“Calm down, dear!” The words of the late Michael Winner, later copied by David Cameron, seem the most appropriate response to those who say that, with the rise of the AFD in Germany, all is changed, changed utterly.
In fact, not all that much has changed. It is true that Alternative für Deutschland, the far-right party that began as eurosceptic and ended up demanding the repatriation of Muslims, has made its way into the Bundestag. This is to be regretted. But democracy comes with a price, just like freedom of speech. Having crossed the 5 per cent cent threshold (and then some), the AFD is entitled to the 90 or more seats it will henceforth occupy.
Come 2021 – the new year of Brexit – we will see how well it has performed in the federal parliament. Will it have impressed voters with its statesmanship, or at least its willingness to work within the system, or will it become the equivalent of UKIP in the European Parliament – constantly barracking the executive while spending most of its time plotting and filling in its expenses claims?
I suspect the former. In September, 1930, following the onset of the Great Depression, the Nazi Party won 18.3 per cent of the national vote and ended up with 95 seats in the Reichstag. Less than two years later, with a 33.7 per cent share of the vote, the Nazis emerged as the largest single party and Hitler became Chancellor. We know the rest.
Is something similar about to unfold? I very much doubt it. Angela Merkel’s Germany is not the Weimar Republic. The economy is strong, there is very little poverty and Berlin is already perceived as the leading capital in Europe. The AfD, while tapping into understandable resentment at the sudden arrival of a million or more mainly Arab refugees and economic migrants, is not about to propose a final solution to the Muslim Question. Nor are the leaders of the two major parties, to say nothing of the Greens and the Far Left, about to cave into pressure based on whipped-up fears.
The fact is that 86 per cent of German voters, all of whom were fully aware of the challenges represented by the Muslin influx, voted for mainstream parties. The AFD, while it will no doubt make a lot of noise over the next four years, will be aware that if it apes the Nazis, it will be shooting itself in the foot. The Germans of 2017 are not like their forebears in 1932. Many of those who voted for the mainstream will be secretly relieved that there is now a voice in the Bundestag urging an end to uncontrolled immigration. But so long as Mrs Merkel listens to this voice and moderates her stance on citizenship rights and the arrival of existing migrants’ extended families, the clamour will slowly die away.
If it doesn’t, and 2021 becomes a repeat of 1932, then we are all in trouble. But, really, how likely is it that a fourth reich is now in prospect, with Muslims being made to brush the pavements with toothbrushes and signs going up over internment camps proclaming that Arbeit macht frei? If you believe that, you are mentally at one with those drunken English football fans who chant “Two world wars and one World Cup!”
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There are commentators today, right across Europe, who can barely restrain their delight at the rise of the Far Right. While not themselves members of Ukip, AfD, the Dutch Freedom Party or France’s Front National, they cheer these factions on, seeing in them a necessary corrective to the destructive liberalism of the mainstream. In the same way, they applaud the Law and Justice government in Poland and the nationalist regime of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, which they see as articulating those thoughts that, as yet, cannot be uttered in polite western society.
There were many Germans like this in the early 1930s. They thought Hitler was a vulgar little chap, but he would put the Jews in their place and give two fingers to the Allied powers who after 1918 had imposed usurious terms on Germany. When the Nazis assumed absolute power, they almost fell over themselves to join the party and cheered to the echo the Anschluss with Austria, the occupation of Czecoslavakia and the invasion of Poland. Only when the war went horribly wrong and the Allies were closing in did they denounce the Führer and insist that they, almost as much as the Jews, had been the victims of his madness.
Their equivalents today are said to be those who say Germany pays too much into the EU budget and that their country must not be seen as a soft touch by either the East Bloc or Club Med. But it is a false comparison. The AfD may contain some neo-Nazis in its ranks, but in fact it is much more like Ukip, full of pipe-smokers and sausage eaters anxious that Germany should remain German and that Deutsche Bahn, the national railway company, should not end up as the Train of Babel.
The likelihood that the AfD will become like Sinn Fein, with a new generation of stormtroopers standing in for the IRA, is fanciful at best.
Besides, Mrs Merkel, the SDP leader Martin Schulz [who he? – Ed] and the leaders of the Green and Far Left parties are already keenly aware of the need to tamp down the causes of dissent. The incoming Bundestag will be a very different place to its predecessor. “Mutti” – wary of violence on the streets – will be less forgiving and more demanding. Though there will not be revolution, there will, almost certainly, be revision.
The consequences for Brexit are hard to judge. Will the Far Right press the Chancellor to ease up on the British as the precursor to a slow-burn German withdrawal away from Ever Closer Union? Probably. Merkel may be slightly more forgiving than has been indicated on her behalf in recent months. But a fundamental switch seems unlikely. The CDU/CSU alliance, as well as the liberal FDP (whose return to the Bundestag is a welcome boost to Merkel), the SPD, the Greens and the Left are all, to a greater or lesser extent, pro-Europe. While they may refine their policies out of deference to the sensibilities exposed by the AFD, they will not alter them in any substantive way. Thus, Germany will remain a key member of the EU’s inner council, working with France in particular to come up with solutions to the ongoing issues of accountability and fiscal and financial diligence.
What is certain is that debates in the German Parliament will be more fiery than in recent years and more closely watched by the country’s friends and rivals. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will be looking to see if Angela Merkel has shot her bolt. Theresa May wouldn’t be human if she didn’t chortle just a little as another “strong and stable” Conservative struggles to remain upright in the face of a populist insurgency. Emmanuel Macron, like De Gaulle in 1958, will be asking himself if maybe it is he alone who must now answer destiny’s call.
In the meantime, the woman herself will be reflecting on what is possible and what is not. If she can “see off” the AFD and restore Germany’s confidence in itself and its values, her final four years in office could yet confirm her legacy. She may not go out with a bang, but whimpering is not her style.