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What’s the Matter With Germany?

Are we experiencing the last days of Germany’s rule by the transatlanticist center?


A scandal has shaken Germany and threatens to split apart the ruling coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the Green Party, and the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

The crisis had its roots in the government’s decision in the spring of 2023 to proceed with the shut down of Germany’s last remaining nuclear power plants—amid a historic energy crisis in the former industrial powerhouse of Europe, which is now experiencing deindustrialization at breakneck speed.


The ostensible reason was that the shutdown had long been planned and mandated by law. The Minister of the Economy and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Greens claimed that the shutdown was irreversible because experts had told him that on short notice an extension of the plants’ lifespan was impossible. But that was a lie. Investigative reporting by the German news magazine Cicero revealed in April that experts from the Ministry of the Economy had concluded that the nuclear plants could continue to operate for several additional years without a problem.

The revelations were a public relations nightmare for the already massively unpopular “traffic light” coalition, named after the official colors of the three parties. The SPD was long a party of industrial workers, who are now turning their backs on it in droves. As a result, the SPD is polling at paltry levels not seen since the days when it emerged from illegality under the reign of Otto von Bismarck. And the FDP may become entirely irrelevant and fail to reach the 5 percent of votes needed to win seats in the national parliament—all because of policies largely pushed by the Greens.

But, so far, the eco-party continues to perform comparatively well in the polls. The Greens may, in fact, remain in power even if the SPD and FDP go down in defeat in the next elections. It is likely that the Greens will simply swap coalition partners and join with the Christian Democrats (CDU), a party that for decades slammed the Greens as leftist radicals and with whom collaboration was seemingly out of the question. But now it is only a question of when, not if, the CDU and Greens will cooperate on the national level. It’s a natural match.

The Greens emerged out of a combination of the environmentalist and peace movements of the 1970s. After their official founding in 1980, their members were often found leading radical protests, for example, against the stationing of American Pershing II missiles in Western Europe or the expansion of nuclear power.


In those days, the Greens were split between two camps: the so-called “fundamentalists” and the “realists,” the latter of whom sought to reorient the party toward a more pragmatic course that would make it an acceptable coalition partner in Germany’s parliamentary system. Power beckoned.

The realists won, and, in 1998, after the party first joined ruling coalitions on various state levels, the Greens at last reached their long-term goal—national power, as the junior partner in the SPD-Green coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Immediately, the Greens were faced by a crisis that threatened to rip them apart. The Schröder administration joined in the NATO attacks against Yugoslavia in 1999, Germany’s first active participation in a war since the reign of Adolf Hitler. This was no easy sell for an officially pacifist party like the Greens who saw their party conventions erupt in mutual recriminations, culminating in an attack on the then Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer whose eardrum burst after an activist threw a bag of red paint at him.

Fischer was the party’s chief realist and defended German participation in the NATO campaign on the grounds that another Holocaust was imminent in the Balkans unless the alliance bombed the government of Slobodan Milošević into submission. Fischer perfectly embodied the spirit of western triumphalism: In the 1990s, the foreign policy of many western states was reoriented from the defense posture imposed on them by the realities of the Cold War toward an offensive interventionism that claimed to defend progressive values and human rights. Germany’s current Foreign Minister, the Green Party member Annalena Baerbock, announced in a speech in 2022 that she was pursuing a “feminist foreign policy,” “an approach,” she said, “which permeates our entire foreign and security policy.”

This is why the Greens’ base did end up staying loyal to them and, in fact, grew precipitously in the last decade to make the former fringe party one of Germany’s largest. Like the Democrats in America, the Greens have become the party of the academic middle-class, centered especially in big cities. The values of this class are decidedly cosmopolitan and post-materialist: concerns about record electricity prices leave its members unfazed. In fact, they’ll gladly pay a premium on their bills if it means feeding more renewables like wind and solar into the grid.

