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The Left-wing maverick who could stop the AfD For many, Sahra Wagenknecht is a tribune of the people

Will she condemn the German Left to oblivion? MĂŒller-Stauffenberg/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Will she condemn the German Left to oblivion? MĂŒller-Stauffenberg/ullstein bild/Getty Images


October 10, 2023   6 mins

“The future of The Left is a future without Sahra Wagenknecht.” Despite the rapid rise of the Right-wing party AfD in Germany, which secured 18% of the vote in this weekend’s Hessian election, the Leftist party Die Linke wants nothing to do with one of Germany’s most popular politicians. While roughly 20% of Germans would consider supporting a party with Wagenknecht in charge, the leaders of her current party, Die Linke, have demanded that she resign her seat in the Bundestag, the German parliament.

Admittedly, Wagenknecht hasn’t gone out of her way to make friends. In her 2021 book Die Selbstgerechten (The Self-Righteous), she condemned the rise of a so-called “lifestyle Left” that was made up of “the academic middle class, software programmers, and marketing experts” whose obsessions with political correctness, climate change, and unregulated immigration threatened to alienate Die Linke’s supporters in the working class and among the unemployed. The attack was taken badly by her comrades, who saw the book as a declaration of “literal war against her own party” and “the marginalised”.

But perhaps Wagenknecht doesn’t need their support. For months now, rumours have been circulating in the German press that she is planning to found her own party before the end of the year. The tabloid Bild claims to have confirmed that the launch of the new party is imminent, while one Wagenknecht ally, the political scientist Ulrike GuĂ©rot, told the news magazine Cicero in August that she had been offered to run on the new party’s ticket for next year’s elections to the EU parliament. If Wagenknecht goes ahead with her plan, the German political landscape might realign in unprecedented ways, both condemning Die Linke to oblivion and possibly slowing the rapid rise of the AfD.

Born in 1969 to a German mother and an Iranian immigrant father in the former GDR, 54-year-old Wagenknecht was associated with the Stalinist party faction “Kommunistische Plattform” until 2010 when she left the group. Since then, she has noticeably moderated her image, dressing in conservative pantsuits, wearing her hair tightly pinned up — and approvingly quoting Roger Scruton’s “philosophy of belonging”, which she pits against the “individualism and cosmopolitanism” of the “lifestyle Left”.

Still, she continues to appeal to popular anti-capitalist sentiments. Her worldview, which she first set out in her 2011 book Freiheit statt Kapitalismus (Freedom over Capitalism), sees the sovereign nation-state as the essential bulwark against what she calls a “rule-less, globalised capitalism”. National welfare systems exist, she writes in Die Selbstgerechten, “to protect domestic workers and domestic consumers” (the italics are hers). German Leftists, still deeply scarred by the country’s national socialist past, see such protectionist appeals to national interests as little more than far-Right dog whistles.

Yet to many, she is a bold tribune of the people. In her YouTube show, she presents herself, somewhat awkwardly, as a news anchor commenting on the latest news in simple German. She regularly advocates views that are commonly associated with the German Right, whether it be attacks on Covid vaccine mandates or the Biden administration, which she accuses of having sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines last year. A fierce critic of Germany’s membership of Nato, which she blames for having provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she demanded that the German federal government publicly reveal everything it knows about who blew up Nord Stream. But the Scholz administration responded enigmatically that “in the interest of the welfare of the state” the findings needed to be kept secret.

Predictably enough, Wagenknecht has been condemned as “Vladimir Putin’s voice in Germany”, especially after she helped initiate the Manifest fĂŒr Frieden (Manifesto for Peace) petition in February that demanded an end to German weapons deliveries to Ukraine and a diplomatic settlement of the war. This ultimately triggered a falling out with her party: after she refused to condemn the support of the manifesto by Right-wing activists, Die Linke leadership denied its endorsement of the peace initiative.

Yet her actions drew praise from surprising corners. Björn Höcke, an influential voice of the AfD and an advocate for Russo-German rapprochement, suggested that Wagenknecht should join his party. His proposal, however, was clearly tongue-in-cheek — the AfD leadership is aware of the dangers that a Wagenknecht party would pose to its unprecedented rise in national polls. While the AfD would be the second strongest party in the Bundestag if elections were held today, a new Wagenknecht party might slice off as much as a third of its support. “We’ll need to regard a Wagenknecht party not as an ally but as a competitor,” Höcke said recently, adding that a Wagenknecht party would more likely provide “opposition within the ruling cartel than opposition to the cartel”.

