The attack on a synagogue and the murder of a politician by right-wing extremists in 2019 sent shock waves through Germany. But the vast majority of Germans favor an open, tolerant society, writes Jens Thurau.
To mark the beginning of Hanukkah, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday sent a message of support to the country's Jewish community. She said it was a miracle that, after the Shoah, there is once again Jewish life in Germany. This miracle, she added, was something for which Germany can be "deeply thankful."
Many Jews in Germany, however, paint a far less rosy picture. They say they are facing growing hostility and are too scared to wear a kippah, the customary cap for Jewish men, in public. Moreover, in October, an armed man attempted to storm a synagogue in Halle, eastern Germany, at full capacity on Judaism's holiest day. The attacker ended up arbitrarily shooting and killing two individuals after failing to enter the place of worship.
Is Germany shifting towards the right?
Attacks like the one in Halle are routinely followed by politicians expressing their sympathy and stressing that something like this must never happen again. But many Jews in Germany have come to almost expect such extreme acts.
Are we, in fact, witnessing Germany's gradual shift towards the right? In a sense, the country certainly is. The electoral success at of Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — which has begun openly championing extreme ethnic nationalist positions — in state elections shows that many voters are no longer shocked by such views. Researchers, meanwhile, have shown that for many years now, some 15-20% of Germans have displayed an affinity towards a right-wing extremist worldview. What is different today is that it is apparently no longer taboo to publicly express such extreme opinions.
Chilling stories like the following illustrate this rightward shift: parents of schoolchildren in the state of Saxony, eastern Germany, reportedly objected to their kids reading The Diary of Anne Frank in class and then visiting the site of former Buchenwald concentration camp, in neighboring Thuringia.
Right-wing populism influential abroad
On the other hand, in international comparison, Germany is still looking relatively moderate. Think of Italy, for example, where until recently a member of the country's far-right League party served as interior minster. Or of Austria, where the right-wing populist Freedom Party formed part of the governing coalition.
At the heart of these developments lies a massive crisis of legitimacy among western democracies. The breakneck speed of globalization has left many people feeling uprooted and disoriented, and subsequently yearning for life to return to the simple, national parameters of the past — even though such a clearly demarcated world never actually existed.
Western democracies are struggling to keep up with the pace of these developments. Their decision-making processes are sluggish, leaving the populace waiting for genuine labor market, pension and nursing care reforms. And while a majority of people are actually participating in this new, interconnected digital era, those left behind feel even more disconnected. This is creating a rift in society, pitting the wealthy against the poor, the digital against the analog, and — above all — the urban against the rural.
2015 refugee influx sparked legitimacy crisis
In Germany, this polarization largely grew out of the large-scale influx of asylum-seekers in 2015, and sparked a wave of anti-migrant sentiment. Today, this resentment has escalated into full-fledged xenophobia, targeting all foreigners living in Germany, but also the country's Jewish community. Today, Germany — just like the US — finds itself embroiled in a kind of cultural clash between those feeling left behind and the so-called establishment, supposedly made up of the country's mainstream parties, the media and various minorities, including Jews. And neither camp — those feeling left behind and the supposed establishment — are willing to talk to each other.
Much will depend on whether Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) will continue to rule out forming a coalition with the AfD. In the state of Saxony-Anhalt, where the CDU forms part of a three-party state-level coalition, rank-and-file members have begun calling for the party to collaborate with the right-wing populists. Though we can never allow such a party — with an extreme ethnic nationalist faction and many neo-Nazis among its members — to form a German government!
Democrats must make themselves heard
The vast majority of Germans, who want to live in an open, tolerant society, must make themselves heard and fight much more passionately for democracy than they have so far. We need society to keep our laws, constitutions and democratic order alive.
So, a portion of German society is certainly drifting towards the right, and we are seeing the effects of this on our politics. Today, it would be hard to image Germany welcoming large numbers of asylum-seekers as it did back in 2015. But at the same time, there are still many open-minded Germans, too — and it is time for them to make themselves heard.