This also explains why the Greens only ever stayed true to one principle, after they had gladly shed their anti-militaristic image: an opposition to nuclear power, which had to be pushed through come what may. Its representatives seem noticeably unconcerned about the impending loss of the country’s energy-intensive industries.

On foreign policy, the Greens have become even more hawkish than in the days of Joschka Fischer, who at least vocally opposed the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush. At the time, Germany stood on the side of France and Russia, but Fischer’s successor Baerbock today believes that “we are fighting a war against Russia.” As the Green Party candidate for chancellor in the 2021 federal election, Baerbock still ran on the slogan “No weapons and armaments into war zones.”

The Greens’ about-face from its former pacifist days is thus complete. Recently, Sergej Sumlenny, the former head of the Ukrainian bureau of the Green Party-aligned Heinrich Böll Foundation, tweeted his approval of the neo-Nazi “Right Sector” and its role in the 2014 Maidan protests. Without such shock troops, he argues, the current pro-western protests in the caucasus republic of Georgia are doomed to fail “like Belarusian protests in 2020.”

The reference to the failed color revolution in Belarus is ominous. After all, there, western powers pursued a similar strategy as they do now in Georgia, building up public discontent against their governments through direct financial aid to pro-western NGOs. At the time, the former chairman of the Böll Foundation, the Green Party politician Ralf Fücks, complained that the European Union wasn’t putting enough pressure on the Lukashenko government to call a snap election that was meant to see him swept away by a wave of pro-western sentiment. The plan was to sever Belarus’s ties to Russia and integrate it into the EU.

The Greens hope for a similar fate for Ukraine and are far more radical in their support for the Zelensky regime than even their coalition partner of Chancellor Scholz’s Social Democrats. When in March of this year a recording of a conversation between German generals was leaked, in which the officers were discussing ways to destroy the Crimean Bridge using German-built Taurus cruise missiles, Scholz categorically rejected the plot. His fellow party member and leader of the SPD’s parliamentary group Rolf Mützenich soon afterward demanded in a widely noted speech that there should be considerations of “freezing and later also ending the war.”

The statements by Scholz and Mützenich appeared like a major pivot by the governing SPD and the party momentarily experienced a minor boost in the polls.

But the Greens were furious. Anton Hofreiter, a prominent member of the Greens whose long unkempt hair still recalls the party’s hippie origins, denounced Mützenich’s call for peace as an invitation of further aggression by Russia. In fact, while a clear majority of Germans opposed Taurus deliveries to Ukraine, the Greens were the only party whose supporters favored sending the missiles by a majority, according to polls.

The crisis of the traffic light coalition came to a head when the Christian Democrats introduced a resolution in the parliament that called for the Taurus shipments. The resolution went down by a wide margin, with the Greens and the FDP voting to oppose it as well, but just so as not to antagonize the SPD and bring about the premature fall of the government. In a joint statement, however, thirteen Green Party members of parliament endorsed a strategy “to strengthen Ukraine in those capabilities that enable attacks on military targets such as ammunition depots, supply routes, and command posts far behind the front lines.”

This was the biggest step to date that the urbanite eco-party has taken toward the Christian Democrats, who have yearned for a return to power after Angela Merkel retired as chancellor in 2021.

Today, the CDU is led by Merkel’s long-time rival Friedrich Merz. At their recent convention, the party reelected the former board member of BlackRock Germany as its chair with 90% support. Merz nominally seeks to move the CDU to the right by pushing a tougher line on migration and wants to mandate what he calls a German Leitkultur (guiding culture) that all legal migrants should adapt to.

But what sounds like a return of the party to its conservative roots is counteracted by the fact that Merz has categorically ruled out any collaboration with the populist right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD) against whom Merz has erected a so-called Brandmauer (fire wall). Neither do CDU leaders appear open to a coalition with another new conservative party project, the Werteunion (Values Union), a right-wing split from the CDU that is somewhat more moderate than the AfD. In any event, the Values Union doesn’t register much in the polls yet.

