Return of xenophobia?

Rise of German right-wing

As anti-immigrant sentiment continues to sweep across Europe, generating a right-wing populist wave from the shores of the Mediterranean to the chilly reaches of Scandinavia, there is growing concern that such politics could take root in Germany  too, in the fertile ground of financial uncertainty, rising anti-Muslim sentiment and a widening political vacuum left by the misfortunes of the once mighty Christian Democratic Union.

While the Swedes this week elected an anti-immigrant party to Parliament for the first time, and the French are busy repatriating Roma, Germans continue to debate a best-selling book blaming Muslim immigrants for ‘dumbing down society’ and have heard a prominent conservative ally of the chancellor, Angela Merkel, suggest that Poland helped to instigate World War II.

“Uncertainty is widespread over German society,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin. “That is always a good base for those who tell the people all their problems can be solved by simple methods, by solutions that the others wouldn’t dare to do, like throw out the foreigners.”

Since the end of World War II, German laws, political elites and social conventions have prevented right-wing parties from earning enough of a following to win seats in parliament. The last time a far right party came close to reaching the five per cent threshold was in the 1970s, experts said.

But the nation’s political geography is being reshaped by strong gusts of discontent blowing in from different directions. Public resentments toward Europe were fanned by the German-led bailout of Greece, which Germans saw as paying for the profligacy and irresponsibility of others. At the same time, Germans, particularly younger generations, are feeling less constrained by their history and more comfortable in their national skin than at any time since World War II.

Into that environment came the book by the banker Thilo Sarrazin, ‘Germany Does Away With Itself,’ which argues that the nation’s generous social benefits have attracted large numbers of Muslim immigrants who have refused to integrate. The book does not address any of the endemic obstacles to integration, like discrimination in employment and mediocre schooling, but instead labels Muslim immigrants as genetically inferior.
The book and its popularity – it has sold about 600,000 copies in little more than a month – represent the one issue that seems to have unified the European public: hostility to foreigners, especially Muslims. Recent polls here said that a right-leaning party could now receive up to 20 per cent of the vote, which would put it in parliament, according to reports in the German Press Agency.

“It would be hard to cover all of this under one theme. Xenophobia? Not really. But it could turn into something like it,” said Michael Naumann, editor of the monthly political magazine Cicero in Berlin, about the regional political developments. “The search for scapegoats has started.”

Erika Steinbach, the official who made the remarks about Poland – and who leads a group representing ethnic Germans who were expelled from parts of Eastern Europe after the war – quit the executive committee of the Christian Democrats after a decade of service, telling the German newspaper Die Welt, “I represent conservatism there, but I feel more and more alone.”

The Christian Democrats, the dominant political force here for decades, have historically absorbed conservative, even moderately right-wing supporters while presenting themselves as the guardian of Christian values. But lately the party has been accused by some of its members of being no different from the more liberal Social Democrats and of enforcing a post-World War II political correctness that restricts debate about many issues – nationalism, religion, minorities, but especially immigration.

Merkel was criticised by some for condemning Sarrazin – before she had even read the book. Under pressure, Sarrazin resigned from the board of the central bank, and his party, the Social Democrats, began proceedings to expel him.

To some observers, the political elites’ stern treatment of these new ultraconservative voices only enhances their appeal.

“Steinbach is not very much liked, although she and Sarrazin are seen as people who are breaking up the politically correct tradition of dealing with the past,” said Wolfgang Nowak, former senior adviser to the previous chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder. “As most do not share their ideas, they do not agree with the way they are silenced.”

The Christian Democrats face a difficult balancing act, trying to acknowledge public frustrations without lending legitimacy to xenophobic and racist views. To ignore the problems, some say, potentially opens the field to right-ring parties.

“This means that right-wing populist parties enter a vacuum that comes into being because many people get the feeling that politicians are not aware of their day-to-day lives,” said Wolfgang Bosbach, a party member and deputy head of its bloc in Parliament.
At the moment, no one here is predicting the rise of a successful right-wing party, but that is because the main ingredient is missing: a charismatic leader to rally the public. With such a leader, and some financial support, the prospect could take on a life, political experts said.

But in Germany, where history still weighs heavily, who would dare?
“It is too early to say how it will turn out,” said Hans-Otto Braeutigam, a former German ambassador and political independent. “It may happen; I am worried. There are signals and signs, but they are not yet clear. I still hope we can overcome these problems with solutions.”


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