Monday 23 April 2018

Merkel faces Cold War backlash

Polls predict Chancellor will return for fourth term but increased support for opposition means she could be in for a bumpy ride, writes Justin Huggler in Weimar

Campaigning: German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the harvest festival in Lauterbach, Germany, on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen yesterday ahead of the German Federal elections today. Photo: Jens Buettner/AP
Campaigning: German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the harvest festival in Lauterbach, Germany, on the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen yesterday ahead of the German Federal elections today. Photo: Jens Buettner/AP

Justin Huggler in Weimar

Angela Merkel is all but certain to win a fourth term in power in German elections today, unless the polls have got it spectacularly wrong.

But if she does remain chancellor, it will be at the helm of a Germany that is deeply divided.

In Weimar, you can see the crack that runs through German society.

Two of Germany's greatest writers, Goethe and Schiller, lived here. So did the composer Bach. The city was also where the ill-fated Weimar Republic of the inter-war years was proclaimed, in the National Theatre.

If any city can claim to be the epicentre of German culture, it is Weimar.

But while Mrs Merkel enjoys some of the highest personal approval ratings in Europe, Weimar is seething with discontent.

"It's the refugees," a flower seller in the market square who gives his name only as Harry says.

"She brought all these people in and now we'll never get rid of them."

Weimar and the surrounding state of Thuringia lie in the heartlands of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD).

In third place nationally, with around 13pc support, the AfD is second here with around 18pc.

The national polls look good for Mrs Merkel, but on a regional level the picture is different. For 45 years Weimar lay behind the Iron Curtain, in communist East Germany, and the pattern is repeated across the former East. In Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, the AfD is on 22pc.

The best it has managed anywhere in the former West is 8pc.

More than 25 years after reunification, Germany remains divided along Cold War lines.

Four years ago, Mrs Merkel could claim she had finally banished the divide.

The first chancellor to have grown up in the East, she won commanding majorities across the country in elections.

But this time it is different.

"Things were better in East Germany," says Harry's wife, Heike. "We had a lot of problems, but people were happier. Harry has to work seven days a week, and we still can't pay the bills."

Ostalgie, nostalgia for the old communist East, and resentment of poorer living standards compared to the West have played a role.

The Left Party, the democratic successor to old East German communist party, attracts a strong protest vote here. But this year voters are turning from the former communists to the nationalist AfD. Alexander Gauland, its lead candidate, has called for Germans to "reclaim their past" and "feel pride in the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars".

Mrs Merkel has opened up a flank, both on the political Right and in the geographical East.

West of the old Iron Curtain lies a different Germany. Frankfurt, with its Manhattan-like skyline, is a symbol of Europe's economic powerhouse, and a city of immigrants. Beneath the skyscrapers, Turkish restaurants jostle for space with Arab hairdressers.

"Frankfurt is a global city with a long tradition of co-existence with immigrants, and a good social integration policy," says Matthias Zimmer, a CDU MP who is running for re-election in the city.

"We've had immigration since the 1960s, which led to the modernisation of West German society. That has never happened in East Germany: what it's experiencing now are the birth pangs of catching up with modernity."

During the migrant influx, for a short time the small town of Giessen north of Frankfurt hosted the largest number of asylum-seekers anywhere in Germany. Helge Braun, the local MP, says the town was able to cope because of its past.

"We have a lot of experience with this sort of situation in Giessen," says Prof Braune, who is also a minister in Mrs Merkel's government in charge of the migrant issue.

"The Giessen refugee camp accommodated displaced people at the end of the Second World War, and refugees from East Germany during the Cold War."

By contrast, until Mrs Merkel's decision to open the borders to asylum-seekers in 2015, many East German towns and cities had never seen large-scale immigration.

But Carsten Koschmieder, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, believes the divide goes deeper.

"In large part it's about identity," he says. "People in the former East have been though enormous changes in the last 20 years. Talented young people are moving to the West in search of jobs, and that makes it harder for those who get left behind.

"When people face that sort of upheaval, they look for an alternative stability in their national identity."

It is an issue that has been at the heart of the AfD campaign. When Aydan Ozoguz, the national integration commissioner, said there was no unifying German culture beyond the language, Mr Gauland pounced. Ms Ozoguz is of Turkish heritage, and he called for her to be "disposed of in Anatolia".

The election has opened a national debate on whether Germany has a Leitkultur - in English a dominant culture - and the AfD has not hesitated to invoke the cultural giants of Weimar's past. "German culture is Goethe, Schiller, Bach," Mr Gauland has said.

But many of the party's pronouncements have been more controversial. "Not everyone with a German passport is German," Mr Gauland has said.

The AfD's regional leader in Thuringia, Bjorn Hocke, has called for a "180-degree turn" in Germany's attitude to the Second World War and an end to guilt over the crimes of the Nazis.

Prof Zimmer, the Frankfurt MP, is one of those in Mrs Merkel's party who believes there is a Leitkultur but he argues it is one of tolerance, not chauvinism.

"The hard core is the law and the language," he says.

"The special relationship with Israel is also part of German culture.

"Anti-Semitism is not a mere expression of opinion in Germany, it's incompatible with our self-image and culture.

"Other key things are equality between men and women, tolerance of homosexuals and freedom of religion."

The mix of high culture and nationalism is nothing new in Weimar.

Under Hitler, the city was glorified as a shrine to German culture.

On a hill just outside the city lies a reminder of the dangers of such politics: Buchenwald concentration camp, where more 56,000 Jews, gypsies, Poles and Soviet prisoners-of-war were murdered by the Nazis

The original gate is still standing, a Nazi slogan picked out in the wrought iron reads Jedem das Seine: each to his own.


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