other parties tirelessly proclaim adherence to NATO but just as tirelessly follow an autonomous German course. Merkel’s government, for example, voted in the UN Security Council against intervention in Libya.) The Left Party is indeed dogmatically rigid, so the fact that the Social Democrats cannot win over its electorate is due to the latter’s own political disorientation.

The weakness of her opponents (and of her Free Democratic coalition partner) is the strength of Angela Merkel. The Christian Democrats (with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) still have about a third of the electorate. The party has many contradictions: it is supported by much of the capitalist elite, but also by culturally conservative segments of the churches, which favor the welfare state. (Both Catholics and Protestants in Germany favor the welfare state, the conservative ones on grounds of patriarchal responsibility, the more modern ones because of egalitarian beliefs. In the end, they agree on just what many but by no means all American Christians tend to reject, a large state role in the economy.) It is the party of close alliance with the United States, but it also pursues close relationships with both China and Russia.

The Christian Democrats are the party of European integration, but Merkel has appeased public opinion in limiting Germany’s commitment to the weaker European economies. She has courted disaster for the entire European project by opposing EU help for the beleaguered Greeks. There, she serves two masters: the crude economic nationalism of much of the populace, who see the Greeks (and Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians) as lazy southerners exploiting Germany’s northern industriousness; and the banks, profligate in their loans to the Mediterranean nations, who fear having to pay their share of the bill for European solidarity. The Christian Democrats reject Turkish membership in the Union and Merkel—concerned to avert the emergence of a xenophobic party to her right that could fatally weaken her own—has pandered to xenophobia by declaring that multiculturalism in Germany has failed.

Merkel has risked not only her own future but also that of German parliamentary democracy on a dubious wager. She considers that she can parry enough of the intrinsic destructiveness of German capital to contain economic and social discontent. As in the other industrial democracies, Germany has for four decades experienced a very organized counter-offensive by the proponents of the market. But singular alliance of churches and trade unions and the acquired political instincts of much of the nation prevented an assault as brutal as those of Reagan and Thatcher. German capitalism’s advance has been made possible by government’s omissions. The welfare state and public provision of goods and services have not been directly attacked—but opportunities for making them more effective have not been taken.

Meanwhile, capital has moved employment out of the country, to Eastern Europe and beyond. The export of technologically advanced products, after a period of austerity, has reduced unemployment to an official 7 percent, but it is almost twice as high in the east as in the west. It is higher among women, many of whom are single heads of households. Many citizens work at low-paid jobs, with no continuity of employment, and have to struggle at least once a month with the local employment office to retain their sparse supplementary benefits. One of every nine children lives in households at or below the official poverty line. At least 25 percent of the labor force is in low-wage employment, constantly threatened by impoverishment. In the past decade, the percentage of national income going to profits and investment income has risen, while the percentage going to wages and salaries has shrunk. Many Germans have become poorer. And the shift from an economy based on domestic consumption to one dependent on exports puts the country permanently at the mercy of external events.

Most polls and qualitative social inquiries show increasing skepticism about the good faith and competence of German elites. The steadily decreasing proportion of Germans who participate in elections at national, state and local levels (though still higher than our own) suggests a creeping crisis in German democracy. The country is not without its equivalents of Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh, who are found in the widely influential pages of the daily Bild, with a daily circulation of about 3 million and equivalent in political influence to a major party of the right. Its vulgarity and its resort to defamation and falsehood make the New York Post seem civilized. The paper’s articles against German economic assistance to Greece exploited the most sordid of national prejudices—and it is equally unsparing in its prejudice against, even hatred of, Germany’s own unemployed and impoverished, depicted regularly in its pages as lazy and prone to welfare fraud. The treatment of economic and social themes by the rest of the media, especially television, is impoverished where it is not biased.

The resentments and tensions generated by the increasing disparities of income and life chances have resulted in outbreaks of violence. Some of it is casual, but frequent—attacks by drunken youths on passengers in the subway system, for instance. Some is politically organized by right-wing groups like the National Democratic Party, which in some areas openly practices intimidation and terror against foreigners. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked the German government to be more attentive to its responsibilities to immigrants and to German citizens of other ethnic origins, like the nearly 1 million German citizens of ethnic Turkish background. The danger of the rise of a mass xenophobic and racist party is considerable.

A generation ago Germany was in many ways exemplary. A generation born to parents who had been deeply involved in the Nazi catastrophe took its distance from that legacy. They constructed an industrial democracy that joined effective state action to the practice of citizenship. A new internationalism was developed, as Germans sought reconciliation and not revenge. A modus vivendi was established with Communist Germany, Poland and Russia during the cold war, which was an original German contribution to coexistence. Domestic economic burdens were shared, and the phrase in the German Constitution, “property brings obligations,” was taken seriously.

The integration of the once-Communist east remains a problem. The older easterners resent what they experienced as bullying and patronizing by the west. Large economic differences persist, and parts of the east are cultural and social wastelands. Still, the eastern electorate’s stubborn adherence to a maximal welfare state makes total economic and social regression impossible for the nation as a whole.

Much of that is now dissolving in a nation adrift. The successor generation has been unable to master the problems of the new epoch. Accomplishments like Franco-German and Polish-German reconciliation are taken for granted. The common tasks of Europe are subordinated to crude conceptions of immediate national interest. Clearly, economic stagnation, and increasing deprivation, account for a loss of confidence in the national capacity to construct the future. The embittered defense of the status quo, for those who profit from it, is reminiscent of the provincialism of much American politics. To a striking extent, the deficiencies of the German universities resemble those of our own, in which high-level inquiry stops short of mapping a new world. A generation ago the philosopher Jürgen Habermas referred to the “colonization” of the life worlds of the citizenry by the ideology and sensibility of the market. That process has continued, as Europe’s richest nation allows itself to be exploited by its homegrown profiteers.

Those who deplored the German version of exceptionalism (national unification in the late nineteenth century, the initiation of two terrible wars, Nazi barbarism and genocide) were, by the end of the twentieth century, relieved at the new German normalcy. Now that normalcy places Germany in the company of the other European nations. Dispirited publics rise up occasionally against elites, social exclusion in several forms grows and the institutions and above all the motivation for solidarity retreat. It is asking too much of Germany’s Greens that they set a disjointed period aright. But what we can hope for is that their recent surge reflects possibilities of renewal. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel vends her image as the steward of responsibility, understood as a dour acceptance of political limits. Insofar as that is true, it is an ignominious if unintended admission of a large failure of political imagination.

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