On a snowy Sunday morning, two weeks before Christmas, I sat in a bakery in the town of Bernsdorf, population 6,000 and change. Bernsdorf is an hour’s drive northeast of Dresden, capital of the German state of Saxony. It is 28 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and my host, Roland Ermer—a full bellied jovial fellow, Meisterbäcker and proprietor—is brimming with stories. There is steaming hot coffee, a plate of buttery-sugary Stollen—the famous German Christmas cake was actually first conjured up in Dresden in the 15th century—and a pleasant view of woods covered in white out the window. Herr Ermer comes from a family of bakers. His grandfather Rudolf started things in 1935 in the lower Silesian town of Lubin, today in southwestern Poland. Rudolf Ermer came west in 1947, a result of what is known in German as “Vertreibung aus der Heimat” (“expulsion from the homeland”), as the bakery’s website puts it.
This part of Germany is marinated in history. Sudetenland is 90 minutes south by car; the Czech town Terezin, site of the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt, roughly the same.
Last September, Ermer ran as a candidate for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in elections for Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag. The 53-year-old father of three entered politics because he worries about a treasured world of stability and familiarity slipping away. Ermer is for strictly controlled borders, he tells me, and for a traditional—although not entirely clearly defined—vision of his little corner of Germany. Of Heimat, you might say. “We’ve seen Kreuzberg,” says Ermer, “and we don’t want that here,” a reference to the predominantly Turkish neighborhood in Berlin, home to artists and students, and known for its cozy bars and colorful cafe life.
One thing you have to know about traveling around Saxony is that cosmopolitan Berlin, while only north by 100 miles or so, is a universe away. Another thing: In this part of Germany, it’s not the economy, stupid; it’s social-cultural concerns that drive things here.
There is a story to be told here that has to do with economics, to be sure. An exodus of younger people, and especially women to the west since unification in 1990, has hindered development in this part of Germany. According to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), the average wage in the west is still 29 percent higher than in the east. Unemployment in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt (not to be confused with Saxony or Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany) is at a nation-high 9.6 percent. Yet, across most of the former communist east the economy grows. Generous social welfare benefits and minimum wage provide decent cushions for most (only four EU countries—Luxembourg, Ireland, Holland and Belgium—have a higher minimum wage than Germany, which introduced a national minimum wage in 2014). Saxony, a stronghold of the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and birthplace of Pegida, has actually posted growth rates as high as anywhere in Germany the last couple years (nearly 3 percent). Note in addition that Pegida—Patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of Europe—was started in October 2014, the year before the refugee crisis began, and that AfD seems to flourish where refugees are fewest.
Back to our baker. Roland Ermer’s political campaign fell short, but not because his view of things failed to resonate with voters. Down to 33 percent from 41.5 percent in 2013, last fall’s general elections saw the Christian Democrats’ worst performance since 1949. “Merkel has damaged the CDU brand,” says Ermer, “she’s finished.” He faults Merkel for her embrace of gay marriage in 2017, and crucially, of some one million refugees two years before that. With the influx of Syrians and foreigners from other Muslim majority countries, Ermer is worried about security, and what Germans call, in somewhat old fashioned terms, Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl, a mouthful meaning “the feeling of belonging together.” Ermer says he wants a Germany where ordinary people feel listened to, and connected to one another.
In the language of British writer David Goodhart, Roland Ermer is a “somewhere.” Goodhart calls “somewheres” those across the West who, even—or perhaps especially—in these times of accelerating globalization and uncertainty tend to feel themselves still very locally rooted. They are generally more traditionally patriotic, socially conservative, and certainly more resistant to social and cultural change than their counterpart “anywheres,” those agile, mobile, entrepreneurial spirits who know foreign languages and often study, live, or do business abroad. I tried the concept of “anywheres” versus “somewheres” on Ermer. He smiled, and nodded approvingly.
But if Roland Ermer is a “somewhere,” Germany’s “somewheres” come in different shades, and with baggage unique to this part of Europe.
Ermer’s town of Bernsdorf is in Bautzen, the name of a voting district, or Wahlkreis, but also of a beautiful hill-top walled city dating back to 1002. Bautzen started under Polish rule. In 1319 it passed to Czech Crown lands, and in 1635 to the Free State of Saxony. Today between 5 and 10 percent of Bautzen’s roughly 40,000 inhabitants are Sorbs, a small Slavic minority known for their tolerance and ability to get along in a region long divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Upper Sorb is similar to Czech, and Lower Sorb is much like Polish. Around much of Bautzen a dialect is spoken which combines characteristics of Lower and Upper Sorb. Sorbs are predominantly Protestant, specifically Lutheran, although Sorb Catholics reside to the north of Bautzen city.
