December 18, 2020

It is a curious fact of modern political commentary that enthusiasts for each quadrant on the political spectrum find themselves imbuing one foreign leader or another with all the idealised qualities of wisdom and good governance they find lacking at home. For Leftists of a Corbynite persuasion, the acme of good governance and benevolent leadership is to be located in Cuba, or Venezuela — and on its darkest and most delusional fringes, in Assad’s Syria; for those on the edges of the centre-right, in authoritarian-conservative Hungary or Poland; for those even further to the right, in Russia, or China, depending on whether they foreground tradition or technology as the basis of their authoritarian dreams.

For those ideologues of the technocratic centre-left, a political quadrant rather cruelly termed “Britpoppers” by our younger conservative internet wags, it is the cult of Angela Merkel that has ended up filling this role. The demonstrative anti-populists have found themselves replicating the tropes and mannerisms of populism for their own purposes, without ever quite realising it. In this inversion of nationalist exceptionalism, it is the Other, Merkel’s Germany, that is a paragon of virtue, a vision of the good which differs in every respect from our own backward and unenlightened Self; where our politicians are venal, corrupt and incompetent, Germany is blessed with a good and wise philosopher queen, selflessly leading the continent to a brighter future. In adulation that would make even the most craven MAGA boomer blush if applied to Trump, Merkel is not merely a fallible centre-right politician, but the “Queen of Europe”, even the “leader of the free world”. 

The journalist John Kampfner’s recent book Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country is perhaps the purest distillation of this uniquely English pathology, with its combination of personality cult and fetishisation of an idealised foreign country. “Much of contemporary Germany’s resilience has been wrapped up in the personality of one woman, Angela Merkel,” we are told, “Many fear life after Mutti. They are right to.” 

It is awkward to read, at a time when Germany’s death rates from COVID are spiralling out of control, approaching those of our own country during the depths of the first wave, that the virus proves beyond doubt that “contemporary Germany is a country to be envied,” that “Coronavirus provided the ultimate test of leadership” and “Angela Merkel, after 15 years in office, rose to the challenge”. 

Comparing this earthly paradise to our own benighted backwater, the first country in Europe to roll out a vaccine, we learn that “Britain provided a case study of how not to deal with a crisis,” where “Germans watched in horror as a country they admired for its pragmatism and sangfroid fell into pseudo-Churchillian self-delusion.” Surely, if we are using a country’s effectiveness at defeating Covid to ascertain the worth of its political system, we should all aim to become techno-authoritarian dictatorships like China, but Kampfner does not follow his own logic to its conclusion: this is not political analysis, but a moral fable. 

This mix of uncritical adulation and self-abasement tells us far more about how English journalists of a certain world view their own country than it does of Germany. Kampfner’s book, like all examples of the type — we think here of Jeremy Cliffe’s vaguely indecent Merkel-worship as the pinnacle of this genre — is a product of Brexit, and of the rage-filled self-hatred it induced in a certain subset of British commentators.

Germany, in their deeply English fantasy worldview, is a “grown-up country” because it has fully absorbed the entire dogma of post-Cold War liberalism, and installed it as its operating system, whether or not it actually works. “Germany is Europe’s best hope in this era of nationalism, anti-enlightenment and fear,” we are told. Unlike us, “the pride [Germans] feel in their country is not of the small-island, flag-waving variety. Instead, they hope they are setting a good example for the world through a clear set of democratic rules.” German politicians do not act out of self-interest, nor appeal to the various fixations and desires of their fractious electorate, but instead are the shining stadt on the hill for the West and the wider world as a whole to look up to.

This is of course nonsense. There’s much to like about Germany, and much the Germans do better than us — on a reporting trip to the supposedly depressed eastern land of Saxony-Anhalt to cover far-right student organisations (unimaginable in this country, of course) a couple of years ago, I was genuinely shocked at how good the infrastructure was compared even to wealthy south-east of England; how efficient the public transport was, how clean and orderly the public spaces were. Its healthcare system is vastly better than the NHS, and we should closely examine why that is, now we’ve stopped banging pots and pans on our doorsteps; its social market economy — though it has taken a battering in recent years, not least from Merkel, who came to power as an outright neoliberal reformer— is rightly prized by our own Blue Labour intellectuals. Yet Germany has its own pathologies too, and such uncritical adulation from our Britpopper contingent conceals as much as it celebrates.

