Sophie Schmalenberger


Being a so-called ‘Nachwendekind’ myself, one could say the reunified Federal Republic and I have grown-up together. But is Germany a 'grown-up’?


The tale about Germany´s last 30 years is usually told as a success story: With the fall of the wall, “what belonged together grew together” as Willy Brandt famously put it and German unity fuelled a wave of European integration, namely the Treaty of Maastricht creating the European Union (1992), the launch of the Euro (1999) and finally the Eastern Enlargement (2004).


Germany is generally referred to as driving force of an ever-closer union and Europe’s unofficial centre of political and economic power, with the unshakable commitment to European unity being based on admitting guilt for the atrocities the country brought onto the continent during the 20th century. Duly, many see it as exemplary, ‘grown-up’ country from which, according to John Kampfner, others should learn a lesson; a welcome beacon of reason and liberal-democratic ideas in a world that, with the election of Trump, Brexit and the global rise of far-right nationalism seems ever more chaotic. While I would agree that the calm and modest, thoughtful yet resolute appearance of Angela Merkel is indeed reassuring, considering the infantile male characters currently representing the US and UK, there is more to modern Germany than just success.


Here I don’t primarily refer to the divides in Europe that have emerged over the last decade, especially the European debt crisis confronting Southern European countries with German thriftiness, resulting in a loss of sovereignty, poverty, high (youth) unemployment and arguably a split in the centre and periphery. Rather, I want to stress that below the surface of the success story of helping to build a peaceful continent on the ashes of Second World War, Germany has not overcome the spectre of radical right nationalism.


Here, the remembrance of the Holocaust and the recognition of historic guilt has not proven as an effective bulwark against the re-emergence of far-right ideology and extremism. Since reunification, at least 187 people have been killed in acts of far-right extremism that had the first peak in the 1990s with the violent Neo-Nazi riots in Hoyerswerda and Rostock-Lichtenhagen and deadly attacks on the homes of 'guest workers' in Mölln and Solingen. German politicians at the time reacted not by declaring solidarity with the victims but tightened asylum rules. History repeated itself after the so-called refugee ‘crisis’, a peak in attacks on asylum homes in 2015 and reforms towards stricter asylum laws during the years 2014-2017. In both cases, German politicians have shown the tendency to cater to nationalist political preferences, afraid to lose voters to a far-right party.


In autumn 2017 the ethno-nationalist AfD entered the German Bundestag and is currently the leading opposition party. The AfD successfully mobilized xenophobic resentments that despite the initial welcome culture, had risen after the arrival of 1 million refugees in 2015Their success also relies on a hegemonic discourse of a German Leitkultur that refuses to recognize Germany as a diverse society, marginalizes and excludes e.g. the descendants of the so-called guest workers from national belonging and thus provides a vantage point for neo-völkisch positions. Moreover, the eleven murders committed by the underground terror group National Socialist Underground between 2000 and 2007, the far-right extremist murder of politician Walther Lübcke in 2019, the racist/antisemitic terror in Munich 2016, Halle 2019 and Hanau 2020. The discovery of numerous far-right networks within German security agencies underlines that ethnic-nationalist ideology in Germany has not been fully overcome in the 30 years since reunification.


For 15 out of the last 30 years, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the calm and modest manager of the Federal Republic, often ruling based on opinion polls and impersonating a conservatism that is best summarised in the 2013 campaign poster slogan “Germany is strong and it should stay like this". Merkel thus can not be considered as an advocate for progressive politics or as promoting the inclusion of marginalized positions into the common political will. Just as despite her Eastern German background is no secret, she has not made reconciliation between former East and West a prominent point in her political agenda. But with her 2015 decision to keep German borders open to those in need, she set an important symbolic example that – despite harsh critique, even from within her part – she has firmly stood by.


Additionally, her affirmation that, due to the 4 million Muslims living here, “Islam belongs to Germany” can be seen as a defence of a civic conceptualization of national belonging that marks the very basis of modern liberal democracies. Looking at her possible successors, some of which seem much more inclined towards a nationalist-populist, exclusionary rhetoric thus raises the question if such a symbolic commitment to liberal democratic values and keeping a strict distance from the AfD will continue to be German government philosophy after Merkel’s retirement planned for 2021.


While many Germans can hardly imagine the end of the era Merkel, the central question beyond who will fill her shoes is how Germany will face the far-right threat to democracy that has most recently become visible during the recent demonstrations against Covid-19 restrictions.


Here, I agree with essayist Max Czollek that a durable overcoming of far-right ideology and guaranteeing the safety of all German citizens cannot only rely on allegedly successful Vergangenheitsbewältigung but needs a coming to terms with the present. Germany needs to recognize that ethnic-nationalism and due violence has its roots in the mainstream racialization and discrimination of some of its citizens and thus needs to start rethinking itself. Away from the idea of one Leitkultur and towards the inclusion of so far marginalized positions that understands diversity not as a threat but as the very foundation of a free, just and democratic society. One could thus say that reunified Germany is a ‘grown-up’ country not because it has everything figured out, but rather because – like a good grown-up at the age of 30 - it needs to recognize its most urgent problems and be open to change to become a better version of itself.


Author biography

Sophie Schmalenberger is a PhD Candidate at the Department for Global Studies at Aarhus University (Denmark) and a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Her research focuses on far-right populism, memory and affects in Germany. Image credit: Obama White House/Flickr.