Angela Merkel's legacy: A steady hand

Author: William Collins Donahue

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William Collins Donahue, Director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, C.S.C., Professor of the Humanities at the University of Notre Dame, recently published the following article in Commonweal Magazine on March 7, 2019. To view the original article, click here

Deidre Berger, the former NPR correspondent in Berlin, once reflected on the challenge of bringing foreign news to an American audience. If you don’t make a story align with homegrown, familiar realities, she said, Americans won’t care about it and perhaps won’t even recognize it; but if you move it too close to domestic news, you risk losing precisely what’s new or different. That, I think, is the problem we face in trying to understand Angela Merkel’s Germany. Seeing the dangers of anti-immigrant populism here in the United States—and elsewhere in Europe—we project that danger onto Germany, and thus end up with a half-truth, at best.

When we turn our gaze to Europe, we tend to focus on an oft-reiterated troika of political troubles: the immigration crisis; an enervated EU; and right-wing populism. News outlets attend to Orbán’s suppression of free speech in Hungary, to May’s desperate attempt to sell a Brexit deal, and to Italy’s flirtation with populism—with an occasional glance to Poland’s slide toward authoritarianism, or to an “improbable” immigration crisis in one of the Scandinavian countries. So where does Germany fit in? The truth is that while each of these three issues touches real wounds and sensitive nerves in many places across Europe, none constitutes a true crisis for Europe’s most secure democracy. At least not yet.

Still, the news we consume about Germany is processed through the filter I’ve just described. So when pundits try to understand the recent dramatic losses suffered by the two great postwar centrist parties in Germany—the Christian Democratic Union (the CDU, led by Merkel) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD)—they go for the usual culprit, which is immigration and, by extension, Merkel herself. The losses recorded in Bavaria several months ago, and in Hesse more recently, are frequently laid at her feet; German voters are said to be punishing her for the too-permissive immigration policy of 2015, when Merkel controversially refused to limit the number of refugees granted entry into Germany during the height of the Syrian crisis.

But this is not the whole story. The populist movement in Germany, represented principally by the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, has not in fact benefited unambiguously from Germany’s “immigration crisis.” In Bavaria, the votes lost by centrists were divided between the AfD and the Green Party, which supports immigration and strongly repudiates the AfD’s xenophobia. In Hesse, where elections were held about a month later, the results were strikingly similar. Though Merkel announced shortly after the Hesse vote that she would not run again as leader of the CDU, the two recent state elections are by no means a clear repudiation of her immigration policy. What we in fact see is a modest endorsement of her core values.

The general consensus remains that Merkel’s days are numbered. But it would be misguided to see this as part of a general “wave of populism” washing across Europe. Exit interviews in Hesse revealed that many voters meant to voice their disapproval not only of “Mutti” (or Mama)—the simultaneously affectionate and condescending nickname Germans have for Merkel—but of her coalition partners as well. The main culprit was Horst Seehofer, her rival from the conservative Bavarian CDU sister party, the CSU, who (with our own president lending a hand) tried to topple Merkel last summer in a showdown over immigration on Germany’s southern border. That drama clogged the news cycles all summer long, and German voters were tired of it. That partly explains the general disgust with the Grand Coalition (consisting of the CDU/CSU and the SPD) and the failure of leaders in both centrist parties to address the problem rather than make political hay out of it. Another part of the explanation has to do with the nature of rival parties governing in coalition, which tends to produce an indistinct amalgam that offers voters few options. This sense of stasis, especially at a time when voters were hungry for alternatives, helps explain increased support for non-traditional parties.   

Still, even if Merkel was not the only, or even the principal, target, she nevertheless heads this dysfunctional group, and the message seems clear: Mama’s got to go. But what Americans should hold onto, I would argue, is this: that amid the apparent weakening and even splintering of Germany’s major political parties, and the corresponding uncertainty about its future leadership, what one sees is an astonishingly stable democracy. The elections did not just document turmoil and dissatisfaction. They also revealed a firm majority of centrist parties—and voters—committed to democracy and the rule of law. The center in Germany may be occupied by more parties, but it is still quite strong. Yes, we can expect challenges in building and maintaining coalitions, but we needn’t fear another Weimar Republic.

