Is Germany once again reaching peak instablility and what could that mean for Europe and the world?
Tarik Cyril Amar (@TarikCyrilAmar) is a historian from Germany, currently at Koç University, Istanbul, expert on Ukraine, Russia, and Europe, and the author of “The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv. A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists.”
Cross-posted from Other News
In the modern world, things connect. But often not the way we expect. Russia, we are told, must lose in Ukraine or the whole international order will crumble. China’s rise, we are warned, poses a similar challenge: We must, if not decouple entirely, at least de-risk.
Yet, in reality, the biggest headache is likely to come from within—from Germany, again. Within living memory, it was Germany that didn’t just disrupt but smashed international order, not once but twice, in 1914 and 1939. The irony is that if old Germany was too assertive, new Germany is too submissive. And the trigger for this to backfire is the war over Ukraine.
There has been much complaining about tardy German support for Ukraine, currently over hesitations to deliver “Taurus” missiles to Kyiv. But don’t let the noise distract you. The real story, the one with long-term future consequences, is how far Germany has gone. Berlin is now a key supplier of military and humanitarian aid, and without it, the EU—with Ursula von der Leyen, a German, at its head—would never have outdistanced even American support for Ukraine. On uncompromising rhetoric toward Moscow, too, the new Berlin can’t be beat.
Germany has passed over the sabotage of its Nord Stream pipelines, an expensive, strategic piece of infrastructure. Yet the evidence, we are now told, points to Ukrainian perpetrators of what would usually constitute an act of war and eco-terrorism. Whether you consider blowing up Nord Stream right or wrong, a government turning a blind eye to such an attack is unusual. To go even further and continue massive support for the country it came from is extraordinary.
Yet Nord Stream is only the tip of the iceberg. Germany’s crushingly abrupt energy transition is sharply raising costs for the economy and households. One cause of this shock is Berlin’s shortsighted exit from nuclear energy after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011. But it is the war over Ukraine that has led to Germany cutting its access to Russian gas and oil (except through absurd and costly workarounds, for instance via India).
Yet, economically, modern Germany is built on a simple principle: Import raw materials and energy, add labor and technology, and sell the results. Remove competitively priced energy from the mix, and the model collapses. Talk of “de-industrialization” seemed exaggerated a year ago. Now it is the new normal. Consumers are saving, companies are closing or relocating. Voters are afraid.
Germany’s perfect adherence to Western policy on Russia and China has an ominous price. Consider the embodiment of that come-what-may fealty, Annalena Baerbock, Berlin’s notoriously undiplomatic foreign minister. She has just provoked China, now Germany’s largest trading partner for the seventh year in a row, by calling its leader Xi Jinping “a dictator” on Fox TV. Her approval ratings are nosediving. The same is true for Germany’s minister of the economy, Robert Habeck, who represents the energy transition. Baerbock and Habeck belong to the Green Party, also plummeting in the polls. The same is true for its larger partner in the governing coalition, the centrist Social Democrats of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
This is not just a question of cobbling together coalitions in a country traditionally ruled from the center. While the traditional parties decline or stagnate, there is an outsider challenge gathering force. The AfD (Alternative for Germany), a populist party with voters from the right and far-right (think German Trumpism) is surging. It now polls second nationally, beating all government-coalition parties and barely exceeded by the traditional, centrist right, the Christian Democratic Union, which is in opposition.
For now, there is an unwritten rule to avoid coalitions with the AfD, the so-called “firewall” of German politics. But it is crumbling. If—or when—the AfD gathers enough votes to become indispensable to coalition-building, the firewall will fall. How do we know? From history: This is what happened, long ago, to the Greens, also once beyond the pale as radical insurgents. Now they are in government, and not for the first time.
There is an outsider challenge emerging from the left, too. Rumors will not die that Sarah Wagenknecht, the most charismatic figure of the most left-wing party, Die Linke, is about to set up her own outfit. Ideologically, this would be very different from the AfD. Not all populisms are the same. Yet a Wagenknecht party, polls show, would do very well.
This double crisis of the German model—in economics and politics—has many causes. Three of them connect to the war over Ukraine: A widespread sense that Berlin has sacrificed vital German interests to the West’s strategy, great unease about losing too much sovereignty, and the fallout from recession and economic decline. You can also add the fear of an escalation of the war into an open fight between NATO and Russia. Whether you share that anxiety or not, its disruptive potential is obvious.
We have assumed that the first country to buckle under the economic strain of the war over Ukraine would be Russia. Yet we are now seeing that the sanctions weapon has largely failed. Russia’s economy is resilient and growing. But what if it is Germany that stumbles first? Germans stressed about their economy, distrusting their elites as favoring foreign interests, and disenchanted with centrist values and methods— a picture too familiar for comfort.