Germany, the most powerful country in the European Union and home to over 80 million people, is the only economy in Europe to have retained a large manufacturing and export base. It has consistently benefited from the Euro, the continent’s single currency and has the largest economy in the Eurozone. Despite all of this, its leadership of Europe is reserved, even a little embarrassed.
At the height of the Greek debt crisis, photographs of protesters in Athens brandishing placards of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, dressed as Hitler made the headlines across the world. In Britain, the sight was met with mixed emotions, ranging from bewilderment to hilarity, but not so in Germany. For Merkel’s government and its people, the placards were far more than an unfunny joke. Such a blatant reference to Germany’s ugly history was a suggestion that even after several decades of apologising for the atrocities of the Nazi regime, people across the continent still mistook German assertiveness and leadership for fascistic belligerence.
Merkel is renowned world over for her understated leadership style. Commentators abroad often applaud the Chancellor’s love for detail, her skill in consensus-building and her conviction. Economically, this may well be true; her government spared little mercy for Greece, even after the Greeks played the Nazi card. However in the social sphere, underpinning Merkel’s major decisions has always been a fear of causing a stir and there is a desire to prevent any association with what has passed before, no matter how far fetched these comparisons might be. In Germany, you really don’t mention the War. These earnest attempts to please all sides haven’t been good for Europe.
The most obvious example of Merkel’s reluctance to take difficult decisions was during the migrant crisis of 2015 when millions of migrants from across the Levant, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia cascaded into Europe over a matter of a few months. Merkel’s decision not to turn away any of these people who were trying to enter Germany, in essence dissolving the inner borders of the continent, was largely born out of a desire to definitively break with German history. She wanted to present Germany in a different light from what it had been shown as earlier.
Of course, whilst it was presented as the ultimate show of tolerance, the great irony of Merkel’s migrant policy is that it has made Germany a more racist place. Before 2015, nobody would have made a Nazi salute on the streets of a German city. Now, it is commonplace at far-right protests. The protests in Chemnitz two years ago showed that. The failure to integrate Muslim migrants into German society was the driving cause of the success of the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party in 2017, the first far-right party to win seats in the German Bundestag since the Second World War. The migrant crisis was the best thing that ever happened to Europe’s populist parties.
The reality is that the German government’s constant attempts to apologise for the horrors of the Nazi era don’t help the Europe of today. What Germany did to Europe was unthinkable and no amount of money would ever repay the Jewish community for the atrocities committed after 1942. But we all know Angela Merkel isn’t Adolf Hitler. Her party is not the National Socialists. The world should distinguish between perfectly reasonable projections of German soft power on the one hand and Nazi dog-whistles on the other. Germany, though, must also learn to live with its own past. There will always be new crises around the corner for Europe, but only they have the clout to coordinate a European response to them.
In December, the most important European election in recent years is taking place. Merkel’s party will most likely choose her successor as the German Chancellor. She leaves behind a party in power, but a party that is unsure of its future. Many in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) wish for Germany to take a tougher stance on issues such as immigration and German identity. For the most part, they are uniting around Friedrich Merz. Merz is a strong NATO backer and supports the formation of an EU army. He also raised controversy two decades ago when he became the first centre-right politician to open a debate around leitkultur (translated as leading culture). In practical terms, this translates to formulating a more concrete idea of ‘German-ness’, based on a forthright endorsement of Judeo-Christian values and a rejection of multiculturalism.
In the context of the rise of the AfD, such talk makes the centrist wing of Merkel’s party nervous of sounding overly chauvinistic. The centrists are leaning towards Armin Laschet for the party leadership, who has been a strong defender of Merkel’s migrant policy. Laschet seems less interested than Merz in winning back voters who peeled off to the AfD at the 2017 election and would likely follow Merkel’s quiet leadership style on the world stage.
Make no mistake; Merz is no Trump. He’s a mainstream politician who briefly held the CDU leadership before Merkel in the early 2000’s. But his election as a CDU leader would signal to the world that Germany intends to become more self-assured and unabashed in its international decision-making. This would be a welcome change, though, as established, it would not come without controversy. It is difficult to say whether Germans would see this new assertiveness as a throwback to something dark in their history. In this sense, the split within the CDU is about much more than party bureaucracy. It represents the airing of an uncomfortable question at the heart of the German psyche: how do we project ourselves? How Germany answers that question will impact us all.
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