July 24, 2020

There was a time when British foreign policy was dominated by the question of how to contain France. Then the question became how to contain Germany, and today the hangover of that problem still lingers. Not that Germany as a state any longer needs to be contained, rather just that it is the country still most identified — and suspected — as the motherlode of bad ideas.

Anyone doubting that this remains the case need only consider the now resurgent debate around nationalism. Recent works by Yoram Hazony and Rich Lowry among others have addressed the case for nationalism, yet for all the strengths of their arguments, they all face one giant hurdle: the past.

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Across the world nationalism is rarely seen as a problem in and of itself, let alone the worst political problem of all. Throughout Africa, the Middle East and Far East nationalism has been a mixed blessing, but aside from some religious conservatives (who have their own beef with it) it is rarely seen as the locus of bad ideas.

Only in Europe does nationalism ring differently, with something like a feeling that Europeans cannot be trusted with the stuff.

And yet it isn’t quite the case that nationalism is forbidden in Europe: the British are allowed some of it; the Scots certainly have a dose, and so do many other parts of the continent. The real problem is Germany. Even three-quarters of a century after the Second World War, it remains the case that the deepest problem with nationalism is that people are concerned about whether the Germans can be trusted with it. Try it for yourself: “Resurgent German nationalism”. How does it look to your mind’s eye? How does it poll in your personal barometer of political acceptability?

It is one of the reasons why, when you survey the moving political landscape in Europe, Germany is the country that is still different from all the others. The horrors of the 20th century are so well known that even mentioning the fact is a form of cliché, yet still, even in 2020, the country’s politics remain haunted by the mid-century crime scene.

The feeling remains that it was something in the blood, or the water, or the air, or the ideas or the philosophy or all of these and more. The feeling that even after all this time, all this study and knowledge, we’re still not completely certain why the country did what it did. And a feeling that in the meantime we have to keep an extra close eye on developments there.

This close attention was exemplified by the news in May that a sergeant-major in the German army had been arrested by police commandos at his house in Calw. There the officers found a cache of arms and explosives plus a quantity of Nazi memorabilia, including SS magazines.

While the foreign press might have got a tad over-excited, talking about the Calw arrest as though it was the start of a Robert Harris novel, the whole thing rings obvious warning bells. A potential Nazi in the ranks of the German army is more concerning than a potential Nazi in any other nation’s army, for reasons too obvious to be spelt out.

A similar sensitivity exists in German politics. Where other countries might be trusted with Right-wing and even nationalist parties, the political consensus here is policed more strictly than anywhere else. Right-wing economics may be accepted, but on all cultural issues the borders of acceptable belief are strictly patrolled, and those that step over the line face the consequences.

No party has demonstrated this more clearly than Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), only founded in 2013 on the back of a movement involving a number of journalists, lawyers, academics and others. At that stage its manifesto and platform were centred almost entirely on criticism of the fiscal policies of the eurozone, the flatlining of the Mediterranean economies and the vast bailouts that resulted from the financial crash of 2008 and resulting eurozone crises.

Throughout this period the feeling was growing that Germany was constantly having to bail out its irresponsible southern partners, and so the potential was there for a fiscally separatist movement to arise.

But once it formed into a political party the AfD became explicitly anti-euro, losing those founding figures who favoured a constructive-critical attitude to the currency. Perhaps it was inevitable that a party defined by a policy that was still so far from the political mainstream would attract a certain number of the politically homeless and even malcontent, but the number of skins, and people, that the AfD shed throughout its formative years was striking by any standards.

This was also a result of the party’s extraordinarily swift growth. Within months of its founding the AfD was represented in all 16 German states, and in the Federal elections it won just under 5% of the vote, only just missing out on entering the Bundestag. But the party did manage to enter state parliaments for the first time, and the following year the European Parliament with seven members.

Over the following years this upward trajectory continued, and there was one factor — as in other countries across the continent — which particularly contributed to this: the 2015 European migration crisis partly created by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

By the time of the crisis the AfD had already begun to shift its focus, its eurozone-scepticism taking a back seat to a wider set of priorities which the American scholar of modern European political movements Daniel Pipes has characterised under the umbrella of “civilisationist” parties. With the election of Frauke Petry to the leadership of the party, the AfD was increasingly keen to talk about immigration, Islam and issues of identity.

