BERLIN – In recent weeks, bizarre political controversies have dominated the American and German media. The United States is still debating President Donald Trump’s equivocating response to violence committed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. And Germans have been responding to an essay published by Deputy Finance Minister Jens Spahn, in which he complains that English-speaking hipsters in Berlin are eroding German national identity.
These debates shed light on how history and national identity inform each country’s politics. In Charlottesville, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people. He and many other white supremacists were in Charlottesville to protest a decision by the city to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. When they were met by counter-demonstrators, some responded with violence.
Clearly, the politics of cultural identity has eclipsed that of socioeconomic class in the U.S. By defending contested monuments and asserting that “both sides” were to blame in the Charlottesville tragedy, Trump is signaling his predominantly white support base that he will fight for their rights as a “threatened majority.” His campaign promise to “make America great again” was, after all, always code for opposition to an increasingly multiethnic America.
It is not surprising that Lee’s legacy would become a symbolic flash point, given America’s history of race relations. But the fact that many white supremacists in Charlottesville were chanting “Jews will not replace us” shows that one kind of intolerance can quickly morph into another.
Even as the Holocaust passes from memory into history, it is unthinkable that a German political leader would indulge such anti-Semitism among his or her supporters.
But anxiety about national identity is still alive and well in Germany, especially since the arrival of more than a million refugees since 2015. This explains why Spahn, a rising star in the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU), could write an article for the influential German weekly Die Zeit attacking “elitist hipsters” for speaking English, and bemoaning the proliferation of English-language menus in restaurants and coffee shops.
According to Spahn, older Germans such as his parents will soon feel like “strangers in their own land.” The spread of English among the cosmopolitan “Easyjet generation,” he writes, will lead to a “parallel society” in which “cultural differences” have been negated, and German national culture has been destroyed. How can Germans demand that refugees and immigrants integrate themselves into German society, he asks, if Germans won’t even speak their own language?
Berlin-based elites have responded to Spahn’s essay with mockery, itself a reflection of the German capital’s increasingly cosmopolitan political culture since reunification. Today’s German elites share an outlook that is a far cry from the inward-looking provincialism of the postwar Bonn Republic.
As a 30-something gay member of the Berlin political class, Spahn may seem like an odd mouthpiece for an attack on cosmopolitanism. But Spahn is an ambitious political strategist with an eye on his electoral future, and he is no stranger to controversy. A self-styled “burkaphobe,” he has been a vocal critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy; and he has called for laws to regulate what can be preached in mosques, and to create a registry for Muslim clerics.
Spahn is determined to keep older, conservative, religiously inclined voters from abandoning the CDU for the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). But, not surprisingly, he has also been accused of drinking from the same political well as Trump. In that sense, the debate in Germany today is essentially a politer, more politically correct version of the one playing out in the U.S.
In “The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics,” British journalist David Goodhart argues that today’s politics is no longer a battle between left and right. Instead, it is a struggle between the “educated, mobile people who see the world from ‘Anywhere’ and who value autonomy and fluidity,” and “the more rooted, generally less well-educated people who see the world from ‘Somewhere’ and prioritize group attachments and security.”
Of course, unlike the U.S., Germany has so far been remarkably immune to the populist turn that has upended politics in other Western countries. For all the Sturm und Drang about refugees, Merkel and the CDU maintain a towering lead over all other parties in the polls. In the federal election on Sept. 24, the AfD will be lucky to win a tenth of the vote.
This makes Spahn’s ambitious intervention especially noteworthy. As a possible successor to Merkel, his decision to attack cosmopolitanism during the election campaign reveals a lot about what he foresees in German politics. Rather than seeing Germany’s moderate parties as pioneers of a cosmopolitan future, Spahn seems to regard his country’s failure to embrace identity politics as strangely out of touch.
According to Spahn, “elitist hipsters” may think they are being cosmopolitan, but they are actually betraying their own provincialism. While they are busy speaking English to one another, most other countries are celebrating their national language and identity.
Spahn seems to be making a similar point about political correctness, by implying that if Germany’s main parties do not defend traditional “Germanness,” then right-wing extremists will. But Spahn’s apparent bet that Trump-style politics will take hold in Germany is risky, given the extent to which Berlin, of all places, has witnessed the tragedies of identity politics. The prophylaxis of history surely will not wear off as easily as Spahn assumes.
Still, Spahn’s suspicions about the future of German politics are worrying. The debate in Germany, as in the U.S., offers a window onto the soul not just of political leaders but also of the people who elect them.
Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think tank, and is chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Geoeconomics. © Project Syndicate, 2017 www.project-syndicate.org