Teuton the Introvert

Teuton the Introvert

by Jacob Heilbrunn


FREIBURG, A university town nestled in a valley at the foot of the Black Forest in southwest Germany, is where the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wore a Nazi Party badge for the special occasion, delivered his notorious rector’s address in 1933, exhorting German students to fulfill the Fuhrer’s vision by supporting the “national revolution.” The medieval city was heavily bombed during World War II and occupied by the French. After the Berlin wall fell and the remaining occupation force departed in the early 1990s, a motley crew of house squatters and hippies moved into the former French barracks. But within a few years, the local city council converted the space into a gleaming town for the middle class called Vauban. When you visit this eco-town, it quickly becomes apparent that Vauban resembles nothing so much as a tarted-up socialist paradise. It leaves you with the feeling of having seen a small replica of East Germany—except that it actually works.

The communal apartment buildings are constructed from recycled materials and painted in a variety of bright colors. The houses almost invariably feature an array of solar panels for heating and hot water. Outside, numerous trash cans stand proudly like soldiers at attention, waiting for carefully selected refuse. Consistent with Vauban’s progressive ethos, all the streets are named after famous women like Rahel Varnhagen, a German Jew who ran one of the most prominent intellectual salons in Berlin during the early eighteenth century and was the subject of a biography by Hannah Arendt. Placards announcing feminist meetings, anticapitalist demos and protests against nuclear power are plastered on the walls. For those interested in burnishing their revolutionary credentials, every third week of the month features a sudsy meeting at the radical pub SUSI of the “Antifa Linke Freiburg”—the antifascist Left of the neighborhood, known to its adherents as the ALFR. Its motto is “class war” instead of the older German credo “fatherland.” Meanwhile, a tiny encampment of anarchists is living in abandoned vehicles side-by-side this utopian dream.

In other words, Vauban, for the most part, epitomizes how Germany would like to be seen abroad—enlightened, progressive, reflective, pleasant and virtuous. And, in many ways, it reflects the tamed and docile West Germany that England, France and America hoped would emerge after World War II. But if Vauban is an environmental paradise, it may also exemplify the rather-complacent political orthodoxies that are sapping the vitality of a country that is urgently in need of renewal. It has something of a nanny-state feel to it since cars are basically verboten—and where they aren’t, as in Berlin, anarchists have been torching them nightly. Even as some of Vauban’s residents fume about capitalism and state oppression, they lead highly regulated lives that depend on draconian government laws mandating everything from energy efficiency down to almost the final turn of the water faucet. Its residents seek liberation from the free-market ethos by circumscribing their freedoms. It’s all very German. It’s also become somewhat problematic.


WHAT IS really happening from the borders of the Saarland to the hinterland of Saxony is the takeover of Germany by the Left. If America became enraptured with the global-capitalism gospel of the past two decades, Germany has experienced the opposite. The country has long been held captive by the communist program: first, through its division during the Cold War; then, as it tried to join its ailing East with its far healthier West. The Germans’ failure to make themselves whole and equal again leaves their country increasingly insular and provincial.

To some extent, blame for the leftists’ staying power rests with former-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The stolid Kohl, a product of the centrist Christian Democratic Union, had promised East Germans a “blooming landscape” no sooner than the wall had fallen. It never happened. Instead, the West Germans who headed east to dismantle the ossified industries were regarded by the locals as invading colonialists. The bitterness has never subsided. East Germany is an economic basket case. It boasts unemployment rates reaching up to 20 percent. Despite massive subventions from the West, the East remains an object of contempt for its more prosperous brethren, though even the healthy parts of Germany are jeopardized by an aging population and the economic turmoil in Greece, Portugal and Spain, the latter of which is reducing the value of the euro. At times, Easterners have voted neo-Nazis into Parliament. But what has startled the Western parties most is the unremitting ascendance of the former-East-German, communist Socialist Unity Party, which morphed into the Party of Democratic Socialism, then into the Left Party.PDS and, finally, into die Linke. It has permeated all of German politics.

