The Far Left, the Far Right, and Democracy in Germany

On February 5, 2020, Thomas Kemmerich, of the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) was elected premier (Ministerpräsident) of Thüringen, the former East German state (Land). Elections of state premiers don’t usually make headlines, but this time was different. Kemmerich was elected after the incumbent premier, Bodo Ramelow of the far-left Left Party (Die Linke), had failed to gain a majority in two previous rounds of voting. In the third round, the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, “Alternative for Germany”) dropped its own candidate for the premiership and voted for Kemmerich, who was then elected as premier with the support of members from the AfD, FDP and the CDU (the centre-right Christian Democratic Union). It’s not clear whether the FDP and CDU members knew that the AfD were going to support Kemmerich.

Whether they did or not, in accepting the votes of the AfD, these parties (or at least their Thüringen caucuses) violated a clear taboo in contemporary German politics. Ever since the emergence of the AfD as a significant force in the 2017 federal elections, all of the country’s major parties have agreed to lock out the newcomers, refusing to ally or co-operate with them. In accepting votes from the AfD, even if they also accepted votes from two other parties, Thomas Kemmerich was seen as having broken that compact, as were the Thüringen caucuses of the FDP and CDU.

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And since the CDU is currently the senior partner in Germany’s coalition government as well as the party of Angela Merkel, things didn’t stop there. The day after Kemmerich’s election, Merkel, speaking from South Africa, pronounced the vote “unforgivable”. Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005, making her the longest-serving current head of government in the European Union. She’s widely respected both internationally and in Germany, where she’s often known affectionately as “Mutti” (Mum). It should come as no surprise, then, that her swift and clear condemnation of Kemmerich’s election made waves, in Thüringen and in the CDU.

Merkel has long been signalling her intention of stepping down in the near future, and had even been grooming a successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (known as AKK). AKK was duly elected as the new leader of the CDU with Merkel continuing on as Chancellor for the time being. AKK’s succession seemed assured—but the force of what quickly became known as the political earthquake (Erdbeben) in Thüringen was such that by February 10 she had announced she would be stepping down as party leader and withdrawing from contention in the 2021 federal election.

Back in Thüringen, the same day as Merkel’s statement, and only a day after his election as premier, Kemmerich announced his desire for the state parliament to be dissolved in anticipation of new state elections. That proved impracticable, but by February 8 Kemmerich had resigned. He stayed in power in a caretaker role until March 4, when he was succeeded by Bodo Ramelow, the previous premier and leader of the Thüringen caucus of the Left Party.

I followed all of this in the German media from Munich, where I’d decided to spend my few months’ research leave. It was, it turned out, an excellent decision. The Ancient History community is quite large, as well as welcoming and hospitable. Besides that, Munich is as entrancing a place as anyone could wish for. Historic churches set with great bronze sculptures jostle in the old town, their bells chattering to each other across cobblestone squares. The great palace of Bavaria’s former ruling family, the Wittelsbachs, squats in the town centre like a glorious old toad, hoarding its treasures in a maze of staterooms. And through it all runs the old river Isar, still untamed, funnelling a wisp of alpine tranquillity into the heart of southern Germany’s largest city. Not to mention a hint of wildness—even in winter, you can usually spot a few wetsuited surfers, braving the frigid waters to catch one of the waves that come arching out from under the city’s bridges. 

Like most German cities, Munich has a rich history, from its eighth-century origins in a Benedictine monastery (München seems to mean something like “the monks’ place”), through its occupation by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War (followed swiftly by a plague which killed about a third of the population) to the nineteenth-century boom that made it the metropolis it is today. And then into the twentieth century, the part of German history that tends to overshadow all the rest.

Munich is, perhaps more than any other German city outside of Nuremberg, closely associated with National Socialism. It was here that, in November 1923, Hitler launched his abortive putsch from a beer hall—and was imprisoned for his pains. (This was in Landsberg prison, just to the west of Munich, where he wrote Mein Kampf.) Later, after the Nazis seized power, Hitler called Munich “the capital of the movement”, and had plans to re-design it in the style he thought it merited, with an “imperial boulevard” at its centre. In the end it was the Allies’ air forces that re-designed Munich’s historic cityscape, at least until it was more or less faithfully rebuilt after the war.

How exactly the gang of ruffians who launched an almost comically incompetent coup in 1923 came, less than twenty years later, to hold most of Europe in its grip—that, of course, is one of the great questions of German and world history. You can get a sense of the swiftness and strangeness of that transformation in the city’s Nazi Museum, which opened in 2015. At first, the Nazis appear in newspaper clippings as just a bunch of outcasts and misfits; then, as one movement among others; soon they’re on the front pages, a force to be reckoned with. Finally, unerringly quickly, posters are shouting that National Socialism is here to stay—for a thousand years. The photographs show mass rallies, columns of armour, helmeted soldiers. And then people huddled together, trains to nowhere, shaven heads.

