Covert and hidden populism in unified Germany

RR_Absolute Final.png

Why is it that unlike other European countries, Germany has not had a long-lasting populist party. Though some contemporary German parties have ‘populist affinities and tendencies’, these are short-lived tactics used to win votes, and often associated with political scandal.

Herfried Münkler
28 November 2012

The euphoria of unification was soon to be followed by xenophobic riots and arson attacks in, not only east, but also west Germany.  At times these gave rise to the concern that a return to aggressive German nationalism could be expected; and that this nationalism was not ready anytime soon to shy away from the violent persecution of strangers or those perceived as alien. That it did not go as far as it was then feared is also a consequence of the fact that none of the established parties incorporated xenophobic resentments in their political programmes, thereby endorsing them as socially and politically acceptable. At the same time, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), which came across as severely xenophobic, remained politically on the margins. The fact that it could not capitalize on its entry into some of the parliaments of the newly formed Federal States was also a consequence of its political isolation; nowhere could it fulfil the role of a majority party or even a coalition partner, and so it had no other option other than to remain a political outsider giving rise to regular scandals.

This is not to say that there is no political potential in Germany for a xenophobic politics. That it exists and, in parts, reaches deeply into bourgeois circles became apparent in the debates following the publication of Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab.  Even if Sarrazin’s assumptions are not openly xenophobic, responses to them still made it clear that they could be understood in this way and still meet with approval. But xenophobia referring to asylum seekers and migrants of the second and third generations could not be translated into a populist politics capable of gaining 10-15 per cent of the potential vote, as is the case in neighbouring European states.

So why could no right-wing populist party establish itself in Germany in the way that these parties had in other European countries, where fear of ethnic-nationalist and religious-confessional ‘foreign infiltration’, and anxiety of migrants and asylum seekers are central political themes? A first reason is the consensus operating in the political community, according to which a right-wing political party - even if its presence was a prerequisite for eventual government-formation - is out of the question.  Both as a majority party and even more so as coalition partner.  Hence, it is clear from the outset that such a party would have difficulty in gaining real political influence. And this would clearly limit the interest of potential candidates in running. Moreover it would only point out to potential voters that votes for this party would be politically wasted votes. Thus far, the isolation of right-wing populists has made an impact.

Secondly, this isolation was complemented by a public discussion, in which the history of the Weimar Republic was invoked again and again as a cautionary tale with a final phase characterised by the crushing of the political centre by those parties that had campaigned on populist slogans. The end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi party apparently still strikes a strong note of warning in the collective memory, so that a vigorous hint is sufficient to blunt any right-wing populist dispositions in the voters on the one hand, and to block the temptation that probably exists among members of the political class to score points with right-wing populist topics, on the other. Currently, it does not look as though xenophobia and fear of foreign infiltration could come into play in politics in any significant way.

A further apprehension - noticeable after German unification - was that Germany’s now re-established central position between East and West would lead to a renewal of geopolitical constellations, in which a superiority complex combined with a fear of encirclement could give rise to a populist foreign policy through which boasting and unpredictability could upset Europe’s recently established new order.  There has, however, been no question of this over the past twenty years. Quite the contrary: German foreign policy has, time and again, bowed to the service of Europe, thereby repeatedly yielding to the French. Germany’s central position in Europe was not perceived as a threat but instead as a form of increased security and it was used to vigorously cash in on the peace dividend. Populist influence on foreign policy did not exist. The firm integration of the Federal Republic into NATO and the European Union has certainly contributed to this. When this integration was questioned, the questioning came from the left-wing populists rather than the right-wing populists.

For now, the only relevant playground for populists is fiscal and monetary policy; this is the nesting place for increased anxieties since the introduction of the Euro. It would be wrong to claim that every critic of a possible European fiscal union is a populist: this dispute is, primarily, a factual-political controversy about Germany’s long-term interests and about the plausibility of establishing and asserting Europe-wide budgetary regulation.

It is also true, however, that scepticism regarding budgetary discipline in, and fiscal union with, the Mediterranean countries is more easily charged with populism than the more general discussion for a way forward beyond the common European currency toward a common European financial and economic policy.

The clientelism around budgets in some southern European countries and the perceived opulence of the local political class is a problem for the whole EU - and it is increasingly met with opposition and indignation by the Germans, who are notoriously the biggest net contributor to the Union. In Germany, the populist exploitation of these themes initially emanated from the tabloid press, until it became the tool of several politicians and of their parties. Meanwhile, fears and worries over the future of the euro merged with old stereotypes about the exploitation of the Germans by the southerners, who indulged in their dolce far niente, while in Germany one had to work long and hard to finance the luxury habits of the South. This remains no more than an escalating caricature as long as Germany is not isolated within the EU and the Berlin-Paris-axis is still in operation. But the political isolation of Germany within the EU could certainly result in an outburst of anti-European populism in Germany that would plunge the EU into a dangerous crisis.

There is one final question. How likely is it that established parties in Germany will draw on the populist dispositif more frequently in the future without becoming populist themselves? Karin Priester has pointed out that populism increasingly appears in crises of representation and, at the very least, the two catch-all parties in Germany, the CDU and the SPD, stand in such a crisis – the SPD more so than the CDU. 

The classic commitment of voters to ‘their’ party has eroded, the percentage of swing voters and undecideds are increasing, and in constellations in which the electoral outcome depends on the degree of voter mobilisation, the temptation to draw on populist topics is strong: in its most harmless variant as distributive populism, and in the most dangerous as identity populism. The former will certainly be the case and is noticeable already regarding demographic change and future pension payments.

Identity populism, however, is a no-go area for catch-all parties as long as the warning of Weimar continues to exist in German collective memory and can be politically activated. For smaller parties, choosing populism is not a viable option: it is unlikely for the Green party given its political alignment, and the FDP faced a political split when it flirted in this direction. As for catch-all parties that have played with identity populism, in particular, they have had to expect significant costs to their reputations.  In the crisis of representation, these parties will search for salvation in a strengthened clientelism rather than in an offensive populism. 


This is an excerpt drawn from Münkler’s Populism in Germany. A history of its mentalities, myths and symbols’ which discusses German populism after reunification, deeply influenced by European issues and still constrained by the humiliation associated to the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi party. Münkler traces populism in Germany back to the 15th and 16th centuries—a time when the birth of a collective German identity influenced the populist discourse; the author then traces the development of populism and the myths, narratives and symbols that marked it over time, in particular during both world wars.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership with Counterpoint launched in a guest week in November 2012. The partnership will continue over the coming months with articles timed to coincide with events to disseminate the ten pamphlets commissioned through Counterpoint's project 'Recapturing Europe's Reluctant Radicals" , funded by the Open Society Foundations.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData