Police and far-right protesters in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, September 2018
Kevin Voigt / Xinhua / eyevine/ R​edux

In the late summer of 2015, when it seemed that the flow of refugees into Europe might never abate, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a press conference. She’d just visited a refugee center near Dresden when she uttered what she surely thought was a throwaway line. “Wir schaffen das,” she said, or “We’ll manage this.” In its banality, the phrase seemed equally far removed from Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Whereas politicians in the United States traffic in the aspirational language of marketing, political debates in Germany are couched in the language of trivial chores. You could say “Wir schaffen das” about the laundry, the grocery shopping, or taking out the trash. The phrase was typical of a politics that has long tried to bury ideology under layers of administrative detail. 

Merkel’s detractors, however, pounced on the quote, which they argued betrayed a dangerously casual attitude toward the risks of mass migration. The fiercest criticism came from the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, whose co-leader Alexander Gauland angrily declared, “We don’t want to manage it at all.” What had been a nod to Merkel’s core virtue—competence—soon became an ironic slogan that her enemies hung around the chancellor’s neck like the proverbial albatross. 

In the four years since Merkel’s press conference, German politics has drifted steadily to the right, and a pat narrative has emerged holding her immigration policies to blame: Merkel’s generous asylum policy alienated many of the center-right voters who formed the traditional base of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and drove them into the eager arms of the AfD. For the CDU—or indeed any centrist party—to stanch the flow of voters to the AfD, the argument goes, it will have to shift rightward itself, especially on issues of immigration and culture. But such a strategy is unlikely to succeed. After all, the AfD has itself moved ever further to the right over the past few years, and it has done so without losing the support of its constituents. To imagine that the centrist right could win back these voters merely by tweaking its messaging and adopting a few far-right talking points strains credulity.

Merkel is emblematic of a politics that has long tried to bury ideology under layers of administrative detail. 

That the AfD’s extremist positions can mobilize a large contingent of German voters should not come as a surprise. A longitudinal study begun by researchers at the University of Leipzig in 2002 has consistently found that more than one-third of Germans hold xenophobic views. The sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer conducted a ten-year-long empirical survey between 2002 and 2011 and came to similar conclusions. His final survey revealed that nearly half of all Germans believed that there were “too many foreigners” in the country, while one-third agreed that there were “natural differences between blacks and whites.” These attitudes long predate the 2015 refugee crisis and have manifested themselves time and again, perhaps most notably in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when far-right thugs regularly terrorized immigrant communities in eastern Germany.

Right-wing biases, and at times even extremist tendencies, infect German institutions, too. Consider the authorities’ botched investigation into the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a far-right terrorist group. Over the course of a decade, NSU murdered ten people—nearly all of them immigrants—robbed 14 banks, and carried out three bombings. All the while, German intelligence insisted that the crimes couldn’t be racially motivated and were instead linked to organized crime. Only when one of the group’s members turned herself in to the police in 2011 was the country’s national security agency willing to concede that racial hatred lay behind the crimes. More recently, a neo-Nazi network was uncovered in the Frankfurt police force, and police in Saxony were found to have illegally ordered the removal of anti-fascist campaign posters. 

Pluralism, and not ethnonationalism, has characterized postwar public life in Germany, not because right-wing extremism was absent but because a powerful consensus followed the Second World War: soziale Marktwirtschaft, or “social market economics,” which combined free-market competition with a robust welfare state and strong support for trade unions. It was this mix of well-regulated free markets and continuous investment in public goods that helped Germany’s economy rise from the rubble of World War II to the dominant position within Europe that it enjoys today. 

Germany, like the United States and Britain, tacked to what was called “the new center” in the 1990s, but in doing so dismantled the very institutions that had largely kept extremist thinking out of electoral politics. The wave of privatization and deregulation that marked this era should be familiar, in its broad outlines, to Anglophone readers: Benefits that had once been relatively generous and widely available for qualified applicants were now meager and contingent on the recipient’s compliance with a number of arbitrary and at times humiliating regulations. The results, after several decades of these policies, are sobering. In 2013, for example, top earners in Germany were appropriating wealth at rates similar to those of 1913, according to the 2018 World Inequality Report. Deregulation and neoliberal policies have done as much damage to people’s sense of shared responsibility as to their sense of economic security. The “new center” is too thin to bind an increasingly diverse German society, and, as a result, political consensus around centrist policies is crumbling. 

