With Germany’s September 24 elections, “populism” finally reached the country, until now a showcase of consensus politics. Whereas populism had been anathema for decades, now the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, or Alternative for Germany) has become the third-largest party with 12.6 per cent of the popular vote. Moreover, the former Volkspartei SPD (Social Democratic Party) was relegated to a distant second with barely more than 20 percent of the vote, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democrats) lost the most of any ruling party ever in a national election, plummeting in standing by 8.6 percentage points.
In 2013, the AfD emerged in opposition to the massive bailouts that was funded primarily by Germany for the European Union’s southern states. These de-facto breaches of the Treaty on the European Union impaired if not annihilated Germany’s fiscal sovereignty and made it hostage to European Central Bank and EU policies far beyond the realm of monetary policy. Former French President Francois Mitterrand, who once called the landmark Maastricht Treaty a “Versailles without Versailles,” would have felt vindicated. Back in 2013, the AfD’s year of origin, it gained 4.7 percent of the vote in the general elections, barely missing the 5 percent hurdle for representation in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. That led to an internal power struggle directed against most of the party’s founders, who were largely economics professors-turned-politicians, focused primarily on economic issues. These founders were forced out by broader patriotic and populist forces.
The AfD was in turmoil, its identity unclear. But then Merkel’s open door policy and welcoming culture for refugees, executed through what many considered unconstitutional policymaking, proved an AfD godsend. The party now had a big topic that could reach people in a much more emotional and powerful way. Indeed, many German inner cities, generally neat and orderly, rarely derelict, now showed a marked influx of primarily Muslim refugees, with about three quarters young men. Crime rates rose markedly. The famous sexual assaults of the 2015-2016 New Year’s Eve were only part of the story. That night some 1,200 women were assaulted by an estimated 2,000 men, mostly operating in groups, mostly in Cologne but also in Hamburg, Dortmund, Duesseldorf, and Stuttgart. Some 24 rapes were reported.
In a broader sense, Merkel’s open door policy, in concert with the Treaty of Maastrict and the bailouts for financially errant southern countries, have come close to annihilating Germany’s statehood. After all, matters of peace and war are decided by NATO (and routinely rubber-stamped by the Bundestag); industrial policy is determined mostly by the European Union; monetary policy is set by the European Central Bank, now also with a strong lever on fiscal policy; and the makeup of German society is set for a radical transformation due to a massive stream of immigrants flooding the country, in many cases without proper identification.
Many Germans concluded that something very damaging was happening to their country. The AfD exploited that spirit in two slogans: “Take your country back”; and “Dare, Germany.” Even more so than in the United States, the media and policy elites united against the new populist forces that threatened to upend the political balance of power in the country. AfD politicians were branded as nationalists. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel stated that the AfD’s emergence meant Nazis would again sit in the Reichstag. That, of course, was pure hyperbole and outright defamation in a country that has the strictest laws against anything even loosely related to National Socialism and in which “relativization of the Holocaust” is a punishable crime.
During America’s Donald Trump campaign, the United States had Fox News as a media outlet willing to defend the populist rise. The AfD had no such media support. All major German newspapers and periodicals are fully tied into transatlantic networks, trumpeting the U.S. view. (After Trump’s election, this led to almost two weeks of utter confusion and silence as stunned pundits and commentators waited for the official party line. It was in fact a thoroughly enjoyable moment.)
In my book, A Rising Middle Power? – German Foreign Policy in Transformation 1988 – 1998, I examined potential German foreign policy doctrines against the backdrop of reunification. I concluded that, although German power might have increased with reunification, the demands on Germany increased even more. This left Germany in the delicate position of being a middle power in need of reconciliation and consensus. But the German foreign policy doctrine after World War II had all but renounced the concept of “national interests” in favor of a vague internationalism and what one observer called “the habitual conflation of German and international interest.”
Indeed, since the collapse of Communism nearly three decades ago, Germany has become an even more loyal vassal of the United States than it was during the Cold War. Together with Austria, it is the chief victim of the economic sanctions against Russia (while the United States is their chief beneficiary). But Germany and Austria faithfully execute those sanctions nonetheless. German soldiers help implement U.S. grand strategy, fighting in Afghanistan and serving in over half a dozen other missions abroad, something that had been unconstitutional until the early nineties. It is from Germany that many drones are piloted, and it is from Frankfurt that U.S. cyber warfare is being conducted.
