“You understand nothing about Germany,” a German friend remonstrated after I wrote a blistering attack on the long-serving chancellor’s open-door immigration policy.
I thought I knew something; during the first Reagan administration I spent two years in Germany as a journalist, occasionally shadowing then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and other unreliable public figures for friends in Washington. I spoke the language at nearly native level, published scholar articles on Goethe, Schiller, and Heine, as well as popular articles on Judaism’s encounter with German culture and related topics. The German friend in question, whose politics are impeccably conservative, cut me off for good.
As Germany prepares for its national elections next September, it occurs to me that I had something to learn after all.
Deplorably, I would vote for Angela Merkel, and urge my American friends to support the present Christian Democratic-Social Democratic coalition rather than the alternative: a “Red-Red-Green” coalition (Social Democrats plus the successor to the old East German Communist Party plus the Green Party). If Merkel loses. Germany will be ruled by Russian stooges. That’s the opposite of what some of Donald Trump’s closest supporters think. Most of them agree with British gadfly Nigel Farage, who told Germany’s national radio yesterday:
Well, I wouldn’t vote for Angela Merkel, that’s the first piece of advice I’d give. I mean, look at the catastrophic errors she made: opening up the doors to so-called refugees, it turned out that 70 percent of them were young males, economic migrants. And because she’s given up border controls, the most wanted man in Europe if not the world is able to catch a train to France, and then to Italy, without anyone checking who he is.
Farage is right, but he’s wrong. Many of my friends are making the same mistake that the neo-conservatives did; that is, attempting to export American ideas to place where they don’t belong. When they look at any part of the world, Americans ask: Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? In most places, there aren’t good guys and bad guys. There are just bad guys and worse guys.
Merkel’s migration policy is bad, but it is neither stupidly bad, nor wickedly bad. Rather, it is tragically bad. Germany has a gap in its soul. In between the citizen-of-the-world liberalism that characterizes its elite and the atavistic nationalism that attracts a small fringe, there is nothing there at all.
Nigel Farage is instantly recognizable as a character out of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Pirate King who yields to the chorus of cowardly policeman “because, with all our faults, we love our Queen.” To be specific, Farage is a monarchist who also wants to be a populist, a loyal servant of an imperial sovereign who presides over four nationalities (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) as well as the 52 nations of the British Commonwealth, but at the same time an English nationalist. Brexit, for which he agitated, is an instrument of English nationalism, celebrated under the red Cross of St. George rather than the Union Jack that superimposes the X-shaped Cross of St. Andrew. That is self-contradictory and silly, and the English tolerate him out of benevolent condescension.
What the ignorant deride as English hypocrisy actually is a national genius for living with contradiction. The greatest of these contradictions is a State Church with a Catholic theology headed by a national monarch rather than a pope, a construct so illogical that Sir Thomas More went to the chopping block rather than endorse it. It nonetheless has served the English reasonably well this past half-millennium. The sanctity of England is embodied in a monarch who is anointed like the kings of ancient Israel (The Crown Season 1, Episode 5 portrays this quite well). The radical Protestants who left England to found America thought this idolatrous (following John Milton among other Puritan sages) and proposed to transfer this sanctity to a people, provided, of course, that this people read the Bible and thus received revelation directly from Scripture without priestly mediation.
Americans are inherently populist; they are citizens who are sovereign individually and severally, an “almost chosen people” (Lincoln), sanctified through personal piety rather than ecclesiastical sacraments. The English are subjects of a sovereign who is sanctified by anointing at the hands of the Church of England. We are not simply two peoples divided by a common language, as George Bernard Shaw said. For all the habits and traditions we may share, it is not the accumulation of British tradition that makes us Americans, as T.S. Eliot or Russell Kirk believed, but the radical Protestant imagination. I made this case last March in my Russell Kirk Lecture at the Heritage Foundation, subsequently published in Tablet Magazine.
