Germany’s identity crisis
Credit: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images   

Chancellor Angela Merkel was delivered another political blow in Bavaria’s recent state elections, reinforcing a growing sense that her time in charge is nearing an end. But whether she stays or goes, whoever leads Germany will have to answer the question that has so far stumped her: what is German nationalism?

Bayreuth, the small Franconian city I found myself in the week after the Bavarian vote, is a perfect place to contemplate this question. The adopted home of composer Richard Wagner, its annual ‘Bayreuth Wagner Festival’ attracts thousands of opera lovers every summer. But as any visitor knows or soon learns, Wagner’s landmark operas, Der Ring des Nieblungen or ‘The Ring Cycle’, were Adolf Hitler’s favourite music. Nationalism and its potential consequences lie heavily in the modern German’s soul.

The standard interpretation of the recent vote is that the entrance of Alternative for Germany, or AfD, into the Bavarian Landtag (legislature) is another example of Germany’s inability to deal with its nationalistic element. In fact, a closer look shows that the real issue is not how to deal with nationalism but how to define it. All sides in the election were propounding their own views about what German nationalism, and its peculiar Bavarian interpretation, is about.

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The Christian Social Union (CSU) has long had a stranglehold on this issue. Its pro-market, pro-welfare state worldview reflects the social market economy the Christian Democrats pioneered after World War II. The party proudly embraced Bavaria’s Catholicism, backing social subsidies for traditional families and supporting the use of religious imagery in classrooms and other public buildings.

In a state which had never been part of Prussia (indeed, Bavaria fought against Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866) and with its own monarchical past, dialect, and rustic traditions, the CSU sought to be the political expression of Bavarianism. And for nearly six decades it succeeded so well that it nearly always ruled without a coalition partner, a virtually unheard-of circumstance in German’s rigidly proportional election model.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the CSU’s main competitor during this period, but it never amounted to much. A secular industrial workers’ party in a religious rural state, the SPD rarely broke 35% in elections. But together, the two parties regularly combined for 80-90% of the vote.

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This duopoly began to break down in the last decade under challenges from the Left and Right. The Green Party began to compete with the SPD for the support of younger Left-leaning voters; it’s communitarian and environmentally-focused platform expressing more thoroughly the concerns of younger and more educated Leftists.

Eating into CSU support, Free Voters, Freie Wahler (FW) in German, began to pick up those, especially in the rural areas, who increasingly felt neglected by a CSU whose attention was focused on Munich.

Yet as recently as the 2013 elections, neither party seriously challenged the duopoly. If you were comfortable with traditional Bavarian nationalism, you voted CSU. If not, you voted SPD.

Merkel’s 2015 immigration policy blunder changed that. Many of the migrants passed through southern Bavaria on their way to seek asylum; culturally homogenous towns suddenly had an influx of Islamic, mostly male, migrants. For many voters in these areas – and for similar types of voters elsewhere in Bavaria – German and Bavarian nationalism was inconsistent with large numbers of Muslim migrants, even if they lived far away from their villages.

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Their sense of nation included acceptance of change and growth, but only against the backdrop of an ethnic German supermajority and a Christian-influenced public morality. Feeling betrayed by the CSU, nearly one in eight Bavarians supported the radically anti-Islamic AfD in last year’s federal vote, with proportions rising in the CSU’s rural, Catholic heartland.

The CSU had predictably moved to its Right following this shock to its dominance. The CSU’s state premier, Markus Soder, pushed through a controversial law that extended the display of crucifixes in schools to all state-operated public buildings. The CSU’s leader and federal immigration minister, Horst Seehofer, forced the Merkel government to the Right on asylum and immigration policy, much to her chagrin and that of her other coalition partner, the SPD. The message was: we, not the AfD, remain the representatives of respectable German and Bavarian nationalism.

This move, however, raised a different question for voters less attached to the old Bavaria. Former SPD voters had always excepted themselves from this view, but now the SPD was complicit in supporting the very values of closed, ethnically-based German identity that it had traditionally opposed.

Urban, educated, secular voters experienced a similar quandary. The CSU’s move to the Right exposed priorities that were not shared by these voters. Should they back the CSU, whose economic record was spotless, despite their misgivings? Or was there an honourable alternative, a party that could give expression to their view of a Germany open to all, a Germany that firmly rejected even the whiff of its past?