Gregor Gysi, who has just stepped down as one of the chairmen of The Left, managed the party’s reinvention by grabbing hold of economic and foreign-policy issues. A clever and sinuous rhetorician, as an attorney he represented clients requesting an exit visa from the national prison known as East Germany. Oskar Lafontaine, who was until January a party co-chair, took up the mantle of empowering the masses’ cause. Hailing from the Saar area, he isn’t some hick from the East, but a polished Western politician who vacations in Italy and lives it up in his palatial home, a true champagne socialist. A former German finance minister and fiery orator, Red Oskar, as he is known, has always banged the populist drum. His campaign’s mantra was “tax the rich.” He ferociously attacked globalization. And Gysi and Lafontaine together tapped into the German antipathy toward free-market economics, in particular industry and the banks, both supposedly gouging workers. Professors and members of the trade unions, the latter the traditional bulwark of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), defected to die Linke.

The intellectual inheritance of Marx, the hatred of das Manchestertum—Manchester neoliberalism—sits deep among German elites, particularly on the left, which has even devised a special and dreaded term to describe a politician who dares to propose trimming any social programs—soziale Kälte, social coldness. Implicit in the term, which cuts off debate before it can even begin, is the moral superiority of anyone who opposes capitalist policies. Currently, more than half of the federal budget is devoted to social-programs spending. In Germany, it remains possible to live rather comfortably on long-term unemployment benefits, something that immigrants, who form a high percentage of welfare recipients, have noticed as well.

Lafontaine led his followers to a heady 11.9 percent of the vote in 2009. Die Linke occupies 76 out of 622 seats in the Bundestag. It is represented in thirteen of sixteen state parliaments. The Left Party, and the policies it espouses, have become a permanent part of the political landscape.


CAN THE Left really be that vigorous at a moment when Germany elected a center-right coalition headed by Christian Democrat Angela Merkel to run the national government? Well, yes. And it all comes down to the leftist platforms of economic equality and foreign-policy isolationism. So profound is the problem that Malte Lehming, the opinion-page editor of the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal shortly after the fall 2009 federal elections to decry what he sarcastically termed a “republic of fear”: a fastidious political correctness mixed in with a refusal to acknowledge that the state cannot pay for everything and everyone. He has a point.

For its European neighbors and America, the rise of the Left can only be negative. Instead of serving as the dynamo that pushes European unification ahead and bails out countries like Greece, Germany may be missing in action. Rather than remaining a major participant in the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan, Germany will be, at best, a halfhearted ally.

On economic policy Chancellor Merkel is struggling, with the problems long in the making. After she almost failed to topple former-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2004 when she brought on a wooden academic and neoliberal economist named Paul Kirchhoff in the waning weeks of her campaign to announce that state subsidies needed to be slashed and taxes lowered, Merkel has largely stayed on the defensive. The dalliance with American-style economic policy was a disaster and she took home the lesson that the German electorate wants, in the famous slogan of the founding chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, “No experiments!” Adenauer, who was elected to a record four terms, knew that Germans had their fill of what Nietzsche called the “magic of extremism.” Caution remains Germany’s watchword. But that stance has become synonymous with stagnation. German voters, of whom the elderly form an ever-larger and more potent bloc—intent on retaining their lavish state pensions and subsidies—regard the idea of change with disdain. Merkel did not win the federal election so much as she did not lose it.

Her reelection bid in fall 2009 gave new hope to insomniacs everywhere, as Merkel ran one of the most soporific campaigns in German history. She eschewed any conflict with her opponents, offering banalities jostling with platitudes. Since the Social Democrats had been weakened by the rise of the Far Left, however, the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP), which espouses classically liberal economic tenets, formed a coalition with Merkel. It is odd that the rise of die Linke would lead—as a side effect—to a temporary empowerment of the free marketeers. But it is empowerment by default.

The Free Democrats, led by the energetic and charismatic Guido Westerwelle, promised a pro-business environment and lower taxes. They have already come under heavy fire for having approved a reduction in the hotel consumption tax from 19 percent to 7 percent. And they are currently fighting with Merkel over economic reform (she already knows the price to be paid for experiments). It looks like the Free Democrats may well be unable to deliver on their election promises, and the German press, most prominently Der Spiegel, continuously subjects the FDP to the criticism that it is simply a representative—in short, a tool—of industry rather than the working stiff. At the same time, Westerwelle took the slot of foreign minister, not an economics post. It seems then that Merkel’s opponents on the left will be able to prevent her and the Free Democrats from taking any fundamental measures to overhaul the economy. The longer Merkel remains in office, the more she will come to represent the stability that Germans have always craved in the postwar era, but her tenure has demonstrated the limits of what conservatives can achieve. Her real accomplishment may be to preserve the Left’s construction of a sprawling social-welfare state, thereby representing continuity with the past rather than radical change.

