Germany’s Conservatives Are in a Mess

People protested in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, Germany, on Saturday with a sign that read, “Better living without Nazis.” Credit Christian Mang/Reuters
People protested in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, Germany, on Saturday with a sign that read, “Better living without Nazis.” Credit Christian Mang/Reuters

Germany’s conservatives are in a mess. And it’s of their own making.

On Feb. 5, the ruling Christian Democratic Union voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany, known as AfD, to install a liberal governor in the eastern state of Thuringia. The outcry was immediate and damaging. The governor stepped down, promising new elections. And soon after, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor and leader of the Christian Democrats, resigned. A sense of chaos has entered the usually placid atmosphere of German conservatism.

To help understand their current situation, German conservatives would do well to revisit an analysis the philosopher Ernst Bloch offered in 1935. Different social groups, Bloch observed, experienced time differently. Under the pressure of a dynamic and disruptive capitalism, the unemployed young, the tradition-defending peasants and the precarious middle class lived in their own distinct present. Formed by their own memories, hopes and fears, each group’s experience “made sense on its own real and materially existing terms,” Bloch wrote. But they didn’t fit with one another. This phenomenon, which Bloch called the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” helped bring down the Weimar Republic.

Now replace “capitalism” with globalization, “unemployed youth” with angry millennials and “peasants” with people in the former East Germany, and Bloch’s 85-year-old picture comes strikingly close to capturing the fractures that run through Germany today. The country again lives in different time zones. Until this month, it seemed that German conservatives had learned the lessons of the 1930s: Don’t leave the remedy to the extremists. But after the Christian Democrats’ collusion with the AfD and the departure of Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, it is far from clear the party will be able to bring Germany back in sync.

If it is to do so, it must reckon with the deep roots of today’s ruptures. In the past 75 years what used to constitute West Germany, very much as a consequence of the Nazi horrors, has acquired a special identity: It has become post-nationalist, pro-European, multicultural and principally open to migrants. Governments as well as large parts of civil society feel that the history of Hitler’s Germany created a lasting obligation to make good for the devastation their nation brought to Europe.

But East Germany was cordoned off from this process of identity formation. For all the passion and courage of the revolutionaries on the streets of Leipzig and Dresden in the miraculous year of 1989, Germany’s reunification was also a clash of mind-sets. The fascists, generations of Easterners were told, lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain: It was the Western capitalists who carried the guilt for the war and the Holocaust. And the Easterners’ experience of the postwar period was profoundly divergent. Not only did the East not go through the civil empowerment of the 1968 movement, it also did not enjoy ever-growing wealth, while getting gradually used to immigration.

After 1989, the divisions continued. Tellingly, job losses coincided with the experience of open European borders: Unemployment nearly doubled in the East between 1989 and 1999. The takeover by Westerners of large parts of the business sector, including housing, caused many Easterners to feel as though they were being subjected to the whims of the West — even to the point, some said, of “colonization.” When politicians from the country’s West like Wolfgang Schäuble described the mass influx of refugees and migrants from 2015 on as a “rendezvous of our society with globalization,” many East Germans felt they’d had that rendezvous already.

As a result, many in the East feel disenfranchised and betrayed: They had dreamed of a close-knit community in 1989 and woke up in a complex society. Instead of a united people of national destiny, they got a pluralistic population with a sense of global responsibility. This is why Ms. Merkel’s announcement in 2015 that Germany would welcome refugees fleeing the Syrian war was a watershed moment. Many East Germans had long suspected their security and concerns counted for less than those of others; now they appeared to have proof. Since then, support for the AfD has risen tremendously. The party won around a quarter of the votes in three eastern German state elections last year, becoming the second-biggest party in all three.

While the East-West split is not the only reason for the nationwide surge of the AfD, it illustrates alarmingly well — to quote Bloch again — the “non-simultaneous” disjunction between a growing number of voters and traditional parties like the Christian Democrats.

It seems initially incomprehensible why Ms. Merkel, who was raised in the East, showed such little sensitivity to the growing divide that is now in full bloom. Part of the explanation may be that Ms. Merkel is a formidably quick learner who has little sympathy for those who don’t see liberty as an opportunity. What’s more, the chancellor’s conservatism is of a progressive kind, leaning toward the Greens, the party that best mirrors young West Germans’ self-image of eco-awareness and cultural openness.

After 14 years of rule by Ms. Merkel, Christian Democrats face a dilemma. When their politicians from Berlin travel east they are told by party members to stop their friendly overtures toward the Greens, as it may turn even more voters to the AfD. When they travel west, they are told to stop flirting with the AfD, as it may turn voters to the Greens. The way to escape this dilemma is to lean nowhere. German conservatism needs to redefine itself independently of competitors left and far right.

But this reframing can happen only with an open discussion of Ms. Merkel’s mistakes. Her neglect of Germany’s growing inner disunity was one of them. Another, after the correct decision to let in Syrian refugees in an emergency situation in 2015, was to allow uncontrolled immigration for too long. The third mistake was to shut down Germany’s nuclear power plants in a rush, losing technology that could prove indispensable in the fight against climate change. Common to all was Ms. Merkel’s profound failure of political communication.

That was her greatest flaw. In times of rapid change, a responsible political leader has to seek common ground by showing both reason and conviction. Telling AfD voters in friendly yet very clear terms why they err must be part of it. It should also have involved convincing would-be Green voters that their interests and those of the climate are best served by a pro-business government. Ms. Merkel failed in both.

An election, due next year, beckons. Ms. Merkel’s time is nearly up. The best way to move beyond her tenure is for Germany’s Christian Democrats to find a new leader able to admit conservative shortcomings while at the same time combating those — on the left and the far right — who suggest that conservatism is a mistake in itself.

Jochen Bittner is a co-head of the debate section for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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