Home / Articles / Sometimes (Moderate) Optimism is Realism: Reflections on the German Elections
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Source: IMO at German National Maritime Conference/Flickr)
In the few days since the elections in Germany, I remain, in the eyes of my friends unbelievably optimistic. My response to the retort of those who are despairing is that a sigh of relief at the German election is not an imposition of my dreams-cum-naivety; rather, seeing Sunday as a short-term tactical and long-term strategic victory for those who side with Human Dignity is based on facts alone. However shrouded and subtle they may be, the littler verities of fact that Hannah Arendt told us about matter much more than any easy, obvious, but ultimately incorrect conclusions.
So, the AfD got about 12.6% of the vote, the SPD about 20.5%, and the CDU/CSU about 32.9% (many facts of democracy are annoying but beautiful: that vote totals may not be nailed down even yet is a testament to the paradoxes of democracy, even in the information age, which we should, quite frankly, love.). Those who deride democracy as a declining project to the point of abandoning the forces who stand for it in favor of those who would dismantle it, are those who are too weak to endure their own discomfort at the failure of eschatological certainty for the sake of the rights of other citizens. The CDU/CSU fell significantly from last election, while the AfD relatively exploded. Terrifying first steps, and so far all goes according to plan for AfD self-styled revolutionaries, it seems. Except these little verities of facts prove otherwise.
First, consider Die Linke. Die Linke has been in the Reichstag for years. Die Linke is, obviously, not AfD and vice-versa. They would never get along (though Die Linke has little problem with Putin, a literal dictator, and AfD would probably adore Ceausescu, the jingoistic Communist). They have many differences. But they are both part of what I call the Stalino-fascist baroque. Both espouse collectivist ideologies committed to cleansing the community in the name of an ethnic or social utopia. The Rights and Dignity of Humans is their main enemy. Just as AfD excuses the Nazis, Die Linke defends the legacy of the Stalinist regime in East Germany. If in power, they would overthrow the Constitution, destroying all rights—and the citizens behind them—because they believe the world requires, let us say as radicals euphemistically do, “surgery.” They have not broken through. Die Linke got into the Reichstag years ago, and has hovered with around 10% of the vote since. This Party is as radical, yet it has “broken into” the Reichstag without breaking into power.
The conditions are simply not the same as Weimar 1933 or occupied East Germany 1945. Recent history, political mood, and public culture matter. There is a reason totalitarianism did not happen before the 20th century: only intense, earth-shattering social and economic upheaval can bring about such radical politics. These conditions are simply not met now. 2008 and its aftermath are rough, probably even worse metaphysically for the citizens affected (and not affected, bizarrely enough) than economically. The refugee crisis was shocking for backwards-looking closet nationalists (beforehand they did not even realize their racism themselves). Yet at the end of the day, things have not been bad enough, states incompetent enough, and the people angry enough to make a revolution, even the easy way, through the ballot box. This is a grand, undeniable difference between 1933 and now.
Here’s some concrete proof: no revolutionary, ideological, totalitarian movement has ever risen in a country that was not dealing with chronic street violence as part of the political landscape. The Bolsheviks basically overthrew no one, Russia was simply in anarchy. Germany had multiple low-level civil wars in the 15 years before 1933. In the early 1930s, the SA were essentially fighting a one-way war, while millions of Communists were also armed to the teeth. For both sides, violence was seen as inevitable and decisive; a culture little different from cavemen consumed the lives of millions of Germans, and hung like a shadow over most of the rest of them. There is no street violence in Germany, and until there is (never) there will be no Fascist victory.
Finally, consider the AfD itself. It is nationalist, racist, far-right, and proto-fascist; but it is not even close to totalitarian. Totalitarianism is an ideology and a practice. AfD is too centrifugally heterogeneous to have a consistent ideology. They have vague ideas about who (non-whites) and what (freedom) they hate. The AfD does not have its philosophy thought through enough to convince the majority of the masses, who are normal citizens and require logic (excuses) before they embrace anti-systemic radicalism. Additionally, the AfD, at its very core, lacks Hitler and his poisonous charisma.
Remember, for Fascism to even come close to triumphing, it has to secure at least a good part of the masses. 10% itself is not enough: we only notice this benchmark to analyze if this is the first step toward an exponential increase in power, like an x-y graph line. If conditions are bad, society desperate, and the movement strong, that breakthrough easily happens (people are worse than we think, but that’s a different story). But as citizens feebly come to join Totalitarianism, they also feebly stand with democracy if these conditions are not met. Germany is irrevocably safe, for now. A lot has to happen—and it could, but it probably won’t, and we should notice and react if it begins too—for the origins of totalitarianism to emerge in current Germany.
Additionally, anti-fascism is the founding principle of German society now. It is flat-out impossible for fascism to rise; these weak fascist wannabes could only capture a fraction. And this is after the 2008 crisis—no wonder it’s happening. The fact that the AfD got so little is victory, given the recent upheavals. Germany is doing much better than U.S., Britain, France, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, or anywhere else except Canada. Totalitarianism, intrinsically, has a magical ability to explode from a middle-weight player to near total-popular support in the brief time after taking power. But because of anti-fascist education and culture, the German public will not rapidly surrender their ability to think critically because of the euphoria and lighting-action of the AfD, whether it won a lot of votes, became part of the coalition, or even took power. German society is, thankfully, too prone to at least asking some basic questions which prevent the fall of democracy.
The existence of vileness is a normal part of democracy. The Human Rights of Havel and Civil Society of Arendt will never be ubiquitous in a population. That the human mind is so great in its ability to think is the entire point of democracy and freedom. And it has a minor curse—as long as there is freedom, a small number of citizens will use that freedom to choose to fight freedom. Typically, the percentage is smaller than 12.6%. 12.6% could be on the path to victory, yes, as with Hitler in the few elections before 1933. But 12.6% could also be just about a peak. It depends on the Party—ideology and Leaders—and the public—conditions, culture. It is clear that AfD is out of luck. Their 12.6% is uncomfortable, outrageous, and heartbreaking, but it is not threatening.
The erosion of popularity is a normal phenomenon for a party and a chancellor that enter a fourth term. In spite of dire predictions, Angela Merkel has successfully resisted the attempts to demonize and de-legitimize her. The Free Democrats, a genuine liberal party, got over ten percent. Should we be worried? Certainly. Should we panic? I don’t think so. The big losers are the Social Democrats, they really need to find a voice for themselves. Germany has not ushered in an era of populist instability and xenophobic chaos. And this is an encouraging signal from a mature electorate. The two extremes represent around 22 percent. Not to be neglected. But in democracy, majorities rule—and a massive majority stands for democracy (even if tired, it is not fatigued). And, as a political scientist, I cannot ignore the distinction between protest and establishment parties. Neither can I gloss over the democratic values solidly enshrined in contemporary German political culture. Democracies only die from suicide, and the German public still has the will to live.
To conclude: at this critical juncture in European and global politics, with (euphemistically speaking) an erratic U.S. president, with Putin in the Kremlin and Russian forces occupying Ukraine, a police state in China, etc. (how many deaths and tears thrive in those three letters?), it is a source of hope that the democratic community is not rudderless. Helmut Kohl may have been eventually disappointed in Angela Merkel, but, in a world- historical perspective, that choice was a blessing for Germany and the world. Angela, co-leader of the democratic community of nations, continues, with her partner Emmanuel Macron, to do the right thing and succeed in saving the legacies of the Enlightenment and the possibility of liberty for the world. No matter how close the call, how menacing and great the challenges, they are, in the end, winning.
Note: I wish to thank Jordan Luber for his research and editorial assistance.