Germany in Decline: How Political Illusions Have Fostered the Extreme Right in Europe’s Powerhouse

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The elections for the European Parliament saw a shift to the far right across the EU member states. In Germany, the neo-fascist Alternative for Germans (AfD) party increased its share of the vote by almost a third to around 16%. How did it come to this?

To understand the rise of the extreme right, it is worth taking a closer look at the major center of the European Union.

Germany was long regarded as an industrial and political powerhouse in Europe. It was celebrated for having reinvented democracy in the country after the Nazi regime and created a dynamic social market economy. At the same time, it presented itself as a moderate player and climate leader on the world stage, standing up for global values and prioritizing diplomacy.

“Prosperity for all” and “Values for all” were the guiding principles of reunified Germany. Certainly, they were never really a reality. Neither in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) nor in the old Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), against which emerging generations rebelled in the 1960s, 1970s and late 1980s and thus civilized Germany.

Inequality and poverty, exclusion of minorities, defamation of critics and support for military violence have always existed in Germany, as in other countries around the world, despite all the improvements and positive developments that have been fought for from below.

But in the last three decades, German politics has taken a fatal turn. This has been accompanied by a creeping process, in which society eroded, while even the aspiration to social equality, democratic strengthening of the public sphere and the promotion of policies toward global peace and prosperity has increasingly disappeared behind mere rhetoric. Instead of progress, there were setbacks.

In order to conceal the turn away from goals like general prosperity and values, illusions were created about what actually drives politics. Social cuts and austerity (not for the corporations and the rich, of course), were disguised behind nice sounding labels such as “Agenda 2010” or “reform”.

However, this did not, as promised, create millions of jobs and advance Germany economically. The fact that the German economy was able to stay afloat to some extent was not due to social cuts, wage pressure and “liberalization”. In the end, it was the global economy picking up again and the growing German export machine that allowed Germany to grow, albeit moderately.

The “reforms” actually achieved something: Social and economic inequality in the country worsened. It created the largest low-wage sector in Europe, dampened domestic demand (and created a dangerous dependence on foreign markets) and increased poverty. The income gap widened. Later, the German Kanzleramt exported austerity to the whole of the European Union during the Euro crisis, pressuring especially Greece to undertake devastating social and economic cuts.

There were also profiteers. Businesses, investors and the wealthy in the country rejoiced. Today, wealth is more unevenly distributed in Germany than in almost any other country in Europe. According to official statistics, the richest one hundredth, the top one percent, now owns over two trillion euros.

But it is probably much more. According to figures of a major research institute in Germany, the Institut für Makroökonomie und Konjunkturforschung (IMK), it is in fact rather three and a half times as much. Wealth is difficult to measure in Germany – why is that?

Alarm bells should go off when the four richest families in Germany have as much wealth as the lower half of the income group. The 200 billion euros of the bottom half roughly corresponds to the assets of families like Böhringer (70 billion euros from Pharma corporation Boehringer, estimate by “Netzwerk Steuergerechtigkeit”), Schwarz (45 billion from supermarket chains Lidl, Kaufland), Quandt siblings (50 billion from auto company BMW) and Heister & Albrecht (33 billion from supermarket chains Aldi, Trader Joe’s). This undermines democracy and turns it into a farce. After all, money translates into power and influence.

Many areas that people in the country have to rely on in order to live in safety have been commercialized and made “effective”. The state of the German Railways, the healthcare system, pensions, agriculture, real estate markets and education systems show where this has led. Once comparably in good shape, now these infrastructures are dysfunctional, expensive, unfair and polluting.

That has been the background for growing frustration. To cover up the causes of the grievances, the political class started to blame refugees and migrants for the mess. Served on a silver platter by the establishment and mainstream press, the “illegal invaders” are perfect scapegoats for the authoritarian right to be picked up and being used for winning votes. That has been extremely successful not only in Germany – the rise of the neo-fascist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) began with the moral panic that was created around the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015/2016 – but also in whole of Europe and the U.S., too.

Yet politicians and the media continue to disseminate the myth that everything is basically okay, that a band-aid here and there will suffice: a little more social assistance –which not even makes up for the loss of purchasing power caused by the inflation – or one euro more minimum wage – which is often undermined by companies anyway.

However, anyone who wants to lay hands on the extreme salaries and assets, on the capital gains of investors and companies (often parked in tax swamps), is either punished with ignorance (see the Left’s demands in the Bundestag) or attacked with economic doomsday scenarios.

Attorney general Anne Brorhilker, Germany’s most important “cum-ex” investigator – the largest German tax scandal with 1,700 defendants and twelve billion euros of taxpayers’ money burned, with which chancellor Olaf Scholz is associatedrecently quit her job and is now with the NGO “Finanzwende”.

Ultimately, none of those responsible are interested in prosecuting and punishing white-collar crime committed by the powerful, explains the frustrated former attorney general. “You hang the small ones, you let the big ones go,” she says. The “successor models” of tax theft are already active, as there is no state control, Brorhilker added.

