Conservative counter-revolution is a very German affair
Election of rightist Bundestag majority would be latest pushback against legacy of 1968
A billboard showing German Chancellor and Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel and the numbers 24.9, the date of upcoming German federal elections, in Hermsdorf, Germany. File photograph: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images
German Chancellor and Christian Democrat Angela Merkel’s face is decorated with a red clown’s nose on an election billboard in Berlin ahead of the German election on September 24th. A board with the image of German Social Democrat candidate Martin Schulz is on the left. File photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The real story of Sunday’s federal election in Germany is not Angela Merkel’s likely fourth term or the slide of the Social Democrats. Focusing on the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), poised to enter the Bundestag with double-digit support, misses the wood for the trees.
No question: the likely election of extreme right MPs to the Bundestag marks a rupture in Germany’s post-war history.
But something bigger is under way: Sunday is a so-called Richtungswahl – a weather vane poll for the future direction of German society.
If voters elect a new right-wing Bundestag majority, it will be the latest pushback against the legacy of the 1968 student revolt. The midwife to this new movement: Angela Merkel.
Half a century ago, young West German students rattled the foundations of the conservative post-war state. They forced a brutal and overdue confrontation with the Nazi era of their parents and shaped a new social consensus. But now a conservative counter-revolution is under way which, despite some overlaps with Trump and Brexit, is a very German affair.
The opening shot came in 2010, when Der Spiegel coined the phrase Wutbürger or “furious citizen” to describe a rising army of well-off, older Germans, angry at far-reaching decisions they saw as arbitrary, dangerous or illegal – sometimes all three – that were taking place against their will.
Previously isolated, they found each other by chance: at demonstrations against Stuttgart’s new train station and readings of a polemical book that raged against failures in German integration, Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab (Germany’s Abolishing Itself). The term Wutbürger found its way into popular discourse, Germany’s Duden dictionary and, through the AfD, into the political landscape.
Founded in 2013, the party mixed legal and economic analyses with cantankerous dogmatism to condemn German euro crisis bailouts as contrary to the population’s interests, and even illegal. The AfD swelled to its current, double-digit support by pulling in protesters across the political spectrum in 2015. They gave voice to people who view Germany’s open-border refugee policy not as a humanitarian moment of glory but a flagrant violation of German law and a ticking Islamist timebomb.
Slowly, then quickly, years of pent-up frustration at the Merkel-era centrist consensus has begun pouring out in a new “Gegenöffentlichkeit”, or counter-media: conservative, liberal and far-right blogs, newspapers and glossy magazines.
Tumult, a self-described “quarterly for consensus disruption”, tackles in its latest issue the “sated, conscience-stricken appeasement” of refugee-crisis Germany.
Another recent addition is Cato, named after the conservative politician who reviled the decadence of the late Roman republic. Comparisons to today’s EU and Germany are intentional, says editor Andreas Lombard, warning in the first issue of Europe’s “inner dissolution and voluntary renunciation of its own identity, origin and culture”.
Cato is published in the same western Berlin office block as the five year-old Library of Conservatism (BdK).
The library, event space and research facility dismisses claims it is a front organisation for the AfD. Instead, it sees its role as a decontamination chamber for right-of-centre thinking in Germany.
“For decades the accusation in Germany has been that everything right of the centre automatically leads to Hitler,” said Norman Gutschow (BdK). Since it opened its doors, he says, the library has attracted older conservatives as well as younger people with a less burdened relationship with their German identity, put off by what he calls the “hyper-moralising” of centre-left domination of universities and media.
“We find ourselves in a moment of normalisation in Germany,” says Gutschow, “with push-back against dubbing conservatives extremists unless they fall back to the centre.”
Conservative journalist Hugo Müller-Vogg agrees that Sunday’s election will reorder the consensus of German society. A former publisher of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine daily, he is a political commentator and active in the new right-wing online media and with his own blog.
Though critical of the AfD, he views its rise dispassionately, drawing parallels to the rise of the Greens and the Left Party.
“The AfD has filled a gap in the political landscape left vacant when Angela Merkel shifted her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to the centre,” he said. “The CDU had AfD voters in their big tent but they lost them.”
An angrier voice in German conservative circles is Gertrud Höhler, a political consultant and academic, who has written two books accusing Merkel of operating an unideological “mellow dictatorship”.
“Merkel has a deep-seated apathy to political systems and democracy, which fits with a deep fatigue and inertia in Europe’s democratic ethos,” argues Höhler.
She says her writings against Merkel have turned her into a persona-non-grata in Germany, which she sees as proof of a rigid centrist consensus in the German media.
The only company interested in printing her latest book, Democracy Descending, was a company linked to Roland Tichy, publisher of a website and magazine straddling conservative-liberal positions and the alt-right camp close to the AfD.
Both Höhler and Müller-Vogg, a regular Tichy contributor, describe themselves as conservatives who abhor the AfD. But, symptomatic of Germany’s status quo, they find themselves pushed out of the mainstream towards platforms and audiences with fewer concerns than them about the AfD’s extremist wing.
Sunday’s election will be decided by German conservatives like them, protest-voting against what angers them more: an AfD that mixes conservative concerns with extremist ideology, or a Merkel-era CDU that has isolated its conservatives.
Beyond Sunday, the task for Germany’s centre-left mainstream is to tackle the far right by reining in its instinct to conflate conservative with the extreme right, and demonising moderates’ concerns on immigration, Islam and globalisation.
Hugo Müller-Vogg sees Sunday’s election as a risk but also an opportunity for German democracy to mature, by re-activating political discussion on both sides of the political centre.
“I see Germany becoming a normal country in Europe, even if I’m not at all thrilled with the AfD’s rise,” he said, adding with an ironic laugh: “Why should we be the only ones without such a party?”