This is Germany, and Central Europe, marinated in the past.
I first heard the name Bautzen from East German friends in the 1980s. In those days it was an expression of horror. In communist times Bautzen meant the notorious Gelbes Elend, or “yellow misery,” the dingy mustard-colored building where the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, kept prisoners of conscience. The institution had a pedigree for cruelty. From 1933 to 1945, the National Socialists (in this case, the Sturmabteilung, or SA) had used the prison for interrogating prisoners in “protective custody” before sending them to the nearby Hohstein concentration camp. From 1945 to 1949, the Soviets, busy setting up the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR), made use of the facility. During this period, Nazi party functionaries and those deemed guilty of “anti-Soviet propaganda” were stuffed into overcrowded cells, often with little food and water, their confessions extracted by torture. The KGB’s star pupil, the Stasi, took over and in due course incarcerated more than 2,000 political prisoners in Bautzen, among them philosopher Rudolph Bahro and writers Walter Janka, Erich Loest, and Walter Kempowski.
When I visited for the first time last fall—the Bautzen I had always heard about is now a museum and memorial—I was struck and moved by how many seemingly ordinary, unknown souls had been swallowed up by Gelbes Elend. In one cell block, a special women’s wing, there’s the former cell of one Heike Waterkotte, a young, idealistic West Berliner who was smuggling political pamphlets across the border to help East German activist friends in the 1970s. The 20-year-old Waterkotte was arrested in December 1976 after taking the S-Bahn or city train into East Berlin. After eight months’ detention, with daily interrogation, Waterkotte was sentenced to four years and 10 months in Bautzen for staatsfeindliche Hetze (anti-state agitation).
One more striking thing: Gelbes Elend is not in the middle of nowhere, hidden in some remote, secret location. The infamous Stasi prison, which started as a courthouse jail in 1906, is located on a tree-lined street, embedded in an appealing-looking, residential neighborhood.
It was just a few blocks away, in a lively, inviting Italian restaurant in Bautzen’s city center, that I had dinner in December with policeman Karsten Hilse, a member of the AfD, and the man who defeated Roland Ermer last fall (we would continue our conversation in January at the AfD’s local office nearby). Hilse wears jeans, an open collared shirt, and sports coat. He has a warm smile, and even a bit of boyish charm. He’s trim and fit. The congenial Herr Hilse once worked as a model, and won a “Mr. Brandenburg” competition. He’s Ermer’s age of 53 and, like our baker, the father of three.
At least outwardly, he seems unencumbered by anything having to do with the German past. “Our country, our values, our rules” was Hilse’s campaign slogan; rather strict sounding, maybe a little martial.
What’s Hilse fighting for—and against? At one level American conservatives will understand. “German Spring! All Together Without Soros and Co.” is a line on Hilse’s campaign flier from September. That, if you did not know, is shorthand for a rejection of open borders and multiculturalism, of an EU superstate and LGBT concerns.
Hilse views mass immigration, and specifically that which emanates from Muslim majority countries, as the biggest threat to German security and social cohesion.
For Hilse and the AfD there are legitimate concerns.
Crime rates are up in Germany and indeed, it seems, as a result of the recent influx of foreigners; even if violent crime has continued to decline, a trend that began a decade ago. Most new violence, in addition, is perpetrated by newcomers against other newcomers, and not against Germans. No one forgets, though, the mass groping and sexual assaults by Muslim men of women in Cologne and several other German cities two years ago on New Year’s Eve. Nor the Tunisian asylum seeker who in December 2016 drove a hijacked Polish semi through a crowded Christmas market by the famous Gedäcthniskirche in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 56 others. Nor the fact that in the Christmas market attack, German authorities initially seemed to cover up the number of incidents and the ghastly nature of many of the attacks.
In a leaked 2016 document, police authorities estimated that as many as 1,200 women had been assaulted by some 2,000 men, often acting in groups in Cologne, Hamburg, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, and Bielefeld. Some of this may have been what is referred to as taharrush jamai in Arabic, “group sexual harassment.” Under cover of large gatherings, perpetrators encircle one or more women while outer rings of men fend off would-be rescuers. Women’s rights advocates in Egypt have referred to the practice as “the circle of hell.”
