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Germany fighting for its identity

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
September 1, 2019

On the 80th anniversary of the first battle of World War II, the right-wing populist AfD party scored its strongest-ever results in two states. Germany is now wrestling with itself, says DW's Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl.

Protest sign reading "Racist, misogynist, unsocial, and undemocratic — Stop the AfD"
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, Germany began World War II with an attack on Poland. Unspeakable atrocities followed, including millions of dead and wounded, innumerable rapes, displaced persons and a world that is still recovering from the destructive rage of the Nazis.

Exactly 80 years later, a German political party that campaigns for votes primarily on a platform of nationalistic ideas and racist exclusion is celebrating double-digit successes in two former East German states. These are the best results in the party’s short history: Within just a few years, it has managed to rise from a small fringe party to the second-strongest political force in the state parliaments. Polls had predicted it could become the top party in Saxony; that did not come to pass, but there is no room for rejoicing in its close second-place finish.

Read more: Why the state elections in eastern Germany matter

Economically successful times

So what does it say about Germany that this sort of party can flourish in economically very successful — and relatively politically stable — times? And what is to be feared when times change and Germany finds itself in the maelstrom of a global recession? What measures are in place to prevent the mistakes of the past? How sure can we be that a party with primarily racist members can never again take over the German government?

The two established parties, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), have now had their worst showings in those states since reunification. This trend essentially means it will become more and more complicated to find government alliances even in the hitherto stable Germany. And the principle of these two vast Volksparteien — the longstanding "people's parties" that have long scooped up votes from the vast middle ground between the right and left extremes — no longer works.

All this shows how much Germany is struggling with what kind of country it really wants to be. Which course does it want to chart on refugee policy, not to mention the major economic and social issues of our time? How much nation-state should there be, and how much Europe?

Arrogance is out of place

It's a fact of life that you need the benefit of hindsight in order to truly recognize and evaluate what has happened in a historical moment, and what influence these events might have on the future. In this respect, one can only speculate on what will be read in the history books about September 1, 2019.

No question: These election results will inspire the AfD nationwide. The party is a force to be reckoned with that will not disappear so quickly. This requires the other parties to find a way to deal with it. To face the AfD's success with proud, haughty arrogance would be a fatal mistake. These results have brutally demonstrated to political leaders that something is going awry in the country, and they must look and listen more closely to what drives voters into the arms of populists.

However, it is also part of Germany's historical responsibility to have principles that are non-negotiable. This includes the freedom of religion as well as the right to asylum for people in need. These principles must never be sacrificed, no matter how difficult forming a government may be.

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl