Does Germany Hold the Key to Defeating Populism?

Angela Merkel’s country can resist the rightward pull in European politics.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference in Berlin, Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference in Berlin, Germany. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

Amid fears of a rising populist tide in Europe, Germany seems to be resisting its rightward tug with unique success. The day after Donald Trump’s election, The New York Times hailed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the “Liberal West’s Last Defender.” And it was to Merkel, the new “leader of the free world,” that Barack Obama directed his final phone call as president.

Meanwhile, others around the world are embracing right-wing populism, from the Britons’ stunning decision to leave the European Union to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian policies. Trump’s election has appeared at times to inject fresh energy into the right-wing parties of Europe. As some countries there brace for national elections this year, the prospects for these parties look bright. In France, for example, far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen is expected to advance to the second round of balloting in April’s presidential elections; recent polls show her beating scandal-ridden conservative candidate Francois Fillon in the first round.

Of course, Germany has had to cope with the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party peddling the same jingoistic, xenophobic populism as its cousins promote around the globe. The party has received outsized attention from media, both in Germany and abroad. Recent incidents, including a high-profile defection from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have added a note of panic to Germany’s politics.

But despite hysterical headlines claiming that the AfD’s presence augurs a “return of the Nazis,” support has remained tepid at best. In recent elections in Lower Saxony, the party garnered only 7.8 percent, below its stated 10 percent goal and far less than the CDU’s 34 percent. In an election last weekend in the Saarland, the CDU won over 40 percent of votes. The AfD won only 6.2 percent, barely clearing the threshold to take seats in the regional parliament.

Recent polls show that Merkel enjoys a high approval rating and that German voters remain committed to mainstream parties. The entry of former European Parliament President Martin Schulz as the chancellor candidate for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has ignited the center-left and buoyed the prospects for Germany’s political mainstream. Even if the AfD were to rise substantially in the polls, Germany’s coalition-based parliamentary system makes it extremely unlikely that the party would be able to form a government.

And there are stark attitudinal differences between Germany and other Western countries, as reactions to recent terrorist attacks highlight. Whereas French President Francois Hollande stated that “We are at war” and declared a state of emergency in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, Merkel’s reaction to the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack was quiet, calm, and comforting. While Trump used the occasion of the Orlando Pulse massacre to congratulate himself on his own doomsday prognostications, the German people have “refused to panic.”

Why has Germany, a country once defined by radical right-wing conservatism and still seen by some foreigners as a comfortable home for Nazism, stayed relatively immune to the virus of global right-wing populism?

One explanation has to do with Germany’s economy. The so-called “engine of Europe” weathered the 2008 financial crisis far better than most other western nations and has generally benefited from the open borders and common currency of the Eurozone. Germany’s economy is export-based and the euro has allowed it to sell industrial goods to other European countries on advantageous terms.

But some of that strength is illusory: As the Economist pointed out in 2013, “most Germans’ living standards have stagnated, wealth is highly skewed and national saving … has been spectacularly badly invested.” Moreover, Germany’s economic fundamentals are not spectacularly stronger than other countries’. Germany currently enjoys a 4.6 percent unemployment rate, about the same as America’s current 4.7 percent and not substantially lower than the Danish 6.2 percent or Dutch 6.9 percent. As in many other Western countries, Germany’s economy is projected to grow 1-2 percent in the next year. Besides, commentators have noted that economic performance is no predictor of the appeal of economic populism. And even if Germany’s relatively healthy economy may ease the pressures on Merkel’s ruling coalition, it does not explain away the AfD’s poor electoral prospects.

The appeal of populists lies not merely in the economic policies they promise to implement, but rather in their ability to tap into the cultural and social anxieties of voters who feel that globalization threatens their way of life, even their very identity. A key reason for the AfD’s comparatively weak allure can be found in Germany’s unique relationship to national memory.

Unlike virtually any other country, Germany has, over the seven decades since the Holocaust, dedicated itself to inculcating in its citizens a clear-eyed awareness of and responsibility for its crimes. It is this wariness of the radical right and national sense of duty to stand against racism and extremism that render Germans generally less susceptible to right-wing populism today, despite the continuing presence of radical, and sometimes violent, fringe movements.

The process of de-Nazifying Germany began as soon as the Allies occupied the country in 1945. Nazi officials were removed from public posts and millions of Germans were required to fill out de-Nazification questionnaires. The highest Nazi officials were famously tried at Nuremberg, where 10 were executed for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Although that process stalled in 1949—when West Germany was founded and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer took power, promising a break with the Nazi past—remembering Germany’s Nazi legacy again became a public priority in the 1960s. The 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, famously chronicled by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, along with  the sensational Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1963, reawakened Germans’ sense of complicity with the crimes of their government.

