Political Nostalgia in Germany: The Ugly Beast in “Merkellandia”
by Konstantin zell
Everybody feels nostalgic at times. Maybe you have to think of that girlfriend or boyfriend with whom you had the best time. You can probably easily remember that feeling of wanting to return to a summer holiday that was simply perfect. When we were younger, we had fewer problems and life was easier and, it seems, so much more fun.
Or was it?
“Früher war alles besser!” (a German saying, which means: “Everything used to be better!”)
All too easily, we forget bad yet crucial events from the past. Germans share a part of history that we cannot feel nostalgic about. Nor can we neglect its wrongfulness and the lessons and responsibilities that our history has given us. Germany started two World Wars which it (thankfully) lost and committed the Holocaust. There is no sense in trying to rewrite our history. It's still Germany's historic responsibility, and remains the backbone of the current government's reasoning.
Fast-forward to now: Germany is the geographical, political and economic heart of Europe. It has earned a reputation as a country ahead of its neighbors: compared to Greece, Spain, Italy or France, unemployment is low and the political landscape is stable. In the eyes of Europe and the rest of the world, Germany can do no wrong. It is portrayed as a country that seems to constantly improve itself in a world where others are doing worse and worse. For example, today Germany is taking care of more than a million refugees from in crisis regions the Middle East and Africa.
Angela Merkel has already governed the country for 12 years and is ready for four more. Wow. Even before I was allowed to vote, it was already Merkel’s to win. What’s going on? She seems to be the personification of the German plebiscite. Her next four-year term is in no danger at all. But why? Is it all so rosy?
Indeed, it might be that in some aspects Germany is doing better than other countries. But this is no reason for arrogance, nor stagnation. Germany and the EU need to find better approaches to deal with new challenges. Starting with socio-economic injustices - within the Union and outside. They need to find better solutions to tackle climate change, and work towards more sustainable and inclusive ways of economic development. Here, Germany should put even more focus and willpower into building more harmonious societies and help make peace instead of exporting weapons to morally ambiguous states.
Moreover, the so called energy revolution (“Energiewende”), a shift away from nuclear power, sounds nice - but has actually so far not reduced the country’s demand for “cheap” and dirty coal and seriously threatens the targets established under the COP21 climate agreements. Furthermore, Germany’s export-oriented market puts a heavy burden on the rest of Europe. Add to this that German industries do not take enough corporate responsibility for climate and society, but rather earn profits by cheating (ahem, VW emission scandal). If this is not enough to make you doubt Germany's picture-perfect reputation, there have been thousands of violent attacks on asylum seekers and asylum centers in recent years.
In Merkellandia, all is not as rosy as it seems.
The German Bundestag resides in the old Reichstag: The original building burned by the Nazi’s in 1933. Fused impressively with modernity in 1995, it resembles German history without resorting to nostalgia. It emanates progressive yet self-aware strength.
There are many more frightening developments in Germany that I can recall during my lifetime. And I am not alone in this. There are new forces who are about to join the Bundestag. The self-proclaimed “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), who see the history and future of Germany much differently from Angela Merkel and her main, but hopeless, challenger, Martin Schulz. The AfD has established itself in the German political landscape. Within just a couple of years they entered 13 out of 16 regional Parliaments. And now they will set foot in the Reichstag building. Their discourse is built on ”German” traits, morals (“Tugenden”), and ultra-conservative, constructivist ideals, such as “recovering German society” from dark foreign forces. The AfD, it seems, wants to rebuild a German society that has never existed and will never exist. The dichotomies are clear: traditional vs. modern, national vs. multicultural, authoritarian vs. democratic, racist vs. open minded, fascist vs. tolerant.
The AfD successfully plays on people’s fears. For many Germans, the danger of social downfall or a future that might be worse than the past feels like a very real possibility. Issues like the so called “migrant crisis” and its implications for society are used to divide people. Whatever is subjectively perceived as reality - such as the idea that migrants take away jobs - directly makes for a strong case in the public debate. The mere accusation is powerful and earns a lot of attention. Intrigued by rotten facts, people believe that everything must have been better in the earlier days, and that the future holds only more bad news.
There is a sense of insecurity that pervades many parts of German society. It is hard to grasp - but easy to channel - and there are many reasons for it. The recent protests at the G20 conference in Hamburg are reminiscent of a civil war; they show to what extent German society has become electrified and polarised. There are, no doubt, extremist and violent forces from both the right and left of the political spectrum. But what the AfD has managed to do is remarkable; it has noticed the growing socio-economic inequality and built up a party programme that resonates with those people who have lost the most, or scared of losing in the near future.
This nostalgia for better times comes from discontent and desperation with the current situation. In a way, nostalgia is a survival instinct when the future looks grim. For many Germans it is easier to re-interpret the country’s complicated history and politics. By linking current political “disasters” to current affairs and empowering them with aggressive rhetorics, the AFD wins many votes - also from people who didn’t use to vote at all.
What seems shocking is easily explainable. And that is the good news. All the established parties in government in recent decades have provoked new problems with their neoliberal policies that - although they have made Germany stronger in the international market - have led to the usual tensions in globalization: growing social inequality, the fear of losing security, jobs and, most importantly, a cultural identity, which people hold on to as their last resort. Populist movements such as PEGIDA preach the downfall of the European Occident and the overtake of Muslim culture. A thought that seems absurd but is real for many. Their conclusion is clear: “Merkel muss weg!” (Merkel has to leave).