Grist for the AfD mill remains a fairly steady diet of media reports of cultural conflict and mayhem, stories not blithely dismissed. In December there was the case of a 15-year-old German girl killed by an Afghan boy, thought to be the same age, in the village of Kandel in southwest Germany near the French border. The girl, who had been going out with the young man, broke up with the boy. 15 days later, two days after Christmas, the boy followed the girl into a local drug store and stabbed her in the heart with a kitchen knife. He was an unaccompanied asylum seeker who had been denied refugee status.
In January a court ruled that a group of Muslim men should be retried, overturning a 2016 acquittal in a case against seven individuals, who said they wanted to keep young Muslims away from alcohol and other debauchery. They were patrolling streets of the western German city of Wuppertal, donning orange vests emblazoned with the words “Sharia Police.” They carried signs with the words “Sharia Controlled Zone” (it is illegal in Germany, a legacy of the Nazi past, to wear uniforms in public that express a shared political opinion). Preacher Sven Lau, a German convert to Islam who led the detail, was sentenced on separate charges in July to five and half years for supporting a foreign terrorist organization.
It is not difficult to see how an increasingly broad spectrum of Germans feel, like our AfD policeman Hilse, as well as our baker with the CDU, that security and social cohesion are increasingly at risk, and that Merkel’s generous policy toward refugees—and indeed Germany has been extraordinarily decent and generous—has not been very generous to Germans themselves.
Nevertheless, this is Germany. History matters, and the character of Germany’s Tea Party-style movement and rebellion ought to be scrutinized with exceptional care.
I had asked Roland Ermer whether AfD could be described as a neo-Nazi party. He laughed, immediately dismissing the notion. When I asked whether he, the disillusioned CDU man, could himself imagine joining the Alternative, Ermer quickly dismissed the idea. “Still too many of the wrong people in the party,” he tells me. For Ermer that’s not Hilse, though, whom the baker talks about with respect.
Hilse comes from Hoyerswerda, 18 miles northwest of Bautzen, where, infamously, over several nights in September 1991 facilities housing guest workers (from Vietnam and Mozambique) and refugees (from Vietnam, Ghana, Iran, and Bangladesh) were repeatedly surrounded by mobs hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails. As a young cop Hilse was part of the local police force fending off neo-Nazis. As an AfD politician today, although himself a strong restrictionist on immigration, Hilse stays clear of lawful, public demonstrations protesting immigration. “The demos attract too many extremists,” he says.
And who’s an extremist?
One Hilse supporter in Bautzen, a retired architect who had spent the better part of the last three decades in western Germany, fumed to me about Merkel admitting hordes. “It’s complete disregard for rule of law,” he insists. Merkel’s own East German background means little in these parts, where for many “AfD” stands for “Angie, fürchte Dich”: “Angela, be afraid!” My architect wants every single refugee deported, and Merkel hauled before a court.
It would be hard to overestimate the hostility toward Merkel in parts of the populace. After the 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin, one senior AfD official tweeted, “these are Merkel’s dead.” Spray painted on the pavement in front of the drug store in Kandel where the west German teenage girl was stabbed to death were on day one the words, “thank you, Mrs. Merkel.” Large granite security pylons are now called “Merkel Steine,”—”Merkel stones” or fortifications—Hilse’s campaign manager tells me on a walk through Dresden. Says Hilse: “Merkel is destroying our country.”
As a party the AfD wants a “zero immigration” policy, a rapid and radical increase in deportations of those denied asylum, and a reform of the current asylum law so that fewer individuals will be eligible for safe haven in Germany.
Wahlkreis Bautzen voted 33 percent AfD, including, speculates Hilse, some 80 percent of the police force.
Dresden has been home to Saxon kings over centuries. An architectural jewel of the baroque, the city was once known as “Florence on the Elbe.” It is situated on the Elbe river, today with its half million inhabitants just over an hour by train from the Czech border. Its Gauleiter (regional Nazi party leader) through the end of World War II was businessman Martin Mutschmann, an early devotee to national socialism and an avid and influential fundraiser for Hitler. In February 1945 Dresden was obliterated by American and British bombers. Mutschmann is blamed for having done little to prepare the civilian population for the raids.
During communist times, Dresden and environs were known as “das Tal der Ahnungslosen,” or “valley of the clueless,” as this part of East Germany was out of reach of West German television and radio. “Which is why in those days we read instead so many books,” a Saxon friend boasts to me.
