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Germany Moves Left

Angela Merkel’s Pyrrhic victory

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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The Greens are the top party among rich people and young people. If the Hollywood and Manhattan wings of our own Democratic party could be carved out into a splinter group, it would resemble the Greens. They are certainly the most modern party, the party of the information-economy elite. But this year they nominated as their top candidate Jürgen Trittin, an old hardliner who evokes the antiestablishment, antinuclear, and anti-American radicalism of the party’s early 1980s origins. Since Trittin could not be denied the nomination and voters could not be persuaded to vote for him, the party nominated a second top candidate, the thoughtful and attractive Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a member of the Protestant church synod. 

It fooled no one. The Greens quickly started several political conversations that smacked of Maoist zeal. Their national election program called for a compulsory meatless day in state cafeterias. The Green mayor of Freiburg called for a ban on public drinking. (That may sound reasonable in the dry counties of the United States, but it is electoral rotgut in Baden-Württemberg.) And their Berlin representatives called for banning cars from certain streets and banning guestrooms and the building of extra bathrooms (for fear of “crowding”) in the chic neighborhood of Prenz-lauer Berg. 

This, alas for the party, was not the only reminder of 1980s enthusiasms. Back in Trittin’s salad days, when he was green in more than party affiliation, the Greens had seen themselves as the defenders of radical politics of all kinds and had come to the defense of so-called Indianer-kommunen. These groups were dedicated to protecting “children’s rights,” and one right above all: the right of children to have sex with the adults who wanted to have sex with them. Göttingen, where Trittin collaborated with a gay-rights group to write the program urging the decriminalization of certain adult-child liaisons, was a hotbed of such activity. One can argue—and the Greens eventually did—that such ideas were more mainstream back then than a lot of people find convenient to remember today. The Free Democrats’ youth group also discussed decriminalization of sex with minors three decades ago, and so did groups in the Evangelical church. But that mattered little in election season. The public saw the Greens as representing two principles—authoritarianism and pedophilia—that have not recently been big vote-winners.

Other than that, Merkel’s second term has been marked by a steadily waning conservatism in the public at large. Last winter a group of macroeconomists founded a new party, Alternative für Deutschland, for voters who refused to take that lying down. The party founders’ primary obsession was the euro bailouts. They wanted strict enforcement of the 20-year-old Maastricht treaties, which, among other things, created the euro. Germany, they said, should not have to cover the debts other countries racked up. As conservative ideologies go, this one was mild enough, simply making the principled case for the policies Germans want Merkel to carry out in practice. “Conservatism is not a forceful position in German society,” said the AfD’s lead candidate Bernd Lucke in mid-September. “Some conservatives will support us. But conservatism alone is not sufficient.” 

Still, this kind of talk tended in the direction of calling for more national sovereignty for Germany, a subject hedged with taboos. So the AfD was tarred as a German nationalist party, a right-wing wolf in sheep’s clothing, compared even with Communist splinter groups of the 1960s. Such tut-tutting was probably unwarranted. The party members I met at a conference to celebrate the economist Friedrich Hayek did not seem nationalistic. They were more concerned with hard money than with whether the government it served was in Brussels or Berlin. One of them did describe the AfD as “the CDU without the Euro-fanaticism” of Merkel’s Europe-friendly finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. The AfD just barely missed getting into parliament, earning a sliver less than the 5 percent threshold for representation. But it took enough votes away from Merkel’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats, to bump them from parliament altogether. The FDP lost all 93 of its seats—considerably more than the 72 seats Merkel gained.

The Left that Came in from the Cold

This overwhelming victory for Merkel is a Pyrrhic one. There are now just four parties in the Bundestag. The three that are out of government—the socialists, environmentalists, and Communists—all call themselves parties of the left and form an obvious coalition-government-in-waiting. If they are not being considered as a potential government right now, it is mostly because Steinbrück promised during the campaign to rule out a pact with the Communists. This is SPD tradition, but it is far from clear that Steinbrück represents his party’s most advanced thinking on the matter. Steinbrück is a member of the Schröder-era left, the “Third Way” people who traveled to London to get tips from Tony Blair, the welfare-state reformers, the courters of businessmen and bankers. He was a Social Democrat of a very conservative kind, conservative enough to serve as finance minister during Merkel’s first term. It was a common complaint on the left that Steinbrück was a mismatch with his own party’s program.

He will be replaced at the top of the SPD by thinkers who are more amenable to looking left than looking right—like party chairman Sigmar Gabriel, perhaps—and who are more inclined towards a pact with the Communist Left. Like the United States after 2004, when a shaky-looking executive won a victory that was never as solid as it seemed, Germany may be sailing out of the calm before a big ideological storm.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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