Last Sunday’s election was a turning point for Germany, and not because Angela Merkel squeaked by for a fourth term or the Social Democrats (SPD) nearly collapsed. More fundamental was the steady progress—some might call it “escape”—toward political “normality” that Germans have been seeking for many decades. The new parliament will encompass four smaller parties, and one of them will be a right-wing nationalist grouping. This kind of ideological proliferation is common around European parliamentary systems. The old monolithic “no experiments” German elections are finally a thing of the past.
This was the 19th parliamentary election since 1949. I was already around for the sixth election in 1969. That one was also considered a watershed, because it ushered in the first democratic change of government in Germany since the election of Hitler in 1933. The SPD replaced a government led by the conservative Christian Democratic Union, which had headed every West German administration since 1949.
We at the American Embassy in Bonn were watching carefully for revolts on the streets. There were none. The only hitch was a congratulatory telegram from President Richard Nixon to CDU incumbent Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who got the most votes but had no partner with whom to form a coalition. An unorthodox leader who had spent World War II in exile took over instead—Willy Brandt.
In 1969, there were only three parties in the Bundestag. In the early 1990s there were still only four. Now, the new faces belong to radical anti-European, anti-Atlantic groupings. The Left Party has been around for some time, built on the remains of the East German communists. The four year-old Alternative for Germany (AfD) is above all a product of the upheavals of globalization and automation, as is the case elsewhere in the West. Like voters for Donald Trump in the United States, AfD supporters say they voted more out of emotion than ideology. They feel their world slipping away and blame politicians, and above all “Europe,” for their woes. In other words, it is a “normal” result for these abnormal times, just as in the United States and many places in Europe.
As in the United States, the established parties failed to understand the attraction of these new “deplorables” (as Hillary Clinton infamously called her Trump-supporting rivals) in the AfD. The more the establishment condemned them, the more popular they became. First reactions have focused on nationalist sentiments from parts of the AfD. Gloomy observers have again articulated old worries about German authoritarianism. But the “Germany first” of the AfD is likely to reflect the same radical demands as the Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, or the “True Finns” in Finland.
The AfD focuses on Germans and German interests. The party wants to pay less for Europe and defense. They reject immigrants and refugees—and favor more programs for “real” Germans. President Emmanuel Macron seems already to have drawn conclusions from the new mood in Berlin, by toning down earlier-trailed ideas on improving integration in the euro area.
What comes next? There will be difficult negotiations to form a coalition. Since the SPD opted out of extending its co-operation with Merkel, the Greens and the traditionally CDU-minded liberals of the FDP will be necessary to give Merkel a working majority. A three-party coalition will be another first for postwar Germany.
Assuming such a complex mixture can be assembled, the FDP and the Greens will give Merkel many headaches. They will not wish to be outdone by the AfD in their rejection of “business as usual.” And her Bavarian partners are still licking their wounds from the massive losses in their home state. No wonder Wolfgang Schäuble has been rushed in to keep order as the new President of the Parliament.
This new crowd will make it difficult for Merkel to compromise on pressing European issues or to support the American hard line on Russia, Iran, or even North Korea. As in Trumpland, ensuring the peace will mean more toleration of dictators and fewer interventions to save democracy. On the other hand, Britain’s negotiators handling the strained exit from the European Union might feel a slightly warmer breeze from Berlin. A British-style sense of self is what many Germans are looking for.
Most important will be for Germans and their partners to remain calm. Extraordinary measures to contain the AfD are unnecessary. The party seems already to be splitting into two or more warring camps. Ignoring the AfD will not help either. Better to apply the lessons learned in other electoral “surprises” in America and Europe. A more “normal” Germany should be pushed to help define a narrative for a more normal Europe that is looking to the future rather than still trying to corral the past. Maybe pressure from the AfD will even help move things forward.