Saxons are cultured. The iconic Frauenkirche, Dresden’s great church with one of the largest domes of its kind in Europe, has been beautifully and faithfully restored. Its reconstruction was completed and the church reconsecrated in 2005. The Semperoper, the state opera house built by architect Friedrich Semper in 1841, is another Saxon treasure. The Staatskapelle, which makes its home at the opera house, is one of the oldest orchestras in the world, dating back to 1548, and has flourished under great conductors and musicians over the centuries such as Heinrich Schütz, Carl Maria von Weber, and Karl Böhm.
While Richard Strauss never lived in Dresden, more than half his operas, 21 to be exact, were premiered at the Semperoper. Richard Wagner resided in Dresden for 20 years, first moving there with his family from Leipzig in 1815, when he was one year old. At that time Dresden was the majestic royal capital of Saxony’s King Friedrich August I.
The building was destroyed in a fire in 1869, but rebuilt and opened again in 1878. Wagner and Semper had been persona non grata for much of this period, both having taken part in the unsuccessful uprising of 1849 (the last of a series of revolutionary events that began in Berlin and Frankfurt in 1948). When the East German communists rebuilt and reopened the Semperoper in 1985, they made sure of three things: that opening festivities would take place on February 13 to coincide with a commemoration of the British and American bombing of the city; that there would be no Wagner or Strauss at the gala, because of the association of the two composers with Hitler and Nazi Germany; and that seats in the opera house would be well wired by the Stasi for surveillance of persons of interest.
It is difficult to shake loose of history and politics in Dresden.
I recall meeting through Erfurt friends in the mid-1980s a couple who had been arrested as part of a demonstration in front of the Semperoper. She had done time in Bautzen, and told of damage to her health (including gums, teeth, and hair) through forced injections. After his death in 1997, there were rumors that famous communist dissident Rudolf Bahro’s cancer, along with the cancer of two other inmates, had been caused by radiation secretly administered by Stasi jailers during Bahro’s incarceration in Bautzen.
I attended in the Semperoper a recent performance of Tannhäuser, under the baton of Christian Thielemann. In the program there was a somewhat bland and vague appeal, with signatories of city luminaries, for tolerance and dialogue in difficult times. It was a few minutes’ walk away, in late 1989 and early 1990, that I can remember marching along side anti-communist friends through a bleak city center in the waning days of a disintegrating German Democratic Republic. This was a few weeks after local communist authorities in nearby Leipzig had decided to reject East Berlin’s insistence on a “Tiananmen” solution to popular unrest.
There’s plenty of history to digest in this little corner of Germany and Europe.
Today, communist poverty and repression seem like distant memories. Norman Foster has restored Dresden’s main train station. Neustadt or New Town is filled with chic, and shabby chic, clubs, pubs, bars, and eateries. And with Pegida back on the other side of the river, although numbers of participants have dwindled as AfD fortunes have risen, demonstrations still take place Monday evenings. Some protestors carry placards, just as many did in communism’s final days, with the words, “Wir sind das Volk“: “We are the People.”
Five years ago, AfD started on rough, but more manageable terrain. Founded in 2013 as a Euroskeptic party, AfD’s initial energies were focused on opposition to German-supported bailouts of Southern European countries. Bernd Lucke, an economist at the University of Hamburg, was a driving force at the outset, until he was forced out of the party leadership in summer 2015 by Frauke Petry, a businesswoman from Dresden and chemist by training. Petry, who holds a doctorate from the west German University of Göttingen, played a key role in changing AfD’s focus to immigration and refugees. Internal strife continued. Petry would find herself outmaneuvered in AfD leadership battles two years later. And while Lucke went on to establish a new party called Liberal-Konservative Reformer, Petry—after resigning dramatically a day after last September’s Bundestag elections—would found Die Blaue Partei (the Blue Party). Lest one think things in German politics are static and settled.
Despite bumpy first steps, AfD aims now to stabilize itself. The party is already represented today in 14 of Germany’s 16 state legislatures. With 12.6 percent of the vote, AfD secured in the fall 92 of the Bundestag’s 709 seats.
What does all this mean?
For those who fear a rising tide of neo-Nazism, it’s hard to see much evidence for this, as the story of baker Ermer and policeman Hilse suggest. One recent poll of Saxony found that 90 percent think democracy is the best form of government, with 70 percent believing that the current system is working well. At the same time, though, clearly all is not well.
