Will the upcoming election deepen the division of Germany?


Picture of David Clarke
David Clarke

David Clarke is Senior Lecturer at the University of Bath

Germany’s intellectual scandal of the summer centres on the decision by the editors of the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel to remove Rolf Peter Sieferle’s book Finis Germania from its influential bestseller list. Published in a small right-wing press, the book came to the public’s attention through a recommendation by a Spiegel journalist, whose colleagues later reasoned that the tract would never have made it into the list without the oxygen of this publicity.

Although once associated with a left-liberal perspective, the eminent historian Sieferle responds in Finis Germania to the refugee crisis of 2015 and to Germany’s decision to take in large numbers of those attempting to reach Europe from Syria and elsewhere. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the legacy of National Socialism has led Germany to forsake its own identity: so desperate are German elites to distance themselves from the racist ideology of Hitler’s Germany that they are willing to sacrifice the cultural integrity of the nation by allowing uncontrolled immigration.

The concerns expressed in Sieferle’s arguments are not new. In 2010, Social Democrat politician Thilo Sarrazin caused a scandal with a bestseller entitled Germany is Abolishing Itself (Deutschland schafft sich ab), in which he criticised Muslims of Turkish origin for their alleged unwillingness to integrate, which he claimed would lead to an over-burdening of the welfare state and the emergence of a parallel society dominated by criminality, regressive attitudes and even terrorism. He too had harsh words for the defenders of multiculturalism.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has sought to present the new arrivals as a positive benefit to the country, while also stressing that integration will be key

A decade before the refugee crisis, Christian Democrat parliamentarian Norbert Lammert had also controversially made a plea for the defence of a German Leitkultur (guiding or leading culture) based on liberal democratic values, which were allegedly threatened by an increasingly multicultural society.

Whatever the implicit and often sharply criticised racism underlying such discourses, they circulate in a context characterised by hard demographic facts. Germany’s population of citizens classified as being from a ‘non-migrant’ background ‒ that is to say those whose parents were born in Germany ‒ continues to age and shrink. The latest figures from Germany’s office for national statistics show that, but for the influx of asylum seekers over the last two years, the total population would have decreased and the average age would have risen.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose management of the refugee crisis has been widely questioned, has sought to present the new arrivals as a positive benefit to the country, while also stressing that integration will be key. As the current general election campaign hots up, she has recognised that it will be essential to her re-election for voters to believe that her party is the one that can make immigrants part of a Germany that feels like it has not changed.

Those who attack the alleged political correctness of the German political mainstream and the supposed over-dominance of the memory of National Socialism in the political culture over-state their case: not so long ago, Merkel herself was declaring the project of a multicultural society dead. However, the instincts of those in the political middle ground in Germany do lead them to react strongly against expressions of xenophobia.

For example, the Deputy Chancellor, Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, described those attacking accommodation for asylum seekers in Saxony in August of 2015 as “a rabble that ought to be locked up”, and Merkel herself has shown little patience with such extreme responses to her refugee policy.

Arguably, the more violent and hate-filled the reactions of a minority become, the more likely she is to distance herself from opposition to immigration. In this respect, Germany’s political culture stands out in relation to its European neighbours, where expressions of anti-immigrant feeling are more likely to pull mainstream parties to the right.

leading figures in the AfD are members of that section of the educated middle class that fears that Germany will become ‘Islamicised’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this refusal to play the card of nationalism and xenophobia creates a gap in the political market that has been filled by the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), which could well be the third largest party in the new German parliament. Originally a Eurosceptic party opposing the currency union, the AfD has grown rapidly in popularity by exploiting concerns about the effects of the refugee crisis. Although it attracts far-right groups at its fringes, leading figures in the party are members of that section of the educated middle class that fears that Germany will become ‘Islamicised’.

Despite representing distinctly conservative positions on gender, homosexuality and other social issues, for example, the AfD likes to present itself as a defender of the liberal democratic order that it claims will be threatened by the increased presence of Islam in Germany.

At the time of writing, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats have a strong polling lead in the current general election campaign. The Social Democrats are underperforming under their new leader, Martin Schulz, who was supposed to be the party’s saviour. He has concentrated so far on social justice, yet economic issues, including unemployment, appear to rank fairly low down in the list of voters’ concerns. Over half of German voters, however, see the topic of immigration as their highest priority.

For the moment, it seems unlikely that this will lead to further big gains for the AfD, as there are still significant sections of the electorate who regard them as toxic. There are even some traditional Social Democrat voters who are considering voting for Merkel to demonstrate their support for the stance she has taken on refugees.

Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats will still face a challenge in making the case that it is they who can produce a set of integration policies that will give Germans the feeling that the essential character of the society they live in will not change – and that Germany will stay unified.

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