It is not just our penchant to generalize Europe, or to reason from our own situation, that causes us to misread Germany. In the United States today it has become a liberal reflex to respond vehemently to the first sign of authoritarianism, to the first trace of bigotry or racism. In an op-ed piece for Commonweal after the 2017 German federal elections, which resulted in the first representation ever of a far-right party in the Bundestag, I cautioned patience. Liberal friends objected that I was soft-pedaling the AfD and utterly failing to realize the imminent threat. They may eventually turn out to be right, but I prefer to scream that the sky is falling only when it really is. To me, vigilance about neo-Nazism should take the form of practical political action, not alarmist rhetoric. By overstating the successes of the AfD, we are not only being inaccurate; we’re running the risk of inadvertently helping to bring about what we most abhor.

To say that immigration is not, at present, a government-toppling crisis in Germany is not to deny that it is a hot-button issue. Of course it is. Yet refugee numbers are significantly down, and there is a consensus in the country that any future influx will have to be carefully regulated, preferably in concert with an overall EU strategy. While defending her 2015 decision, Merkel herself refers to it as a one-time policy meant to address an overwhelming humanitarian crisis. It is also true that Merkel has suffered a loss of support over immigration. There was frankly a lot of great press to be had in 2015 with images of good Germans welcoming the disadvantaged and dispossessed of the Middle East; for Germany, as I’ve argued previously in these pages, this was the real end of the postwar era, because it supplanted the image of Germany as Holocaust perpetrator with that of Germany as safe haven for refugees. 

But the euphoria of Germany redefining itself in this manner gradually gave way to a chorus of criticism. It was fascinating to watch this erosion of support, so often accompanied by remarks that suggested critics wanted it both ways. They acknowledged Merkel may have been right in principle, while criticizing the execution of the policy. Immigration itself is acceptable—perhaps even a very good thing—as long as it is done gradually and the right way. Merkel’s implementation was flawed, they said. She didn’t consult the Bundestag. Or she underestimated the difficulties of absorbing so many newcomers. Or there simply weren’t enough beds, or teachers, or shelters. Or the bureaucracy set up to handle the flow of refugees—the BAMF (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge)—was ineffective and naïve. And, worst of all, she failed to predict how all of this would fuel the rise of far-right parties. 

To these criticisms I would respond: yes, yes, and yes. But at some point the criticism seems too easy, resembling the way Trump treated Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential debates, holding her responsible for every failure within the federal government. Is Mutti really to blame for all these things? I recall one popular talk show where a former BAMF employee “revealed” that some refugees, in attempting to gain legal status in Germany, had lied to authorities about their background. Horror of horrors! He was clearly shocked, and his enthusiasm for the entire program had waned as a result. But of course desperate people sometimes lie. And of course bureaucracies sometimes fail us. Mismanagement and a notorious bribe scandal have further tarnished BAMF’s reputation. As a perhaps all-too-cynical American, I remain amused that Germans seem genuinely surprised when their institutions fail; I’m impressed that they function fairly well. 

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It’s worth noting that mainstream support for immigration shrunk precisely at a time when the spigot has already been turned almost off, reducing the flow to a trickle. As I read it, the sobering of the German public on this issue was almost inevitable, a reasonable response to largely fair-minded criticism of flawed implementation. It is not a panicked response, however; nor is there an ongoing threat of foreigners breaching German borders. Yet this sense of cultural invasion is exactly what the AfD exploits, and it has had undeniable success; the right-wing German party is now represented in all state legislatures as well as in the federal Bundestag. Such growth is a matter of serious concern. But the AfD controls less than 13 percent of the seats in the federal parliament, and its support in the Western states—the largest and most populous portion of Germany—is not strong: it reaches 25 percent only in the sparsely populated East. And its popularity there, far from being a simple matter of xenophobia, reflects deeper issues of structural unemployment and a gendered pattern of internal migration to the West. In a New York Times piece that should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand contemporary Germany, “One Legacy of Merkel? Angry East German Men Fueling the Far Right,” journalist Katrin Bennhold makes the case that the underlying issue is lingering underemployment among a disproportionately male population.

Bennhold draws on her own impressive reporting as well as a recent book by SPD representative Petra Köpping, the title of which—taken from an interview with one of Köpping’s Eastern male subjects—speaks volumes: “Integriert doch erstmal uns!” Eine Streitschrift für den Osten, or “Why Don’t You Integrate Us First!” A Polemic for Eastern Germany. Both Köpping and Bennhold show how after unification, younger women left the former East in disproportionately high numbers. “Communism,” Bennhold explains, “succeeded in creating a broad class of women who were independent, emancipated, often better educated and working in more adaptable service jobs than eastern men.” Following the fall of the wall, the East lost over 10 percent of its population—and two-thirds of that loss consisted of young women. As the highest-profile example of an Eastern woman who made it in the West, Merkel is a convenient target for the resentments of the men who have been left behind. It doesn’t help that the marriage market for men in the former Communist East is dismal. Or, as Bennhold notes, that the young male immigrants seeking asylum—“dynamic, determined and driven” men who are present in Germany by the very fact of their having made a difficult journey—stand for everything these Eastern men are not.