The establishment needs to self-critically point at these issues and question what has gone wrong. But this demands courage. Currently, nobody seems ready to run that risk. Instead, all unify against the party and the movement that actually raises these problems. The dilemma is that even rather leftist parties such as the Social Democrats and the Greens have introduced neoliberal policies that lead to more precarious working standards and insecure prospects for millions. Shortcomings and incapabilities to address these have empowered the AFD and the sentiments of a wrong nostalgia to dominate German public debate. Instead of drawing new visions and debating about how to progressively make the future brighter, we are locked up in nostalgic desperation, a setting populists love.
News of open racism and hate speech have become an unpleasant yet regular part of German public life. AfD leader Alexander Gauland made shameful and nasty comments about football star Jerome Boateng (that he doesn’t want him as a neighbor because of his skin color) during last year’s European Championship and recently about a politician of partly Turkish roots (that he wants to get rid of her and transport her back to Anatolia). It’s alarming that the party defends these statements and that the voter does not get put off by these constantly recurring steps of what is simply unacceptable. It will continue to be the job of us all and especially of the next government to effectively fight growing hate and discontent by tackling its roots. Unless this happens people will continue to look for solutions that are supposedly provided in the past to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems.
Last July, former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer from the Green Party made clear in his piece in German liberal paper Die Zeit that Germany is not a superpower. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has recently changed from being Foreign Minister to President, described Germany as a “reflective power”. Germany’s remembrance culture strongly upholds values of critical self-observation.
But this stance can get easily challenged, at any time and in any place. As I recently moved to Mexico for my semester abroad I encountered Hitler references and Nazi images or leftovers. Having to fight against this imagery in Mexico was an alarming experience. I don’t want similar weaknesses in historic knowledge and perception to appear in Germany.
I have had shocking encounters in Germany, and even in my student environment in Paris, with people who are highly critical of Europeanization. I've had to defend the importance of an open and progressive Germany and Europe. Too many, however, see Europe as a stepping stone for Germany’s future and wealth. Too few see that strengthening and harmonizing Europe is the only way to achieve a peaceful and prosperous Germany in the long run.
Just like anybody knows nostalgia, everybody also knows desperation. Not knowing the way forward, being disillusioned with the present and being left without good advice. What do you do? Twist things around, tell (yourself) stories of rosy pasts that have never existed, and lose any sense of fact and reason. There might also be sorts of nostalgia that are good. The Portuguese, for instance, have a nice way to deal with former times of the Empire: "saudade" is a way of experiencing history, conserving it in every-day life inspiring present and future in a charming way.
I wish Germans could learn from that, instead of longing for perfidious nostalgia made politically mainstream by academic opportunists in the AfD. If their racist, absurd, head-spinning, stomach-aching ideas stand for German nostalgia, then we are lost. Resurging nationalism is a sign of a sick society, a symptom of a standstill and the emergence of a romanticized picture of the past that blinds everyone to what it takes to tackle today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.
The good thing is that opposing views are still being expressed by open and progressive Germans, seen for example during the Pulse of Europe manifestations. When friends of mine come together to form an initiative - Informationen für Deutschland, which fights wrong stereotypes and rotten “facts” about migrants in Berlin to fight against xenophobia and racism in our country - I feel optimistic about the future.
Our generation has the right intentions and sense of responsibility to deal with these tensions in society. We stand up for our values. But we are also scared of the elections, and shocked at seeing Nazis move into the Reichstag.
Yet in face of such a watershed moment, Merkel’s General Secretary recently criticised "elitist, hipster structures" in German cities, where people speak English instead of German. I take it as a joke that this is subject to serious debate. Even worse, it is clearly the answer to surging pressure from the political right. What is missing in these so-called “cuddly” election campaigns (“Kuschelwahlkampf”) are visions and real political dispute and clashes. We need to be rethinking security, sustainable development, the future of the job market, climate change. And the list goes on.
A crisis in political leadership and a lack or real reform is what helps misleading extremists rise to power. If Merkel can deal with this crisis in a sustainable way by tackling its roots, it would perhaps be her biggest achievement after all. Most people trust her, and she has earned this trust by successfully surviving many crisis. If it wasn’t for her, maybe forces such as the AfD would be even stronger. It is not all that easy - but Merkel, if one thing, has proven very crisis resistant. People trust her.
Before the World Cup 2006 it was said Germans just cannot be proud. I can happily say that this has changed. However, a large part of my identity and understanding of myself as a German consists of my ability and good habit to keep reflecting. Continued use of coal energy, increasing social inequalities, rising populism and xenophobia. If one thing is for certain, it can and must always be better.
In the end, what we are facing is a reality check with nostalgia - now not only with partners in the UK and the US but also in the heart of German democracy. But there is hope. The cure for pessimism and cynicism lies within our own actions. That's why, for instance, I have decided to join a political party, as just one of many steps to take. Many friends of mine similarly take up new political and democratic responsibilities. If there is one thing we cannot complain about, it's that this challenge is also an opportunity to change.
There have been enough warnings. It’s no time for nostalgia. If we don’t want to sink into nostalgic despair and let populism win, we need to fight for reason. Most of all, we need to fight for the progressive and pragmatic politics of inclusivity and positivity.
Not only in Germany.