The student uprisings of 1968 were, in Germany, motivated precisely by this sense of guilt for the Holocaust and frustration that the old generation had opted for silence and forgetting, rather than remembrance and atonement.

In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, German President Richard von Weizsäcker delivered a now-famous address to the German parliament. The speech did more than virtually any other act in the history of postwar Germany to cement citizens’ sense of responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. In it, Weizsäcker spoke openly about the millions of Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and mentally handicapped people murdered by the Nazi regime. He exhorted the young generation to “understand why it is vital to keep alive the memories.” In one passage he boldly proclaimed, “If we for our part sought to forget what has occurred, instead of remembering it, this would not only be inhuman. … We must erect a memorial to thoughts and feelings in our own hearts.”

Over the past decades, Germans have taken Weiszäcker’s entreaties seriously, reaffirming their commitment to understanding and atoning for their past. The national government continues to pay reparations to victims of the Holocaust, a process that began in 1952, when West Germany signed a treaty with Israel. As recently as 2013, Germany pledged to pay an additional 800 million euros to elderly survivors of the Holocaust.

Germany’s commitment to atonement is most obviously and creatively expressed in its passion for monuments. In 1992, for instance, the German artist Gunter Demnig began laying small stones capped with brass in front of buildings where Jews had lived. These stones are engraved with the names of those who had lived there before being deported and murdered by the Nazi regime. In the decades since, tens of thousands of so-called Stolpersteine have been laid; all manufactured by Demnig, but put in place by various people, they are a common sight in most German cities.

Of the hundreds of monuments and memorials in Germany, Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman, is the most impressive. Composed of almost 3,000 grey concrete slabs, the monument sits in the very heart of Berlin, only a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Parliament building. In the 12 years since it was opened in 2005, over 5 million people have visited.

A man walks though the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
A man walks though the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Indeed, it was AfD candidate Björn Höcke’s broadside against this memorial in January that brought fears about the party to a fever pitch and unleashed a torrent of criticism against the AfD. Höcke had said that Germans “are the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of our capital,” and he was probably correct. But this is not, as he believes, evidence of German weakness. It’s a testament to the country’s moral leadership.

Public discourse in Germany is generally wary, even intolerant, of anything perceived to praise the Nazi past or lessen the nation’s guilt for it. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to pin blame for the Holocaust on Muslims in 2015, a spokesman for Merkel fired back, “We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.” It’s hard to imagine a leader in any other country not being excoriated for declaring national guilt. In recognition of Merkel’s commitment to preserving Holocaust memory, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will present her with the 2017 Elie Wiesel Award in April.

The speeches, monuments, and reparations that have defined Germany’s engagement with the Nazi past are not empty gestures or hollow symbols. They’re an expression of Germans’ broad commitment to atoning for past crimes and to preventing similar horrors in the future. A 2015 poll, for instance, found that 75 percent of Germans believed that their country has a “special international role” in preventing atrocities.

Germany’s engagement with its sins marks a radical break with how most states define their nationhood. Though there is no way to atone completely for a crime as malicious and devastating as the Holocaust, the very attempt to do so is what sets Germany apart.

To some extent, each country stands on the wrongs of its past; behind every nationalist myth lies some crime or other. Great Britain has never fully acknowledged the monstrosity of imperialism, which robbed untold wealth from the developing world, murdered millions, and in which Arendt saw the early seeds of fascism. Nor has France ever truly recognized the evil of its own colonial empire or the insidious collaboration of many French people with the Nazis. The United States has never come close to fully acknowledging the role of slavery in building the country, the depravations of Jim Crow, or the Native American genocide upon which the nation was founded.

The connection between these unacknowledged deeds and the furious racism and xenophobia of today’s right wing may be subtle, but it is unmistakable. It was imperial nostalgia that helped convince Britons to break their bonds with Europe. What did Theresa May’s call to a “global Britain” harken back to, if not the lost empire? How else to explain the unusually high support of former French Algerian colonists and their families—so-called pied-noirs—for Le Pen’s National Front? And how else to make sense of the American far right’s own defense of the continued brutalization of minorities, and its affection for totems of racism like the Confederate flag?

All countries have their original sins, but only Germany has fully named its sin and sought expiation for it. If the rest of the world hopes to counter the populist revolution, it might do well to emulate Germany.