The next weekend, instead of a museum I headed to Stuttgart, the capital of the neighbouring state of Baden-Württemberg, only a couple of hours away by train. I was going to visit Jürgen and Ulrike, family friends who, following my snap decision to teach English for a while after leaving school, took pity on my obvious cluelessness and let me stay in their upstairs flat for a few months. Now in their eighties, Jürgen and Ulrike met me at the station and quickly started showing me the kind of solicitousness that I still think of as a characteristic of German hospitality. They toured me around town, keen to show me what had changed (not much as far as I could tell, except that the main railway station had temporarily been replaced with an enormous hole in the ground). They made me nice meals, and afterwards they insisted I relax as they got me drinks. The television was off; neither had smartphones. They wanted to talk.

We talked about their children and grandchildren, about Fussball, about distant New Zealand, the Traumland of so many Germans. And we talked a little bit about politics. I remember Jürgen and Ulrike’s politics well; he would read the moderate Süddeutsche Zeitung in the morning, she the far-left TAZ. This was almost twenty years ago now, back when people didn’t let political differences spoil their breakfast. Twenty years later, their politics were the same, as was the way they talked about them: sanely, quietly and without rancour. But one thing was clearly worrying Ulrike. “We’re so surprised by the growth of the far Right,” she said. “It’s so hard for us to understand.”

She didn’t name names, but it was clearly the AfD that she had in mind. Founded in early 2013, the upstart party only narrowly failed to get into parliament at the federal elections later that year. By 2015, the party had gained seats in the state parliaments of Saxony, Brandenburg, Thüringen, Hamburg and Bremen. By the following year, they were the second-largest party in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony and the third-largest in Rhineland-Palatinate—as well as in Baden-Württemberg.

As the party gained in popularity, it also moved to the right. Always Eurosceptic, it began to focus more and more on immigration. Always nationalistic, some of its representatives became more and more outspoken about Germany’s past. Björn Höcke, a leading member of der Flügel, the far-Right “wing” of the party, seems to enjoy using terms like Volk and Vaterland, has questioned the presence of the Holocaust Memorial (“a monument of shame”) in Berlin, and has claimed that evolution has endowed Africans and Europeans with “different reproductive strategies”. By 2015, Bernd Lucke, one of the AfD’s founders and part of the party’s more moderate group—one which includes former members of the CDU—had left the party.

If the rise (and further rightward shift) of the AfD wasn’t enough to make Ulrike’s concerns understandable, the past couple of years have seen a number of violent attacks on politicians. In February 2019 Ferat Kocak, of the Left Party, had his car and house set on fire, one of a series of arson attacks that have occurred in the Berlin borough of Neukölln since 2016. In June the same year, Walter Lübcke, a CDU representative in the Hesse state parliament, was shot dead by a man with neo-Nazi links. And on February 19, 2020, only a week after the political “earthquake” in Thüringen, another far-Right gunman killed nine people at two shisha bars in Hanau (also in Hesse) before returning home and killing his mother and himself.

I had heard about the murder of Lübcke, and I’d read about what had happened in Hanau on German websites only a couple of weeks before my trip to Stuttgart. So I knew why Ulrike was saying what she did. She and Jürgen were young children during the war, and had lived most of their lives in a Germany which, so it must have seemed, had taken a decisive turn away from the Nazis and their ilk. After more than seventy years of peace, and with the country more prosperous than ever before, who would have expected a surge in support for the far Right? Ulrike looked over at me, as if she was hoping I could explain what was happening. I looked back at her, and then over at Jürgen. There was a pause in the conversation. And then it moved on.

It moved on to my family in Canada, who Jürgen had first made contact with when he was a young post-doctoral researcher in nutrition in Tanzania, where my uncle spent time as a consultant forester. It moved on to stamp-collecting, the once-popular hobby through which Jürgen had kept in touch with my grandfather in Montreal. (It was when he was staying at my grandparents’ house while attending a conference on nutrition science that I had first met him.) And it moved on to Jürgen’s own life.

Jürgen was born in what was then Königsberg in East Prussia, one of the furthest outposts of the German Reich, and which is now Kaliningrad, in the westernmost enclave of the Russian Republic. When he was a little boy his family was forced to flee the advancing Red Army and was evacuated, along with some two million other Germans, by the Kriegsmarine, Hitler’s navy. Little Jürgen ended up in a western part of Prussia that was soon to be integrated into the new state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern—and into the new German Democratic Republic (GDR). Jürgen’s family may have escaped the Red Army, but they couldn’t escape Russian-backed state communism.