For Germany, less energy dependence on Russia due to the sanctions means more energy dependence on the United States. Add to that our already high dependence on the United States and what many in Germany consider U.S. economic warfare against German companies such as Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and Volkswagen, which have been penalized for infractions in U.S. law far more severely than U.S. companies are ever penalized. Then there is the spying on friends (or “allies”) by U.S. security services (including the interception of phone conversations of our chancellor), as well as widespread industrial espionage. The bureaucratic, fragmented, and complex regime of Brussels offers no real counterweight, with U.S. companies and interests amply represented there. Victoria Nuland, the former State Department official, reflected this reality when (not knowing her words were being intercepted) she said: “Fuck the EU.” Those words still resonate. Europe as a whole is deeply integrated into Google-Facebook-Amazon cyberspace. All this constitutes what might be called the “New Atlantic Century,” a development I predicted (together with Hermann Simon) in a 2000 Harvard Business Review article.
The rise of the AfD challenges all this for the first time since the peace movement in the early 1980s. That peace movement rose in opposition to Ronald Reagan’s policy of confrontation towards the Soviet Union and the planned deployment of Pershing II intermediate range ballistic missiles on European soil. The peace movement lost out, and Reagan’s gambit turned out well. But now the docile, complaisant stance of German elites toward American economic, cultural, and intellectual imperialism is confronted with a smart movement that has survived its infancy and morphed into a respectable party. That represents a formidable threat not just to the German elites but also to U.S. geostrategy; that’s because Germany is the linchpin of U.S. grand strategy in Europe. The AfD program, though moderate to any American conservative, nevertheless includes a demand for German sovereignty, a demand the established parties have avoided or tiptoed around for decades.
Today the U.S. position in the world, relative to other rising powers, is in decline. Charles Krauthammer’s “unipolar moment” has passed. China continues to rise and, despite a massive deployment of economic and propaganda warfare, Putin´s Russia is holding its own. Syria’s civil war, started with the active involvement of the CIA, draws to a conclusion with the country devastated but with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad still in power. Indeed U.S. globalist, interventionist, and imperialist elites at this point resort to increasing confrontation and pressure tactics to keep the country “engaged.” They seem to have succeeded in thwarting President Donald Trump’s America First stance, which may never have been more than a mere stance to begin with. Charges of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections, as absurd as they may be, are kept alive by opposition forces in league with the national security state and the media. All this bears the great risk of escalation at a time when the global system is highly unstable.
Meanwhile, in Germany, with Angela Merkel´s party losing a whopping 8.6 percentage points in Bundestag representation, it’s worth noting that no German chancellor has ever lost anything approaching that percentage without having to give up power. And yet the pretend politics of business-as-usual continues. With the SPD announcing it will go into opposition, Merkel is now trying to forge a CDU/CSU-FDP-Green coalition, aptly dubbed the “Jamaica coalition.” This would be strange bedfellows indeed, given the CSU’s “conservative” identity, the FDP’s market-oriented outlook (along with a newly discovered concern about law and order), and the Greens ultraliberal ideology. It is interesting also that the established media unanimously have intoned the refrain, “Onward with Merkel, but how?” Keep in mind that most German alpha journalists, as noted above, are firmly integrated into U.S. elite networks and trumpet the U.S. perspective. Merkel seems to be the best guarantee for continued policies serving U.S. interests.
There is a chance, of course, that the AfD will be neutralized, as the peace movement was in the early 1980s. The United States, after all, remains heavily entrenched in German domestic politics and opinion shaping. But history, as recent events have demonstrated, is always open to surprises. And there are certainly ruptures in the fabric of the Old Order.
Max Otte is a German economist, independent investment fund manager, and professor for general and international business administration at the University of Applied Sciences Worms. He is also the author of A Rising Middle Power? German Foreign Policy in Transformation, 1988–1998 (2000).