Merkel Should Beware Bavarians, Not Populists

The terror attack in Berlin has rekindled the civil war between northern Germany and the land of lederhosen and Oktoberfest.

DACHAU, GERMANY - AUGUST 20:  German Chancellor and Chairwoman of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel drinks a beer after speaking at an election campaign stop in a fest tent on August 20, 2013 in Dachau, Germany. Merkel has a strong lead over her political rivals and the CDU is expected to win federal elections scheduled for September 22, though what kind of governing coalition the CDU will be able to form remains uncertain.  (Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images)
DACHAU, GERMANY - AUGUST 20: German Chancellor and Chairwoman of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel drinks a beer after speaking at an election campaign stop in a fest tent on August 20, 2013 in Dachau, Germany. Merkel has a strong lead over her political rivals and the CDU is expected to win federal elections scheduled for September 22, though what kind of governing coalition the CDU will be able to form remains uncertain. (Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images)

It’s a testament to the strange contours of Germany’s political landscape that, while the physical effects of the Dec. 19 attack on a Berlin Christmas market have been based in the German capital, the center of the political fallout has been located some 360 miles southward. It’s too early to know whether the vicious attack, committed by a Tunisian asylum-seeker, will change the trajectory of Germany’s anti-immigrant far-right movements. But the attack’s aftermath has already produced a consequential divide between northern Germany and the south, whose respective political elites have been engaged in a rivalry that long predates the present migration crisis.

In other words, anyone who wants to understand the political fights that loom in Germany’s immediate future should probably spend less time studying the populist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) than the entrenched political establishment of the southern German state of Bavaria — familiar to foreigners as the home of Oktoberfest and lederhosen — and the idiosyncratic culture that sustains its heightening feud with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That feud has been taking place within Germany’s decades-old center-right alliance, between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Munich-based Christian Social Union (CSU), which fields candidates exclusively in Bavaria. In the immediate wake of the Berlin attack, before the assailant was even identified (much less killed by vigilant Italian police), Bavarian CSU boss Horst Seehofer declared, “We owe it to the victims … and the entire population to rethink and re-justify our entire immigration and security policy.” Merkel’s CDU associates, by contrast, warned against jumping to conclusions and taking rash actions. Merkel herself expressed faith in the investigation and promised, “We will find the strength to maintain the kind of Germany we want: free, together, and open.”

The CSU-CDU standoff, however, is not merely the product of disagreements over immigration policy or sharp divergences in personality between the leading contenders. It is the latest manifestation in a two-century-old battle over leadership of the German region between North and South — or, more specifically, between Prussian Berlin and Bavarian Munich.

This modern-era rivalry traces back to the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, when Bavaria fought on the side of France against Prussia; as a reward for its help in Napoleon’s initial victories, the emperor made Bavaria a kingdom in 1806, a designation that survived until 1918. Sixty years later, Bavaria again went to war against Prussia, this time as an ally of Austria in a contest among German-speaking rivals over which power would determine the political future of the region. Bismarck’s Prussia prevailed in this confrontation, allowing Berlin, not Munich, to take the lead in the 1870-71 war against France that produced a unified German empire under Prussian domination. Bavaria had joined Prussia and the other German states in this epic conflict, but only after its unstable king, Ludwig II, received handsome bribes from Bismarck.

Germany’s unification papered over, but did not diminish, the socio-political and cultural divide between the largely Protestant north and the heavily Catholic south. That divide was heightened (literally) by a mountainous wooded terrain that in earlier times impeded access and fostered distinct Alpine folkloric costumes and traditions: tracht, lederhosen, alpen-horns, the knee-and-shoe-slapping Schuhplattler dance, and so on. The kingdom’s ruling Wittelsbach dynasty explicitly encouraged the perpetuation of these traditions as a way of “increasing a feeling of national cohesion among Bavarians, enabling them to hold their heads high in the face of Prussian self-confidence.” Bavarians also spoke a distinct language (Bayerisch) that was totally incomprehensible to other Germans; even their rendition of standardized High German baffled northerners, who, like their counterparts in the United States, tended not to think rocket scientist when they heard Southern accents. Finally, the Catholic Church in Bavaria played, and continues to play, an outsize role in public life, fielding a church-based political party (the Bavarian People’s Party from 1870 to 1933; the CSU in the post-World War II era), and exerting considerable influence in education, culture, and social policy.

