The recent federal elections in Germany were met with woe by many, with joy by many others, and with surprise by nearly all. Ms. Angela Merkel, who has been the dominant force in German politics since ascending to the chancellorship in 2005, was able, by most accounts, to secure a fourth term as leader of Germany. However, her party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, in fact suffered what might be called a downturn, losing more than eight percent of its voter share since the previous election; with thirty-three percent of the vote, the CDU had the smallest share of votes cast in its favor since shortly after World War II. The CDU’s previous coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, suffered a similarly sharp defeat, losing five percent of its voter share and being rather gutted in terms of seats in the Bundestag. Most alarming or heartening of all, depending on one’s point of view, was the success of the nationalist party Alternative for Germany. AfD, having been founded only four years prior, made a resounding entry into German national politics, winning 12.6 percent of the vote and obtaining seats in the Bundestag for the first time—ninety-four seats, to be exact.
On Twitter, more than one commentator referred to the election as a disaster for Ms. Merkel, and one might indeed view it as a major defeat. Her own party lost a tremendous amount of seats, falling far short of an outright majority. Her coalition partner, the SDP, lost enough seats, and lost enough of the electorate’s confidence, that they declared their intention to go into the formal opposition, denying Ms. Merkel the chance to reform her governing coalition. As we speak, Ms. Merkel is now trying to cobble together a coalition with the classically liberal Free Democratic Party and the German Green Party, already dubbed the “Jamaica coalition” by the press for the black, yellow, and green colors of the three parties. The FDP and the Greens are very much opposed on a number of issues, and whatever coalition forms will likely be highly unstable. New elections cannot be ruled out.
And, again, the AfD is the real story, and their entry into the Bundestag represents a profound failing on Ms. Merkel’s part. The AfD, as all now know, are profoundly nationalist. They are anti-immigration, wishing to halt Ms. Merkel’s full-throated embrace of refugees and perhaps deport those that have already settled in Germany. They are pro-traditional family, opposing same-sex marriage and espousing traditional gender roles. And they are very much “Germany first.” They wish to promote pride and strength in the German people, wish to reverse the shame-based posture Germany has maintained since the end of the second world war, and wish for Germany to halt any more integration with the rest of Europe, on both a financial and a cultural basis.
They are, in effect, a total repudiation of the idea of Germany that has held sway in the world for almost twenty years now, especially by those who would disparage that idea. Germany, online and in print, has been mocked by the right in Europe and America for embracing what is referred to as “globalism.” Ms. Merkel has been tongue-lashed for her support of the European Union, for her willingness to accept immigrants and refugees, for a posture that can sometimes seem meek, humble, and unassertive. Of course, the other side has had its say as well, upholding Ms. Merkel as a bastion of toleration, progress, and humility. Since the election of Mr. Donald Trump to the American presidency, she has been referred to quite frequently as the “true” leader of the free world. AfD’s rise, and its prospects to rise further, are thus a shock to many. Germany, said some, has been “vaccinated” against destructive nationalism by its past. How could a party like AfD arise there?
I might observe, however, that AfD’s attitude is not as unusual or as unprecedented as one might imagine, given the history of Germany in the 21st century. It is true that since its defeat in World War II, and again since its reunification, Germany has adopted a posture of humility and shame in response to its actions in the great war. However, this meek disposition has masked what I deem a very aggressive move to advance, and then consolidate, its own interests, in the world at large and in Europe particularly.
Consider its stature in the Eurozone. There was some debate, leading up to the adoption of the euro, whether Germany would even join the currency; the Germans prized the security and stability of their Deutsche Mark, and had to be sweetly coerced into surrendering it. However, Germany has subsequently found the euro very favorable to its own interests. The euro, you see, takes advantage of both Germany and its poorer southern neighbors, to Germany’s great benefit and the south’s ultimate downfall. Germany’s renowned good credit and strong banking system gives the euro legitimacy on the global stage, granting it equal stature with the dollar, the pound, and the yen; the currency trades in no small part on Germany’s financial reputation. However, it does not trade as highly, and is not as strong, as it might be if it were purely a German currency. The southern European countries, and certainly the notorious PIIGS—Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain—have high debt, low productivity, and low overall credit. Their presence in the Eurozone drags the euro down, preventing it from trading as highly as it would if there were only more productive, more creditworthy nations—like Germany—in the currency union. Yet this is to Germany’s benefit, because a depressed currency makes its numerous exports cheaper than they would be if Germany had its own currency, allowing it to thrive in international trade. The discrepancy is so noteworthy that Mr. Peter Navarro, an economic adviser to Mr. Trump, went as far as to accuse the Germans of currency manipulation. Reaping such benefits, it is unsurprising that Germany has turned from reluctant founder to frequent booster of the euro, even pressuring nations in Eastern Europe to join it despite reluctance on their part. One can even trace Greece’s fraudulent admittance into the Eurozone to pressure by Germany, despite the total unpreparedness of Greece to meet Eurozone benchmarks for economic performance.
This unpreparedness by Greece eventually led to a tremendously painful debt crisis, kicked off by the 2007-2008 global recession but ultimately inevitable given Greece’s high borrowing, low productivity, and artificially inflated monetary power—an artificial inflation that, of course, is ultimately owed to Germany. In Greece, the recession became a full-fledged depression, as Greek businesses and households were crushed under huge amounts of public and private debt. In response to this, and to mounting debt in the other southern countries, Germany did not display any shame or humility. Instead, Germany bent its will on the rest of the Eurozone, demanding that struggling countries relieve their debt by imposing painful austerity, including deep cuts to social safety nets and vital national services. Greece is worth continued focus, because it is in regard to Greece that the Germans were most sharp. The European Central Bank ultimately arranged several bailouts of the Greek banking and financial system, but each time the strings attached wound tighter and tighter around Greece’s neck. It is here that we might mention that the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, exerts tremendous influence over the ECB, given that Germany contributes much to its various programs. The Bundesbank essentially has veto power over any of the ECB’s decisions, and the ECB chairman, Mr. Mario Draghi, often consults with both the Bundesbank and the German finance minister on his decisions.