Neither side is keen on an alliance. Wagenknecht has regularly condemned the AfD as beyond the pale of acceptability and excluded any collaboration with it, despite overlapping on crucial issues such as immigration, Nato membership, and the reopening of the Nord Stream pipelines. “To me, any cooperation with the AfD is absolutely unacceptable”, said Amira Mohamed Ali, co-chair of Die Linke faction in the Bundestag and one of Wagenknecht’s closest allies who would most likely follow her into a new party. “The AfD is a party which in parts holds extreme Right-wing views
 Many politicians in the AfD do not clearly distance themselves from the National Socialist era and its rhetoric.”

Such a view is common in German political discourse. The oppositional Christian Democrats (CDU), who were in power for most of the history of the post-war Federal Republic, most recently under the 16-year chancellorship of Angela Merkel, have self-imposed a so-called “Brandmauer” (firewall) that mandates a total prohibition on any collaboration with the AfD. The CDU party chair Friedrich Merz recently had to reaffirm his commitment to the firewall after causing an uproar when he told the public broadcaster ZDF that the party would have to be “pragmatic” at the local level if CDU council members were confronted with resolutions put forth by AfD politicians. His point was that if AfD members of a small-town council suggested repaving a road, the CDU faction shouldn’t reflexively oppose the measure.

Elsewhere, this firewall rhetoric has boxed the CDU into a corner. Recently, the party proposed a bill in the state parliament of Thuringia to cut taxes. But after the AfD faction voted in support of the bill, embarrassed handwringing ensued. Did the CDU inadvertently violate its own firewall by taking a position with which the AfD agrees? Should it withdraw proposals if it becomes clear that the AfD might endorse them? Some prominent CDU members indeed seem to believe so.

In this, the CDU has found an unlikely sympathiser in Amira Mohamed Ali. “What should they have done?” she told German media. “Refuse to propose a motion or withdraw it after the wrong ones voted for it? I find that rather absurd.”

Might this present an opportunity for a future party led by Wagenknecht? While the AfD and a potential Wagenknecht party would likely denounce each other in public and promise no formal collaboration, on key issues of the day — such as the Ukraine war or energy policy — they could vote in line. And even though the AfD might earn smaller vote shares with Wagenknecht as a competitor, the two parties together may still earn a larger combined vote share than the AfD does by itself. This would allow them to form subtle coalitions on specific issues.

The status quo, by contrast, limits Wagenknecht’s reach because in national polls Die Linke is stagnating around the 5% mark that parties need to cross in order to gain seats in the Bundestag. In Sunday’s elections for the state parliaments of Hesse and Bavaria, the party incurred heavy losses and failed to win seats in either parliament — in Hesse, Die Linke earned only half as many votes as in the last elections five years ago. Prominent Linke politicians blame it all on Wagenknecht. “It is the stated goal of Wagenknecht and her associates to destroy Die Linke,” tweeted the Bundestag member Caren Lay.

But Wagenknecht could still lose her nerve. After all, this would not be her first time trying to launch a novel political organisation. In 2018, she helped to form an extra-parliamentary movement named Aufstehen (“Rise Up”), which she modelled after the British Momentum campaign of Jeremy Corbyn supporters, to provide grassroots support for her Left-wing goals. Yet the project quickly fizzled out after Wagenknecht complained that she felt “burned out” and withdrew from leadership.

If she proceeds, Wagenknecht will have the crucial support of Klaus Ernst. The former union executive helped to lead a sizable chunk of members out of the Social Democratic Party in 2005 to protest the party’s cuts to social welfare during the chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder. He then helped to form the Left-wing social-democratic party WASG, which in 2007 merged with the Party of Democratic Socialism to become today’s Linke. Ernst, who is discontented with Die Linke’s support for “genderism” and apocalyptic climate activism, recently told Cicero that if Wagenknecht were to launch such a party, “it would really be a realistic option for me to participate”.

The combined vote share of Germany’s Nato-supporting mainstream parties is ever-shrinking as more and more Germans, especially in the East, feel alienated from Berlin and seek to punish their leaders by voting for disruptive populist forces. So far, the AfD has fought a lonely fight in total rejection of the status quo. If Wagenknecht starts to address many of the AfD’s complaints against Germany’s energy or foreign policy as well, the Right-wing populists may not be lonely for long.


Gregor Baszak is a writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in The American Conservative, The Bellows, Cicero, Platypus Review, Return, Sublation, and elsewhere.