Of course, Germany being Germany, every millimeter of this terrain was fought over with exceptional bitterness. The media here had already come to expose and condemn the statements of the most minor members of the party, but with each fresh scandal the core of the AfD was reduced, as a concoction might reduce over a sustained flame.

Each accusation of xenophobia or right-wingery had the same effects seen in other countries in Europe; some moderate conservatives were chased away for fear of being associated with anything even accused of being “far-right”, while people who were genuinely far-right tried to migrate towards what they believed or hoped could be their home. People who were already in the party had to judge where their own personal political limits might lie.

In the aftermath of the migration crisis the AfD’s poll performance made a set of predictable leaps. In regional elections in Pomerania in September 2016 the party beat Merkel’s CDU into third place, while in Berlin it entered the state capital’s Parliament for the first time after receiving a 14.1 per cent share of the vote. Within four years of its founding the AfD was represented in most of the country’s states.

Of course this did not go unopposed. The day before the AfD’s success in Berlin the city’s mayor, Michael Müller (of the centre-left SDP) declared that a double-digit percentage return for the AfD would “be seen around the world as a sign of the return of the right wing and the Nazis in Germany”.

Despite such warnings, and increasingly fractious internal wrangles, the party continued to do well. Their success culminated in September 2017 when voters gave Merkel’s Christian Democrats their worst result since 1949 and the AfD became the third largest party in the Bundestag, with 94 seats. By any standards it is one of the most extraordinary political rises in recent European history: from nowhere to the official opposition in the Bundestag in just four years.

An hour after the Bundestag results came in the AfD’s joint leader, Alexander Gauland, declared that he would “hunt down the government, Mrs Merkel, and get our country and people back”. It was not exactly the sort of overheated declaration that would ease worries about the rise of the party, and that discomfort has grown since, both at home and abroad.

Outside of Germany this alam stems from a range of factors, one of which, without doubt, is sheer laziness. Then there is opportunism, so that in April 2019, when Jacob Rees-Mogg retweeted a speech by Alice Weidel, the leader of the AfD’s deputies in the Bundestag, criticising the Merkel government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, it was seized on by Labour MPs, who sought to paint the AfD as an out-and-out racist and even Nazi political party.

This is simplistic and incorrect, based on a very limited knowledge of the situation in Germany, yet there are certainly individuals near the top of the party who cause concern not only to outsiders but to party members themselves. For instance, I have spoken to several figures in the AfD who have expressed concern over the views of the leadership in Thuringia, in the former East Germany.

Bjorn Hocke in particular has become a lightning-rod of such concerns, not least after a 2017 speech in which he appeared to minimise the Holocaust. In contrast, in most of the statements of a figure like Beatrix von Storch there is nothing that would not be deemed perfectly normal political sentiment in the Conservative Party or Ukip in the period of Nigel Farage’s leadership.

Within the party there seems to me a knowledge that the whole thing could go in any number of ways, towards the more mainstream right or further towards and beyond the boundaries. A party in such flux and on such a swift trajectory as the AfD has been is worthy of serious psychological analysis, yet such analysis has been almost completely lacking in the German media, let alone in the wider international one.

The story of “far-right on the rise in Germany” is simply too potent — and legitimately potent — a force to be responded to by a phrase like “It’s more complicated than that”. But it is more complicated than is currently assumed, and a huge amount will be riding on whether Germany can cope with the complexities involved.

This will include the question of whether sentiment against mass immigration is permissible in Germany, as it has become permissible across the rest of the continent. It will rely on whether the right to defend or speak up for European identity are considered respectable in 21st Century Germany or not. And hardest of all (and this is something that people can reasonably feel torn over) whether any defence of German cultural identity is possible in the wake of the 20th century and the painful, jarring ringing that such calls inevitably cause for very many people.

Personally, I remain torn on these questions. From my many visits to the country I have come to think that there is something not just wrong but cruel about saying to young Germans that they should in some way be treated with suspicion, or deprived of the right to feel pride in their culture, because of the reprehensible things that went on in their country before their birth.

And yet, like many others, I also feel nervous. Can anyone say with total confidence that they know what could and could not bubble up in an era such as the one we are entering? Could anyone honestly put their hand on their heart and say that they are as willing to allow the Germans to be nationalistic, as other nations are allowed to be? The question remains almost impossible to answer in the affirmative, and yet Germans must also be allowed to feel pride in their culture and wish to protect it.

These are not just civilisational issues: they are issues of deep, practical, day-to-day political concern. A concern that the AfD has the opportunity to answer, or to blow apart.