To this end, Germany’s pressure on the ECB led to ever-harsher penalties on Greece, as the tiny, notoriously fraudulent nation continually failed to meet its payments or adapt to the demands placed on it. Matters came to a head in 2015, with the election to power of the left-wing Syriza party, headed by Mr. Alexis Tsipras. Facing sovereign default, Mr. Tsipras declared that he would confront Greece’s creditors and forge an end to the austerity that had plagued his nation. When the “troika”—consisting of the ECB, the International Monetary Fund, and the Eurogroup—presented Greece with new conditions for additional funding, Mr. Tsipras put the matter to a public referendum, where it was soundly rejected. From there, however, things took a turn for the sinister. Mr. Tsipras fired his finance minister abruptly, and was summoned to negotiations with the other leaders of the Eurozone. Ms. Merkel was present. What took place behind closed doors remains a secret to this day. But in the end, Mr. Tsipras appeared from the excrutiation chamber, ashen-faced, and declared that his government would accept the troika’s proposal, new round of austerity and all. Greece remains in debt and under austerity to this day, at the behest of the Eurozone—largely due to Germany’s influence.
The degree to which Germany finds the Eurozone and the European Union useful, however, should not be confused with the degree to which it finds them valuable. On that count, Germany casts a very cold shoulder indeed. It has repeatedly resisted calls for greater integration by the EU countries, often breaking ranks with France, with which it is theoretically in a partnership at the head of the EU. It has been the government of Ms. Merkel, that supposed globalist, which has been insistent on preserving Germany’s fiscal sovereignty and freedom of action. She has resisted the issuing of common bonds for the Eurozone, preferring to retain Germany’s ability to issue its own debt. She has subjected all changes to the EU charter to scrutiny by the German Federal Constitutional Court, which has more than once vetoed such changes, sometimes collapsing them despite broader agreement within the union. She repeatedly avoided and deterred the creation of a common fund for managing banking and finance crises; it was only in 2011 that the European Stability Mechanism was created, arguably against her wishes. She has resisted numerous, pointed attempts to tie the nations of the European Union closer together, from the creation of a common defense force to a proposal for EU nations to examine each others’ budgets. When Mr. Emmanuel Macron, the boyish, imperial new president of France, gave his speech about the future of the EU, many listened politely, and then turned immediately back to the minutiae of Ms. Merkel’s coalition building. It is Germany that makes the EU go, and Germany that will determine just how far Mr. Macron’s vision of a more united Europe will travel. The road appears to be rocky.
Even Ms. Merkel’s most controversial act might have self-interested undercurrents, if looked at from a certain point of view. She has been derided for her willingness to open Germany’s borders to an unchecked flow of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East; this limitless influx of people has directly fueled the rise of the AfD. Ms. Merkel has claimed her actions are humanitarian in nature, and we might be inclined to take her at her word. However, there are other matters to consider, among them the fact that Germany’s current birth rates are below replacement level. To maintain its global industrial dominance, Germany will need workers, both now and in the future. There are two ways for a shrinking, aging population to obtain these new workers: birth them or import them. With prospects for the former somewhat dim, a certain breed of cynic might look at Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy and see the latter choice being implemented.
None of these observations are made to chastise Ms. Merkel or her nation. Quite the contrary: many of those who deride “globalists” might turn from haters to champions of Germany when its commitment to sovereignty is fully considered. These observations, rather, are made to illustrate a broader point: since the dawn of the 21st century, and certainly during Ms. Merkel’s time in power, Germany has not been globalist at all. Rather, Germany has been pointedly nationalist, at every turn making decisions with its own self-interest in mind, over and against the lofty ideals of European identity or human rights. Its projections of shame and humility are a facade, behind which lurks a ruthless opportunist that will take every advantage and game every system while doing its best to avoid any negative consequences for its actions. The rise of the AfD is not an anomaly—rather, it is a predictable movement within a broader pattern. Germany’s nationalist actions have begotten a nationalist party, one which has taken Ms. Merkel’s commitment to fiscal, legal, and industrial nationalism and added to these a commitment to cultural and ethnic nationalism. The AfD is no new beginning. Instead, it is the repetition of a reliable axiom: at all times, and in all ways, Germany will do what is best for Germany, and hang everyone else. Nothing more need be said.
Or, rather, one thing more might be mentioned. Mr. Steve Bannon, a man whose name is on everybody’s lips, has mentioned more than once that he considers himself to be an “economic nationalist.” This has been the frame he has placed around the policies he supports, from an opposition to free trade to a tough international stance against China to a support for the American working class. I should like to propose that Germany under Ms. Merkel has, itself, been a fine example of economic nationalism. Germany has used, arguably even abused, the European Union and the Eurozone for tremendous economic benefit on its own part. It has played its hand very well, and has grown very rich indeed. Even the influx of refugees can, again, potentially be justified from an economically nationalist perspective. Mr. Bannon and those who support him, then, might not wish to disparage Germany, if they are truly so committed to an economic nationalism. They might rather wish to take notes.