All the time I’d known Jürgen, including the six months I spent living in his house, I’d never once asked him about his time in the GDR. He never talked about it himself, and it had always felt invasive to ask about it. The Nazi past isn’t the only part of twentieth-century history that one hesitates to bring up in a casual conversation in Germany. But, for whatever reason, things felt different this time. Jürgen was more talkative than I remember. At eighty-three, he’d recently had a minor heart attack, something he’d responded to by giving up, at Ulrike’s insistence, his customary after-dinner schnapps. Was this the last time I’d see them?

“What was it like in the GDR?” I hazarded. Jürgen took a deep breath. To be honest, he said, as far as his experience as a boy went, it was very nice. He wasn’t really aware of what was going on in the adult world, and as for what was within his own experience—playing in the woods, kicking a football around with his friends—he had no complaints. “But,” he said, “if you criticised the government, everything could change.” As it did for Jürgen’s family. At one point, he said, his father wrote a letter to the local paper taking issue with a decision by the local government. As a result, he was imprisoned for several years. “That’s when the family recognised we would have to leave.”

And leave they did, though, of course, leaving communist East Germany wasn’t an easy thing to do. They sent many of their belongings in parcels to relatives in the West. Finally, the family snuck across the border. Jürgen ended up going to secondary school in Stuttgart, where he met Ulrike and has lived ever since.

Jürgen’s family wasn’t alone in what they experienced at the hands of the East German regime. Jürgen’s father was one of an estimated quarter of a million citizens who were imprisoned for political crimes during the more than forty years of the GDR’s existence. Outright torture, of both the physical and psychological varieties, was commonplace. But the Stasi (the Staatssicherheitsdienst or “State Security Service”) usually relied on less obvious methods to suppress dissent. Those methods, known collectively as Zersetzung (literally, “decomposition”, but perhaps best translated as “undermining” or even “sabotage”), were often astonishingly petty. Rumours were spread about dissidents’ sex lives; sometimes porn or sex toys were mailed to them or planted in their apartments. Bicycle tyres were repeatedly, surreptitiously deflated; furniture was moved around; household items were replaced with a different brand. The point was to destabilise the victims psychologically using methods that weren’t obvious to outsiders, and that were readily deniable by the state.

We know all this now partly through eyewitness accounts of the time, and partly through the opening up of the Stasi archives since the fall of the Berlin Wall. What the archives make clear, above all, is how pervasive the state’s surveillance of its own citizens was. The Stasi files amount to some one billion sheets of paper; spread out on the ground they would cover almost seventy square miles. They contain an incredible mass of details about anyone the Stasi decided was feindlich-negativ or “hostile-negative” towards state socialism, information that could then be used against them (and very often was).

How did they manage to collect so much information? For one thing, the Stasi was huge, with over 90,000 operatives at its peak. But it also had help from the East German people, some 180,000 of whom served as “unofficial collaborators”—that is, official collaborators. The number of informal informants is harder to get at, but was probably more than twice that.

Jürgen’s life, I’ve often thought, is like a summation of German history in the middle decades of the last century. Born in a Nazi empire, he was displaced by the total war that empire had started, and was then forced to flee Germany’s own version of the communist dictatorships that the Soviets installed in Eastern Europe. Finally, he made it to the West.

But, of course, not everybody did. Most East Germans didn’t. They lived, for forty years, under a regime that, as Jürgen said, could seem pleasant if you kept your head down—but could become extremely unpleasant if you didn’t. A regime in which you could count on being watched over, not only by an enormous state security apparatus, but also by your neighbours, friends, and even members of your own family. A regime which, if you tried to rush your way across the no-man’s-land that separated West and East Berlin, wouldn’t hesitate to shoot you in the back.

Before going to bed each night in Munich I watched another episode of the series Deutschland 83 (eventually I watched through the second series, Deutschland 86, as well). A joint German and American production, the series follows the career of Martin, a young East German who’s pressured into working as a spy for the regime. It’s a contemporary series, designed for binge-watching, and it has its fair share of impossible foot-chases, implausibly attractive characters, and obviously contrived coincidences. It seems as if every major social phenomenon of 1980s Germany, from AIDS to extremist anti-capitalism, is taken up by one of the characters.