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Enter the Green Party, who skyrocketed in the polls to become the second largest party in Bavaria. They, not the AfD, were the election’s big winners, garnering 17.5% of the vote and more than doubling their vote share. Many of their voters were former SPD backers (that party shed more than half of its vote, falling to a mere 9.7% and finishing in fifth place), but many others had backed the CSU in prior elections, especially in large cities such as Munich or Bavaria.

The Greens polled 26% in Bavaria’s largest cities, just a whisker behind the CSU’s 27%, and it won six urban seats that directly elected its representative via a first-past-the-post system. The Greens were easily the largest party in Munich, besting the CSU by over 7%.

The CSU therefore staved off catastrophic defeat, but only at a great cost. The AfD share of the vote dropped compared with the 2017 Bundestag election in rural regions and small towns, and some of those voters returned to the CSU. The FW, however, also gained some of these voters as they were a safe protest party for those who wanted to send the CSU a message.

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In the cities, the CSU defined itself in a way that proved unacceptable to economically conservative but culturally liberal voters who want a Germany that is open to migrants and the world. The SPD’s collapse also showed that the old ways no longer hold; the two parties combined for less than a majority of the vote. The centre held, but just barely.

And there is little expectation that this position can continue,  in part because CSU support skews heavily to the elderly. The exit poll showed that CSU support drops among each age cohort, from 52% among those 70 and older, to 27% among voters 18 to 24 (just a shade more than the 23% who backed the Greens). Incredibly, nearly a quarter million CSU voters died between the last election in 2013 and today, more than passed away for all the other parties combined. Without a change in path, tomorrow does not belong to the CSU.

The role of Germany’s past and its culture is unmistakably behind these trends. The exit poll included a question that, roughly translated, asked whether the respondent was worried that Germany’s culture was gradually being lost. An astounding 100% of AfD voters agreed with this, but so did 68% of FW voters, along with 61% of CSU voters. However, only 20% of the Green voters and 37% of SPD voters concurred.

Germany is now experiencing the same splits between its cities and its territories, and between its educated and its less educated, as the rest of the world. According to the exit poll, the CSU support among the least educated dropped from 57% to 43%; and the AfD finished second among this group with 16%. Among the most educated, the Greens leapt up from 15% to win 28% of the vote. The educated and the urban want a global, less territorial society; the rural and smaller town areas do not.

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Identical trends are sweeping other German states too. Recent polls show the Greens are now the second largest party in Germany with around 20%, more than double their showing just one year ago. The CDU/CSU union is now polling below  30%, their worst showing ever, and its coalition partner, the SPD, have dropped to their worst showing as well, below 15%. The trend is so pronounced that at a recent post-election event in Washington sponsored by the CSU’s Hans Seidel Foundation, one speaker said that the Greens were likely to become the main party on the centre-Left for years to come.

Meanwhile, the AfD is now the largest party in the former communist East. Combined with the party descended from the former Communists, Die Linke, nearly half of East Germany’s voters support a party of either the far Left or far Right. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems that East Germany’s politics have more in common with those of their former Warsaw Pact allies, where Right or Left-wing populism is also rising, than of the western part of the nation they now call home.

Which brings us back to the city of Bayreuth. The creation of Germany in the late 19th Century required the manufacture of a German culture that brought together Lutherans and Catholics, westerners used to civic governance and easterners who had long lived in a harsh monarchy. Wagner’s music was part of that effort, which idealised a homogenous, Christian, small-town Germany with a courageous – and, dare I say, martial – past. This cultural ideal reached its apotheosis during the last days of Imperial Germany, and was the touchstone that the Nazis drew upon after the twin despairs of Versailles and the Great Depression.

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The devastation that the Third Reich brought upon the homeland in turn drove the founders of the Federal Republic to actively suppress the political expression of such sentiments. The new Germany would renounce its closed and martial past in favour of commitment to economic growth, democracy, and peace.

The CDU/SPD domination of post-war Germany reflected this yearning for a new beginning devoted to comfort and security over conquest and adventurism. Despite occasional rumblings from the small neo-Nazi Right, it appeared that this new Germany had rooted itself in the German soul by the dawn of the 21st Century. Those roots are still there, as the strong showing of the Greens demonstrates. But they are now in tension with milder expressions of the old nationalism.

Germany is not close to experiencing its Gotterdammerung. Virulent German nationalism required the twin calamities of national humiliation and economic collapse to give it life; neither event is on the horizon today. But a nation need not undergo collapse in order to experience extreme instability. Torn between a Left that has little that is distinctly German and a Right that has little that is distinctly modern, the old parties of the old order are slowly withering. The failure to create a new German national identity like their Bismarckian forefathers could drag the new Germany down with them.