Long downplayed in the West, this “Eastern Man” phenomenon has emerged as “a disruptive political force,” Benn-hold asserts, that is “reshaping German politics.” Pundits who recite the familiar creed about immigrants “causing” the rise of the AfD need to spend some time with Bennhold’s more nuanced analysis. Indeed, the whole narrative of causality is far too slapdash when it comes to immigrants and the rise of right-wing populist parties. Too often, in a classic example of post hoc, ergo propter hocthinking, commentators assume that the racism and xenophobia associated with the success of right-wing parties has been caused by the influx of immigrants and asylum seekers—as if asylum seekers had somehow converted otherwise virtuous, upstanding citizens into xenophobic AfD supporters. The argument hardly differs from the old misogynistic saw that blames women for men’s sexual predation. If we acknowledge the prior wounds of long-term economic neglect, as well as the simmering misogyny in the wake of the flight of successful women from former Communist Germany, we can see that the hatred now surfacing has a crucial prehistory. It was not created ex nihilo by dark-skinned young men who venture into Germany, or by the woman-in-chief who let them in. Blaming the immigrants, and reproaching Merkel, is not a convincing diagnosis, but rather part of the bigotry itself—a part that, often enough, camouflages itself as respectable punditry. 

Opinion writers mediating foreign news to Americans tend to rely on a sensational “hook” in order to gin up a salable sense of urgency. Oliver Nachtwey certainly understood this when he wrote his alarmist December 8 op-ed piece for the New York Times, titled “It Doesn’t Matter Who Replaces Merkel. Germany is Broken.” Wrong and wrong. Merkel’s successor as leader of the CDU will be the person Merkel herself has carefully groomed, namely Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. And while the economic trends Nachtwey identifies in his piece are real, Germany is by no means broken. The far less racy fact is that a stable, well-functioning democracy is—like Merkel herself—easily dismissed as “boring,” and by definition less newsworthy than, for instance, a hate-spewing president whose whims hijack the news cycle on a daily basis. Boring old Germany cannot—thank God!—compete with that.

To declare Merkel’s legacy to be the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and throughout Europe, as some have done, is worse than premature; it betrays a journalistic bias that skews in favor of both the familiar and the sensational. Judged more fairly, Merkel’s tenure as chancellor will, I wager, be seen as a profoundly stabilizing force that elevated humanitarian values at a time of crisis when no other country—the United States included—was willing to respond creatively and generously to the Syrian-refugee calamity. The destabilizing force Merkel has worked hard to contain is not immigration; in truth it is none other than President Trump himself, who interfered in German domestic politics last summer with this tweet: “The people in Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up.”

Crime in Germany is in fact way down, but that is, of course, beside the point. The point is that a U.S. president—for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic—intervened during a German election to destabilize the ruling government by spreading a lie. Trump’s canard about crime rates and their alleged connection to immigration was the culmination of his assault on Europe at last summer’s G7 and NATO summits, an ongoing harangue that takes Germany—and Merkel in particular—as its principal target. For Trump, Europe is almost always Germany, which he views not as an ally but as an economic rival who contributes too little to NATO coffers. Overturning decades of diplomatic protocol, Trump’s new ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, has kept up the animus; indeed, one of his first official acts was to give an interview to Breitbart in which he described his role as a supporter of right-wing populism throughout Europe. Far from gaining a foothold in Germany with this kind of crude appeal, however, Trump seems actually to be galvanizing opposition: over 90 percent of Germans have an unfavorable view of the U.S. president, rejecting his baseless attacks on Germany and Merkel.

Contrary to Trump, Germany is not coextensive with Europe; and if xenophobic, right-wing populism does continue to gain a foothold across the continent, we should not attribute it to the chancellor who responded to a mass human emergency with compassion, and paid the political price for having done so. Angela Merkel, who inadvertently provoked Trump to a revealing confession of envy when she—rather than he—was named Time’s 2015 Person of the Year, has been a shrewd career politician. Yet her real distinction is that she rose above politics at a crucial juncture. She is likely to go down in history as one of the few great politicians who used her political capital to lead in a time of crisis, and did so even though it did not serve her own political interests. Merkel may well receive the Nobel Prize for having done so. I think she deserves it