But the makers of the series have clearly done their homework, and the program is worth watching for its more documentary episodes alone. During the second season, an East German family tries to sneak across the border with the help of a West German contact. The mother, Tina, has already been subjected to a destabilising campaign of Zersetzung. She and her husband persuade their contact, Marianne, to try to smuggle the family across the border in her van. Tina, a doctor, administers sedatives to her children before the whole family hides away under the van’s flooring. At the border, disaster strikes. The van is searched and Marianne is killed trying to flee the guards. Tina wakes up in a Stasi prison, where she’s interrogated by a Stasi officer. What kind of mother, he asks her, would drug her own children?

If the series doesn’t flinch from recording the grim realities of the GDR, though, it also shows traces, in its almost loving recreation of that world, of what Germans call Ostalgie, a longing for the old East Germany. It’s an attitude perhaps best encapsulated in the film Goodbye Lenin, the offbeat 2003 comedy about a young man who tries to prevent his mother, who has just woken up from a long coma, from finding out that the Berlin Wall has fallen. An effective counterpoint came two years later, with The Lives of Others, an equally brilliant, if much more sombre, piece of cinema, which traces the evolution of a Stasi officer through his monitoring of a successful playwright and his glamorous wife.

Deutschland 83 seems to want to integrate both of these two ways of looking back at the GDR. If episodes like the one I just described show the routine horrors perpetrated by the Stasi, the series also has a tendency to play the absurdities of the communist system for laughs. It also, like so many prestige television series in the wake of HBO’s The Wire, wants to describe the hierarchies and networks in which everybody, whatever side they’re on, finds themselves irretrievably entangled. So while our young spy Martin has to do the bidding of his Stasi masters, the West German characters also have to deal with the demands (and occasional depredations) of the American military and intelligence apparatus.

One of the major characters in Season 1, in fact, is a West German military officer who’s given the job of dealing with—and buttering up—a US general. And that, alongside the goofy old cars, the mullets trickling down the back of jean jackets, and the parade of synth-pop classics that forms the soundtrack, brought up my own personal brand of nostalgia about Germany in the 1980s. Because one of the phases of Jürgen and Ulrike’s friendship with my family was when my father was posted to the long-vanished Canadian Forces Base, Lahr, only a couple of hours from Stuttgart.

We lived there for three years, on the edges of the Black Forest. I whittled wooden “swords” for the old German lady across the road, who rewarded my craftsmanship with Milka bars. My brother and I would sometimes go to the neighbours’ house to play with their son’s train set. I developed a taste for Spezi (a mixture of cola and orange soft drink that has never quite caught on outside Germany) and Toast Hawaii (melted cheese on toast with a pineapple slice). Other than that, we didn’t have much contact with German culture or with the local Germans, though they always seemed well-disposed towards us. (After the wall came down, we heard stories of local shop-owners lamenting the departure of the Kanadier.) We read Maclean’s magazine and listened to Canadian Forces Radio. I went to a French immersion school in the base.

But though I was too young to know exactly what was going on, I knew that the world was divided into two camps, and that we were on the same side as the Americans whose huge bases we sometimes went shopping in. My Dad and the other Canadian dads—gruff, kindly men with moustaches—were there in case they were needed to fight against the communists, who were kind of like the Nazis my grandfathers had fought against—enemies we needed to stand up to so we could live our lives in freedom.

Watching my episode of Deutschland 83 each night, that whole world came back to me. But it also made me wonder whether that way of looking at the world wasn’t just a little childish. Wasn’t the East-West, freedom-versus-communism narrative just a little simplistic? Was East Germany really as bad as all that?

The short answer is “yes”. The GDR was a surveillance state that co-opted its own citizens into a state security apparatus that engaged in a decades-long campaign of targeted psychological (and sometimes physical) torture against anyone who dared to criticise it—not to mention many who were merely suspected of harbouring critical thoughts. My childhood view of the Cold War was, naturally, a little bit simplistic, but the kind of moral equivalence that Deutschland 83 sometimes seems to invite is equally naive. For all of the United States’ mistakes, they pale in comparison with the crimes committed by Soviet Russia. As to West and East Germany, the differences in what we might call human flourishing in the two parts of the divided nation were stark.

Germany, like the divided Korea, was an unusually good natural experiment, both countries having a common language and culture. That reduced the variables at play in a way that isn’t usually possible; all that changed was that in one half of the country there was liberal democracy, and in the other, state socialism. The results? Before Hitler, East Germans were slightly wealthier than their Western peers. With much of the country reduced to rubble by the end of the war, East and West Germans were similarly indigent. By reunification in 1990, though, West Germans were about three times richer than their compatriots in the East. Even today, this economic gap persists, with per capita GDP, employment and living standards lower in the eastern states. Nor is this only an economic difference: former East Germans also consistently report being less satisfied with their lives.

