Republic of Fear

Posted in Europe | 08-Mar-08 | Author: Malte Lehming| Source: Wall Street Journal

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Your heart rate sinks, muscles stiffen, you lose control of bodily functions: You're frozen with fear. This primal reflex to danger is a familiar phenomenon in nature but it's less common for it to strike nearly all of a political class in a democracy.

Welcome to Germany.

Barely 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall -- an event that was celebrated at the time as a triumph of freedom and hope over despair -- the united country today is frozen with fear. It's as if the East Germans have exacted a delayed revenge on their brothers and sisters in the West: Your political model may have won, but we'll infect your society by reviving militant antimilitarism, a yearning for security at all cost, and a craze for distributive justice -- until the whole country is paralyzed.

Four electoral shocks in the recent past have made a deep impression on Germans. First of all, the 2002 Bundestag elections. At the time, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder looked all but defeated. His coalition of Social Democrats and Greens had been unable, despite their firm promises, to lower the unemployment rate. But then they saved themselves with thunderous anti-Iraq war propaganda, playing upon strong anti-American resentments. They laid the groundwork for a new, left-wing German national consciousness that had not previously existed because of the country's Nazi past. "For the first time, I'm proud to be a German," went the refrain -- proud to have resisted a war that no one had asked them to join in the first place. Mr. Schröder ultimately won the election.

Since then the Bundeswehr has nevertheless been deployed abroad, but it's taboo to publicly defend these missions -- let alone give them some teeth. Just don't talk about it. In Afghanistan, for example, German soldiers are not allowed to fight in the dangerous south, which has rightly caused displeasure among other NATO members. But no German government would ever change this; the shock of 2002 has silenced all reasonable debate. Better to sacrifice NATO and give up on the fight against terrorism than advocate such unpopular notions as solidarity with one's allies.

Then came the Bundestag elections in 2005. This time, a resounding victory for the Christian Democrats, led by Angela Merkel, was practically assured. But Mrs. Merkel made the mistake of overestimating her countrymen's sense of reality. She announced economic reforms, which were urgently necessary, but was consequently accused of neo-liberalism. On the German scale of negatives, that one comes right after fascism. For no matter how bad the Germans have it, they may want energetic action, but no change. "Two souls live in my chest," Goethe's Faust complained about the two-sided nature of his personality. Mrs. Merkel's comfortable lead melted away. Instead of a reform-minded coalition with the Free Democratic Party, she was forced into a "grand" standstill coalition with the Social Democrats. So the preliminary result of these two electoral shocks: No more war. No more reforms.

The third dramatic election happened at the state level in late January of this year. In Hesse, the incumbent governor Roland Koch ran as the Christian Democrats' last prominent conservative: strongly principled, polarizing, rough in speech. He ran his campaign accordingly. He fulminated about the high crime rate among immigrant youth and revived the old conservative slogan: freedom not socialism. The result? Mr. Koch's campaign collapsed and he lost 12 percentage points compared with his showing in 2003. So the third lesson: No more freedom. Anyone who asks Germans to choose between freedom and socialism risks their choosing the latter.

Which brings us to the fourth and final electoral shock that's paralyzing the German political class. It's actually a number of smaller shocks. Next to the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Greens and the Free Democrats, a fifth party is establishing itself in Germany, apparently inexorably: the Left Party. Various forces cavort in this party -- communists, socialists, pacifists, protest voters, disappointed Social Democrats. In East Germany, the Left Party has been firmly established since 1990, and surveys even show it to be the strongest party there today. Now they have also entered every regional parliament in the last four elections in West Germany.

In other European countries, radical leftist parties are nothing special. In Germany, however, their representatives inherit the traditions of East Germany: the Wall, shoot-to-kill orders, dictatorship. This makes a coalition with them particularly distasteful. Should yesterday's victims once again be governed by their former tormentors? On the other hand, the Left Party's slogans are extremely popular: Out of Afghanistan! More justice! Better protection from layoffs! Across-the-board minimum wages! No university fees! No privatization of state-owned companies! On all these points, surveys show the ultraleft in sync with a majority of Germans.

What to do? Frozen in fear, the Social Democrats are helpless. They stare at the radical left like a rabbit at a snake. No recipe seems to work. Give the Left responsibility, in order to take the shine off its demagogy? A mistake, as can be seen in Berlin's city hall. In the German capital, the Left Party has for years now unabashedly shared local government powers with the Social Democrats, without reducing their national attractiveness.

Isolate the Left Party and reject coalitions with it? Also a mistake, as its recent successes in West Germany prove. So the Social Democrats hem and haw and swing back and forth between the two strategies. In the meantime, they are taking on the Left's themes, becoming more similar in substance. Germany's Social Democrats are abandoning any sort of "Third Way." They have broken with the Schröder legacy. But because the original is always more authentic than the copy, this doesn't do them any electoral good, either.

This will not be without consequences for the federal government. The more the Social Democrats drift to the left, the more quickly the Christian Democrats push into the now wide-open center. There they act demonstratively unconservative, cuddly, impartial. In order to be identified with any content at all, Chancellor Merkel has fled into the ideologically safe subject of climate change. Germans and environmental protection: That always works. And it is the only gap left in the ultraleft's program.

It's been said that grand coalitions strengthen the margins. This rule also applies to Germany, though as a paradox. Although the government follows leftist policies (from a three-percentage-point increase in the value added tax to minimum wages for postal workers), it is the ultraleft that has become stronger.

Germany's political class is stunned by this effect. Those who become rigid with fear hope they won't be discovered by their predators. But this instinct designed to ensure survival can quickly spell their doom. Once discovered, motionless as they are, they become very easy prey.

Mr. Lehming is opinion editor at Der Tagesspiegel. Belinda Cooper translated this essay from the German.