Germany has a number of generations with well-known nicknames: There’s the “flakhelfer” generation, those who came of age during World War II and helped the national socialist military, the famous student revolutionaries belonging to the “68ers” as well as generation X and today’s crop, the Millennials.
But there is also another generation, one without such a charming nickname. They haven’t needed one so far, since this nameless age cohort is primarily distinguished by the characteristics it doesn’t have. They are not as charismatic, not as authoritarian, not as extroverted and not as macho as the 68ers but neither are they as international or digital as younger generations.
In reality they are Germany’s baby boomers. But that neither offers them an historic role or a political character. It’s just a number.
These people, born between 1960 and 1965, represent the years of the highest birth rate in the German Federal Republic; about 8 million of them are alive today, and that’s 10 percent of all Germans. They are in their early 50s and generally quite healthy. (Admission: the author is one of them.)
And they govern the republic. They dominate, they teach, they control and they set the message. They are, without doubt, the cultural hegemony in this country.
The Greens were cast as the opposition when in fact, Angela Merkel was virtually one of their own. What an outrageous provocation for all of those Germans who didn’t want their country quite so feminist, so vegan, so multicultural and gay.
This group does not hold all of the seats on the board and they don’t make up all of the talk show hosts. Not all of them are the boss. But very, very many are.
And that’s the reason we should pay attention to this generation. This uncharismatic group is determining Germany’s fate – and they are doing so in one of the most interesting times for the nation since 1949. Compared to the dangers and challenges on our doorstep today, the late 1960s seem more like a casual, pot-fueled stroll in the park.
Now, of all times, it is these people who are in power. Which begs a frightening question: Are they up to the job? Can they handle the drama? Can they fight? And can they do this without being too authoritarian or doctrinaire? A great deal depends on the answers.
But first, the good news.
As a generation, we have learned to compete and coexist at the same time. Since a very early age, there were always too many of us: Every room was packed to overflowing, there were never enough chairs. In school, at college, in the labor market. So we are more robust than we might look.
Many of us have been political from a young age. You could even say we were forced to be. Back in the ’70s, when many of us were coming of age, the state forced all young men to decide between military conscription or undertaking a social service. In order to choose the second option, you were brought before a three-person commission of bad-tempered gentlemen who asked embarrassing questions to discern whether you were refusing to be conscripted on genuine grounds as a conscientious objector, or whether you were doing this for political reasons.
Also not a bad thing: From early adolescence onwards, this generation has had to fight. Both alongside the ’68ers and against them. If you were just a little bit left wing, any place in Germany, which was still quite right-wing on the whole at that time, could prove problematic. For example, if you had long hair and wore a parka and you went into the corner pub, you had better be prepared to deal with some stupid remarks, or possibly even some more robust kind of aggression.
Despite the high number of births, this generation was a minority back then (and naturally many of us were either not political, or we were right-wing, or we were something else). All the principles that now belong to Germany’s political inventory had to be fought for, for decades; all those ecological, non-authoritarian, feminist and gay-rights principles.
For example, it was our generation that built a small shantytown in Gorleben in 1980 to prevent the construction of a radioactive waste storage site. At one point Gerhard Schröder, at the time the chairman of the Social Democrats’ youth organization, came to visit. He had barely left the scene when a 10,000-strong army of police descended upon us, complete with helicopters and black-painted faces. They had conjured up some sort of civil war scenario to justify clearing us out. We didn’t defend ourselves because we were non-violent.
It may be during situations like these that a great misunderstanding – the one that is now poisoning the mood in Germany – arose. And it is all about this nameless generation’s misconception about its own powerlessness, the feeling that the state is always “the other guy.” But more on that later.
We play the role of devil’s advocate, clinging to our noble task of “holding the powerful to account.” Yet we refuse to acknowledge our own power.
After the environmental and peace movements, came the political party. The Greens are not the only party, but certainly they are the truest expression of this generation. The ’68ers might have been its founders and spokespeople but we, the nameless generation, provided them with the votes.
The party grew and became part of the establishment. Then, a miracle. In 1998, the minority became the majority. The Greens formed a coalition with a partially-green Social Democratic Party. At last we were in charge, implementing our earlier goals. They might have been a little diluted, but we were implementing them nonetheless.
That phase lasted seven years. Until it was somebody else’s turn. To be more exact: It was Angela Merkel’s turn. At first, together with the SPD, and then later, beginning 2009, together with the liberal Free Democrats, or FDP, who were so deeply hated by the Greens.
It was on the evening of September 27, 2009, that the birth of that deep misunderstanding really took root, the misunderstanding which can quite possibly be blamed for Germany’s refugee crisis as well as the rise of the much-maligned populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party.
On that evening, members of the FDP, led by its flamboyant and enthusiastic champion, Guido Westerwelle, were celebrating their election victory in a French restaurant in downtown Berlin named Ganymed.
Mr. Westerwelle thought he had finally defeated the ’68er potheads and that he would soon be able to put his stamp on Germany. As much as the ’68ers hated him, the Green party and the generation that supported it, thought the same.
