The New 'German Question'

September 17, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: GermanyAngela MerkelForeign Policy

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.

Critics of the German chancellor see a similar political somnolence over the last decade. “Merkel has managed to paralyze discourse in Germany and create a republic at ease,” explained a 2013 essay in Der Spiegel. Her public speaking style is “anodyne,” as the New Yorker profile describes it: “To the non-German speaker, she could be reading out regulatory guidelines for the national rail system.” In Germany, the charge of leading a new Biedermeier era has been leveled against Merkel by politicians such as Peer Steinbrück and Joschka Fischer—the latter pointing out that such periods end “mostly in a clash.” That Merkel is called Mutti, or “mother,” in the press and that her last campaign ​banners featured her tented fingers—as if to say, leave the issues in her hands—is indicative of this style of governing. Whether this began with Merkel or represents a post-war or post-reunification aversion to disruptive politics is beside the point. A politically staid population has been the result.

But ​politics are​ messy and essential. That Germany has largely avoided political acrimony under Merkel—even with important and divisive issues that should result in public dispute​—is less of a fixed achievement and more of a delay of the inevitable.

Now, Germany seems on to be waking from its neo-Biedermeier slumber, and doing so because of the flaw in Merkel’s bargain. Stability, it turns out, is not the same as settled. Acting incrementally and slowly means that issues persist. There is more opportunity for constituents to become impacted, interested and invested. First on the fringes, then in larger groups, people become more involved in politics as issues remain up in the air. Causes congeal, institutions form, voices are found and new politicians come to the stage.

Europe has no shortage of such issues at the moment. As Gideon Rachman (who has an essay in the newest issue of The National Interest) wrote this week in the Financial Times,

some of the fundamental achievements and tenets of the EU are under threat. These include the single currency, open borders, free movement of labour and the notion that membership is forever. Rather than rising to these challenges, the EU is creaking under the strain. Its 28 members are arguing bitterly and seem incapable of framing effective responses to their common problems.

The strain exists within European countries as well as among them.

Refugee Crisis:

Consider the refugee crisis. What might be forgotten in the moving images of the many people flooding into Europe from the Syrian civil war and other conflicts is that, until recently, Europe had a surprisingly limited movement of people. The OECD notes that in 2011 the foreign-born share of Germany’s population (13.1 percent) was about that of the United States (13 percent). It is the same story for movement within Europe. In 2012, just 0.35 percent of people in Europe migrated between EU countries, which McKinsey notes was less than the migration between U.S. states (2.2 percent) and Swiss cantons (1.7 percent) that year.

At the current scale, the influx and movement of people is a new issue for Europe. While much praise has gone to Merkel for the number of refugees allowed into Germany this year, much less attention has been given to her jolting movement on this issue. It was only weeks ago that she told a young Palestinian girl on national television that the child could not stay in Germany. And within days of announcing an increase in the number of people allowed into Germany, Merkel’s government closed the border.

It seems political divisiveness is returning to Germany, and Merkel’s self-direction to be “all things to all people,” as one commentator described it, has been challenged. Her increase in the number of refugees led the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, to break publicly with the chancellor. "That was a mistake that will be with us for a long time. I don't see a way to put the cork back in the bottle," he told Der Spiegel.

The lesson here is that in working through the refugee crisis, policy created by calibration to the weekly sampling of public preference will result in whiplash. There are irreconcilable sides of this issue that will not dissolve away by moving gradually. As soon as movement is made in one direction, the opposing side becomes more vocal.

Moreover, accepting or refusing refugees ignores the underlying cause: the Syrian civil war still rages. While Germany’s pacifist streak has been strong in recent decades, it has not been invariably so. Germany flew over 400 sorties during another humanitarian crisis, the Kosovo War, and participated in a fight as far afield as Afghanistan. Clemens Wergin of Die Welt points out this week that respected diplomats in Germany have recently called for no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors in Syria—and German involvement in their implementation. Wergin adds,