Germany’s Real Political Divide Is Generational

Germany is a peculiar country when it comes to good news about itself, too self-conscious and self-serious to accept anyone’s attempt to see it in a positive light. Every time a foreign newspaper writes about a German scientific achievement or the river surfers of Munich or the hipsters of Berlin, you can hear a low, collective moan: “We’re not cool,” it says. “We’re tragic!”

For years, the fear has been that anyone who tries to move beyond the country’s dark past is opening the door to a resurgence of far-right nationalism. But there are younger generations now, people who are fed up with German angst and pessimism and in utter need of 21st-century political leadership and debate.

Standing in their way are the baby boomers, those born during the postwar German economic miracle, who see themselves as the guardians of German memory. One of them, Chancellor Angela Merkel, recently announced the beginning of her withdrawal from German politics. In line to replace her are Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, and Friedrich Merz, 63, roughly her same age and outlook. And while a younger generation of politicians is rising — including another potential Merkel successor, Jens Spahn, just 38 — the boomers still hold tight to the levers of power.

Though boomers like Ms. Merkel present themselves as a bulwark against nationalism, their insistence on a particular kind of German identity is preventing the country from moving forward. In the current government there is not a single politician representing the nation’s diversity, though Ms. Merkel often pays lip service to social unity. Even eastern Germans were represented in the government only after their complete absence was criticized.

Younger Germans fear that the conservatives’ insistence on a unique national experience could, after Ms. Merkel retires, easily slip into its own form of chauvinism, pushing them toward the very thing they claim to oppose — a coalition with the far right.

Germany looks less and less like the country boomers remember, or imagine. A majority of Frankfurt residents, for example, have an immigrant background, including three-quarters of children under 6. Other cities are trending rapidly in the same direction.

And yet the national political establishment ignores such developments. It continues to insist on recent immigrants’ becoming “German” not just linguistically but also culturally. In a place with no dominant ethnic group, an emphasis on cultural homogeneity is not just unrealistic — it’s harmful.

Not only is it harmful to the recently arrived, but the insistence on a coherent, centrist German political establishment masks the fact that nationalist, authoritarian and xenophobic beliefs have long been present in the German middle class. Not until 1985 were German citizens ready for a president like Richard von Weizsäcker who would clearly state that the end of World War II was not a defeat but a step toward freedom and democracy.

More recently, when anti-immigrant protesters — many of them baby boomers or older — began their wave of protest marches in 2015, most of the people in Germany and abroad were surprised. But the authoritarianism and the anger about foreigners had been there all along; as the protesters themselves said, the problem was no one listened. And no one provided hope.

Then, to compound the problem, the establishment, scared of this new political force, made accommodations to it — moving right on issues like immigration in an attempt to dampen the far right’s appeal. But that only made the far right seem more acceptable to the mainstream, while alienating younger voters.

The good news is that Germany is moving forward despite itself. So long excluded from politics, younger Germans are taking to the streets. According to the organizers of one recent mass demonstration in Berlin, called “#unteilbar” (“inseparable”), 250,000 people marched in favor of a more open society — a number that swamps even the largest far-right marches. Yet the establishment has stayed silent.

In recent elections in Bavaria, the Green Party was led by Katharina Schulze, 33, and Ludwig Hartmann, 40. In the past their youth alone would have been considered disqualifying. Instead, they were able to draw in enough disaffected young Bavarians to win 17.5 percent of the vote, up from 8.6 percent in 2013 — an astonishing total for a left-leaning party in such a conservative state.

Bavarian voters aren’t alone: Recent polls show that as many as 50 percent of Germans can at least imagine voting for the Green Party, particularly because of its progressive position on migration and diversity.

Put differently, the real challenge in Germany is not so much the left-right divide as it is a generational split. The older generations, reared on consensus, are not used to open public debate, let alone diversity. But the younger ones are opting for a new social order that includes people of other ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. They do not fear immigrants as much as they fear the fact that they can’t afford housing or taking care of their parents once they get old.

Younger generations have always had different needs from their elders, but in the past the establishment has found ways to meet those needs without ceding power. That’s no longer acceptable to young Germans. They don’t just demand a more equitable, open society. They want to shape it. If Germany’s establishment resists them, it will set the country on the path to years of social turmoil.

Jagoda Marinic, an essayist and novelist, is the author, most recently, of Made in Germany.

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