IT is 30 years today since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The popular uprising against communism in Eastern Europe is known in Germany as Die Wende (the turning point). It culminated in reunification of the post-war East and West German states. Strange, then, that – amongst some Germans at least – 2019 is also now being described as Die Wende.
The recent election result in the eastern German state of Thuringia came as quite a shock to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU party. It had achieved the highest vote in all previous elections there since reunification in 1990. But, on Sunday, it came in third with a lowly 21.8 per cent (-11.7).
Germany’s other ‘centre’ party of national government, the SPD, did even worse. It attracted just 8.5 per cent (-4.2) of votes. As results came in, Chancellor Merkel’s party admitted it had been a ‘bitter evening for the democratic centre’.
They were right to be worried. The great ‘turning point’ of unification is evolving into disunification. The Times correspondent in Berlin reports a ‘fracturing of Germany’s political system, which some observers compared to the polarisation and instability of the Weimar Republic’.
Thuringia’s Left Party, heirs of the former East German communists, won the highest percentage of votes, with 31 per cent (+2.8). In alliance with the Greens, it had formed the pre-election coalition government of Thuringia. The Greens, whose vote fell slightly to 5.2 per cent (-0.5), will need to ally with the SDP and the smaller FDP (Free Democratic Party) to sustain a Left Party government.
The big gains in the election were achieved by the Eurosceptic AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party that won 23.4 per cent (+12.8) of the vote.
Given a high turnout of close to 65 per cent, compared to under 53 per cent five years ago, something is clearly stirring in the former DDR (East Germany). The AfD has significant support. In September, it won 27.5 per cent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt and 23.5 per cent in Brandenburg. On a recent visit to the east, I was struck by a socially conservative outlook that is much at odds with western parts of the country.
The AfD leader in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, represents a very different view of Germany’s place in the world than the one presented by Angela Merkel and most other German politicians. Following the AfD’s latest electoral success, he announced that, ‘Today, the Thuringians backed Die Wende 2.’ Hörke told public broadcaster ARD that the current situation ‘can’t go on’ and that the message from Thuringia is that Germany must have what he called ‘renewal’ – a new turning point.
Höcke is a controversial figure. On German national television he has been compared to Adolf Hitler, but the AfD’s co-leader, Alexander Gauland, claims that Höcke ‘is not pulling the party to the right.’ His description of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as a ‘memorial of shame’ should though, surely, make it more, not less, acceptable. A problem for German governments is that in seeking to make amends for the past, they are jeopardising both their own country’s and Europe’s stability.
The growth of so-called populism across the EU, including Britain, is an understandable response to the unpopularity of national and international (EU) government. The polarisation of politics and society in both Germany and Italy, for example, is to a considerable extent, the fault of government policy in permitting uncontrolled immigration. And, given that ‘free movement’ has long been an article of faith, as well as of law, for many EU political leaders, a reaction by many people across the continent was inevitable.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communist Eastern Europe and of the USSR was a triumph for Western liberalism. The liberal hubris that has followed, however, is now sowing some seeds of self-destruction for the West. Societies are becoming increasingly polarised.
Did we defeat totalitarian communism in Europe in order to erase the sovereignty of nation states via the European Union? During the euphoria of that evening of liberation in Berlin on November 9, 1989, when the wall started to fall, few could have predicted the pathway to polarisation that has led inexorably to the emergence of populist parties across Europe.
The AfD in Germany, the League in Italy, Golden Dawn in Greece, Podemos (Left) and Vox (Right) in Spain, the Sweden Democrats, France’s National Rally (formerly National Front) are the true products of that momentous evening in Berlin 30 years ago.
The Berlin Wall has gone, but it has been replaced by new walls of division between people across Europe. So much for European union. Die Wende 2 may soon be upon us.