This is no small issue to be brushed aside in the name of equality for all. German economic growth was near zero in the final quarter of 2009 and it is expected to be, at best, 2 percent in the coming year. Heavily dependent on exports for machinery and autos, Germany has lagged in stimulating demand at home. It’s not clear that the luxury-car market abroad, which makes up a hefty component of auto-manufacturing-center Stuttgart’s—and by extension, Germany’s—economic base, will recover anytime soon.

Instead of resembling the martial country of yore, then, Germany has begun to reach even further back into its history, mirroring the provincial and musty duchies of the eighteenth century that vexed the German romantics who preached unification and national greatness. It has achieved the first, but it’s no longer interested in the latter for itself or, indeed, for Europe.

Things are not looking much better for the chancellor in the wider world of international relations. Though the Left has not yet been able to force Germany to withdraw from Afghanistan, it has been able to train its firepower on Chancellor Merkel’s policy of supporting first the Bush administration then the Obama White House in maintaining about four thousand five hundred German troops in Afghanistan. The Left’s calls for exiting resonate powerfully in a country where the war is seen by many as an excuse for America to prop up its bloated intelligence and military establishment. And the pressure for Germany to leave continues to mount. Margot Kaessmann, the head of Germany’s Protestant churches, took issue with both Obama and Merkel. She declared in December, “there is no just war. I cannot legitimize it from a Christian point of view. . . . All that should be asked is how to conduct an orderly withdrawal and come up with a civilian solution.” In a country that remains haunted by its Nazi past, her moralistic repudiation of war—and of President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech—reflects the dominant sentiment.

The Christian Democratic Union’s position on Afghanistan has only been further weakened by the recent uproar over the September missile strike ordered by Colonel Georg Klein against two trucks allegedly commandeered by the Taliban near the city of Kunduz. The operation resulted in heavy civilian casualties and was criticized by General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Yet Merkel’s youthful defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who hails from Bavaria and was until recently a rising star of German politics, called it “militarily appropriate.” It is now being investigated by Parliament. The German government has never had the temerity to call Afghanistan a war. Instead, it has relied upon semantic evasions, as though it were simply engaging in a friendly humanitarian act. But once again, left-wing, pacifist strictures have pushed Germany—and Chancellor Merkel—into murky territory.


THE LEFT has determined the boundaries of debate in Germany of late. One would think that if anyone could shake up the country’s pieties it would be Merkel. A former Easterner, she has little patience for the sentimentality and moralism of the Left. But clearly, those looking for a new “Iron Lady” in Germany have mostly been disappointed. Merkel’s habitual caution may have made her personally popular, but she has been unable to move her nation toward more openness and more vitality on the world stage. Instead, the reverse is happening.

And now a new threat looms on the horizon: a union of the leftist parties. For the Social Democratic Party, who long claimed to represent the everyday man on the political scene, the rise of die Linke undermined their political position. But Lafontaine has stepped down as chairman of The Left due to a cancer scare. And this could well pave the way for a reunification of his party and the Social Democrats. They were forcibly (and unhappily) welded together in East Germany by the Communists after World War II. Tensions in the heady days post–the Berlin wall were unsurprising. Lafontaine left the SPD in 2005 to form the Left Party and became hated by his old comrades as a result. But the SPD and die Linke are flirting with each other of late, and they could well form a potent new combination on the political scene. With Lafontaine gone, the way is open for the creation of an extremely powerful leftist bloc.

The signs of German discontent are only growing. In the upcoming state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia this May, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats may well suffer a big loss unless Merkel can show that Germany is on the mend. Further opportunities for the Left will surely follow.


ONLY IF the doughty Chancellor Merkel can rouse her country from its torpor will Germany again become the motor of Europe and a strong ally to America. Without Germany, the idea of Europe will remain just that—an idea. Germany will falter alongside the Continent, as an aging population and a lack of productivity drag both down into an economic morass. In short, the German problem is back. This time Germany isn’t flexing its muscles; it’s experiencing statewide atrophy.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.