Considering the disaster that the East German communist regime clearly represented, you might expect that the political party that oversaw the regime would have ended up on the scrap-heap of history. But that’s not quite the case—in fact, a direct descendant of the old Socialist Unity Party (the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED) currently holds sixty-four seats in the federal parliament, making it the fifth-largest force, as well as the largest number of seats (twenty-nine) in the state parliament of Thüringen. This is the Left Party, whose Thüringen head, Bodo Ramelow, was recently installed as premier of the state.

The Left Party has, unsurprisingly, been greeted by a fair amount of scepticism in the decades since its founding. It was under official observation in various former West German states (though not in the East) for long periods, and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz or BfV) has kept a watch on some of its internal factions. Individual politicians have also been tracked—including Ramelow, until he was successful in challenging his surveillance in court in 2008. The ruling CDU, for its part, has ruled out entering into coalitions with the party (as it has with the AfD).

On the whole though, the Left Party has been allowed to put out policies, woo voters, and build coalitions just like any other political party. Even the CDU’s stand against them is an isolated gesture in comparison with the decision of Germany’s entire political class not to co-operate with the AfD. Ramelow, formerly under official observation as an extremist is now, once again, premier of his state, a position he has effectively held continuously since 2014. As for the BfV, the only institution with the authority to strip the Left Party of its legitimacy, it’s now much more concerned with the far Right.

All of this is, in a sense, understandable. In most other liberal democracies, a party that stood in a direct line to a communist dictatorship that terrorised its citizens, with lasting effects, for several decades, would no doubt be seen as uniquely threatening. But Germany isn’t like most other liberal democracies. Alone among European nations, Germany lived through both of the two great totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, fascism and communism. And, when set next to the horrors of the Nazi regime, even the decades-long depredations of the Stasi look mild in comparison.

There’s no need to rehearse those horrors here; they’re well known, and include not only the industrial slaughter of six million Jews, but also of almost nine million Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, as well as hundreds of thousands of Roma and disabled people. That’s besides the responsibility the Nazis bear for having initiated the deadliest conflict in history, which resulted in some 70 million deaths worldwide. Compared to this, the 1400 or East German citizens that died as a result of their government’s actions might seem hardly worth mentioning (though they would no doubt disagree).

At the same time, it might be worth remembering that, if the East German communist regime itself killed relatively few people, it was part of a larger communist world that, in the end, was responsible for even more deaths than the Nazis (or even the fascist movement as a whole). Between Stalin (more than 20 million deaths), Mao (more than 40 million), the Khmer Rouge (between 1.5 and 2 million), and the many other socialist autocracies that once stained the globe from Hanoi to Havana, it’s estimated that communism accounted for some 100 million deaths. The East German regime obviously isn’t responsible for that (though it did play a key role in helping prop up other communist regimes); but communism as a movement is.

Of course, contemporary Germans have every right to support the Left Party, just as they have every right to vote for the AfD. As long as they respect the liberal democratic order, everyone should be free to pursue their own brand of politics, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t include democratic varieties of communism. Still less should we view moderate varieties of socialism as a problem—indeed, the German Social Democratic Party (the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or SPD) have, alongside the CDU, been one of the two main pillars of post-war German democracy. It’s worth noting, too, that alongside its more extreme factions, the Left Party also includes more moderate leftists, some of them former members of the SPD.

As for Ostalgie, many of its manifestations are surely harmless. Take, for example, the distinctive East German versions of the little green man on traffic lights (the Ampelmännchen) that can still be found in some parts of Berlin. These are the kind of local heritage that a self-confident liberal democratic order should be able to absorb and accommodate. The same goes for the kinds of communism-chic knick-knacks that are now sold to tourists in the national capital. And only a killjoy would carp about a film like Goodbye Lenin.

And yet, the kind of comic, ironic or even straight-out nostalgia that’s now common when it comes to the GDR would be unimaginable when it comes to National Socialism. There are very good reasons, of course, to view nostalgia about the Nazis with particular horror. But you might think there would also be very good reasons not to let communism creep back from the killing fields, through kitsch, to cool. That, though, is something that happened as long ago as the 1970s, and the resulting asymmetry is now so much a part of our ordinary cultural landscape that many of us don’t even seem capable of seeing it.

In Wellington, New Zealand, where I live, Fidel’s Café (in the faux-ho “Cuba” district) is one of the coolest places in town, cultivated by all of the city’s most vocal opponents of authoritarianism. A Pinochet’s Pub probably wouldn’t go down so well. This asymmetry exists largely in the sphere of culture, and sometimes of commerce, two spaces that we might well be wary of micro-managing. But when it comes to politics and to the state, we need to get things right. And neutrality is precisely one of the things liberal democracies need to be scrupulous about—and vigilant.

