Germans and change

Between ice cream cakes and revolution

Has cake; can't eat it. Source: picture alliance

As I puzzle over the dramatic collapse of Angela Merkel’s efforts to build a coalition, I cannot help but think back over the five decades in which I’ve observed and studied Germany. An old and experienced observer once told me: “Germany always takes a long time to change, but when stability seems to be in danger, voters strike back rapidly and dramatically. And you can never tell which way their drive for stability will take them.”

When I first arrived in Hamburg as a young vice consul over 50 years ago, every aspect of public life appeared to be frozen in a sort of postwar Eistorte, a German ice cream cake. Lots of whipped cream covered a core that was solid and tasted good but was frozen. The father of the postwar “economic miracle”, Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, was re-elected easily the next fall. The Berlin Wall seemed to have sealed Europe’s division permanently. German democracy appeared to be rock-solid. And America reigned supreme as Germany’s savior and civilizational model.

Less than two years later, Erhard was toppled. Ostpolitik, the largely Social Democratic policy of détente toward Eastern Europe, headed the new political agenda. Germany was suffering its first postwar recession. And the image of the savior and model, America, was tarnished by Vietnam. A right-wing party, the NPD, appeared to come out of nowhere, and threatened the stability of the still-fledgling German democracy.

Germany and Europe are overdue for dramatic change. Perhaps they are now about to get it.

I soon witnessed my acquaintance’s observation about Germans and change being borne out before my eyes. By the mid-1970s, Germany had changed almost beyond recognition. Soviet expansionism and Germany’s first postwar recession led to a call for new leaders and new ideas. Pacifism, détente and the welfare state were the answer. A few years on and the 1980s at first appeared stable but, as we now know, were only prologue to the most drastic change imaginable: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two Germanies.

A slow build-up to dramatic change, often under the guise of stability, is thus typical of German political life.  In a nation traumatized by violent upheavals, voters seem to demand an emotional insurance policy before agreeing to anything new. Governments stay in office much longer than elsewhere.  These stretches of continuity reassure voters that even whatever new ideas are being bandied about only enhance their treasured stability.

But this German yearning for stability also suppresses change until it becomes inevitable, at which point it erupts in unpredictable ways. “You can never tell which way it takes them,” was the advice I got as a young man.

So what about the recent years in Germany, leading up to this week’s spectacle? First, notice the long stretch of stability on the surface. Over the past 20 years, Germany has been led by only two chancellors. And one of them, Gerhard Schröder, was thrown out of office for changing things too fast. Chancellor Merkel resolved never to repeat Mr. Schröder’s mistakes. She even sold the dramatic abandonment of nuclear power as nothing more than a necessary reaction to a tsunami in far-off Japan.

In the age of Donald Trump, the preservation of the West’s democratic vision for the world depends in part on Germany’s ability to remain a strong and confident partner within Europe and across the Atlantic. The road Germany takes thus points to our joint Western future. Germany and Europe are overdue for dramatic change. Perhaps they are now about to get it. As I learned many years ago, you can never tell which way Germany will go.

But look more closely and you could again have seen the pressure for change building up slowly. For years, the political consensus, which has endured since the fall of Helmut Kohl in 1998, has been eroding, as German voters have begun seeking new definitions of stability. This search has of late led some to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a young populist party on the far right of the sort that other European countries have had for decades.

And now this: the collapse of Angela Merkel’s four-way coalition talks, and the first time since 1949 that Germany appears unable to construct any workable governing majority. The prospect of a minority government, quite common in other democracies, is causing great anxiety among Germans. Does it not sound unstable? Does it not evoke the Weimar Republic?

My experience in Germany has taught me neither to overestimate the immediate implications of what is going on, nor to underestimate Germany’s ability to adjust to change. Germany experienced much more upheaval in the 1970s and 1980s than it does today. And each time, upheaval led to a new period of stability afterwards.

A small insight to the national mood was provided by an online poll by the newspaper Die Welt. Of more than 100,000 readers who responded, 72 percent welcomed the decision by Christian Lindner, the leader of the Free Democrats, to abandon coalition negotiations. This suggests that voters are looking for fresh faces and new approaches, and that Mr. Lindner may have struck the right note. For now, he may be merely that: a fresh face, rather than a new direction in policy. But Theresa May in Britain and Emmanuel Macron in France should take note: He could also be heralding the next round of bigger change in Germany.

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