One simply cannot be a monarchist and a populist. But the English are tolerant of illogic, which is why they produce great humorists and bad philosophers (the Germans have bad humorists and good philosophers). Everyone in England knows that Nigel Farage is silly, which is why they sent him to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to be with the other silly people, rather than to the House of Commons in Westminster (his UK Independence Party has just one MP). Once the agitation for Brexit was over, Teresa May headed Her Majesty’s government, Jeremy Corbyn headed Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and Nigel Farage headed for the United States, in his capacity as genuine, certified, official English Good Guy. His successor in the UK Independence Party (whose leadership he had resigned) lost the election for Farage’s old seat at Strasbourg.
In that capacity Farage addressed the Conservative Political Action Committee last week in Washington, and declared that Trump’s victory was part of a global revolution including such parties as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), as well as Marine Le Pen’s National Front and populist parties in the Netherlands and Italy. That is utter tosh, but it appeals to the self-love of American conservatives, who like to imagine that the whole world validates their concerns. The AfD, far from echoing the Trump movement’s success, has slumped to just 8% in the most recent German opinion polls, following an internal Night of the Long Knives in which an overt neo-Nazi was expelled from the party’s ranks, against the objections of the party’s most senior leader.
Reuters reported on February 13:
Right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) members voted on Monday to expel one of the party’s state leaders who criticized a memorial in Berlin to victims of the Nazi Holocaust and said history should be rewritten to focus on German victims.
Party chief Frauke Petry insisted on the dismissal of Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD leader in Thuringia, while the AfD deputy leader Alexander Gauland defended him. Evidently the Hoecke affair disgusted German voters. There were genuine nationalists in the AfD, including the prominent Hamburg economist Bernd Lucke, but Lucke quit the AfD after losing a bid for party leader to Ms. Petry in 2015 along with other nationalists.
What might replace Merkel is not merely a Red-Red-Green coalition, but a Red-Red-Green-Brown coalition, with the de facto support of a spoiler party that harbors covert neo-Nazis, and cannot expel overt neo-Nazis without heart-rending internal debate. That is not the worst, however: the AfD stooges for Moscow.
As the Daily Express reported on February 22:
Right-wing politicians from the nationalist Alternative for Germany (Afd) party have met with senior figures close to president Vladimir Putin in Moscow to talk about starting youth wings.
AfD leader Frauke Petry flew to Moscow where she met Russian ultra-nationalists this week. And it raises yet more speculation that Russia is helping to support a wave of populist parties currently rising across Europe.
Alexander Gauland (who described Americans as “a people thrown together by chance without its own culture”) has been a regular visitor to Moscow for years on Putin’s ticket. Meanwhile the second “Red” in the “Red-Red-Green” mix, “The Left” (the lineal descendant of the East German Communist Party) is attacking immigration to try to poach voters from the AfD.
There is a canard promoted by Trump’s adversaries that conservative sympathy for European parties like the AfD stems from a grand conspiracy involving Vladimir Putin and the Trump movement. One reads such nonsense, for example, from Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic, a once-serious publication that should know better. On the contrary, Nigel Farage is the very model of a modern British democrat, and the notion that Germany’s AfD is of the same ilk is a case of mistaken identity right out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (The Sorcerer, perhaps). There is no democrat in the world more harmless and innocent of totalitarian stain than the well-meaning Mr. Farage. But that is not true of the useful idiots among the continental European parties. Apart from Germany, the leading populist party in Italy, the Five Star Movement, has the anti-Semite Beppe Grillo as its leader, a former stand-up comedian married to an Iranian Muslim.
It is useful to step back from the problems of political character and consider American interests in the cold light of day. Brexit isn’t bad for America; it reinforces the special relationship with Britain. If France, however, were to elect Marine Le Pen and put into play French membership in the EU, Germany would tilt eastward. The single most important news from Europe in the past year is the fact that Germany and China are now each other’s largest trading partners. Germany’s export confederation told the daily Handelsblatt, the country’s main financial newspaper, that if the U.S. goes protectionist, one could count on much closer relations between Germany and China. Russia, of course, is part of the bargain.
The last thing America should want is a Berlin that looks eastward rather than westward. Migrants in Germany can make all the mayhem they want, and we Americans may deplore it, but if the Germans choose to tolerate more crime and even more terrorism, that is their misery and of minor consequence to us. The idea that Germany is using the European Union as a blind behind which to cheapen its currency and cheat us in export markets comes (as I wrote Feb. 1 in Asia Times) from “Navarro-Navarro Land.” The U.S. stood godfather to the European Union, as the saying goes, to keep the Germans down, the Russians out, and the Americans in.
