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The Sarrazin Debate: Searching for Germany's Right-Wing Populists

By in Berlin

Right-wing populist parties are everywhere in Europe. But in Germany, home to controversial Islamophobe Thilo Sarrazin, the right side of the political spectrum is decidedly vacant. Why?

Islamophobia does not have a political home in Germany. Here, a mosque in Schleswig-Holstein. Zoom
DPA

Islamophobia does not have a political home in Germany. Here, a mosque in Schleswig-Holstein.

The ideas are crudely formulated: Muslim immigrants have contributed nothing to German prosperity; the high fertility rates among the country's Muslim community have resulted in the reduction of Germany's collective IQ; Muslim immigrants would prefer to be on welfare than to work; Jews share a specific gene.

Such are the claims promulgated this week and last by Thilo Sarrazin, a member of the board at the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank, and a former finance minister with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Berlin city-state government. The outrage was immediate. Politicians of all stripes, from center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel on down, have condemned Sarrazin and the SPD has begun an effort to banish him from the party. Even the central bank has decided to hand him a pink slip.

The debate, however, has revealed a gaping void. While there have been several voices who have lent their support to Sarrazin, a political movement espousing his brand of right-wing populism is virtually non-existent in Germany. Aside from a few fringe figures from the right-wing extremist NPD party and a collective nodding of heads from the Islamophobic activists at pro-Cologne, the right side of the country's political landscape would appear to be sparsely populated.

In contrast to virtually all of its neighbors -- particularly Belgium, Holland, Denmark and France -- there is no political home in Germany for people like Sarrazin.

'Swarm the Manure'

"Theoretically, there is room for a political party to the right of the (center-right) Christian Democrats," Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at Berlin's Free University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But right-wing populists in Germany tend to be like mayflies. They swarm to the manure, eat their fill, and the next day they are gone."

The fleeting nature of right-wing populism in Germany is almost unique in continental Europe. Belgium has the Vlaams Belang party, the Netherlands has Geert Wilders and France's far right has periodically found significant success at the polls under Jean-Marie Le Pen. In Switzerland, voters supported a populist movement to ban the construction of minarets. Austria's right wing has a long history of political success under now deceased Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider and many eastern European countries, led by Hungary, have an active right wing.

Indeed, in much of Europe, Sarrazin's views, if not necessarily part of the political mainstream, would hardly elicit more than a shrug from most given the political platforms they enjoy.

Still, the almost unanimous opprobrium German political parties have heaped on Sarrazin is misleading. Recent studies suggest that the lack of a robust, right-wing populist party in Germany is more of a political anomaly than an indication of tolerance in the country. According to a study by the University of Bielefeld published last December, fully 46 percent of Germans agree that there are "too many Muslims" in the country. Only 16.6 percent of German respondents agreed with the statement "the Muslim culture fits well into Germany," a result that was the lowest among the eight countries that were surveyed, including the Netherlands, France and Hungary.

A survey in July, conducted by the polling institution Emnid for the newsweekly Focus, found that 20 percent of Germans would consider voting for a party to the right of Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Extreme Skepticism of Immigration

One reason for the lack of a political home for such views is perhaps obvious: World War II. "The rejection of racism and fascism is part of the founding myth of modern Germany," Ulrich Kober, head of the integration and education department at the Bertelsmann Stiftung think tank, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It is a major part of our education: Schoolchildren groan at how often they have to hear about the Holocaust."

But there are several other hurdles facing right-wing populist parties as well. For one, Germany's mainstream political parties, particularly Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), have long been extremely skeptical of immigration. For decades, the phrase "Germany is not an immigrant country" seemed to be a kind of unofficial party slogan and the CDU is adamantly opposed to Turkish membership in the European Union.

The result has been that many of those who might otherwise have been tempted by a right-wing populist party have found a home in the CDU. While Sarrazin's particular brand of ethnic hyperbole is both articulate and vociferous, many of the fears he plays on have long found a place in CDU discourse.

In 2000, for example, then senior party member Friedrich Merz kicked off an immigration debate by calling for newcomers to adhere to a German Leitkultur, or leading culture, a term that many felt denigrated other cultures. That same year, Jürgen Rüttgers, then a candidate for governor in North Rhine-Westphalia, coined the term "Kinder statt Inder" -- children instead of Indians -- in protest against a center-left plan to ease immigration rules for IT experts from India and elsewhere. In 2007, Roland Koch -- then running for re-election as the governor of Hesse -- kicked off yet another immigration debate by making the alleged overabundance of "criminal young foreigners" a key element of his stump speech. Additional examples abound.

Political Warfare

"Most right-wing populists have long since found a home in the CDU," says Neugebauer. "Right-wing populism tends to choose only one or two issues from the far right, but not the whole package. But they can only make headway by choosing issues that the CDU doesn't already cover. Finding those issues has been difficult."

Germany's weak right wing would disagree, of course. The groups Pro-NRW and Pro-Cologne -- the latter being a regional version of the former in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia -- have generated a modest amount of attention in recent years by waging political warfare against Muslims, mosques and minarets.

"The grotesque thing is that the CDU (under Merkel) has undergone a massive migration to the left," Markus Wiener, spokesman for Pro-NRW, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The CDU has become a centrist social democratic party. The right side of the political spectrum is completely vacant. Fifteen to 20 percent of Germans don't have a political home."

Much of the Islamophobic rhetoric used by pro-NRW has been borrowed from right-wing populist parties in Holland, Belgium, France and Switzerland. Indeed, the group has sought to develop a cross-border alliance of such parties in Western Europe.

'No Island of Sanity'

But the fact that Pro-NRW has had only limited success at the polls reflects another hurdle facing right-wing populists in Germany. Whereas immigration in countries like Denmark and Holland were fully liberalized for a time, resulting in the backlash one sees today, German immigration has always been strictly controlled, says Kober. Furthermore, the murder of the Muslim-critical filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist extremist in the Netherlands in 2004 and the international scandal in 2006 caused by the Muhammad caricatures published in a Danish newspaper galvanized conservatives in those two societies. Germany, though, has dodged such divisive events and has likewise not been hit by Islamist terror.

"German immigration policy has been cautiously modernized in a way that has brought the population along with it," Kober says.

Nevertheless, Kober emphasizes, there is nothing to prevent the development of a populist right wing in Germany in the future. Indeed, though Sarrazin has ruled out starting a political party himself, the debate he has triggered could ultimately serve to push more people to the right.

"We aren't that different from our neighbors," Kober says. "The xenophobic and anti-Muslim potential is there. I certainly wouldn't bet my life on Germany being an island of sanity."

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Graphic: Immigrants in Germany Zoom
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Graphic: Immigrants in Germany


Thilo Sarrazin's Urge to Provoke

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