Six German state governments have elections this year. Two others have local elections. That’s a total of eight states of sixteen having some kind of elections. Everyone in Germany has the all-important national Bundestag election in September 2021, eight months from this writing. They’re calling it a Superwahljar (Super-Election-Year). It’s really a Super-Election-HalfYear, because they all occur between mid-March and late-September, good weather months.
Recent news has brought my attention back to something big that happened in Germany in 2020, which I followed closely at the time and wrote about on these pages. It was the sudden breakthrough of the AfD party in forming a state government, in Thuringia. I wrote about the Thuringia shock and crisis (Post-383: High Drama in Erfurt) and then a series of long comments on the political crisis as it happened, and reactions to it, a kind of political journaling mixed with my own recollections and insights. Thuringia was a big deal, and remains a big deal as I look back, now, almost one year later.
But then the Virus Panic of 2020 happened and shifted political support levels significantly. In fact in such a dramatic way, in fact, that one understands why politicians have dragged on the irrational responses. The media succeeded in scaring people, who were then easy pickings for political demagogues.
In any case, this is the biggest year for German electoral politics in a while. Following are comments and observations.
For thirty-six hours, as of this writing, Germany has been in uproar over something in Erfurt, the capital of Thüringen, a state in Germany. It was an election. Ninety assembled delegates, popularly elected late last year, assembled to choose the new head of the state government. Once elected, the head of the sttae government (Minister-President) would appoint cabinet ministers and get on with the business of things.
All the commotion is about the party known as the AfD, which was crucial in electing the winner. It appeared that the AfD would be “in” (though not leading) a state government for the first time ever. The AfD had broken through the cordon sanitaire.
This may not sound like a big deal, but it is, at least in Germany, and I have been seeing it unfold live, if from a distance. I would compare it metaphorically to a case of significant civil unrest, or a war panic. “Constitutional crisis” gets much closer to non-metaphorical accuracy.
Nov. 2019: I passed through California for about five days.
(Observations about Southern California with pictures, and some springboarding off of them.)
Places I spent at least some time were: Van Nuys; the Santa Ana River trail in Orange County; Anaheim and “Anaheim Hills;” Orange (the city of); Santa Barbara. On a previous visit (late Aug. 2018), I went to Huntington Beach.
Leaving Southern California, north to Silicon Valley, I spent time in: San Jose; Palo Alto; the Stanford campus; Menlo Park; Redwood City. (Another post, maybe.)
Friday early morning. I arrive at the airport from points east (Korea, by way of a long layover in Hawaii) and am soon on the bus to LA Union Station. Or am I? I am not. I got on the wrong bus. It was not labeled. It came to the place marked LA Union Station; I decide to take this new opportunity. and follow the shuttle bus where it goes. New destination: Van Nuys.
For reasons I don’t know, I began to re-read the classic history of the Thirty Years War by C. V. Wedgwood. In it I was reminded of a political point about that war I had forgotten, and one similar to one the US may be, today, at the cusp of.
The crisis began in 1618 because of an electoral tipping point.
There are fairly direct parallels between the Thirty Years War origin and the US institutions of the electoral college system and the nine-member Supreme Court system (see below) and fears about the ‘flipping’ thereof.
The Holy Roman Empire, a nominal political arrangement encompassing most of central Europe for most of the second millennium AD and ruled (in theory if not practice) by an emperor of the Hapsburg Dynasty for much of that time, had seven “electors” (Kurfürsten). These were seven seats which held the right to cast one vote for emperor when the need arose.
The 1930 film was based on a 1929 novel, Im Westen Nichts Neues ([lit. “In the West, Nothing New [to Report]”) by a German veteran of the 1914-1918 war. The book was a major hit of its time.
A June 1930 printing, English translation (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) was among my grandfather’s books, and it is the rediscovery of it that is inspiration for this post.
Aged a not quite ninety years, here is the book as it appears today:
My grandfather died in the late 1990s but his books and other papers and files remained intact until the 2010s (as my aunt continued to reside in the house) at which time I was able to discover many of them, preserved as they were twenty years or so before, some from decades earlier still.
The oldest few books in the house I believe belonged to my grandfather’s grandfather [1857-1917], which I base on years of publication, subject matter, language, and especially the font used (a few of the oldest volumes use that awful font called Fraktur). Some of the books were those my grandfather bought himself. Others somehow ended up, this way or that way, over the decades, at the house (which my grandfather, his wife, daughters, and other relatives lived in from the 1940s through the 1990s), as in those from relatives. This copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those. It originally belonged to George Kosswig, my grandfather’s brother.
