Ger­many’s largest op­po­si­tion party is a Rorschach test

The Star Democrat - - OPINION - Be­fore GE­ORGE F. WILL The Econ­o­mist Ge­orge Will’s email ad­dress is [email protected]­

BERLIN — Ar­min-Paulus Ham­pel, a for­mer jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor who now is a mem­ber of the Bun­destag, is ebul­lient, af­fa­ble, opin­ion­ated, vol­u­ble and ex­cel­lent com­pany at lunch. But be­cause his party is Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many, one won­ders whether he is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of it, and whether he is as con­ge­nial po­lit­i­cally as he is so­cially.

AfD is a Rorschach test for ob­servers of Ger­man pol­i­tics, who see in it ei­ther a re­crude­s­cence of omi­nous na­tional ten­den­cies or a healthy re­sponse of the po­lit­i­cal mar­ket to un­ad­dressed anx­i­eties. It was founded in 2013, two years Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel im­pul­sively de­cided to wel­come al­most a mil­lion asy­lum seek­ers, most from the Mid­dle East. The na­tion was abruptly chal­lenged to be­come a melt­ing pot at a mo­ment when there was in­creas­ing in­ter­est in re­cap­tur­ing a sense of Ger­man­ness.

Pol­i­tics usu­ally is grounded in griev­ances, and Ham­pel nurses AfD’s orig­i­nat­ing com­plaint, which was that Ger­many’s role un­der the EU’s com­mon cur­rency has been to bail out sloth­ful, spend­thrift Greeks and other south­ern Euro­peans. In this, AfD re­sem­bles Amer­ica’s tea party move­ment, which was a spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion in re­sponse to TARP (the Trou­bled As­set Re­lief Pro­gram), the bailout of banks and of peo­ple with im­prov­i­dent mort­gages.

AfD is strong­est where re­sent­ments are deep­est — in what was, un­til 1990, East Ger­many. There, change has come fast and hard, and in­comes are still sig­nif­i­cantly below those in the rest of Ger­many, which was spared im­mer­sion in so­cial­ism. AfD has pop­ulism’s hos­til­ity to the dis­rup­tions and ho­mog­e­niza­tion that ac­com­pany glob­al­iza­tion. Hence AfD par­takes of pop­ulism’s fail­ure to will the means for the ends it wills: Glob­al­iza­tion is not op­tional for any de­vel­oped na­tion, least of all Ger­many, which on a per capita ba­sis ex­ports roughly four times more than the United States and 10 times more than China.

Ham­pel, who sits on the Bun­destag’s for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tee, is, to say no more, un­der­stand­ing of Rus­sia’s on­go­ing ag­gres­sion against Ukraine, which he says has long been cen­tral to Rus­sian iden­tity, has many eth­nic Rus­sians, and so on. He sug­gests that Rus­sia’s be­hav­ior in its sphere of in­flu­ence is none of Ger­many’s busi­ness. His views on this — call it “Ger­many first” — can be wrong with­out be­ing dis­rep­utable. How­ever, given what is known about Rus­sian med­dling in other na­tions’ do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, it would be re­as­sur­ing to know that AfD re­ceives no Rus­sian sub­ven­tions. Three years ago, hack­ers work­ing for Rus­sia pen­e­trated the Bun­destag’s com­puter net­work.

Ed­mund Burke, found­ing fa­ther of mod­ern con­ser­vatism, said: “To be at­tached to the sub­di­vi­sion, to love the lit­tle pla­toon we be­long to in so­ci­ety, is the first prin­ci­ple (the germ as it were) of pub­lic af­fec­tions.” He meant that na­tional pa­tri­o­tism sprouts from lo­cal soil, from the rich loam of civil so­ci­ety’s com­mu­ni­tar­ian in­sti­tu­tions such as fam­i­lies, churches, la­bor unions, clubs, ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions, etc. But as the Eu­ro­pean Union moves, more im­pla­ca­bly than demo­crat­i­cally, to­ward ever-deep­en­ing “har­mo­niza­tion” of na­tional po­lit­i­cal prac­tices and eco­nomic poli­cies, pop­ulist move­ments re­coil by em­brac­ing Europe’s na­tions them­selves as the lit­tle pla­toons, the molec­u­lar sub­di­vi­sions that fo­cus af­fec­tions.

mag­a­zine di­ag­noses many de­vel­oped na­tions’ dis­con­tents as “an out­break of nos­tal­gia,” an “orgy of rem­i­nis­cence” that serves as “an an­chor in a world be­ing trans­formed” and a “source of re­as­sur­ance and self-es­teem.” In Ger­many, how­ever, nos­tal­gia is, for rea­sons as painful as they are ob­vi­ous, still prob­lem­atic, even pre­sump­tively dis­rep­utable.

When an AfD elec­tion party con­cluded with par­tic­i­pants singing the na­tional an­them, many scolds con­sid­ered this trans­gres­sive. It is, how­ever, dan­ger­ous for a na­tion to de­tect dan­ger in ex­pres­sions of na­tional pride, or in the search for a na­tional iden­tity be­yond eco­nomic suc­cess. Sup­press ex­pres­sions of na­tional pride and you risk reap­ing a cur­dled ver­sion of pride.

A premise of post­war Ger­man pol­i­tics has been that there should be no party to the right of the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union. There is now, and AfD is the largest op­po­si­tion party in the Bun­destag. Ham­pel con­sid­ers AfD the “nat­u­ral suc­ces­sor” to the CDU, which has gov­erned Ger­many for 50 of the last 70 years. His mea­sured judg­ment is that Ger­many can have an AfD chan­cel­lor in 2023. Then the party will be just 10 years old. How­ever, Amer­ica’s Re­pub­li­can Party was just 6 years old when it won the pres­i­dency. But in 1860 the Amer­i­can na­tion was com­ing apart in an ir­re­press­ible con­flict, while sta­ble, tem­per­ate Ger­many will not be un­rav­el­ing four years from now.

COR­REC­TION: A re­cent Ge­orge F. Will col­umn re­ferred to Ger­many’s So­cial Demo­cratic Party as “SDP.” The cor­rect ini­tial­ism is “SPD.”

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