Germany Has Finally Woken Up

Germany Has Finally Woken Up
Alexander Anufriev

The ground was icy as my partner, my son and I made our way to the center of Berlin two Sundays ago. Still, as we joined about 100,000 others who had gathered there to protest right-wing extremism, it felt cozy — both in a literal and in a metaphorical sense. The mass of human bodies created a microclimate that made it bearable to be outside in the frosty Berlin dark for a couple of hours. And it was also warming to see this many people turn out to defend our democracy.

We were there because on Jan. 10, the media platform Correctiv published a remarkable account of a far-right meeting in Potsdam last November. According to the report, participants — drawn from several far-right groups and including several politicians from the far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD — discussed plans for the mass deportation of millions of foreigners and Germans from migrant families. Horrified, over two million people have since taken to the streets. The protests, some of the country’s largest in decades, emerged everywhere: not just in liberal cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich but also in many cities in eastern Germany, where the far right is particularly strong.

The strange thing was that the Correctiv report told us nothing we couldn’t have guessed already. The far right, we know, is built on racist fantasies of ethnic homogeneity, and the AfD has long been deemed extreme. Yet for years, many Germans viewed the rise of the far right with something like wary detachment: Even as the AfD climbed to around 20 percent in the polls, there remained some complacency about the threat it posed. Not anymore. Germany, at last, has woken up.

German democracy is not well. The problem is not just the rise of the AfD, which has become strong enough in some regions to aspire to positions of power or at least to seriously disrupt the process of forming stable governments. It’s that in many parts of the country, a general sense of discontent has tipped over into disdain. People now reject not just the current government but the whole political system.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, this feeling has built up in Germany. And it is true that Germans have had to deal with a lot: the war in Ukraine, an energy crisis, inflation and, most recently, the painful fallout from war in Gaza. Even though immigration is rising, we still lack skilled labor — teachers, plumbers, I.T. specialists — and public infrastructure is crumbling. Add in an ambitious government green transition agenda hamstrung by brutal infighting and you get a grim picture. Everything, it seems, is changing — and not for the better.

In recent months, this dissatisfied feeling has thickened to contempt. Anecdotally, it seems like everybody knows someone who has dropped out of the mainstream, vowing to vote for the AfD or talking about emigrating. The collapse of support for all three parties of government — the most popular among them, the Social Democrats, stands at around 15 percent in the polls — is eloquent of widespread antipathy. And that fundamental rejection is beginning to show in public.

This month, farmers took to the streets in several cities. The protests, ostensibly against cuts to subsidies, soon turned into dark anti-government demonstrations: Some protesters even erected gallows. The threat was not just symbolic. When Robert Habeck, the economy minister and the face of the government’s green transition agenda, returned from holiday at the start of the year he was met by an angry mob. This act of intimidation, reporting later showed, was orchestrated by individuals with ties to the far right.

There is no way to know all the motivations of the millions who’ve turned out these past few weeks. Judging from what protesters told reporters, the wide range of groups organizing the protests and the varied signs on display, I suspect that it would be hard for everybody to agree to a common manifesto. Many came because they are from migrant families or have friends and family who are, or simply because they reject racism. Some were protesting the AfD; others were there to blame the political class for fostering extremism. A new political movement, to be sure, has not been born. But there is a common denominator: a new sense of urgency.

What has started to dawn on us in recent months, and what the meeting in Potsdam laid bare, is that the far right is not about having horrific ideas — it is about enacting horrific ideas. Germany’s far-right adherents really mean it. With funding, support and a very real chance of winning federal states this year, they are closer to power than they have ever been in the nearly 75-year history of post-Nazi Germany.

In his recent book “Triggerpunkte”, or “Trigger Points”, Steffen Mau, a sociologist at Humboldt University in Berlin, rejects the notion that German society is polarized neatly in two. In Germany, he argues, divisions instead run through several areas such as climate, migration and social justice. You can be moved by some issues, indifferent to others. In recent months, those motivated by their opposition to migration or climate policies were the most vocal and visible. Now those who care about democracy, minority rights and the rule of law have reached their trigger point, too.

Where this will lead is uncertain. The protests may well die down once the shock has been absorbed and as people return to their everyday lives. “But this was an important moment of self-realization”, Mr. Mau told me. “The center has seen it is many”. The protests are also an important reminder to mainstream parties not to mimic the AfD’s messaging, he said, since it’s clear that a majority of Germans do not support extreme positions.

Perhaps most important, protesters have sent a message to the far right itself: We stand ready to protect our fellow citizens and our democracy. So don’t get too cozy. Soon, it might be you out in the cold.

Anna Sauerbrey is an editor and writer at the German weekly Die Zeit.

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