As with China’s Xi Jinping, whose drive for global dominance Merkel still insists can be ameliorated by trade with the German car industry, or Putin, whose Nordstream energy project places the continent under his power to an extent both the Americans and the Poles find unbearable, Merkel’s foreign policy with Europe’s dictatorial rivals is one of selling them loaded pistols to aim at the continent’s head. Yet for Kampfner, even as she subjects Europeans to the whims of tyrants, Merkel is the anti-populist par example, the continent’s moral conscience wrought in stolid flesh. It is a worldview derived from the self-aggrandising fictions of the German pundit class rather than any grounding in reality, and any serious observer of modern Europe would be well advised to reject it.

A more rounded view of Merkel and Germany can be found in the work of the conservative Marxist economist Wolfgang Streeck, a regular fixture in the New Left Review, whose work should be more widely read in this country. His latest book, Critical Encounters: Democracy, Capitalism, Ideas, is an excellent place to start, containing some of his most incisive recent essays. 

In Streeck’s telling, Merkel is not the omniscient stateswoman of liberal fantasy — he mocks her image as “Europe’s Mother Goddess”— but a politician like any other, largely devoid of any meaningful worldview or vision but veering this way and that according to the polls and the headlines. As a “postmodern politician with a Machiavellian disdain for both causes and people,” she is not Germany’s instructive anti-Boris but simply a more stolid, motherly incarnation of the same type, constantly changing tack to suit the demands of German tabloids instead of British ones.

Take the 2015 migrant crisis, for example. For Streeck, this was classic Merkel politicking, where her sudden lurch from warning darkly that “the multi-kulti approach failed, absolutely failed” and informing a crying Palestinian refugee girl on television that she and her family would imminently have to leave Germany revolved 180 degrees overnight into inviting more than a million refugees and migrants into Europe, and informing the rest of the continent they would have to deal with the results. As Streeck notes, “day after day the media, whipped into a frenzy by Facebook and Twitter, accused France and Britain of callously denying migrants’ human rights,” forcing Merkel’s hand. For Streeck, Merkel’s gambit was almost purely a reaction to the negative headlines her interaction with the Palestinian girl had created, and was followed by just such another headline-led abrupt change of policy “a few months later, when smartphone videos of the New Year’s Eve riot at Cologne Central Station triggered another 180 degree turn.”

To British admirers of Merkel this was the ultimate in German progressive selflessness, contrasted favourably with Britain, yet the Cameron Government’s plan to triage refugee arrivals according to need, focussing on families, was the better one: it placed emphasis on those who needed our support most, rather than those best able to make the journey by themselves, and by managing the flow carefully over time, it would have allowed for security checks to be carried out on those wishing to come. It would also have allowed for political consent to be obtained within EU member states for a sustained and careful program of resettlement, maintaining both the continent’s political equilibrium and the safety of its people.

Merkel did none of this. Instead she rode roughshod over the border policies of other European nations, leading to a vast surge in right-wing populism across the continent, and, partly, to the Brexit vote the next year. It was not a poster of eastern European labourers Farage chose to unveil in the run-up to Brexit, after all, but one of the new arrivals to the continent summoned up by Merkel’s tabloid-led whims. When the self-adulatory applause of young Germans, congratulating themselves for not being their grandparents by greeting the new arrivals at railway stations, gave way to the rise of the AfD, anti-migrant demonstrations and a handful of terror attacks, Merkel suddenly changed tack, as Kampfner seems not to realise, but Streeck does: suddenly, Greece “was threatened by Germany with exclusion from the Schengen area if it didn’t seal its borders,” he reminds the reader, a cruel and self-interested about-turn Greeks remember all too well. The result was that Greece’s Aegean islands were turned into a vast archipelago of extra-territorial concentration camps for migrants on Germany’s behalf, without Merkel ever getting the blame from her Anglophone idolaters. 

