'Mommy Merkel' How the Chancellor Paralyzed German Politics
Shh, not so loud. Just don't fight or get worked up. The chancellor has asked for calm, including during the campaign season. No attacks, no impertinence, no major debates. Stay home -- and keep dozing!
This is how things look in Germany in 2013, and how they have looked throughout Angela Merkel's almost eight years as German chancellor. Merkel, the head of the ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), wants calm -- and she gets it, too. When a chancellor holds office for a long time, he or she affects the mood of a country, the disposition of the people. Eight years are long enough to do so. Not everything in Germany is influenced by Merkel, but enough is that it would be accurate to say that we are creatures of the Merkel Era.
What has become of us? What is the state of the country? The term that has been gradually taking hold to describe this period is "Biedermeier."
Peer Steinbrück, the chancellor candidate for the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), recently used the word while criticizing Merkel in a speech he delivered at a party convention, and the media had used it before him. It's not a term with positive associations, and few people would brag about living a "Biedermeier" life. Nevertheless, we seem to be living in a second Biedermeier period.
The first Biedermeier era began with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and ended in 1848, when Germany tried its hand at revolution. In Vienna, after emerging victorious against the revolutionary upstart Napoleon, the old, conservative monarchies re-established previous conditions and enforced them throughout Germany with the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819. Press censorship, in particular, was meant to prevent the spread of liberal and nationalist views. A portion of the disappointed middle class withdrew from public to private life, which had a detrimental effect on public discourse. Today, the word "Biedermeier" is mainly associated with the style of furniture typical of the period, as well as being used to express a certain quiet, lethargic sort of hominess.
Yet nationalist and liberal sentiments continued to simmer under the surface of the Biedermeier period. Many Germans wanted to combine their various small states into a unified nation-state, an ambition that also expressed itself in chauvinism toward France. Many also desired more freedoms and civil liberties, as well as the ability to have a greater say in political decision-making. Along with the apathy of the period, there was an underlying revolutionary mood, an anger that exploded first in 1830, on a small scale, and then in 1848, on a massive scale. Citizens put up some protest, but they were ultimately too indecisive to successfully establish a democracy and a nation-state.
The current chancellor certainly doesn't govern Germany with anything like the Carlsbad Decrees. Our freedoms remain undisturbed. Yet Merkel has managed to paralyze discourse in Germany and create a republic at ease.
Merkel comes from a consensus-based school of thought. She was raised in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), in which confrontation and polarization were viewed as unproductive. The country's ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) prescribed consensus and, thus, political calm. Even East German citizens who weren't party members and took a skeptical stance toward the system, such as Merkel, later had trouble adapting to the endless struggles that are part and parcel of life in a democracy.
Merkel avoids open confrontation whenever she can. She shies away from making clear statements, polarization and big social ideas that could spark disagreement. She's drifting through the current election campaign, hoping it will benefit her party if voter turnout is low because hardly anyone can find reason to get particularly worked up about how she leads Germany. Instead of making any demands, she doles out benefits to retirees and families. Indeed, she's sapping the life out of Germany and sprinkling powdered sugar on top.
And she's getting away with it. In 2009, she reduced voter turnout to a historic low. Since she doesn't offend anyone, she enjoys outstanding approval ratings. While combating the financial crisis, she has pursued policies that she declares to be "the only option." And, believing her, the SPD amiably toes the line in the best interest of the country. Merkel's main rival candidates from the SPD -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2009 and Peer Steinbrück in 2013 -- previously served as part of a grand coalition with her, the former as a foreign minister, the latter as finance minister. Ever since, they have seemed incapable of showing anything but complete respect and chivalry toward the chancellor. In fact, there have been no serious attacks on Merkel because there are no politicians willing to make themselves unpopular by taking a popular chancellor to task.
The general public, too, has remained calm -- just as Merkel likes it -- and no one seems to be able to come up with much reason to protest against her. There is no particular enthusiasm for Merkel, but rather paralyzed consent. People sit at home and read Landlust, a magazine that has achieved enormous success by telling stories about rural living and domestic bliss.
A Protective Mother
The country Merkel has created must remind her a bit of her first home, the GDR, which was Biedermeier in the form of a country. Of course, the Federal Republic of Germany is much freer than the GDR was. But this freedom, which is first and foremost the freedom to express disagreement, currently goes largely unutilized.
It is interesting that the most significant novel to come out of the Merkel era is a book about the GDR, Uwe Tellkamp's "Der Turm" ("The Tower"). Tellkamp describes a morbid, bourgeois world in the eastern city of Dresden in which politics per force play very little role and, ultimately, it is the city's beautiful buildings -- crumbling, but all the homier for it -- that set the mood. Add in the Leipzig School movement, which continues to set the tone for German painting, and "The Lives of Others" as Germany's most prominent recent contribution to filmmaking, and the GDR proves astonishingly influential in Germany's art scene today.