This leaves only parties to the CDU’s left as possible partners, and Merz has not excluded the Greens as a possible choice, even though he called the Greens the “main opponent” of the center-right just last year. But that may have been pure political calculus to score points against unpopular measures by the “traffic light” coalition. In February, Merz argued in a party-internal communiqué that a coalition with the Greens could not be ruled out if the CDU wants to return to power. 

In Germany’s parliamentary system, a single party has almost never achieved a majority of seats on its own. Usually a combination of two or more parties form a ruling coalition. Often, their leaders go back on promises never to collaborate with their opponents, like in 2017 when the SPD’s candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz categorically excluded that the Social Democrats would form a coalition with the CDU only to give in a few days later and enter into one after all. Germans value stability above all and the polls backed up Schulz’s decision despite the fact that he flagrantly broke his word.

Informal contacts between the CDU and Greens have been fostered for decades and on the state level, the two parties have collaborated many times before. Merz also holds one of the Greens’ co-chairs, the Iranian-born Omid Nouripour, in high regard. Both are committed transatlanticists and both have served as board members of the influential think tank Atlantik-Brücke, which was founded in 1952 to help tie the West German Federal Republic to the United States during the Cold War.

The Atlantik-Brücke has been repeatedly criticized by mainstream journalists in Germany for circumventing the democratic process in shaping elite opinion on foreign policy because membership and participation in its conferences is granted by invitation only. Some historians believe that the think tank helped to reorient the foreign policy of the Social Democrats toward a pro-NATO stance in the 1960s.

Merz’s rightward move might therefore be mostly for show. Although he supports the return to nuclear power generation in Germany, it is doubtful whether he would sacrifice his ascendancy to the office of chancellor for that one reason alone. After all, by 2011, the Christian Democrats had fallen under the spell of anti-nuclear ideology too and were instrumental in pushing through Germany’s phase-out of the technology.

And Merz rules over a CDU that under Merkel moved dramatically to the left, both on migration and polarizing cultural issues like same-sex marriage. After Merkel had given her implicit blessing to it in 2017, a third of the CDU’s members of parliament voted for its legalization. Like with the Republicans in the U.S., no one can imagine that the CDU would move to abolish same-sex marriage after it has become an accomplished fact.

In fact, one of the conservatives’ most vocal opponents of a coalition with the Greens, Bavaria’s minister president and leader of the CDU’s sister party Christian Social Union (CSU), Markus Söder, prominently endorsed LGBT ideology of which the Greens are the biggest supporters in Germany. This happened in 2021 when the Hungarian soccer national team played a Euro Cup game in the Bavarian capital Munich. German players sought to protest Victor Orbán’s anti-LGBT legislation but were forbidden from doing so by the tournament’s organizers who wanted to keep the match unpolitical for the billions of people around the world who watch the sport. The prohibition awoke the righteous indignation of modern cosmopolitan Germans and Söder let himself be photographed in a rainbow-color N95 mask, tweeting his “clear commitment against exclusion and for freedom and tolerance.”

This is the face of modern German conservatism. No one really doubts that the CDU/CSU would unhesitatingly welcome the Greens into their arms if opportunity beckoned.

How this marriage between the Christian Democrats and the Greens might eventually unfold was plausibly described by the AfD politician Maximilian Krah in a recent podcast interview. Krah, who has previously spoken to The American Conservative, predicted that the CDU “will destroy itself”:

Starting in 2025 it will enter into a coalition with the Greens. Many, many people who are disappointed with the “traffic light” coalition will vote for the CDU in 2025. They will say: “The AfD, well, can you entrust them with the country? Still too young and maybe too radical. Let’s elect Merz. He looks so nicely like the Federal Republic of old.” And then Mr Merz will govern with the Greens. And the policies of the CDU and Greens will essentially be the same as that of the “traffic light” coalition. And then in 2029 we will experience that many people will say, “things will probably only work out with the AfD.”

Are we thus experiencing the last days of Germany’s rule by the transatlanticist center, the last gasp before an inevitable swing to the populist right?