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JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
9 months ago

We live in truly interesting times when defence of the Grundgesetz (the German constitution) is considered dangerously right-wing, when judges are prosecuted for doing their job, peaceful demonstrators are beaten down by police, lawyers are kept in psychiatric detention.
Ms. Wagenknecht is a true leftwing politician, but while mainstream politicians mouth the most absurd illogicalities and inanities, dutifully reported by a court press as pearls of wisdom, she has been a principled and steadfast voice of reason, calling a spade a spade.
In the much-ballyhooed “extremism” of the AfD and conjuring up of images of the thirties, we have to retain a grip on reality; there are no AfD hooligan groups beating up people, that is the modus operandi of the supposedly leftist but actually fascist “Antifa”. A leftist activist who was sentenced to five years in jail for horrific violence was fĂȘted by the left, her immediate release demanded in violent demonstrations because her crimes had been committed against individuals supposedly right-wing.
In the Bundestag of even thirty years ago, Ms. Wagenknecht would have been just another gadfly on the left, like her husband Oscar Lafontaine was at the time. Her prominence now, as the AfD’s success, is purely due to the fact that she is sitting in a parliament of political and intellectual kindergarteners.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago

Always good to hear an alternative voice which, btw I assume to be closer to home geographically speaking.

David Allison
David Allison
9 months ago

“a principled and steadfast voice of reason, calling a spade a spade.” well put. An old fashioned social democrat, in fact.

Steve Hall
Steve Hall
9 months ago

“Political and intellectual kindergarteners.” In other words the left-liberals and neoliberals who decades ago struck a partnership as they abandoned their politics to the forces of the global market, which, when you add American military power to it, becomes the ‘international rules-based order’. They shout ‘Stalin’ and ‘Hitler’ each time a moderately social democratic politician looks like getting a few votes by offering to make things a bit better for the nation’s workers. The ‘international order’ – which turned out to be rather like flying a helicopter; all your skill is needed to stop it crashing – is now falling apart for complex reasons they’re either too dim or too nervous to grasp. Not sure they’re even old enough for the intellectual kindergarten, to be honest.ï»ż

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
9 months ago

Great response and in perfect English – I wish I could write that in German.
I get a little worried by the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ because they mean whatever you want them to mean. Our beloved Major of London uses the word ‘fas*ist’ to mean anyone who disagrees with him. These labels have become totally arbitrary.
It seems that all politicians to be credible have to be middle-of-the-road, say nothing, do nothing, never offend anybody, always take the international view, avoid blame – in one word, useless. Recently, we had our Home Secretary speaking out and not joining the mindless middle and there was uproar. The media was united in trying to shoot her down. Rich ex-patriots thought it was disgusting.
We need a real definition of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

“kindergarteners”?
May I suggest that children might be a better word?
Otherwise spot on.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
9 months ago

The biography curiously misses out some rather important facts about Sahra Wagenknecht and her political past.

She joined the Free German Youth (FDJ) in the late 80s, the youth wing of the authoritarian regime that was the German Democratic Republic (GDR). No, not all ambitious young people joined the FDJ, and especially not in the late 80s when the whole ediface was discredited in the eyes of most people.

Then, after the GDR collapsed and the one party dictatorship that was the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) was forcibly ended, she decided to join the renamed SED, now calling itself the Party of Democratic Socialism.

There are only three explanations for this. She is a rabid authoritarian who genuinely thought the oppressive Stalinist surveillance state was a good thing. She is a political weather vane of no fixed compass offering nothing new. She is a ruthless opportunist happy to hitch her wagon to any political movement, even ones literally involved in the subjugation of an entire people. Take your pick, they’re all electoral limiters (even in former East Germany, where remnants of support for the old regime exist.)

Her Get Up movement is entirely modelled on Labour’s Momentum. (We are now well aware of Momentum’s hard left anti-semite brew and where it led: the expulsion of its leader from his party and EHRC investigation.) Get Up is not an alternative to AfD in the same way Labour/Momentum was not a replacement to the Brexit Party.

The AfD is popular because the former conservative parties of German politics have all drifted leftward. A left wing movement like Get Up might galvanise a splintered left wing, but it doesn’t win the votes of conservatives who see yet another left wing radical academic in a crowded field of left wing radical academics.

Last edited 9 months ago by Nell Clover
Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“… She is a rabid authoritarian … She is a political weather vane … She is a ruthless opportunist… what you’re saying, in a nutshell, is she’s your typical woman, right?
.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Oops! But I know what you mean.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

I upvoted you for your audacity

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Off to the Magdalene Laundries with her, and be sharp about it!

