Much of the discussion about the causes of “populism” that is currently taking place seems to me to be hopelessly binary. The term is now used to describe an extraordinarily diverse array of figures, movements and parties (and even, in the case of Brexit, outcomes) in different geographical locations. The causes clearly differ in each case – even within Europe. But even many of those who recognize this seem to think it is possible to make the claim that, in a specific case, populism can be explained by either “economic” or “cultural” factors rather than a complex interaction between the two. A good example is Timothy Garton Ash’s essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, in which he claims that the success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is caused by culture rather than “economic factors”. It seems to me the reality is much more complex.
Germany, I think it’s fair to say, is the most anti-nuclear country on earth. I just returned from a few days in Berlin, where the news was dominated by protests over the weekend against the transportation of nuclear waste from German nuclear power stations to Gorleben in Lower Saxony. The protests were seen as a triumph for the German anti-nuclear movement, which opposes the current centre-right government’s recent decision to extend the life of the remaining nuclear power plants in Germany. Germans are of course also passionately opposed to nuclear weapons, as illustrated by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s attempt to remove the remaining US nuclear weapons from the country (see my essay in Prospect last year on this). But one thing puzzles me about this anti-nuclear attitude. If the Germans are so opposed to nuclear power and weapons, why, as I suggested in a previous post, are they apparently so relaxed about the prospect of a nuclear Iran?
The German historian Heinrich August Winkler delivered the first Ralf Dahrendorf lecture at the LSE yesterday on the West as an “incomplete project”. Winkler, who was himself deeply influenced by Dahrendorf, skilfully sketched the history of the “normative project of the West”, which he said did not begin with the Enlightenment but instead had much older roots. Challenging Max Weber’s “very German point of view” in the preface to his writings on the sociology of religion, he argued that what makes the West unique is its political rather than economic or cultural achievements – above all the separation of powers and secularisation. Winkler also made some interesting remarks about Germany’s “deviations” from the West – the theme of his magnum opus, Der lange Weg nach Westen (The Long Road West). Germany, he said, was a paradox: it played a central role in developing the normative project of the West (e.g. Immanuel Kant – who like Winkler came from Königsberg) but also produced the most radical European rejection of it: Nazism.
A while back I said I was optimistic about the way the centre right in Germany was becoming more tolerant and less xenophobic. So when I arrived in Berlin last weekend on a visit, I was interested to see the debate that had been sparked by the appointment of Aygül Özkan as minister for social affairs in the Christian Democrat government in Lower Saxony. Özkan, a 38 year-old lawyer from Hamburg (where the Christian Democrats are in a coalition with the Greens) and the daughter of a so-called Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, was yesterday sworn in as the first minister of Turkish origin (not to mention the first Muslim minister) in a state government in Germany. It seems extraordinary that it has taken until 2010 for a member of Germany’s biggest ethnic minority to reach such a position at even a state level – her appointment is having about the same impact here as that of Rachida Dati (who was a minister in the national government) did in France. Nevertheless, however late it is, this is progress.
The Germans Greens turn 30 years-old today. At a conference in Karlsruhe on January 13, 1980 (above), a heterogenous group of left-wing and right-wing environmental activists who had already co-operated in electoral lists for several years, finally took the plunge and created a party (or rather an “anti-party”, as Petra Kelly called it). It wasn’t the first Green party in Europe (Britain’s Ecology Party, for example, had existed since 1973) but it soon emerged as the most powerful. It has had an enormous impact in Germany over the last thirty years, above all in forcing other parties across the political spectrum to take environmental issues more seriously and in particular in phasing out nuclear power. And yet it has in a sense been a victim of its own success. At a time when the environment is higher on the political agenda than ever before, the Greens paradoxically slipped into fifth place in last September’s general election, even though they won a record 10.7% of the vote.
See my take on the German election on Sunday on the Prospect blog.
The German Social Democrats are hoping that voters will today defy all the pre-election predictions and give them a sufficient number of seats in the Bundestag to form a government with the Greens. It’s pretty unlikely: for most of the election it looked as if the Christian Democrats were way ahead, and although the Social Democrats have caught up a little, it still looks as if the best they can expect is to be the junior partner in a Christian Democrat-led grand coalition for another four years.