How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
And if it never happened? Then, of course, nobody is to blame. There is no responsibility, and there are no consequences. The end of a common understanding of what happened is in many ways the end of politics, because to define problems and work on solutions requires common ground. Germany, like the United States, has entered this post-truth hall of mirrors. The stakes are particularly high, because a violent far right is rising, in a country still troubled by its racist and murderous past. The embrace of a discourse of “alternative facts” signals that Germany has moved far from the role it played during the early days of the refugee crisis, as the exception to the rule of resentment.
How did we get here? At the end of August, following the alleged murder of a German citizen by two refugees, a right-wing mob of several thousand people took to the streets in the eastern city of Chemnitz, shouting racist slogans, threatening and chasing refugees (or just about anybody who looked different), and fighting an overwhelmed and outnumbered local police force. The images quickly spread on social media. One video showed a group of a few men first shouting at, and then running after, a man who is seen fleeing across a busy street, avoiding several cars as he speeds along. The German media used the term Hetzjagd, normally applied to the hunting of animals, to describe this scene and others captured during the riots. German Chancellor Angela Merkel used this word, too, in her public statement condemning the violence.
But then something strange happened. When the minister president of the German state of Saxonia, Michael Kretschmer of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), addressed the events in Chemnitz in the state parliament a few days later, he claimed that “there was no mob, there was no chase, there was no pogrom”—directly contradicting not only Merkel but also nearly all of the mainstream press that had reported on the events. The violence, the racist epithets, and the people chanting “We want to kill” were all well documented, not only by eyewitnesses but also on video, as were the scenes of people being threatened and chased. But following Kretschmer’s remarks, a public debate over the use of the word Hetzjagd diverted attention from the clashes in Chemnitz to the way the news was produced and, according to those critical of the term, politicized.
Germany, like the United States, has entered a post-truth hall of mirrors
Like “fake news” in the United States, the German word Lügenpresse, or lying press, challenges the authority of the media as a democratic institution. Right-wing politicians and protesters use the term to discredit the work of journalists covering the most controversial subject of all—migration and refugees—but also any other topic related to what the right calls the “system Merkel.” The attraction of formerly mainstream figures to this rhetoric is likely political. With the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) breathing down its neck (and more popular by four percent, according to a recent poll), Kretschmer’s party, the CDU, has been driven rightward. The Christian Social Union (CSU), of Bavaria, is also drifting from conservative to reactionary politics under the cloud of impending losses to right-wing parties in upcoming elections. Accordingly, German interior minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU critized the media coverage of Chemnitz and mused about joining the protests himself if it were not for his political office.
But the most radical departure from established protocol came from Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is a part of the secret service. Maassen should by definition not be a political figure. Still, in a highly unusual interview with the tabloid Bild, Maassen aggressively contradicted the media coverage of the riots in Chemnitz. He said that there was no evidence that the video showing people chasing others was authentic, and he went on to suggest that the video had been planted to divert attention from the murder of a German. Maassen, who had earlier faced criticism for alleged ties to the right-wing AfD, had neither consulted with his agency nor obtained any privileged information about the authenticity of the controversial video. Yet the damage was done. Germany discussed the term Hetzjagd. Meanwhile, the press uncovered that neo-Nazis in Chemnitz had attacked, among other places, a Jewish restaurant called Schalom.
Not long ago, any one of these incidents—a neo-Nazi mob sporting Hitler salutes, an attack on a Jewish restaurant, attacks on left-wing demonstrators, attacks on refugees—would have been enough to spark an emotional political debate in Germany. But something fundamental seems to have changed, and the fact of conservative politicians showing open sympathy for right-wing positions is just part of this. Perhaps even more troubling is the structural attack on the very notion of a rational discourse governed by rules held in common—among them, that even ideological opponents accept the existence of a verifiable truth, that the press is a respected fourth pillar of democracy, and that there is room for disagreement but not for obvious lies and falsehoods. In the United States, all of these assumptions have been tested since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. In Europe, this brazen version of politics is reactionary in more than one sense, perpetrated by politicians copying Trump’s tactics but without his open ruthlessness.
When the German Bundestag questioned them, both Maassen and interior minister Seehofer only strategically backed down a bit. Maassen kept insisting that he had been misunderstood, and he expressed largely unfounded concerns about left-wing extremism while failing to address the problem of right-wingers terrorizing parts of a German city. The CDU, CSU, and the liberal Free Democratic Party continued to support Maassen at the time, while the Social Democratic Party, the Greens, and the leftist Die Linke wanted him to step down. What started as a scandal seemed to end in a stalemate.
Both scandal and stalemate belong to the new political ethos that took shape in those slightly panicky German late-summer days. The haziness is part of the concept, avoidence replacing argument, confusion replacing confrontation. The disdain for process, parliament, and accountability are a kind of post-political politics. During his campaign, Trump claimed he could get away with anything, and his victory seemed to prove him right. Maassen, Seehofer, and Kretschmer seemed to get away with saying that what millions of Germans thought they saw on television and on social media never happened. And what looked like a constitutional crisis, because Merkel could not fire Maassen without firing Seehofer, whom she needed to form her coalition, was actually caused by the man charged with protecting that very constitution.
If Maassen wanted to show the feebleness of the democratic process, its institutions, and its politicians, he won. On Tuesday, he stepped down as the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, but was promoted to State Secretary, the highest ranking bureaucrat in the interior ministry. There was no responsibility, and no consequence: Merkel’s Grand Coalition continues, whatever the price to pay.
The incident is a reminder of the country’s Weimar days, when the state apparatus turned against democracy itself. One way or another, history is always present in this country. It was the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote in his Buckower Elegien that the people had lost the trust of the government, and then asked if the easiest solution would not be for the government to dissolve the people and elect a new one. This was in 1953, and the country was the late German Democratic Republic.
In 2018, in the age of the Internet, it seems more and more that politicians in Germany, as elsewhere, have lost trust in reality—and that rather than changing reality they choose to create a new one. The response to Chemnitz among certain politicians on the center-right shows a confidence that this strategy can work in Germany. For many citizens, recent events have supported the impression that anything, really anything, is possible in German politics.