In major European nations like the UK and France, populist movements dominate the political landscape. But in Germany, mainstream politics continues to rule.
Germany’s two global wars led to far-reaching political instability and disorder that affected much of the world during the 20th Century.
But as an act of atonement, Germany condemned its Nazi past and built large Holocaust museums in remembrance of the atrocities committed against Jews and other minorities.
Seven decades after the Holocaust, Berlin has emerged as a strong adherent of mainstream democratic order. Conversely, the UK surrendered to a populist trend called Brexit while France created Macronism, a French version of populism contrasting with the rise of the country’s far-right movement.
Why, though, is Germany an exception amid a rise of populism in Europe and the UK, and Trumpism in the US?
Experts think that while countries like the UK and France have typically considered themselves to be a better example of democracy than Germany, Berlin has crafted a careful political order based on lessons learned from its complicated past.
According to Bulent Guven, a Turkish-German political scientist, Germany’s past political failures, from the post-WWI liberal Weimar Republic to Hitler’s fascist Nazi government, created disasters in different forms.
“While the Weimar Republic led to an economic crisis, Hitler’s warmonger politics brought a total disaster, ending with the Allied invasion of Germany,” Guven tells TRT World. “As a result, people fear radical change, voting in elections to result in forming coalition governments.”
Except for 1998, all post-WWII elections in Germany have led to coalition governments, with one party typically being replaced with another while the former then serves in the next ruling coalition.
The latest election results, which made theSocial Democrats the leading party, are a testament to the dominant character of Germany’s mainstream politics of “restraint.” This is exemplified in Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat who is the leftist party’s current candidate for chancellor. He also served as Germany’s finance minister under Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat.
In more recent times, Social Democrats in Germany have been part of the Christian Democrat-led coalition. Since the election in September, this likely will remain the case. The only change for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) appears to be a potential partnership with the Free Democrats and Greens.
Unlike other Western countries like the UK and France, coalition formation in Germany is a rule, not an exception. It seems that it’s a healthy political system for Berlin, because “the very need to build a coalition militates against the political polarisation, and demonisation of the opposition, that has become standard in the Anglosphere,” wrote Gideon Rachman, a British political analyst.
“During the election campaign, Scholz has positioned himself as someone who will continue to pursue Merkel’s political path,” says Guven, an old friend of Scholz. “He even made a hand gesture, which is exactly the same as Merkel’s, during the campaign,” the political analyst adds.
“Both extreme parties [on the left and right] did poorly in the elections, which probably signals a broad general consensus that a centrist government will basically work best in the coming years,” Richard Falk, a prominent international law professor and an expert on global politics, tells TRT World.
Francois Gemenne, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris and the University of Liège in Belgium, also sees Germany as a country “looking forward to the future” after all its past troubles, “whereas some other European countries are looking backward and lamenting the fact they lost much of [their] power.”
According to Gemenne, one of the key reasons for this is rooted in those countries' colonialist past. “European states like Britain and France, which used to be colonial super powers, have never really accepted the fact that they will no longer be super powers.”
“To me this is really what explains the success of populist politics in France and Great Britain,” Gemenne tells TRT World.
Germany’s welfare state
Like the UK and Italy, Germany also has a strong welfare system, one which provides benefits and unemployment relief among other services. “Germany’s welfare system also plays a role to prevent the rise of populist politics,” Guven observes.
After WWII, Germany established a strong welfare system partly to neutralise the effects of communism imposed by the Soviets and which turned East Germany into a communist state, Guven says.
Following WWII, Germany was divided into two parts, with West Germany becoming a democratic state and East Germany turning into a communist ally of the former Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the two Germanies re-unified, but economic and political discrepancies continued until now.
Guven adds: “In 1918, right after WWI, the communists almost took power in Germany. With a military intervention, it was prevented. But then, eventually, fascists - the avowed enemies of the communists - came to power. As a result, Germany’s post-WWII leaders strongly believed that the country needed to address social justice issues with a welfare system to prevent the rise of extremist leftists or right wing groups.”
Post-WWII leaders in Germany also wanted to “decentralise” the political structure by establishing a federal government with representatives in local districts throughout the country, thus preventing a possible far-right or far-left government’s absolute rule, Guven says.
“All this shows that Germany has taken its lessons from history,” he says.
One of the trademarks of Europe and America’s populist politics is their strong opposition to migration and refugees. Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson have all constantly talked about the dangers of migration while promising tight border controls. “We can’t host everyone,” Macron said in 2019, while Johnson urged Britain to “take back control” of its borders.
“One difference between Germany and other large western nations is that high levels of immigration have not radicalised the mainstream right,” wrote British political analyst Rachman.
In contrast to other European states, Berlin advocates the necessity of migration for the country’s well being. “In August, the head of Germany’s federal labour agency said that the ageing of the country’s workforce means that Germany needs to let in 400,000 new immigrants every year — arguing that without this level of migration, ‘there will be a shortage of skilled workers everywhere,’” Rachman wrote.
Despite continuing migration to Germany, which is something extremist groups use to promote their xenophobic political agenda, there are no visible nationwide gains for the country’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
“If you want to know why the vote of the AfD plummeted, there is a very simple answer: its rise in 2015 from a party with three percent in the polls to the main opposition party in the Bundestag was entirely based on the adverse reaction to the 1.2 million refugees who came into the country in that and the next year,” says John B. Judis, an American political analyst and the writer of The Politics of Our Time: Populism, Nationalism, and Socialism.
“When the flow of refugees abated, it lost its national appeal and became primarily a force in a few states in the former East Germany where a fear of migrants persists,” Judis tells TRT World.
For Bulent Guven, however, the fall of the AfD “shows the strength of the system,” which is driven by consensus-based politics and strong welfare policies, which complement Germany's federalist structure.