Politically, however, the GDR no longer has anything to say to us. It was an error of history, now irrelevant. Even Sahra Wagenknecht, a German politician from the far-left Left Party, whose communist ideas seem to be buoyed by capitalism's crises, says she wouldn't return to the GDR's political system. The interest in East Germany may also be explained by the widespread notion that things would be much more relaxing in the absence of politics. In that sense, Merkel is working to build a "tower" for everyone -- a sheltered place of calm, a homey home -- and Germans as a whole don't seem opposed to the idea.
This general quiet also has to do with the fact that Merkel and her ministers have so far managed to spare the country from the unpleasant consequences of the financial crisis. Unlike in Southern Europe, where enormous numbers of people are now unemployed, in Germany, the economy is growing and incomes are rising. This is commendable, but it also has something of a chauvinistic approach to it. The re-nationalization of politics is one of the Merkel Era's truly significant changes. The chancellor does not fundamentally reject solidarity with Germany's European partners, but she does set limits. There won't be eurobonds under Merkel.
Merkel's policies could even be described as expansionary. She would like for other countries to adopt Germany's standards of stability and efficiency, allowing Europe as a whole to become more competitive. That way, Merkel figures, Germany as a major power in Europe would be able to preserve its influence in the world. It's been a long time since a German politician dared to have so much national ambition. And this attitude is well received by the general public. For many Germans, Merkel is the defender of their homeland against the world.
The Pax Angela
It could be coincidence, but the most successful non-fiction book in Germany in recent years was Thilo Sarrazin's derogatory reflections on immigrants in his "Deutschland schafft sich ab" ("Germany Does Itself In"). The book assuredly isn't something Merkel herself supported or promoted, but it does fit with the prevailing mood of the times, in which some Germans are quick to feel their comfort zone has been disturbed, with anger often being the result.
Anger is surely the most oft-cited emotion in Germany's public life in recent years. But rather than being directed toward Merkel and her federal-level policies, this upwelling of revolutionary sentiment generally focuses on local issues. Germans have fought against the Stuttgart 21 train station project, against a new major airport in Berlin and against new power-cable masts that will be necessary for the Energiewende, Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy and massively increase its reliance on renewable energy sources. This is also a defense of the homeland, but one that takes place internally. Many Germans don't want to be inconvenienced by noise, dirt, aesthetic impositions or the uncertainties that always come with new things.
Just as in the Biedermeier period, the issue here is more about participation -- but it's participation meant to bring about an undisturbed life rather than a shared societal vision of a better world. In this respect, the second Biedermeier era is even more Biedermeier-like than the first one was.
At least democracy is alive and well at the local level. At the federal level, though, Merkel's Germany is by and large somnolent, in part because of the government's failure to present new ideas and plans. The chancellor gets by without them, and even the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, can't seem to muster up much of an alternative, happy to avoid any danger of becoming a target of hostility.
By and large, things are calm in Merkel's republic -- and that really is something new. All other German chancellors who served long terms in office had a polarizing effect -- Konrad Adenauer (CDU) with his conservatism and alliances with Western powers; Willy Brandt (SPD) with his social democratic reforms and Ostpolitik policies aimed at normalizing relations with communist countries in Eastern Europe; Helmut Schmidt (SPD) with his arrogance and rearmament; Helmut Kohl (CDU) with his continued rearmament, the phrase "intellectual and moral turning point" and his entire persona; Gerhard Schröder (SPD) with the Agenda 2010 package of reforms to Germany's welfare system and labor market.
It was only when she was the opposition leader, when she briefly imagined she could succeed with a neoliberal approach, that Merkel added a little spice to German politics. But as chancellor, she quickly became "mommy," a nickname that seemed silly at first but has since proved apt, in the sense that a "mommy" is someone who takes care of the home, makes life pleasant and keeps worries at bay.
No Conflict, No Progress
And why shouldn't life simply be pleasant? There are two reasons, one cultural and the other concrete. A democracy needs conflict and commotion to make sure that its citizens get involved rather than fall asleep. Calm is something for dictatorships, which depend on fear and general passivity. A democracy needs disruptions and vibrancy in its civilian life. It also needs these things to ensure that progress continues, as reforms only arise from conflict and polarization. Someone has an idea about how to change society; others disagree and protest. Then there is a compromise, one that hopefully remains clear enough that it actually does end up changing something.
There are still things to change in Germany. The country's demographic problems remain unsolved, children's opportunities in life depend on the social class they are born into, the workplace is lacking in equality, and the shift toward renewable energy sources has stalled.
Merkel's Germany largely lacks this process of creative conflict. The country drifts along lethargically, its democracy withering because its citizens are given so little to challenge them. For the upcoming federal election in September, Merkel is also counting on asymmetrical demobilization, and that's a scandal. One way to describe her strategy would be: Maintaining power by slowing suffocating the electorate. Another would be: Creating a Biedermeier society through her feel-good policies.
Are we really okay with this? After all, it would be horrible if future generations primarily associated our era, too, with furniture.