How is German democracy doing when it comes to preserving and respecting political neutrality? Could it be doing better? Questions like this are partly a matter for the BfV, and we’ll come back to that body in just a moment. But the neutrality of the German democratic state is also partly in the hands of politicians at the state and federal levels, and of individual citizens. People on both sides ultimately have an interest in a level political playing field, even though they might be tempted in the short term to skew things to their advantage. If there’s a widespread sense that things aren’t fair, and that certain views can’t be heard, that will fester, to the disadvantage of everyone.

In a successful representative democracy, it’s also important that the gap between what people want and what politicians do isn’t too wide. Some disconnect may be inevitable in systems like ours, if only because voting for a broad political direction and implementing concrete policies are two very different things. But if the political class becomes a block on the popular will rather than a vehicle for it, that’s obviously a problem for democracy. The contrast in the UK between members of parliament, 73 per cent of whom voted Remain in the 2016 referendum on European Union membership, and the people, 52 per cent of whom voted Leave, has been only too obvious ever since, and is surely part of the reason that, four years after the largest majority vote in national history, Britain remains subject to EU law.

From a purely procedural standpoint, the British MPs who did everything they could to delay the popular will were doing nothing wrong. In a representative system, we vote politicians into power, and, once they are there, they can pretty much do as they like. And while it’s true that they’ll have the next election at the back of their minds (meaning they won’t want to annoy their constituents too much), in some ways the main external limitation on their autonomy is their party hierarchy. As the “earthquake” in Thüringen reminded us, Germany’s main political parties have decided that the AfD is so toxic that any collaboration with them by party members has to be punished. That, of course, is how Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer went from heir apparent to yesterday’s news.

In deciding not to work with the AfD, then, Germany’s politicians and political parties are just doing what politicians do—trying to succeed within the constraints the system imposes on them. If that sounds cynical, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is often simply how party politics works. And that may not be a bad thing. Political parties often come to consensus positions on policies which have clearly won over popular opinion, something that’s happened many times in the last few decades across the West on issues from gay rights to gun control.

But if it’s clear that most Germans are against the AfD, it’s less clear that they would be in favour of locking them out of decisions such as who the premier of Thürigen should be. Most of the votes that initially elected Thomas Kemmerich (from the centrist FDP, remember) weren’t even cast by AfD representatives. The ones that were, weren’t cast for any of the AfD’s policy positions (to reduce immigration, say), but for a moderate centrist to be installed as state premier. And in deciding that AfD representatives’ votes on this issue should be anathema, Merkel effectively disenfranchised a whole section of the state’s political spectrum. The result was the re-installation as Thüringen’s premier of a representative of the far Left who wasn’t the first choice of most of the duly-elected members of the state parliament.

So if Germany’s political class is perfectly entitled to unite against certain policies from the AfD, the prohibition against even being on the same side as them in votes such as the one that led to Kemmerich’s election surely crosses a line. It risks giving the impression to millions of Germans that their votes can only do so much: though they can get representatives into the federal and state parliaments, they can’t actually ensure their voices will be heard there, even when it comes to relatively uncontroversial decisions. Choosing to send that signal—that the political class will unite, even if within the formal rules of the game, to make sure that certain elected representatives don’t have any real impact—might well raise doubts about the German political elite’s commitment to genuine democracy.

After all, it’s easy to forget, among all the controversy about the AfD, that the party attained the position it currently holds because Germans voted for it. Germany uses a variety of forms of proportional representation at the federal and state levels, meaning that the AfD’s presence in the nation’s parliaments more or less accurately reflects its level of popularity. Lacking the history, brand recognition, or party machines of the CDU or SPD, the AfD’s rise has nevertheless been swift. That might suggest there was some issue that struck a chord with a lot of Germans that none of the mainstream parties were felt to be adequately addressing.

That issue, of course, is immigration, an issue that became especially salient from around 2015, with hundreds of thousands of refugees heading to Europe as a result of the Syrian civil war. Perhaps unexpectedly for the leader of Germany’s largest conservative party, Chancellor Merkel decided to welcome the migrants. By 2017 there were over a million refugees in Germany, far more than any other European (or, indeed, industrialised) country.

For all Merkel’s advocacy of a “welcoming culture” (Willkommenskultur) towards migrants, polls suggest that many Germans have remained sceptical of her policy and of asylum-seekers. A study conducted a few months ago found that about half of Germans are now against increased immigration, up from some 40 per cent before the recent influx. With all of the main parties echoing Merkel’s line, there was an obvious opportunity for a party willing to advocate more controls on immigration—an opportunity the AfD duly seized.

