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Germany reassesses Angela Merkel

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Welcome back. On Wednesday the German authorities announced that they had stamped out a far-right plot to overthrow democracy. I’ll be taking a look at that and also at how Germans are starting to reassess the political legacy of Angela Merkel. You can find me at tony.barber@ft.com.

First, the results of last week’s poll, which asked if you thought Russia’s treatment of Ukrainian children during the war amounts to genocide. Some 86 per cent of you said yes, 8 per cent said no and 6 per cent were on the fence.

Bunglers, weirdos and nostalgists

The extreme rightwing conspirators who were arrested in Germany this week never stood a chance of success. Mostly they were an assortment of “bunglers, weirdos and nostalgists”, as I described them on the day the news broke of the plot.

Undeniably, however, there has been a persistent far-right problem in Germany, not least in the military and security services, since reunification in 1990. Neo-Nazis are only one part of the picture, and not the most important.

As in other western democracies, from the US and France to Italy and Sweden, the main issue isn’t neo-fascism but a more modern — or, more accurately, “anti-modern” — rightwing mistrust of the rational, liberal democratic order. It’s fuelled by conspiracy theories about non-white, non-Christian immigration, anti-Covid vaccination programmes, child abuse and the “deep state” alleged to manipulate the lives of citizens.

During the pandemic, Erika Solomon wrote a fine piece for the FT about how these conspiracy theories were gaining ground in Germany. She quoted Miro Dittrich, a specialist on the far right and social media, as saying some people were “getting lost in alternative realities, in collective delusions”.

Merkel’s legacy under scrutiny

It would be entirely wrong to lay the blame for this on Merkel, who served as chancellor from 2005 to 2021. However, in areas from defence and foreign policy to energy and economics, her legacy is under increasing scrutiny — giving rise to searing criticisms of a kind she rarely experienced in power.

She undoubtedly saw this coming, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. That’s why she broke her silence and began to give extensive interviews to German news outlets such as Der Spiegel, Stern and, this week, Die Zeit.

On the question of rightwing extremism, I take the view that Merkel’s consensual style of rule and occasionally abrupt turns of policy did create conditions for the growth of the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Unlike the arrested conspirators, who fantasised about abolishing the Federal Republic established in 1949 and making a 71-year-old real estate developer called Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss the head of state, the AfD seeks influence partly by competing in free parliamentary elections. During Merkel’s chancellorship, the AfD arrived from nowhere to become, between 2017 and 2021, the third largest party and official opposition in the Bundestag.

One reason was her decision to open Germany’s doors in 2015 to 1mn or so refugees and migrants, largely from conflict-ridden Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It was a supremely generous gesture, and the process of integrating the newcomers into German society has gone better than many forecast, but at the time it stirred much controversy and drove up support for the AfD.

Less defensible was Merkel’s predilection for ruling in “grand coalitions” that combined her Christian Democrats with the Social Democratic party. These accounted for three of her four governments, spread over 12 of her 16 years in office, and contributed to the AfD’s image as a nonconformist party that would speak up for excluded voters.

Getting Russia — and Neville Chamberlain — wrong

The hot topic of the moment is whether Merkel made Germany too dependent on Russian energy and misjudged security threats in eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. As Der Spiegel puts it, her reputation since she left office “has transformed from crisis manager to crisis maker”.

In her interview with that magazine, Merkel mentions that she liked Munich: The Edge of War, a 2021 Netflix film based on a Robert Harris novel. This portrayed British premier Neville Chamberlain not as a leader whose appeasement of Nazi Germany was catastrophically wrong, but as someone who cleverly bought time for the UK to rearm and later fight a successful war against Adolf Hitler.

Merkel thinks that, like Chamberlain, she bought time for Ukraine by negotiating with Putin after his 2014 annexation of Crimea and armed intervention in the eastern Donbas region. When Russia’s full-scale attack began this year, Ukraine was better prepared.

For me, this defence of Chamberlain — and of German policy towards Russia under Merkel — doesn’t hold water. Horace Wilson, a close adviser to Chamberlain in the late 1930s, confessed in retirement in 1962: “Our policy was never designed just to postpone war, or enable us to enter war more united. The aim of our appeasement was to avoid war altogether, for all time.”

Chamberlain and Merkel had a blind spot in common. He was part of a generation horrified by the carnage of the first world war. He struggled to grasp that the leader of a civilised country like Germany was fanatical enough to want a new war of conquest and annihilation at any price.

Likewise, Merkel and her advisers thought all-out war belonged to Europe’s dark 20th-century history, not to our own age. They did far too little to remedy the weaknesses of Germany’s armed forces, and they turned a deaf ear to the warnings of allies such as Poland and the Baltic states about Putin’s increasingly aggressive intentions.

Now Germany’s policies are changing in response to the Zeitenwende proclaimed in February by Olaf Scholz, who succeeded Merkel as chancellor. What does this mean in practice? For answers, I’ll sign off by guiding you to this new essay in Foreign Affairs magazine by none other than Scholz himself.

More on this topic

Breaking with convention? Zeitenwende and the traditional pillars of German foreign policy — an analysis in the journal International Affairs by Bernhard Blumenau, lecturer at the University of St Andrews

Notable, quotable

“It’s far less boring than Brussels” — Albanian prime minister Edi Rama has some fun explaining why EU and western Balkan leaders chose to meet this week in Tirana, his nation’s capital

Tony’s picks of the week

  • As the car industry shifts towards electric vehicles, China is turning itself into the battery workshop of the world. The FT’s Peter Campbell in London and Harry Dempsey in Singapore have the story

  • Spain marked the 44th anniversary of its democratic constitution amid controversy over whether political party fragmentation and Catalan secessionism mean the document should be updated. Anabel Díez and Miquel Alberola set out what’s at stake in the Madrid newspaper El País

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