Do the Math: Welcome to Climate Reality

Let’s take another policy area in which illusions obscure the view of what needs to be done. Germany was long regarded as a climate pioneer and role model climate country. That has never been true. The country has always lived on far too large a CO2 footprint, is historically one of the biggest polluters and has automatically “lost” many emissions since 1990 as a result the so-called “wall-fall profit” during reunification as the extremely dirty energy sector and industry in the new federal states of the former GDR collapsed and were renewed.

Later on reductions were caused by the financial and economic crisis, the coronavirus crisis and the energy and inflation crisis. A large part of the reduction in greenhouse gases in Germany is therefore due to external effects, not active climate protection.

Beginning of June, the Expert Council for Climate Issues (“Expertenrat für Klimafragen”) announced in a report that Germany will miss even its own targets. Both for the year 2030 and for climate neutrality by 2045. Germany will not even achieve decarbonization, i.e. zero greenhouse gases, by 2050.

But the situation is actually even worse. Germany’s official “ambitious” targets are far too weak and incompatible with the 1.5 to two degree Celsius (34,7 to 35,6 degree Fahrenheit) target that all signatory states, including Germany, committed to in the Paris Climate Agreement.

This is because global greenhouse gases have continued to rise, and are still increasing, since 1990. The remaining CO2 budget for global warming, which could keep the risk of triggering tipping points in the Earth system just in check, has therefore shrunk dramatically. According to the consensus of climate scientists and the international climate agreements, the temperature rise should in no case exceed two degrees to avoid runaway climate change, and some consider two degrees already to be too dangerous.

However, the budget for this upper limit is currently less than 750 billion tons carbon dioxide worldwide. But we consume almost 40 billion every year, so the CO2 hourglass is trickling fast.

With a reasonably fair distribution of this budget, there are not many emissions left for the wealthier industrialized countries. They would have to get to zero by 2030 to 2035, as climate scientists point out, not around the turn of the century.

To achieve this, the developing countries – which still have increasing energy and electricity demand and do not have the means to make the immediate technological transition to renewable energy systems themselves – would have to receive up to two trillion dollars a year in funding, primarily for the energy transition, from the rich countries, the main cause of the climate crisis, as calculations show.

Yet despite the extreme reality of emissions and the German government’s course of continuing to claim a massive CO2 budget for itself (in fact around double the maximum) and not providing anywhere near the necessary funding for climate financing for the Global South, and despite the extremely short window of opportunity for change, chancellor Olaf Scholz declared in response to a question about the current climate hunger strike and their demand to recognize scientific reality, that Germany still has an eye on the goal of stopping global warming at 1.5 degrees.

Everyone knows that the upper limit of 1.5 degrees plus can no longer be maintained unless there is an immediate 180-degree turnaround in policy, especially in the industrialized countries. You just have to do the math: We are now at around 1.1 degrees of global warming. The CO2 budget for 1.5 degrees is currently less than 350 billion tons of carbon dioxide globally, which may still be emitted.

However, according to the voluntary and non-binding climate targets that countries have set for 2030 at the climate summits, this budget will be almost exhausted by 2030 – provided that everyone meets their “ambitious” reduction targets. Otherwise, it will get even worse. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) just said the world will overshoot the 1.5 target in at least one of the next five years.

So when the German government keeps repeating that it is sticking to the Paris Agreement and the 1.5 degree Celsius target, it is living in a world of illusion, along the lines of “Olaf in Wonderland” – and with it the media, which convey this to the public without comment and without providing the context.

Even worse, politicians and journalists boosted toxic narratives. To appease the fossil lobbies and slow down the transition the establishment sabotaged the so called “Energiewende”, denounced demands for acting on the emergency, discredited protesters as “terrorists” and framed climate protection as an economic burden as well as a threat to prosperity especially for the lower and middle classes. Meanwhile, windmills, solar panels and electric cars have been dragged into cultural wars.

That has made it easy for the AfD and right-wing forces to present climate policies as an elite project and themselves as firm protector of ordinary people against the burdensome and costly energy shift.

“Zeitenwende”: War as the Answer to Conflict

In terms of foreign policy, the German train is also heading in the wrong direction, namely towards “military solutions” as the answer to conflicts in the 21st century. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the peace dividend could have been collected and an independent path taken together with the other European states. Independent of the USA.

But eventually, they did not have the courage to say goodbye to Washington’s toxic security concept (“security” as a code word for dominance and expansion of spheres of influence), which they continued to side with. The result was NATO military operations in Yugoslavia, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and “counter-terrorism” missions by US special forces around the world, the so-called dirty wars.

According to Brown University, 4.5 million people have been killed in the course of the “wars on terror”, which at the same time have bred more and more terror. All this has not made the world safer, but more insecure.

Western acts of aggression were at the same time justified towards the domestic population with noble values. It was said that they wanted to protect people, create stability and build democracy.

Instead of de-escalating conflicts, the focus was always on confrontation. In Ukraine, the West, driven by the USA, has been waging a de facto proxy war with Russia since the fall of the Yanukovych government and Maidan protests in 2014. Diplomatic solutions would have been feasible (especially if the US had declared that it would take Moscow’s security needs into account and not admit Ukraine to NATO).

