The New 'German Question'

How Merkel and future chancellors will govern Germany—whether it will mean more flip-flopping or decisive action, more domestic populism or foreign activism—is the newest "German question." 

The European leaders who have remained in power since the economic crisis of 2007-2008 is a lonely list. Of the twenty-eight countries in the European Union, only one has had the same head of government since 2007. German chancellor Angela Merkel is without peer in the power she commands in Europe, having been central in every major issue from the sovereign debt crisis to the recent refugee influx. Within Germany, too, she is uncontested. In the time Merkel has been head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), half-a-dozen leaders have helmed Germany’s other major party, the Social Democrats (SPD). The Economist recently wrote that British prime minister David Cameron could learn from Merkel how to govern in the absence of a meaningful opposition.

This November, Merkel will mark a decade in power, and reports are she will seek a fourth term in 2017. However, Merkel’s bargain with the German people—the bargain that has underwritten her policies and sustained her popularity within Germany—is showing signs of wear. Her power and popularity will likely continue, but how she governs Germany in the future will out of necessity look different from past years.

For the last decade, Merkel’s bargain with Germans has been to prize stability above all. As Hans Kundnani points out in his book The Paradox of German Power, “Germany’s rhetoric focuses on stability: it talks about a ‘stability union’ and is proud of its Stabilitätskultur, or ‘stability culture’.”

After stability, Merkel’s bargain has included moving slowly forward with EU integration, making Europe’s rules and norms more German and keeping the problems of the world beyond German borders. In these aims, she has been successful. No country has left the EU or euro zone, and the latter has expanded since 2007. The European Central Bank in Frankfurt reflects many of the features of the Bundesbank in its structure and goals. In all, Germans have been kept in jobs and away from wars. The country’s unemployment rate is half that of the EU as a whole. And the post-war impulse toward pacifism has been satisfied by Merkel keeping her country out of Iraq and Libya, not to mention out of Syria and other conflicts.

But there has been another side to this bargain. In exchange for Merkel pursuing these aims, the tacit deal with the electorate has been that they would stay out of day-to-day politics. “Pragmatism” is the byword given for how Merkel leads, but in practice it is incremental policy-making with the intention of avoiding disputes. The upside of such a strategy is that minor-to-moderate issues on average days do not roil politics. But the downside is that big issues are rarely resolved. Instead, they linger. A recent profile of Merkel in the New Yorker put her long-term vision for Germany and Europe at “about two weeks.” Moreover, many Germans are absent from the decision-making process other than through answering opinion surveys. In Germany, the “silent majority” is not only a description of an electorate, it has also been a sort of governing strategy.

Germans have a term for this: Biedermeier, after the arts and crafts movement that flourished in Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Brandenburg and several other central European cities between the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815 and the revolutions of 1848. Biedermeier was a period in which “the culture of domesticity became a form of retreat, in both the positive and negative senses of that concept,” as a recent exhibition on the period explains. With the destructive Napoleonic wars fresh in memory, stability at home became paramount. The homestead was given priority over the public square. Simplicity and order in design and composition were Biedermeier’s aesthetics, and its politics were simple: people content in their homes would not ​protest in the streets. Comparing the present to the politics of a brief period in the nineteenth-century may seem curious or obscure to outsiders, but it is not without precedent. German nationalism, for example, has been convincingly traced back to Sturm und Drang literature and to German Romanticism in the late 1700s and early 1800s.