Behold Germany’s Post-Merkel Future and Despair
The chancellor’s pathological centrism has helped make her party morally blind.
There’s no elegant way to explain recent events in the East German state of Thuringia—no way to avoid getting mired in the details of party politics, coalition-building, and constitutionalism. On Feb. 5, Thomas Kemmerich of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) was officially appointed to the position of Thuringia’s minister president. This came as an utter surprise to most observers, because his party had only squeaked by the 5 percent threshold in the recent state election. The parliamentary math seemed obviously stacked against him. That was before the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party threw its support behind him—and Kemmerich became the first postwar German politician to assume high-ranking office with the electoral support of the far-right.
Though Kemmerich resigned shortly thereafter amid widespread outrage, Germany remains shocked by the electoral maneuvering that allowed him to be appointed to the position in the first place. That maneuvering has been encapsulated by a widely circulated photo of Kemmerich shaking hands on the floor of parliament with Björn Höcke, the party’s local leader and the leader of what’s known as “The Wing,” the most radical splinter group within the national party.
Yet the most consequential actor in this drama was offstage: The AfD would not have been in such a position without the active cooperation of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which voted to elevate Kemmerich in tandem with the far-right. It may seem a surprise that the party so widely identified with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s moderate politics would have colluded in this way. But such perversity is the predictable product of the CDU’s pathological centrism under Merkel’s reign. It was only a matter of time before her party, and with it the country, tripped into the ideological void at the heart of the chancellor’s leadership.
The recent election in Thuringia mostly served to highlight that Germany’s traditional main parties—the Volksparteien—are no longer the safest bet for those who seek to oppose the rise of the far-right. In the state-level vote this past October, the CDU lost around 10 percent of its votes from the last election in 2014, bringing its total to 22 percent of the vote, while the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) dropped from 12 percent of the vote in 2014 to 8 percent in 2019.
Meanwhile, Bodo Ramelow of the leftist Die Linke (“The Left”) party, who had led a coalition government with the SPD and Greens in the state since 2014, saw a slight increase in his party’s support. Nevertheless, as a result of the SPD’s losses, Ramelow’s coalition lost its fragile majority, and the result was a seeming stalemate among the mainstream democratic parties—until this week, when Kemmerich and the CDU captured votes well beyond the democratic mainstream. It remains unclear the degree to which the AfD had an agreement with the other two parties in advance.
Outrage was immediate—and univocal. Across the political spectrum, journalists and politicians complained that the “dam had burst” and that Thuringia had legitimated using far-right votes to gain electoral power. Kemmerich’s resignation came within a day, as Merkel and Christian Lindner, the national leader of the already embattled FDP, scrambled to refute allegations that they’d plotted the coup with the AfD. Meanwhile, historians rushed to point to Thuringia’s important role in the Nazis’ initial power grab of 1930.
In a sense, Germany’s reaction is comforting. It’s certainly better that such a vote—in which a democratic election was decided by a party with only a tenuous adherence to democracy—not be allowed to stand. At the same time, however, the response illustrates the country’s quagmire. While the FDP has called for new elections in Thuringia, the CDU opposes new elections, presumably because it is afraid of bleeding even more votes to the AfD. Yet, it also still refuses to form a coalition with Die Linke, arguing that it has to hold extremism on both sides of the aisle at bay.
This anxiety might be understandable if Die Linke were an untested commodity, and if Ramelow were a firebrand preaching radical redistribution and advocating for reeducation. Yet Ramelow’s five years in power were marked by a pragmatic commitment to good governance, and he was widely liked by his constituents. The major reforms that he enacted—more money for schools, free day care starting at age 1, and support for ecological programs—were similar to the programs enacted by centrist-led coalitions elsewhere in Germany. Ramelow announced his willingness to work with local CDU leader Mike Mohring and had good relationships with CDU leaders in cities and towns throughout Thuringia. Even conservative media such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung largely see Ramelow as a reasonable figure who is capable of compromise and led an effective government.
Nationally, Die Linke has embraced more radical proposals. Most notably, the party has supported a popular initiative in Berlin that would expropriate property that belongs to the city’s largest landlords. But for the most part Die Linke advocates not for radical new measures but for the reinstatement of protections that were largely won by the SPD in the 19th century—e.g., the reinstatement of a more generous social welfare system, an updated trade union system, and a reversal of the waves of privatization that rocked Germany in the 1990s and early 2000s. AfD politicians, in contrast, have suggested shooting Africans “on the spot,” suggested that there were now enough foreigners in Germany that “a Holocaust would be worthwhile again,” and said that the systematic murder of European Jews was like a little “bird shit” in the glorious history of Germany.
There are good reasons for Germans to be wary of left-wing extremism; in Thuringia, especially, memories of the Stasi are still fresh. Like other left-wing leaders, Ramelow should be observed closely for totalitarian tendencies. Yet to claim that the AfD and Die Linke are in any sense comparable absent such evidence is itself a radical position—one that can only be held by those who are clinging desperately to a rapidly disintegrating political consensus. Such a position not only endangers what had been a successful government for the 2.15 million inhabitants of Thuringia; it also necessarily fuels the AfD. It legitimates its positions by making them seem no more radical than those proposed by Die Linke.
What’s more, it creates the kind of inaccuracy and distortion that allow the radical right to claim that centrist parties and the mainstream media peddle misinformation; if the CDU were now to collaborate with Die Linke in Thuringia, the AfD would be certain to point out that CDU leaders had recently branded Ramelow an extremist. They can already point toward panicked Anglophone coverage in the New York Times, the BBC, and the Wall Street Journal about Die Linke’s electoral success and ask why there should be outrage when they help keep the left from power.
Germany’s political life is certain to change substantially in the near future; as Merkel’s final term draws to an end and her party continues to flounder, the direction of the country seems up for grabs. It seems increasingly likely that centrist leaders will be forced to turn either to the right or to the left for support in the near future. As that moment draws closer, it’s worth insisting on rigor and accuracy. Every time that the CDU called Ramelow an extremist, it lent a little support to the AfD; every journalist in Germany and abroad who decided that the AfD’s second-place finish was more important than Ramelow’s victory took a little wind out of the sails of an anti-fascist coalition and put it firmly behind Höcke and his racialized fear-mongering.