Few Americans really know how close we came to losing Germany to the Soviet orbit during the Cold War, or what risks we took to keep it in the West (I reported what I know of the story here). Helmut Schmidt, Germany’s chancellor during the 1980s, reasoned that if war came to Europe, the Germans would never know who won. He thought it best to surrender in advance. Helmut Kohl replaced him (probably with a bit of American help) in 1982, and stood at America’s side in return for American support for reunification. Angela Merkel was Kohl’s protégé, but forced him out over his improper use of funds for party purposes.
We should not risk giving back what we won at great risk during the Cold War. From an American standpoint, Germany’s decision to admit 1.3 million Muslim migrants seems foolish and self-destructive. We must be coldhearted enough to leave the Germans to sleep in the bed they have made for themselves.
Tragically, Angela Merkel is the best leader that Germany can produce at present.
I use the term “tragic” advisedly; Germany is doing the wrong thing because there is no right thing to do. Germany’s total fertility rate is just 1.4 children per female, but foreign-born women (8% of the population) accounted for 17% of all births as of 2010, which means that the native German TFR is around 1.3.
The two world wars left Germany crippled spiritually. From the 1780s to the 1920s, every important new idea in Western culture was first stated in German, and almost every scientific and mathematical discovery of note came from German universities. The country produced a veritable second Renaissance. The Germans know this, but they also recall Mephistopheles’ taunt in the Prologue in Heaven to “Faust” –man would live a little better without the spark of heaven’s light that God gave him, which he calls Reason, but only uses to be beastlier than any beast. The Germans are still trying to understand why the great and good inheritance of the German past failed to hold back the barbarians who transformed the country into a monster between 1933 and 1945.
I started at Columbia College in 1969, when Lionel Trilling, the teacher and inspiration to the neo-conservatives, still taught in the English Department. I never took a course with Trilling. He had written his dissertation on the Victorian poet and pedagogue Matthew Arnold, who wrote dreadful verse (“Dover Beach”) and taught a diluted version of the philosophy of Friedrich Schiller, namely art and beauty as a replacement for religion. Arnold seemed to me a dolt then, and if anything my opinion of him has only fallen over the years. Instead, I read all of Arnold’s source: everything that Schiller himself wrote, along with most of the important works of Goethe, Heine, Kant and Hegel. Schiller was wrong, but a genius. Goethe is the source of most of what is interesting in 19th and 20th century thought. It may seem borderline heretical to write this, but without Goethe and his influence on Kierkegaard I never could have grasped many of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century such as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Franz Rosenzweig, or Michael Wyschogrod.
Germans of my generation know comparatively little of their own culture. Paradoxically, it was much easier for me as an American Jew to draw on German thinking than it was for my German contemporaries, who feel betrayed by their own past. It was not only that the greatest of 20th century German philosophers, Martin Heidegger, was an unapologetic Nazi. Most of Germany’s greatest minds had succumbed in one way or another to the idolatry of Kultur. Germany fought the First World War under the banner of Kultur, and lost confidence in its own culture after the defeat of 1918. That is what the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst meant by making one of his characters say: “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my pistol.”
Germany has not learned how to assert its national identity except through an atavistic nationalism that must inevitably try to reinterpret Germany’s past in a vicious and dangerous fashion. There simply is no equivalent in England or France. Perhaps in the future it will learn to rehabilitate its great achievements while coming to terms with the wrong turn it took towards hell three generations ago; perhaps it simply will pass into history through indifference and infertility, to Mephisto’s taunt:
“Past?” A stupid word. Why past? Past, and pure nothing, one and the same thing. “It is past” — what should we read into this? It’s as good as if it never had been in the first place.
That is for the Germans to choose.
In the meantime, Angela Merkel is as good a partner as the United States will find in Germany. That is deplorable but true. I predict that she will win the September elections, because the Germans are not so dumb as to ignore wes Geistes Kind lurks in the alternative. To the extent America can help her to do so, we should help Merkel.