David Allison
David Allison
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

… and who was denied entry to university in the GDR owing to her independence of mind. See talk with John Gray on this Website to understand what that means.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Unherd editor: Ms Clover’s contributions are always spot-on. Could you persuade her to write a piece for your august organ?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago

Seconded

Konstantinos Stavropoulos
Konstantinos Stavropoulos
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Berlin wall feel in 1989. Sahra Wagenknecht was born in 1969. She was 20 at the time of collapse. Obviously somewhat younger when she joined the mentioned youth club.

Besides, we (myself and many other readers of Unherd I am sure) are opposing the core thinking of EU bureaucrats and the German state as a basic stronghold of elitism and decadence. We also see the rise AfD as a voice of disappointment and understand the emergency of supporting the low and middle classes as well as the family and community values. And much more that is been left aside indeed.

Though we have empathy for the voters of AfD and similar parties, though some of us may even vote them, this does not justify their cause. Since their cause is built in despair, opportunity and wild will for power. No..! We are thirsty for a middle-ground way of thinking, for a common-good way of governing. Maybe the likable Sahra Wagenknecht is not our star, but surely AfD isn’t either.

Konstantinos Stavropoulos
Konstantinos Stavropoulos
9 months ago

…?

Last edited 9 months ago by Konstantinos Stavropoulos
Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago

“The Lifestyle Left” – now there’s a catchy phrase.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
9 months ago

It’s good! Her characterisation, “academic middle class, software programmers, and marketing experts”, is spot-on for Labour in London. Similarly, the core political values (i.e. sacrosanct and not up for discussion) are the same: political correctness, climate change, and unregulated immigration.
My favourite example of “Lifestyle Left” is from the time that Labour invaded Iraq in 2003. Parliament spent 7 hours debating this issue. At roughly the same time, Parliament spent 700 hours debating whether or not to ban fox hunting.

Peter D
Peter D
9 months ago

Europe is at an interesting crossroad. While we all realise that the path we are on is not the correct path. We can see that damage that is being caused to our society through mass migration. Yes, we realise that mass migration is a ponzi scheme. Yet every time we begin to move towards standing up for ourselves and even daring to allow ourselves a bit of self-care, there is that element of progressive indoctrination warning us of the dangers of racism and being a Nazi. And so we sacrifice ourselves because this is better than being racist.
As time wears on though, more and more people are no longer accepting of the progressive left volunteering us to be the sacrificial lamb so that they might assuage their guilt. However, this is a thirst that can never be quenched.
My guess is that Sahra Wagenknecht might just be the more palatable version of the AfD. Not only will it take a slice off the AfD, it might even take slices off the SPD, Die Linke, and Bundis 90/Die Gruenen!
Imagine if these two parties had sixty percent of the seats in the Bundestag?

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter D

“And so we sacrifice ourselves because this is better than being racist.”
I’m okay with being called a racist because the word has been so misused, overused and abused, it means absolutely nothing anymore. Its use reminds me of kids taunting one another; “‘am no!t”, “‘are too!”, “‘am not, are too!”. So bring it on. Everyone is a racist today : )

Last edited 9 months ago by Cathy Carron
Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
9 months ago

Well, I went to WIkipedia to understand more about Die Linke and AfD. I’d say, based on Wiki’s articles, that Die Linke is extreme “far-left” and AfD is moderate right.
But what do I know? I’m not an expert.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
9 months ago

I don’t know what she stand for but she gets my vote! She’s gorgeous! ..ok, ok I’ll read the article now!

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Tut… (smile)

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

Born in 1969 to a German mother and an Iranian immigrant father in the former GDR, 54-year-old Wagenknecht was associated with the Stalinist party faction “Kommunistische Plattform” until 2010 when she left the group.
Better late than never, I suppose.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
9 months ago

Wagenknecht sounds confused and unprincipled.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

Sounds like this merry band could be the grandchildren of Baader-Meinhof, but as the lack of a modern anti-war movement in the UK shows, all such characters are now signed up to the Democrat cultural war machine.
I’m not sure who would even bother voting for this young woman other than a young Right knowing nothing about post-War European history.

David Allison
David Allison
9 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

I suppose 54 might, in our geriatric societies, be deemed youngish.
I can’t think of any German politician who is further removed in thinking from the RAF of the 70s.

Davy Humerme
Davy Humerme
9 months ago

Very interesting. Her thoughts on the nation state and willingness to tap into conservative thinkers like Scruton, remind me of Meloni. I’d like to read her work but sadly could only do so in English. Any knowledge out there of a forthcoming translation?

Ian Johnston
Ian Johnston
9 months ago
Reply to  Davy Humerme

I watched this very interesting interview with her and Glenn Greenwald a few months ago.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiePq_lwccs