Now the whole thing threatens to end in another fiasco after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which motivated chancellor Scholz to declare a “Zeitenwende”, a shift toward a military buildup. Despite massive support from the West, Ukraine is far from victorious – on the contrary. And as a side effect of the ongoing war and the sanctions regime the developing countries are suffering food and energy shortages as well as rising costs, while Germany and Europa face de-industrialization risks.

Despite the bleak prospects on the battlefield, the destruction of Ukraine and the killing of many thousands of Ukrainians, in Germany as in whole of Europe and the U.S. slogans of perseverance and a mood of victory are unwaveringly spread. Realpolitik has long since been replaced by illusionary politics.

And then there is the Middle East with its still enormous resources. The Gaza war, the fifth already, and the continuing ironclad support of Israel by the USA and Germany, as well as the European countries, albeit increasingly grumpy, in what the International Court of Justice calls “plausible genocide” – new details of atrocity come to light almost daily (including mass graves and signs of torture) – are increasingly plunging the region into chaos.

While a fatal direct war between NATO and Russia looms in Ukraine, including a nuclear threat and the prospect of a third world war, the Middle East could be set on fire by the escalation of the Netanyahu government. The military exchanges between Israel and Iran, the Houthi attacks in Yemen, the reciprocal attacks on the border with Lebanon with Hezbollah are a constant playing with fire.

Germany, Europe, the West, have nothing to gain from this escalation, only to lose. They have long since lost the global community. The Global South is turning its back on them.

This persistent reliance on and support for “military solutions” has also left its mark at home. Military budgets are growing, nuclear deterrence is in vogue and arms exports are seen as a sign of a global sense of responsibility.

Politicians like Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (Liberals) and Anton Hofreiter (Greens) have risen to become political figureheads in Germany as vocal pioneers of this new militant attitude – reinforced by the media – which is all about weapons and victories on the battlefield. The fact that the Bundesliga soccer club and Champions League finalist Borussia Dortmund has now landed the arms company Rheinmetall as a lead sponsor, and that this is somehow shrugged off as okay, shows how far the normalization of the military has come.

A serious debate about alternatives, civil conflict resolution and criticism of Germany’s approaches under US leadership is being nipped in the bud at the same time. Contexts and the genesis of conflicts such as NATO’s eastward expansion or Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime – which has been able to reject a Palestinian state for decades with the help of the USA and European ignorance, even though it is a serious violation of international law – are ignored or declared irrelevant.

Anyone who addresses the context and advocates diplomacy is considered a “Putin apologist”. In the case of the Gaza war, there has even been an authoritarian backlash against protest and objections.

Journalists, artists, academics, civil servants and professional soccer players have lost their jobs in Germany in the last eight months because of their criticism of Israel’s policies. Events were canceled, a quarter of which involved Jews and Israelis, according to the Diaspora Alliance. Demonstrations were banned or violently dispersed.

Social media is scanned by pro-Israel activists, as the Israeli magazine +972 explains in an investigation, to find “evidence” of expressions of solidarity (often dating back many years) and then scandalize them. At the same time, “anti-Semitism commissioners” have been installed at all levels of government. Even criticism of the Israeli war and occupation by Jews and Israelis is now sometimes denounced as anti-Semitic.

600 civil servants and employees of various ministries and authorities in Germany finally issued a statement calling on the German government to immediately stop supplying arms to the Israeli government. They wished to remain anonymous. One of the authors, a senior employee, spoke of a “climate of fear” within the authorities and ministries that he had “never experienced in 15 years”.

The more closely Germany has tied itself to the USA in terms of foreign policy and taken an uncompromising and aggressive stand against Russia, China and diplomatic solutions, including in the Middle East conflict, the easier it has been for the AfD to present itself as an antiwar party. And while state bans and courts are increasingly cracking down on fundamental rights, which is also supported by some on the left, the right can hold up the flag of freedom of speech and attack the cancel culture.

Germany’s self-image of being a vibrant democracy, a social market economy, a peaceful player in the middle of Europe and on the world stage and a responsible “climate pioneer” – all of this has very little to do with reality today.

This does not mean that everything is bad and that there are no positive developments. There is enduring opposition to failed climate policies and aggression, while movements campaign for affordable rents and tax justice. But the courage to be honest is hardly to be found in established politics, the media and the powerful centers of society. Not to speak of the will to act on the grievances.

This political failure is the main driver of frustration, which can be exploited by those who want to push Germany and Europe to the far right. This won’t stop unless the underlying problems are seriously addressed. As Germany is still the political and economic powerhouse in Europe, it can make a huge difference if the country decides to correct and eventually change course.

This is why civil society has such an important role to play in bringing about the progress that is urgently needed. It will not work without honesty and open debate. Because improvement begins with admitting what is, not with illusions.

David Goeßmann is a journalist based in Berlin/Germany. He has worked for several media outlets including Spiegel Online, ARD, and ZDF. His articles have appeared at Truthout, Common Dreams and The Progressive. His books analyze climate and foreign policies, global justice, and media bias.