Across Europe, growing anti-establishment tendencies help to explain the existence today of 45 parties one might describe as “populist.” Across Germany, much like in the United States, voter ties to traditional parties have begun to loosen. In the United States in the American primaries, 45 percent of primary voters chose Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom had been closely tied to the two mainstream, establishment parties. In Germany the AfD has been scooping up votes not only from non-voters and the CDU, but also from the Social Democrats, the Greens, and even Die Linke. Like the Christian Democrats, Germany’s second largest party, the SPD, had its worse result last September since World War II.
On the new Right in Germany there’s a revolt against overreaching elites, political correctness, and identity politics that is potentially healthy, and democratic in fact. But how does all this play out in a country where elites, ever since the failed Weimar Republic, have been exceptionally distrustful of “the masses”?
Which also brings us back to who leads the German revolt, and to Roland Ermer suggesting that in the AfD there are still too many of “die falschen Leute“—”the wrong people.” Wolfgang Gedeon comes to mind, a medical doctor and former general practitioner turned politician and AfD legislator in in the state parliament of the prosperous western German state Baden Würtemberg. Gedeon calls Holocaust deniers “dissidents,” and speaks positively about the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, the fabricated anti-Semitic text purporting to describe Jewish plans for world domination. Bernd Höcke, another west German, also comes to mind. A former high school teacher from North-Rhine Westphalia, who taught in Hessen and now represents AfD in the eastern German state of Thuringia, Höcke calls it a national scandal that Germans would put a Holocaust memorial in the heart of their capital. The ex-educator, whose grandparents were expellees from East Prussia, now Poland, used to hang maps in his classroom of a previous Germany, Lebensraum included. Apparently Marine Le Pen refuses to meet with Höcke. Frauke Petry, hardly known as a softie—she once suggested refugees crossing the German border be shot—told me over lunch in Leipzig recently that “Höcke is a Nazi, plain and simple.”
There’s an alarming coarseness, vulgarity, and even violence that shows signs of spreading. At Pegida demonstrations, protestors carrying nooses and placards with Merkel’s face make the point. In November, Andreas Hollstein, a member of Merkel’s CDU and mayor of the west German town of Altena, was stabbed in the neck on a Monday evening when he was out for a bite to eat. A man asked whether he was the mayor, shouted criticism about his asylum policies, and lunged at Hollstein with a foot-long blade.
The venerable and conservative Neue Züricher Zeitung has run a number of articles the last couple years, exploring questions about the durability of German democracy. Expect German foreign policy to evolve in the next years. A Berlin friend predicts that American retrenchment, together with Russian revanchism, Brexit, and perhaps still, a Brussels unraveling—or at least a looser, less centralized European Union—will lead to a new and potentially dangerous moment of German “strategic loneliness,” as he puts it.
Perhaps the refugee crisis, seen with a little distance in a few years, will be recognized as a catalyst, an accelerator pedal for a process that began with unification nearly three decades ago. During the Cold War Germany was divided and lacked sovereignty. Unlike France, there was no room for Gaullist independence, no nuclear weapons—an expression of national self-reliance, and at some level comfort with power and purpose. West Germany was the junior partner of the United States. The so-called German Democratic Republic was a vassal state of the Soviet Union. This united Germany is changing.
Merkel, backed in the moment by large parts of Germany’s political class, undoubtedly sought to show leadership, and was driven by genuine humanitarian impulse in 2015. On refugees, though, did Merkel miscalculate? Was she also behaving, as the daughter of an East German pastor, according to her own moral code? Was the German Chancellor, at some level perhaps, yearning to present the world with vivid pictures of the good Germans today? In a lecture given at the Library of Congress in May 1945, Thomas Mann mused that “in the seclusiveness of the German there was always so much longing for companionship; indeed at the bottom of the very loneliness that made him wicked lay always the wish to love, the wish to be loved.”
Merkel will be seen almost surely as the Chancellor of a Germany in transition. Historian Fritz Stern’s 2006 autobiography bore the title The Five Germanys I Have Known, meaning for Stern the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the Federal Republic, the German Democratic Republic, and the united Germany of the post-Cold War period. That period, this last Germany Stern had known, is disappearing now.
What comes next?
A decade and half ago Samuel Huntington was arguing that “people are not likely to find in political principles the deep emotional content and meaning provided by kith and kin, blood and belonging, culture and nationality. These attachments have little or no basis in fact but they do satisfy a deep human longing for meaningful community.” That was in the context of America, an immigrant nation barely 250 years old.