Political consensus around centrist policies is crumbling. 

The question today is what will replace that consensus. Racist and anti-Semitic views are prevalent enough within the German population that a new accord could emerge around ethnonationalism, as has been the case in Hungary, for example. It need not, however. In 2015, anti-immigrant marches known as the Pegida movement took place, and police counted 25,000 protesters in Dresden, one of Pegida’s strongholds. Yet at least 30,000 people came to the counter-protest in nearby Leipzig. In 2018, an antiracist march in Berlin attracted more than 240,000 demonstrators. Protests against climate change and against the inequities of the housing market have likewise demonstrated the popularity of progressive values. And certain social welfare priorities, like early childhood education, attract broad public support. That the left has had difficulty translating this momentum into electoral success is in part because it spans several parties with different visions. Whereas voters who have fled the CDU to the right have almost all gone to the AfD, left-of-center voters cast their ballots for the Social Democrats, the Greens, the far-left Die Linke (the Left), and a number of smaller parties. Hope, it seems, comes in more flavors than fear. 

A recent round of regional elections underscored the potential of robust social welfare programs to sap the far right of its momentum. The AfD made significant gains in the East German states of Saxony and Brandenburg in September, and many expected the party would do well equally in Thuringia the following month. The prospect of a strong AfD performance in this particular state was especially disturbing, given that the AfD’s leader there is Björn Höcke, one of the party’s most outspoken and extremist members, who is famous for criticizing Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as an unnecessary “monument of shame.” But although the AfD saw its share of the vote increase, the election’s true winner was Die Linke. 

Die Linke, which rose from the ashes of East Germany’s communist ruling party after the country’s reunification, had done poorly in recent elections across Germany. In Thuringia, however, it won the most seats of any party for the first time in its history. The party owes this success largely to Bodo Ramelow, who since 2014 had served as Thuringia’s chief minister with the backing of the Social Democrats and the Green party. Like the AfD’s Höcke, Ramelow has been accused of extremism and investigated by German intelligence—but whereas Höcke has well-documented connections to neo-Nazis, Ramelow was investigated on the basis of a vague suspicion that he may have been briefly associated with the Communist Party in his youth. As chief minister, Ramelow won a reputation for hardheaded pragmatism, and according to the German weekly Die Zeit, even the local CDU and business representatives declared themselves satisfied with his record in government. 

Despite this record, Ramelow will face headwinds, largely because his coalition partners—the Greens and the Social Democrats—both lost seats in the October election, thus depriving the coalition of a majority in parliament. (Ramelow attempted to form a coalition with the CDU instead but was rebuffed.) Still, unlike his centrist counterparts in Brandenburg and Saxony, Ramelow has seen no diminishment in his own party’s support among voters. He managed this victory by swamping fascist momentum with pension plans and health care proposals, sucking the energy from the AfD’s high-flying rhetoric by taking concrete steps to enact or improve social welfare programs. 

Despite Ramelow’s electoral victory, however, the AfD dominated the media cycle. In fact, The New York Times, the BBC, and CNN all reported the Thuringia election as a resounding success for the AfD without acknowledging the historic performance of Die Linke. In obfuscating the results of the election, media outlets deprived readers both of a legitimate hope of stalling the far right and of the opportunity for studying the tactics that have halted xenophobic extremism in its tracks. 

The victory of a far-left politician in East Germany—a region on its way to become the far right’s home base—may have escaped media attention, but the story holds a larger lesson: Even if many Germans are animated by resentment, far more want to send their kids to good schools. Given a choice between empty centrist promises and hate-filled rhetoric, many will opt for the latter. Given a choice between hatred and better health care, they will choose health care. Theodor Adorno, the great philosopher of authoritarianism, argued as much in a 1967 lecture. Adorno advised his listeners not to “try to be as clever as the right-wingers.” Fascists, he argued, are propagandists at their core, and ideological conflict always helps their cause. Those who wish to defeat them should instead harness the “penetrating power of reason, confront them with the truly non-ideological truth.”