Unleash a little storm in German politics, and it is Weimar time in the Fatherland. The Weimar Republic, born after defeat in World War I and murdered in 1933, is the eternal hand-writing on the wall. This is when the first German democracy, poisoned by national humiliation in 1918 and million-fold misery during the Great Depression, was ground down by the extremes of the right and the left. After WWII, German Democracy 2.0 was the absolute counter-model, and this bulwark of centrism succeeded beyond the wildest of dreams.
For perspective, take these numbers. France has gone through some 40 prime ministers since World War II, and Italy has burned through 61 governments. The Federal Republic made do with 8 chancellors in 70 years, and “Longevity” was their middle name. Konrad Adenauer, the founder, held on for 13 years. Helmut Kohl ruled for 16, and Angela Merkel will have served 16 years by the time she leaves office in 2021.
It was stability and predictability über alles—plus a liberal state buttressed by almost unbroken economic growth. This wondrous edifice is now being shaken, though it remains rock-solid by comparison with the rest of Europe. Elsewhere, coalitions have been like kaleidoscopes, forming and re-forming almost as quickly as Donald Trump’s cabinet and staff since 2017. Yet nobody has cried “Weimar” while watching governments come and go all around Germany. In the Federal Republic, alas, “Weimar” is a standard invocation of doom. And no wonder. This is where democracy really did die at the age of 14. So, what happened in the current iteration?
Let’s go to Thuringia, a mini-state of 2.2 million in former East Germany—a bit more populous than Rhode Island and Delaware put together. Thuringia is the tail of a Schnauzer that has wagged a huge German Shepherd of 82 million. How odd. Why would the nation quake when a state legislature elects a new prime minister—normally a bread and butter affair, but now a trigger of unprecedented upheaval? The answer: because of the ghost of Weimar that inflated a humdrum event into a national crisis.
Why? The PM, who resigned under massive pressure after only 24 hours, had been anointed by the wrong people. He was elected by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in cahoots with the Alternative for Germany, the new far-right kid on the block. The AfD is made up of the usual populist suspects roaming Europe and America, but also of some folks with whom you would not want to be seen even in a beer tent—people who trade in barely masked Nazi shibboleths.
So, in Berlin, the centrist CDU, the senior partner in Merkel’s ruling coalition, convulsed in horror. A taboo of 70 years’ standing had been broken. It commands: Never, ever cohabit with the extreme right, even if it is only a one-night stand as in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia! The local tail kept wagging—actually whipping—the national Hund. Its most prominent victim was Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose tongue-breaking name you won’t have to learn how to pronounce anymore. Handpicked by Angela Merkel as her successor and guarantor of continuity, she quit as CDU chair and heir-apparent in the chancellor’s office. Merkel’s succession is now a free-for-all.
AKK, as she is called for the sake of brevity, should have stopped her minions in Thuringia, roared the CDU’s grandees. But her failure was just the proximate cause of her deep fall. Given her previous missteps and Biden-like gaffes, she has been weighed and found wanting. A former prime minister of tiny Saarland on the French border, she was not ready for prime time. At least she was wise enough to realize it; hence her abrupt decision to ditch her national ambitions. AKK will remain defense minister for the time being, which is a nice consolation prize.
Now to forever-chancellor Angela Merkel. Having pulled the strings in the background, she proved again that she knows more about amassing and preserving power than any would-be usurper or a protegee like AKK. It is a safe bet that she will live out her fourth and final term until 2021. And then maybe go off to a high office at the EU or UN.
Was it really Weimar redivivus? Of course not. The AfD polls around 12 percent nationwide—more or less the average take for the far-right throughout Western Europe. Compare that to the real thing, when Nazis and Communists pocketed a majority of seats in the Reichstag during the last free elections of 1932.
So here is the good news: This tempest in a Thuringian teacup actually proves the potency of the taboo engraved in the German political soul. “Far from representing a genuine breakthrough for the AfD,” notes Tony Barber in the Financial Times, “the unsavory episode actually demonstrated that a majority of German society—at least in the West—wants the taboo on collaboration with the extreme right to be applied resolutely and unconditionally.”
Another bit of good news comes out of Austria and Italy, which, like Germany, had succumbed to Fascism after World War I. In Vienna, the far-right Freedom Party has been ousted from the government. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, a soft version of Mussolini, quit on his own (though he will be back).
Now to the not-so-good news: While the taboo did hold in Germany, the political system’s cast-in-concrete stability may not. For a lifetime, power in the Federal Republic used to alternate between the center-left and the center-right. It was Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Now, six parties—from the radical left via the rising Greens to the extreme right—are grabbing votes from the once-dominant Social and Christian Democrats, which will make a majority coalition ever more difficult.
Nor is Europe number 1 alone in this new game. The center is under assault almost everywhere. Think about the United States, where left and right have been radicalizing each other. Compared to Sanders or Warren, left-leaning Barack Obama was a stick-in-the-mud centrist. The party system is splintering throughout Europe. Since 2015, Spain has gone through three elections without generating a majority government. In the 2018 general election, Sweden, a bastion of placidity, found itself in a world where no grouping commanded an outright majority. It took more than four months to cobble together a shaky government.
Italy is now in the claws of the right-populist Lega and the left-populist Five Stars. So the kaleidoscope will keep turning in Rome, but after 61 postwar governments, the Italians are at least used to endemic turmoil. The age-old motto is arrangiarsi—making do. The Netherlands now has not only one, but two nationalist, anti-immigrant parties that muck up traditional coalition-politics. France: Yes, Emmanuel Macron did manage to beat back the challenge of the far-right National Front, garnering a huge majority in the National Assembly. But this great victory did not spell stability. What an irony! The deadly challenge to Macron now emanates not from traditional parties, but from the radicalized street: the Yellow Vests and the mighty public sector unions.
So, the West has won the Cold War, but lost the political peace at home, with Germany—once order incarnate—playing a starring role in the creeping decay of the old dispensation. Europe’s party system, thy name is fragmentation. The established parties have circled the wagons to keep out the nativist-nationalist right. They confront a vexing dilemma. The more shots they loosen, the more they strengthen their populist enemies who speak the same language as the Trumpists: down with the “elites,” and “make our country great again.”
Yet the moderates cannot dispense with the taboo, as the Thuringia upset so vividly demonstrates. So, the deconstruction of the old power structure is likely to continue. In Germany, the center-right and center-left used to command up to 90 percent of the vote in their heyday. Now they barely manage to hold on to 40. And so it goes for the rest of Europe this side of Britain.
As the old international order wanes, so does its domestic counterpart. To vary Margaret Thatcher, Europe—with the world’s second-largest economy—is fated to punch below its weight. Say “hello” to the “Two-and-a-Half Power World” made up of the United States and China plus Russia, an economic waif, but a first-rate strategic disruptor.
The fragmentation of the European party system could not have come at a worse time.