And that, of course, it exactly how things should be. Market analogies don’t always fit the bill when it comes to democracy, but, as the LSE political scientist Eric Kaufmann has pointed out, the rise of anti-immigrant parties across Europe looks like a simple matter of supply and demand. For whatever reasons (and elite political correctness clearly played a role), Germany’s political class effectively came to an agreement not to supply anti-immigration policies, even though it was clear a significant demand for them existed. The results were the same as on most of the occasions supply is artificially restricted: someone, somewhere, finds a way of catering to the demand that exists, profiting in some way in the process.

That’s what the AfD did in the years following the migrant crisis. The explosion in the party’s popularity came hard on the heels of Merkel’s decision to open the gates to migrants in 2015. Though many AfD members have clearly been energetic advocates for more limited immigration, the idea that it was the AfD that led to anti-immigrant sentiment gets things the wrong way round. Many Germans, in reaction to their perceptions of what was happening in their country, had already developed concerns about immigration. The AfD simply ministered to those concerns.

That’s exactly what should happen in democratic politics, and has always happened, from the rise of socialist parties in response to the exploitation of workers in the early twentieth century, to the rise of the Greens as worries about pollution and climate change took hold from the 1970s on. And that’s what’s happening with the rise of the AfD in Germany today. It’s hard to see those who oppose this kind of development for party political reasons as fully supportive of popular rule.

There’s one question, though, that refuses to go away: What about the Nazis? It is, as we’ve seen, a natural and even inevitable question when it comes to German politics. The Nazis’ elimination of Germany’s Jewish population was uniquely horrific. That it still casts its long, dark shadow over the German Right might seem entirely appropriate. Even the conservative writer Douglas Murray has asked whether German nationalism can ever be normal.

Another conservative commentator, the German ancient historian Egon Flaig, has argued, on the other hand, that contemporary Germans shouldn’t be held in thrall by the Nazi past, something which, after all, virtually none of them had anything to do with. Meanwhile, the theories of past generations of historians—A.J.P. Taylor in Britain, William Shirer in the US—that the horrors of modern German history can be explained with reference to a distinctive national character now look decidedly old-fashioned.

Like many visitors to Germany, I’ve come away with a strong impression that its inhabitants are especially punctilious rule-followers. I was again impressed on my recent stay by Bavarians’ unwillingness—perhaps even inability—to cross the road before the light has changed. And the zeal with which the more recent norm that men should urinate sitting down is enforced is now nothing short of terrifying. And yet, hard evidence for this apparent rule-following tendency is hard to come by. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments, which he designed to test Shirer’s hypotheses about the German character, were never, in the end, administered to any Germans (and have, besides, recently joined a lengthening list of classic psychological experiments that, it turns out, don’t quite hold up). Contemporary surveys find that Germans aren’t especially conscientious, though they are unusually open-minded.

There’s no real reason, then, to think that modern Germans are simply Nazis waiting to happen. Conservative commentators like Flaig are surely right that contemporary Germans should be allowed to enjoy moderate forms of nationalism as much as anybody else. Fanatical support of die Mannschaft (the national football team) doesn’t do any obvious harm, and in some areas (peacekeeping and diplomacy, for example) a more assertive Germany would do the world a lot of good.

In fact, German culture could use a bit more self-confidence in general. One of the biggest changes I noticed on my recent stay was how many inroads English has made, from academic talks in the university (now not infrequently entirely in English), to the smatterings of English phrases (even when perfectly good German phrases are available) in conversation. Maybe it’s not a bad thing in itself, and it’s hard not to praise the commitment to internationalism it evinces. But I do wonder whether this situation hasn’t come about partly because it’s so much harder for Germans to stick up for their language in public than, say, the French.

My own view is that, in view of the mind-bending depredations of the National Socialists, it might well make sense for Germans to think especially hard about voting for a far-Right party. But it might also make sense for Germans to think especially hard about voting for a far-Left party, considering the record of the GDR. Most importantly, whether Germans today should feel limited by their past is something that has to be left to the citizens themselves, to be arbitrated by the continuing discussions of a democratic culture, not pre-judged or micro-managed by the political class.

Is this too naive about the kinds of threats posed by the far Right (or even the far Left)? There’s a cartoon about Karl Popper’s “paradox of intolerance” in which the philosopher is shown declaring that “defending tolerance requires us to not tolerate the intolerant” next to a Hitler figure being booted out of the picture. When we “extend tolerance to those who are openly intolerant”, cartoon Karl explains, “the tolerant ones end up being destroyed. And tolerance with them.”

The only problem, as has been widely pointed out, is that Popper’s actual discussion of this concept—tucked away in an endnote in Volume 1 of The Open Society and its Enemies—makes clear that he wasn’t suggesting we should suppress alternative viewpoints, even extreme ones, only that we should reserve the right to suppress political movements that “answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols”. Karl Popper, in other words, drew the line not at extreme ideas or offensive speech, but at physical violence.