In the world of fiction, Thomas Mann’s great novel Buddenbrooks (1901) brilliantly caricatures this rift in its 19th-century variety. Hoping to aid her financially strapped family, Toni Buddenbrook, a dutiful daughter from far-northern Lübeck, marries a putatively wealthy Bavarian beer-belly who promptly reveals himself as a southern slacker par excellence. When Toni calls out her husband for his fecklessness and philandering, he curses her as a “sprat-eating slut.”

The world war into which Wilhelmian Germany so avidly plunged in 1914 exacerbated these internal divisions. At the outset, Bavaria fielded its own royal army (this was the outfit young Adolf Hitler joined). When Bavarian units later fell under a centralized command dominated by Prussians, Bavarian officials complained that their boys were being used as cannon fodder by “Saupreuss” (pig-Prussian) officers and, even worse, that the quality of their beer was being undermined by confiscations of raw materials mandated by Berlin.

With the German empire’s defeat and destruction in 1918, some Bavarians agitated for the creation of a separate southern state. Instead, Bavaria became a state within the new “Weimar Republic,” whose highly progressive constitution and avant-garde culture occasioned considerable hostility among more conservative Bavarians, steeped as they were in regional royalism, political Catholicism, and rustic rural values.

It was in malcontented Munich that the Nazi Party was born in 1919, and from there, in 1923, that Hitler launched his ill-starred “Beer Hall Putsch” to topple the republic. Although the putsch failed, Bavaria remained a haven for far-right opponents of Berlin’s experiment in liberal democracy. When, 10 years after the abortive coup, Hitler assumed power in Germany legally, many of his Bavarian followers registered dismay over his decision to keep the national capital in Berlin rather than moving it to Munich. They could, however, take consolation in Munich’s ongoing status as “Capital of the [Nazi] Movement” and “Capital of German Art” (that is, the kind of conventional, homey, literalist art that the Nazis considered “German” as opposed to the experimental modernism they denounced as “degenerate”).

The post-World War II era also brought its consolations — along with more of that unique combination of Bavarian particularism and wider nationalist ambitions. The old Bavarian People’s Party morphed into the modern CSU, which dominated state politics from 1949 on through a potent combination of traditional religious conservatism and dynamic business-friendly policies. On the one hand, the CSU cozied up to Bavarian-based corporations like BMW, Siemens, Mann, Puma, and Adidas; on the other hand, it sought to promote “Leitkultur” (lead culture), a program to instill immigrants with core values considered by its proponents to be quintessentially “German” and “European.”

Meanwhile, within the Bonn-based West German Federal Republic, Munich went on to garner another new moniker: “Germany’s Secret Capital.” With Prussia wiped off the map by order of the Allies, Berlin divided and isolated, and little Bonn totally unprepossessing, Munich and Bavaria — which were booming culturally and, to an unprecedented degree, economically — seemed finally to have achieved the dominance within Germany that most Bavarians believed was their due. It was thus all the more frustrating for Bavarians that none of their leaders, even the imposing Franz Josef Strauss, ever managed to claim the top spot in Bonn.

German reunification in 1990, and the Bundestag’s subsequent decision to move the capital back to Berlin, seemed to swing the pendulum of power once again from south to north. Yet even after reunification Bavaria remained Germany’s wealthiest and most robust state, while Berlin and its northern hinterlands struggled to regain their footing. One of the mayors of the capital bragged that his hometown was “poor, but sexy.” However, Bavarians saw little to admire in that description — not least because they were obliged to finance the city’s deficits. For years, Munich has been poised to call the shots in Berlin, to provide guidance in a time of manifold challenges and crises — and it has aimed to do just that during its 11-year coalition with Merkel, who depends on the CSU to maintain power.