This is Germany, stewing in a history deeper and more complicated, and which appears now once again to find itself on a path where it will wrestle with fundamental questions as a nation of purpose and identity.
As for this one corner I have been exploring, Matthias Rößler, a CDU politician and president of the Saxon state parliament, puts the issue to me in this way: “We’re east Germans, not west Germans; we’re Saxons, not Bavarians; we’re east Saxons, not west Saxons, and we have more in common in many ways with Central Europeans than we do with West Europeans.”
There’s folksy charm in Rößler’s words, even if many a syllable will not be pleasing to supranationalist elites in Brussels and Berlin. There are questions where all this leads. The day after I met Rößler last fall, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the region’s spokesman for “illiberal democracy,” was expected to arrive in Dresden for discussions around issues of common concern.
At a campaign rally last September, AfD candidate Karsten Hilse told an audience, “no matter what journalists and our political opponents claim, we stand simply and beyond reproach for Frieden und Heimat (“peace and homeland”). During his campaign, Roland Ermer would say his favorite means of relaxation was “riding his motorcycle though “our beautiful Heimat.”
Where does Heimat begin? Where does it end? Who belongs?
Saxony is dismissed as a backwater, an eastern German outlier, by much of the establishment in Berlin. I suspect what’s happening here, though, may well be an incubator of sorts, and a harbinger of what’s to come in other parts of Germany. In a sense, AfD is besides the point. Perhaps its leadership will prove incompetent, too radical, or perhaps the party will simply fail to keep up with voter pressure for political change in Berlin. However, the roots that lie at the bottom of all this—of Alternative, Pegida, and more broadly, of questions and yearning for Heimat—will still be there.
In Dresden, a dentist tells me how he had become concerned about loss of German identity. He recounts how he was bothered to discover in one of his young daughter’s school books that all the music is American, Disney, and international fare. “Not a single German Volkslied,” he laments. He also tells me how, living in West Germany for three years, it bothered him that his was the only “German” name on the building’s door bell. Would he then join the party, the AfD, I ask. “No, not that,” he says, “I don’t trust them and where they’re headed.”
In Bautzen, an opera singer married to an American from North Carolina, also a singer—the two met in Hamburg in a performance of Phantom of the Opera—frets that English is corrupting the German language. She tells me how she bought a box of French chocolates that afternoon, only to kick herself later. “What didn’t I wait and buy German chocolates?!” she says. She voted for Hilse, and works as a volunteer in the local AfD office.
Is this xenophobia? Or, are these people who want to return to a more familiar past? Or, are they perhaps individuals who simply feel a need for speed limits on social and cultural change?
The governor of the west German state of Baden-Württemberg, a Green named Winfried Kretschmann, argues in the Neue Züricher Zeitung that to preserve and renew German democracy it’s urgent to build bridges to those who are drifting away, and to segments of society that “tick differently than we do.” This is no simple task. Lines are sometimes blurry; morally ambiguous and outright troubling areas emerge. Ask Anjte Hermenau how this works in practice. She’s a former member of the Bundestag, a Saxon from Leipzig now living in Dresden who works tirelessly to listen and build such bridges. Her efforts have earned her admiration. And condemnation. She’s now an ex-Green, sadly persona non grata with a number of former colleagues who can’t fathom why she would consort with German “deplorables.”
A pastor in Meissen tells me people feel neglected, that they just want to be heard.
After a failed 1953 uprising against communist authorities in East Germany, Bertolt Brecht wrote in “Die Lösung” (“The Solution”):
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer’s Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Saxony is old-new Europe. One gets the impression that things are being worked out here, and that this part of Germany—and of Europe actually—can tell us much more about the near future, as elites in Berlin and Brussels, or Washington or Geneva for that matter, can tell us about the recent past. I’m thinking about core issues of democracy, sovereignty, social cohesion, and identity—all central to our time. Debates about currency, bailouts, and refugees are from one perspective arguments about who gets what. On another level, though, these things become more fundamentally about, Who Are We?
Genuine democratic renewal might well come from all of this. That is, if the more decent expressions of populism can be understood, allowed proper space to vent, and be heard. Only then will we have a fair chance of keeping real extremism at bay, and demagogues on their heels. History should remind us of this, too. The authoritarians are always out there, ready to seize an opportunity.