While the German government refuses to admit any more arrivals, and debates sending the ones they have back home, German politicians and NGO workers relentlessly harangue the Greek government for the baleful conditions of the camps Greeks never wanted nor asked for. The image of the German in southern Europe today is not the Swabian hausfrau or Bavarian industrialist of recent stereotype, but the dreadlocked NGO activist Carola Rackete, daughter of a figure in the arms industry, whose family circumstances typify the precise mix of self-righteous indignation and self-interest that characterises Merkel’s Germany.

Indeed, Merkel’s entanglement with the Turkish autocrat Erdogan shows the validity of the new southern European stereotype. Her failed refugee deal with Erdogan, under which he would refrain from allowing migrants to travel to Europe and take back those whose asylum applications which have been denied, was a disaster for the continent. Instead, he has accelerated his use of migrants as a weapon against Greece and Europe as a whole. His aggressive encroachment onto the territory of Greece and Cyprus is enabled by Merkel’s diplomatic cover, even as Germany sells him the high-tech weapons of war he needs to threaten her supposed fellow European citizens, despite their pleading. A hard-nosed case for this state of affairs could be made, purely on the grounds of German self-interest: but to sell it as idealistic internationalism is really too much to bear.

Wolfgang Streeck, hard-nosed realist and Marxist cynic, is closer to the mark when he observes that “Germany has come to consider the European Union as an extension of itself, where what is right for Germany is by definition right for all others… Very much like the US, German elites project what they collectively regard as self-evident, natural and reasonable onto their outside world, and they are puzzled that anyone could possibly fail to see things the way they do.” That our own journalistic commentators adopt this post-nationalist nationalism-by-proxy is even more grating: if we are to become “grown-up” Europeans, we can start by looking at reality, and not self-indulgent fantasy.

In western Europe, Germany’s political journalism is only matched by Scotland under the SNP for fawning paeans to the omniscient leader: it would be genuinely shocking for a British observer to see the erosion of the barriers between editorial and reporting in Germany’s television news as shown by the state-run DW news channel, and the self-righteous lectures its presenters are permitted to give to the viewers: at least in the UK, the iron fist of political partisanship is somewhat hidden by the velvet glove of editorial balance.

Germany’s specific brand of post-nationalist liberalism, devoid of flag-waving, is much admired by commentators like Kampfner; but we are fortunate, unlike Germany, that in our country our armed forces and police services are not penetrated by activists of the radical right, wishing to overthrow the state. Indeed, surely it is Germany’s anti-militarism that has made the elite units of its armed forces so radical: the German far-right intellectual Götz Kubitschek, a former officer in an elite reconnaissance unit, has remarked that in his old regiment the swastika flag was hung up in the mess and radical opinions proliferated precisely because in the rest of German society any moderate national sentiment was taboo. 

There is much to like about Germany, and even much to emulate. But there is much to dislike too, and the idea that Germany’s pro-European slant is devoid of self-interest is absurd: as Streeck relentlessly lays out, the Euro allows German industry to remain artificially competitive against external challengers, while its captive market within the European Union has wiped out competition within the rest of the continent, wrecking the export economies of countries like Italy, France and Spain. 

Germany is a country like any other, and its politicians, like Merkel, are just politicians, fallible, weak and self-interested like those of any other country, not cult figures to be genuflected to like a technocratic liberal Willendorf Venus. The parts of Germany’s political economy that are superior to ours are certainly worth examining, and perhaps emulating, as a model: yet to present the country as the ideal in every respect is absurd, and fundamentally parochial. When Brexit is done and dusted, and Trump slinks out of the White House, and Merkel retires to do whatever she will do, perhaps we can hope for a more measured take on Germany from our own liberal commentators, and a greater appreciation of our own unique and hard-won contributions to the international system.