And it’s a line that he drew, not as a product of purely theoretical considerations, but after having recently lived through the Nazi takeover, and having been forced, as a Jew, to flee his native Vienna. This isn’t the place for an in-depth analysis of the factors that led to Hitler’s seizure of power. But it’s clear that, besides the economic fallout from the Great Depression, and the delusional hopes of old-guard conservatives that Hitler could be tamed—besides these and half a dozen other factors, the rise of political violence played a crucial role.

Already in the late 1920s, communist and fascist paramilitary organisations like the Roter Frontkämpferbund (the Red Front-Fighters’ Union) and the brown-shirted SA (the Sturmabteilung or “Storm Detachment”) were fighting running battles in the streets. By the Weimar Republic’s last election, in March 1933, Nazi thugs were openly terrorising voters. Two weeks later, with the Communist Party banned and the SA threatening members of the Reichstag, the Enabling Act was passed, and Hitler was granted dictatorial power.

If violence was so central to Hitler’s take­over, this should inform how Germany, and other democracies, deals with extremist threats in the present. It’s perfectly justifiable for liberal democratic states to keep a watch on extremist factions. We’ve already seen that the BfV has kept tabs on a number of factions of the Left Party, as well as on some of its leaders. It’s also been keeping a watch on the AfD—in March it classified Björn Höcke’s rightest “wing” of the party as “extreme Right”, and in June Brandenburg put the entire state chapter of the AfD under observation.

But it’s really violence, or the credible threat of violence, that should be the focus of this sort of surveillance. Speech, or the expression of ideas, is often precisely what allows us to resolve our conflicts—or at least play them out—in a way that avoids violence. It is, in any case, something that citizens in free countries have a right to—it is one of the main reasons we might want to live in a free country in the first place.

The BfV is right, then, to be tracking extremists, especially ones who look as if they might find terrorism or thuggery a tempting option. But it’s important also that the political class retains its sense of proportion, and its sense of balance. If citizens of all parts of the political spectrum don’t feel that they can express their views and engage in political activity peaceably, democracy will be under threat. That’s not just because some might feel tempted to take matters into their own hands, and thus undermine civic order; it’s also because a country in which citizens feel they can’t have their say will already be less of a democracy as a result.

As readers will be acutely aware, these issues aren’t unique to Germany. And yet Germany represents a particularly fascinating and particularly important case. Out of the ruins of one of history’s most destructive tyrannies, West Germans built one of the modern world’s most advanced and successful examples of the liberal democratic state, the city of laws, the Rechstaat. They did it while an offshoot of the other of the great tyrannies of the twentieth century carried on its work behind the Iron Curtain in the country’s eastern half.

If German history demonstrates the risks of failing to take extremist threats seriously enough, it also reminds us of the value and necessity of defending the key democratic values of free expression and political equality for all. If it highlights the complexity and difficulty of getting this balance right, it also shows us, starkly and hauntingly, what’s at stake.

James Kierstead is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington. He wrote on Greece in the April 2019 issue

4 thoughts on “The Far Left, the Far Right, and Democracy in Germany

  • Edwina says:

    National Socialism!

  • RB says:

    Edwina. Not only in name, but they had also socialized medicine, education, a centrally managed military with law enforcement powers, nationalized industry, restrictions on free trade, free speech, and association, central economic planning with price and wage controls, government-run media (including newspapers, radio, movies, and even television), a strong welfare state, and on and on.

  • J Vernau says:

    “And the zeal with which the more recent norm that men should urinate sitting down is enforced is now nothing short of terrifying.”
    I found the very notion terrifying, or at least unsettling, when I read this. I know we in Victoria are cheerfully castrating teenage boys these days, but there have always been eunuchs. Living in a semi-rural environment, I urinate not only standing up but preferably outside in the open air.

    My local and newly refurbished council “aquatic centre” no longer has urinals but only booths with toilet bowls, in both of two separate rooms entered through a “Unisex Changing Village”. So I suppose we are not so far behind the Germans as I would liked to have thought.

  • Harry Lee says:

    Australia would be greatly benefitted by bringing in a couple million capable (white) Germans, a couple million capable (white) Poms and a couple million capable (white) eastern Europeans, starting with Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and Serbians. Add in some capable, white Finns, Danes, Norwegians, Austrians and Swiss. (Some capable, white Swedes can be alright, but be very careful with Swedes.) It is now essential that we fully admit the non-white experiment has gone very bung, as was predicted by all with eyes to see.

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