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.