But every word of Mr. Westerwelle’s euphoric analysis was wrong. In the usual, inconspicuous way, the members of the nameless generation, stationed as they were in editor’s offices and classrooms, at the heads of associations, clubs and other organisations, would eventually push back and send the FDP to political oblivion.
Mr. Westerwelle’s understanding that he had won, shared by his Green opponents, was wrong. No way. By the day he entered government, the liberalisation of Germany could no longer be reversed. Nothing, and no one could stop it. Least of all the FDP. As he was later to remark so bitterly, Mr. Westerwelle’s had next to no room to maneuver from the start.
At that time though, many Greens fell back into the role of the vanquished; they felt like they were back in Gorleben. From minority to majority and back again. But that too was incorrect. It turned out that Ms. Merkel’s chancellorship did not mean that the Greens were in the minority. On the contrary, it was just that their program had been adopted by the other half of the political spectrum.
In the legislative period between 2009 and 2013, compulsory military service was abolished and the national transition to green energy was accelerated. And the FDP? They became largely irrelevant.
What an outrageous provocation this must have been for all of those Germans who didn’t want their country quite so feminist, so vegan, so multicultural and gay. The Greens were cast as the opposition when in fact, the Chancellor was virtually one of their own. All the while she stood there as though she was the head of a conservative political party. What feelings did that dichotomy arouse in the minority who would later vote for the populist AfD?
In his recent criticism of the unacknowledged cultural dominance of the left and the Greens, the editor-in-chief of German weekly Die Zeit, Giovanni di Lorenzo, pointed out these possible side effects. In a rebuttal, published in the same newspaper one week later, the head of the Green party, Renate Künast, said her party bore no responsibility for that particular problem.
Yet Ms. Künast embodies this generational misunderstanding like no other. She is a 55-year-old professional politician and former minister, a prototypical representative of the establishment. But on her Twitter account, she still describes herself as “cheeky”. One wonders what the potential AfD voters think of that gap between reality and perception.
The same phenomenon can also be found in German journalism, where we of the nameless generation dominate, at least as much as we do in politics. We play the role of devil’s advocate, clinging to our noble task of “holding the powerful to account.” Yet we refuse to acknowledge our own power. Which makes us look like coquettes.
And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, everything became clear. We all saw it: The emperor had no new clothes, the emperor was naked.
With Ms. Merkel’s decision of September 4, 2015, to open the borders and let the refugees into Germany, with her “yes” to a more diverse society, her new pivot to Africa, no one can dispute that this long prophesied project has become reality: Ms. Merkel’s centrist Christian Democrats ruling with the Greens. Not officially, of course – but certainly informally.
At the same time, it seems that everything that the members of the nameless generation had fought for their whole lives was also coming under attack.
So, fighting – how does one do that again? Then again, asking someone for the key to the gun cabinet probably won’t help. After all, we are non-violent. And anyway how, and who, exactly are you supposed to fight when you are the majority and you are the establishment? And how do you fight when you have a back ache and your hearing is going?
At least part of this fight must see an admission that the nameless generation holds power. The hegemony is the hegemony is the hegemony. We are the ones who decide – not alone, but certainly to a great degree – what is displayed in museums and taught in schools, what is written in newspapers and broadcast on the airwaves, what is on the shelves of the supermarkets and even what is considered nutritious and what is not.
It would only be respectful to the opposition and honest if this new informal coalition were to own up and make Winfried Kretschmann, of the Greens and premier of the state of Baden-Württemberg, the president of Germany. He has been suggested as a successor to the current president before. Then they could also acknowledge Mr. Kretschmann’s unlikely friendship with Horst Seehofer, the premier of the state of Bavaria and leader of the state’s conservative Christian Social Union.
A secondary confession should also occur. Because it isn’t just the far right or the authoritarians who are attacking the achievements of the nameless, inconspicuous generation. Reality is attacking.
It’s quite obvious that this altogether more liberal Germany is not just based on ideas; it is also based on the premise of a comfortable, entitled life. It’s easier to support the refugees when they are not coming here. It’s quite possible to oppose military action elsewhere when the Americans are doing it for you anyway. It’s nice being part of the unnoticed majority when the scary minority doesn’t turn up to vote.
Unfortunately we were probably too comfortable being the quiet-but-powerful majority to pay much attention to those who were silent. It is wonderful to call for a grassroots democracy for all, as long as the murderously outraged citizens are safely locked away. The list goes on.
And finally, this thing with the righteous attitude. Of course, it would have been better to start the transition to sustainable power earlier. No doubt it would have been better for Europeans to forgo colonialist attitudes and take Africa more seriously. And yes, at last the country has come around to debating sexuality and feminism the same way some of us were already doing three whole decades ago. But honestly, who cares? Righteousness is not only off-putting, it also causes intellectual blindness.
What are far more interesting and potentially more productive are the doubts and the shortcomings. Of course, we can be rebellious again. But this time we must also question ourselves. We must fight our own smugness, our world-weariness and that “how dare they” feeling when the populists threaten us.
If we do not understand ourselves, we won’t be able to put up an effective fight. Because this is no longer about the direction that the German democracy is going in, it is about democracy itself.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org