That has become especially evident amid the immigration crisis that reached its peak in September 2015, when Merkel suddenly threw open Germany’s borders to masses of Syrians and other refugees trapped in Budapest, Austria, and the Balkans. Desperate asylum-seekers, mostly Muslim, streamed into Germany by the tens of thousands, reaching almost 1 million by the end of the year. Most came through Bavaria, where they initially found a warm and helpful welcome. But Bavarian premier Seehofer soon sounded the loudest voice in a chorus of complaint from German regional leaders: Bavaria hadn’t been consulted, he protested, and Berlin was producing little support beyond Merkel’s nice words of welcome. Worse, from the CSU’s perspective, Merkel seemed uninterested in doing anything to bolster the idealized German (and Christian) “Leitkultur” that Bavarians are taught to cherish, and which the refugees seemed to threaten.

Those concerns fed more general anxieties about the threat that migrants posed to law and order. At a 2016 New Year’s gathering in Cologne, bands of young men from North Africa groped and robbed hundreds of women. Near Würzburg (Bavaria) a 17-year-old Afghan refugee, allegedly shouting “Allahu Akbar,” attacked passengers on a train with a knife, injuring four. A few days later, a 27-year-old Syrian asylum-seeker, who had declared loyalty to the Islamic State, detonated a bomb outside a wine bar in Ansbach (Bavaria), killing himself and wounding 15. In a much bloodier episode that week, an 18-year-old German-Iranian killed nine people and injured 15 during a shooting spree in a Munich shopping center. As Merkel struggled to project calm, Seehofer declared, “Bavaria is experiencing days of terror!”

But the terror affected all of Germany — and naturally proved grist to the mill for the AfD, whose popularity rose sharply as Merkel’s fell. On Sept. 4, 2016, exactly one year after Merkel opened Germany’s borders, the AfD surged past the CDU to claim second place behind the Social Democrats in Landtag elections in Mecklenburg-Pomerania, Merkel’s home state. This was the first time in German history that the CDU had been overtaken on the right. Two weeks later, the AfD helped push the CDU out of power in the city-state of Berlin. The far-right party now had representatives in 10 of the 16 German state parliaments. The CSU’s rule in Bavaria had not yet been affected — but perhaps only because no state election was scheduled there until 2018.

Merkel duly apologized for these embarrassing setbacks. Seehofer, by contrast, went on a rampage, issuing a statement demanding an annual 200,000-person cap on immigration as well as a preference for emigres “from our own Christian-Western cultural heritage.” If Berlin did not abide by Munich’s demands, the CSU threatened to field candidates across the entire Federal Republic in the 2017 general election rather than exclusively in Bavaria. “Our land must not change; Germany must remain Germany,” Seehofer blustered.

Revealingly, this CSU gauntlet throw-down came after Merkel, under pressure from Seehofer and others, had already walked back Germany’s immigration policy to a significant degree, imposing border controls, and initiating a deal with Turkey, that reduced the refugee flood to a trickle. The Seehofer-Merkel standoff was less about immigration per se than about power — power to shape federal policy along CSU lines, with childcare allowances for stay-at-home mothers, greater surveillance over the citizenry, no marriage benefits to same-sex couples, and an end to bailouts for struggling European Union partners like Greece.

The stakes in this rivalry are thus quite high. The battle is not just over “the soul of the union [alliance],” as one commentator suggested, but over Merkel’s ability to retain control in Berlin and, more broadly, over the nature of the German body-politic as it enters a crucial election year full of urgent challenges from within and without. It is highly unlikely that we are going to see a shift in capital location from Berlin to Munich anytime soon, but it may be possible, just possible, that if Merkel and the liberal-democratic policies she upholds fade from the scene, Germans could wake up one fine morning to find themselves governed by a far more folksy, and potentially far more conservative, chancellor, decked out in lederhosen.

Photo credit: JOERG KOCH/Getty Images


David Clay Large is a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books are Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936; Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games; and, most recently, The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing.

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