The End of German Exceptionalism
Amid Europe’s cascading crises, the continent’s only stable country was its most powerful. It was too good to last.
Germany was supposed to be the exception to the dystopian future depicted in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. Set in the France of 2022, the novel imagines a presidential campaign in which established parties have lost the electorate and the far-right is about to conquer the Élysée Palace. Terrorist violence is bloodying the streets, with fascists battling Salafists at every corner, and an Islamist politician ultimately emerging as the last bulwark against an authoritarian takeover. Shortly before its publication, Submission seemed like an outrageous provocation far removed from reality. Since going on sale on Jan. 7, 2015, the day when masked gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing most of its editors because they dared to depict the Prophet Muhammad, it has seemed anything but.
Today, the continent’s economy is in crisis, right-wing populists are in the ascent from Athens to Oslo, and Britain is hurtling towards a chaotic departure from the European Union. Amid all this, Germany has seemed the Continent’s last bastion of stability. The country’s export-oriented businesses are in strong shape, centrist politicians control the reins of government, and most voters seem to have retained their hard-won aversion to political experiments.
The country also seemed to be doing a comparatively good job of integrating newcomers. While the relationship between native Germans and the country’s Turkish immigrants remains fraught, no part of the country has witnessed the extreme tensions seen in the suburbs of Paris, London or Malmo. And while terrorists struck in France, Belgium, and Denmark, they somehow spared the big landmass in between. On balance, it therefore seemed more likely in Germany than just about anywhere else on the continent that the integration of immigrants might succeed; that ordinary people would gradually take on a truly multiethnic sense of identity; that, in short, the various catastrophes predicted by Houellebecq would remain fictional.
Over the last few months, however, the refugee crisis gradually began to erode the sense of Germany as an island of calm amid increasingly rough waters. Angela Merkel’s promise to keep the country’s doors open to anybody fleeing Iraq or Syria soon proved unpopular. After a crowd of mostly immigrant men robbed and sexually assaulted women on New Year’s Eve in Hamburg and Cologne, the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) skyrocketed in national polls, going on to win record successes in important regional elections. For the first time in its postwar history, a national poll revealed that the two biggest parties’ combined share of popular support was less than 50 percent. The basic logic of the political moment — an intense fear of immigrants, the weakening of the political center, the rise of the authoritarian right — started to rear its ugly head. And yet, Germany remained, if not a blissful exception, then perhaps the place most likely to find a way out of the crisis.
Then began a bloody, chaotic, confusing series of attacks. Last Monday, an Afghan man in a regional train near the city of Würzburg attacked passengers with an axe, injuring five. Last Friday, a German teenager of Iranian extraction ran amok in a shopping center in Munich, shooting nine people to death and injuring 35 more. Last Sunday morning, a Syrian refugee attacked passersby in the city of Reutlingen with a machete, killing a pregnant woman and injuring two others. Finally, last Sunday evening, another Syrian refugee injured fifteen people when he blew himself up in a bar in Ansbach, in what was the first Islamist suicide bombing on German soil.
There is hardly any doubt that the attacks will play into the hands of the populist right. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, fears for the safety of ordinary Germans have been at the core of populist resistance to Merkel’s open-door policy. The insinuation that the chancellor cares more about the fate of foreigners than the safety of her own citizens has always been the most visceral charge against her. This is why the AfD gained so much support when reports about sexual assaults perpetrated by refugees — some real, others fabricated — began to circulate. And it is also why the party is practically relishing the fact that they can finally point toward a concrete piece of evidence to support their claim that the welcome afforded to refugees makes Germany an easier target for the terrorists.
Recent events will also weaken Merkel in a second way, which has to do with the intricacies of Germany’s party system. Over the course of her tenure as the head of the traditionally conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and to the displeasure of many grassroots activists, Merkel has firmly anchored the party in the political center. Nowhere has the grumbling against Merkel been louder than in the Christian Social Union (CSU), which for most intents and purposes functions as the Bavarian affiliate of the national party, though it remains formally independent. Over the last months, some commentators even began to wonder whether the CSU might officially break with Merkel in what would amount to an unprecedented party split. This remains very unlikely. And yet, the fact that three of the four recent events took place in Bavaria will amplify the voice of Horst Seehofer, the state’s anti-immigrant minister president and Merkel’s most influential critic within the party.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage how Merkel will be able to withstand the pressure. There are now two likely scenarios: Either she swerves to the right to satisfy her party, or she stays the course and risks being deposed by her own followers. Either way, the days of her seemingly effortless dominance over the German political system are numbered. She is increasingly looking like a relic from a bygone era who has defied political death by sheer inertia. What comes after she meets her inevitable fate is anyone’s guess.
Given these developments, it will hardly matter that some of the facts on the ground are more complicated than they seem from a distance. David Sonboly, the Munich gunman, it turns out, was not an Islamist but rather a supporter of the AfD. Born in Munich to Iranian parents, he hated Muslims and “Kanaken,” a derogatory term usually applied to Turkish immigrants. He was inspired by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who killed 77 people five years to the day before his own attack. During the gunman’s rampage, Thomas Salbey, a construction worker with a heavy Bavarian accent, tried to distract him by hurling insults from his balcony. “They should cut off your head, you asshole,” he shouted.
“Fucking Turks,” the gunman said.
“Fucking Kanaken,” the man on the balcony replied.
“I am German,” the gunman insisted.
But despite that protestation, he went to his death with what he would have considered a final indignity. Intending, as best we can tell at this stage, to commit an act of far-right terrorism against foreigners, the country interpreted him as yet another foreigner attacking Germans. And so his true motivations hardly seem to change the political upshot of his deeds. Reached by a newspaper for an interview a couple of days after his infamous shouting match with the gunman, Salbey identified a clear culprit for the violence: “Merkel is letting everyone into our country. The only thing she says is: ‘We can do it. We can do it.’”
At one point in Submission, the narrator mocks the well-meaning pundits who liken anyone who dares to point out the depth of Europe’s political crisis to Cassandra. As he points out, from the abduction of Helen to the sack of Troy, Cassandra accurately predicted impending disaster at every turn. “She was an example of pessimistic predictions constantly realized, and so it seemed to him as though the journalists of the center-left were blinding themselves to the truth every bit as much as the Trojans.”
Houellebecq, it is clear, is not-so-subtly casting himself as Europe’s Cassandra. So far, he has proven a match to the ancient heroine to whom he pays homage. And yet, the ultimate denouement he envisages is unlikely to come to pass. In Germany, as in Europe as a whole, the grand debate about how to deal with Muslim immigrants is slowly coming to a head — and it is the would-be dominators, not those who advocate submission, who are likely to win out. In the end, the only beneficiary of the recent escalation in tensions will be the far-right.
Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images