Katja Suding fought hard. The Free Democratic Party’s lead candidate in last month’s state election in Hamburg, Germany, even had herself photographed with two of her colleagues posing as “Charlie’s Angels.” Such stunts are out of form in the staid world of German politics, but the Free Democrats, a pro-free market, pro-civil liberties party also known as the Liberals, had nothing to lose: Since 2013 they have been absent from the Bundestag for the first time in their history, and have been hemorrhaging members and funds.
Ms. Suding’s ploy worked: The Free Democrats won 7.4 percent in Hamburg, enough to get them into the city-state’s Parliament. Whether this is the beginning of a comeback is an open question. Whether the party should come back, though, is easy to answer. Germany needs a liberal party. Maybe not the liberal party the Free Democrats have been in past years — but certainly the one they could be.
Though dwarfed by the center-left Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats, the Free Democratic Party has played a major role in postwar German politics. As a coalition partner to both big players at different times, it was a part of different national governments for a total of 46 years. And it provided many of the country’s A-list statesmen, like Walter Scheel and Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
But the Free Democrats began to fall flat in the 2000s, troubled by poor leadership and unpopular policy stances, and in 2013 the party failed to receive enough votes to clear the 5 percent requirement for inclusion in the Bundestag.
I admit that, when the party first started its race to the bottom, I could hardly suppress my schadenfreude. They deserved it: As the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet from 2009 to 2013, the Free Democrats indulged in pork-barrel politics, filled their ranks with incompetent personnel and topped it all off with a sexist gaffe by their lead candidate for the 2013 elections.
And yet, today, any political voice speaking out for the rule of law, civil liberties, self-determination and freedom from government intrusion deserves a second chance. In many ways, the German political system is out of balance.
Germany desperately needs the party’s emphasis on rule-of-law liberalism and civil liberties. Since the attacks in Paris in January, advocates of more aggressive homeland security policies have gained strength, especially at the European Union level. The European Parliament has conceded to the collection of airline passenger name records. Plans to install an international system for telecommunications data retention are back on the table after being rejected by the European Court of Justice, and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain is thinking aloud about a ban on many forms of encryption— an idea supported by Germany’s conservative minister of the interior, Thomas de Maizière.
Furthermore, as Germany’s Muslim community continues to grow, the question of religious freedom will become more pressing. Every few months, someone from the ranks of the Christian Democrats calls for a ban on wearing burqas in public. The Bundestag is lacking a voice willing to defend forms of religious expression that may seem extreme to mainstream German society — a voice that the Free Democrats could provide.
Germans also lack a sense of collective skepticism regarding the government, and the German public is increasingly losing faith in the ability of individuals to make good decisions regarding things like personal health and finances. Certainly, the enormous strength of the government’s consumer protection efforts in Germany is a great achievement. It goes back to the early 2000s, when the Green Party shaped German politics as a smaller partner to the Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Thanks to their effort, consumer protection was incorporated into a cabinet-level duty after the Ministry of Justice was renamed the Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection.
However, inebriated with power, the movement for consumer protection has gone from making sure our food is safe to trying to nudge consumers to make significant lifestyle changes — for example, by proposing a red-light sign on sweet or fat food. And last year Ms. Merkel hired several behavioral psychologists to “explore” new ways of governing through policies that altered people’s behaviors. It was scientifically proved, a spokesman explained, that people often acted against what was good for them.
This new paternalism is not restricted to health, but extends to culture. Again, the immigrant community is the target. In December the Christian Democrats suggested that immigrants should speak German at home. And while the idea was quickly shot down, Germany is quietly employing a heavier hand in pushing behavioral change among immigrants. One common argument for more state-funded day care, for instance, is that it allows an easier “integration” of immigrant children into mainstream society. Put differently, the government, Germans increasingly believe, knows best how to raise a child.
A little nudging here and a little control over your data there add up to a threat to self-determination. What’s even worse, nobody seems to mind. While the bulk of the Free Democrats’ fall is self-inflicted, a good portion is because liberal ideas don’t resonate: We are content trading off freedom for comfort and security. Hans-Peter Friedrich, a former minister of the interior from the Christian Social Union, a sister party of the Christian Democrats, once said that security was the most important right, a “Super-Grundrecht.” Whether they admit it or not, most Germans agree.
Germans have forgotten what it was like not to be free, and as a result, liberalism is assuming the appeal of a historic marble statue: beautiful but cold to the touch, skillfully sculpted but lifeless. They would rather snuggle up to the warmth of the nanny state.
For the moment, what is left of the Free Democrats certainly doesn’t have the oomph to alter this pro-paternalist mood, despite its recent success in Hamburg. But who else will do it? The Greens have tried to fill the void lately by emphasizing civil liberties and the rule of law. But the Greens can’t shake their longstanding distrust of individual sovereignty and free will.
Instead, it’s up to the Free Democrats. In the next few years Germany will see a long series of state-level elections, in which the party can begin to rebuild. Let’s hope, for Germany’s sake, that they succeed.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.