- Analysis -
PARIS — Nobel Prize laureate for literature Thomas Mann once said in a famous 1953 speech in Hamburg that a "European Germany" was the only alternative to the ever-present risk of a "German Europe."
In the wake of regional elections in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania that saw the far-right AfD party defeat Angela Merkel's CDU in the Chancellor's own home state, is this the end of German exceptionalism? Merkel is being confronted with the fact that, yes, Europe might be becoming more "German" in terms of economic and political weight, but Germany itself is also becoming more and more "European" in terms of rising nationalistic sentiments.
More than 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich, Germany is "normalizing" under a process accelerated by the massive influx of refugees. And with a federal election one year away, it now appears probable that for the first time since 1945, a far-right party will have elected representatives in the parliament, the Bundestag. That wasn't part of the script foreseen by the site's architect, who with his glass dome had turned the old Reichstag into a nave of hope, light and democratic transparency.
An end to German exceptionalism was probably inevitable with the passing of time — the natural erosion of the Chancellor's power after 10 years at the helm — but especially considering the impact of the influx of refugees on any democratic society. Because it "sinned" more than any other European nation, between 1933 and 1945, a "redemption-seeking" Germany felt a duty to show an exceptional "virtue".
How tragically ironic it is to see little German towns and villages — which under the Nazi regime sacrificed, on the altar of the maddest of ideologies, Jewish populations that represented no threat, whatsoever, and were perfectly integrated — welcome with open arms, because of their historical-guilt complex, populations that really are "other," and some members of which could turn out to be an actual danger to the local populations.
In accepting, mostly out of ethical reasons and in a very short period of time, more than one million refugees, Merkel showed political courage. But this courage has come at a cost.
The weakening of "the mother of Europe" comes at the worst time for the Union. If Europe can no longer count on Germany as a pillar of stability, then what hope is there for the continent?
Angela Merkel at the Bundestag on Sept. 6 — Photo: Michael Kappeler/DPA/ZUMA
Europe finds itself being taken hostage by two simultaneous disintegration processes. To the west with the "Brexit", and to the east with the central-European "counter-revolution." The British said "no" to remaining in the Union, while the Poles and Hungarians now clearly say "no" to Europe's founding values. Having learnt from the Greek example it's tourists they want and not refugees.
We can't expect Italy and its Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to take Britain's place, as some who clearly lack realism seem to hope. Since the British referendum of June 23, 2016, there's been less Britain in Europe and very probably less Europe in the world, too. Without overstating the results of the elections in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, we can still legitimately ask ourselves whether, since September 4, 2016, there hasn't been a little less Germany in Europe.
Asian countries, and particularly China, see things differently. In many ways, the far right's rise in Germany, or more generally in Europe, hardly worries them. As far as they're concerned, Germany, given its economic and commercial performances, is more than ever Europe, or at least what Europe should be. When the Chinese host the French president or the British Prime Minister, it is France and Britain they're hosting. With Merkel, they honor not just Germany, but all of Europe.
If Germany becomes more "European" in demonstrating a rise in populism, then Europe, in effect, becomes a little less 'German' because of Merkel's newfound political weakness.
If the "mother of democracies," Britain, chose to leave, if German exceptionalism is receding, if Italy is weakening, if the Greek issue comes back, then the French vote will be crucial.
Next spring, the French won't just choose a president: They'll have the opportunity to show that the rise of populism isn't unstoppable. While maintaining diplomatic restraint, those closest to Merkel are discreetly backing Alain Juppé (one of Nicolas Sarkozy's opponents in Les Républicains' primary), a reformist who seems the most capable of successfully resisting Marine Le Pen's Front National. This is despite the anticipatory buzz surrounding the potential presidential bid of 38-year-old Emmanuel Macron, who just resigned from his post as Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs.
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania that he would want to move there "when the end of the world is nigh" because he'd only hear about it "50 years later." But that doesn't make what happened in that province on September 4 any less serious a warning for Merkel, Germany, and the rest of Europe.