Now, I think this is a great discovery not because it is a rare book (which it is not; it would be easy to find for free in any library, and probably without difficulty online for free somewhere in PDF form, in a pinch, if you really want the text). It is rather, I would say, an example of a “time capsule” in book form.
The Best “November 11th, 1918” Visual for Commemoration
Scenes like this (right on desktop version) were repeated across the Western Front on November 11th, 1918, according to reports of those who were there. It seems surreal that the opposing armies immediately put down their guns and began intermingling and celebrating the end of the fratricide at last, in the hours after the ceasefire.
I propose that the above photo is the best possible commemoration of the Armistice, better than any thousand-word write-up anyone could come up with; some pictures, as they say, are worth more. (Though the photograph is not from Armistice Day itself [Nov. 11th] itself, it may as well be; it closely parallels the experience of hundreds of thousands that day.)
The picture symbolizes, at one level, the triumph of humanity and fraternal feeling through/over even the worst of politicians’ blunders. I think it is symbolic, too, of the kind of the European unity and friendship that “could have been” (i.e., there was never any need at all for the 1914-1918 war.) At once both positive and tragic.
Austria’s 2017 general election has come and gone, following Germany’s a month ago. The key issue in both elections was the 2015-2016 Migrant Crisis, disgruntlement over which appears to have energized large numbers and shifted the political discourse to the right; turnout was high. In Austria’s case, parties of the right will have over two-thirds of the seats in the new legislature, and that is with proportional representation.
The age of the new Austrian Chancellor has been the main coverage of the election I have seen. It is amazing, actually, that he is so young. The German press has called this character a ‘Young Metternich’ ever since he became Foreign Minister, at age 27, a few years ago. He is now 31.
Sebastian Kurz (b. 1986), is Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs [Dec. 2013 to Present], and Head of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) from mid 2017. His party will control 34% of seats in the legislature as the largest party, and Kurz will soon be Chancellor, the youngest head of government in the world.
The original Metternich (1773-1859) is characterized as a political genius who dominated Austrian politics from the 1810s to the 1840s, starting, as Kurz has, as Foreign Minister.
Metternich’s great achievement is the preservation of Austrian power. At that time, Austria was a true power, a major power, but could have disappeared after the Napoleonic disruption. Metternich gave the Austrian Empire another century of life, for better of worse. The Austria of that era was a multi-national, pan-central-European empire with a German ruling minority and a long-established royal family (the Hapsburgs). It era represented a Catholic, multi-ethnic, ‘multicultural’ alternative model to north-German Protestant ‘Prussianism’ based in Berlin.
(Having long since lost the struggle against Berlin, Austrian/Hapsburg power ended forever in 1918, after the loss of legitimacy caused by its poor performance in the war and an embarrassing-and-obvious dependence on Germany from summer 1914 onward (actually earlier). With Vienna discredited and totally unable to suppress ethnic secession movements, the pan-central-European ‘Austria’ fell apart and this new German-Austria, as we know it today, was born.)
The ‘Young Metternich’ appellation for Kurz doesn’t make much sense, to me. The Austria of today is, unlike its imperial predecessor namesake, a very small state (7.5 million citizens in a Europe of 750 million). Also critically for this comparison, modern Austria is, by tradition, not a player in international politics. It is not now and never has been a NATO member, and, for a Western country, was quite a late entrant into the EU (1995, about forty years late).
Kurz and Metternich might be compared in broader terms. Metternich is credited not just with preserving/restoring Austrian power after the Napoleonic crisis, but with being a/the central figure in doing the same for the whole of Europe’s quasi-aristocratic order which was seriously threatened, discredited, and injured during Napoleonic period. A lot of ‘centrists’ around today’s Europe dream of a figure to play this role of defending the European post-1945 order of social-democractic liberal democracy in a time it is (widely believed to be) “under threat.
Skeptics would say that Kurz is not such a figure, even discounting the small size and disengagement of Austria, as he led his party to a 7.5% popular vote gain using, many have said, a watered-down version of the rhetoric of the insurgent Austrian Freedom Party (FPO). The latter is a party of the populist-nationalist right, whose campaign was based on slogans like “Stop the Islamization of Austria.”
“A new style. It’s time.”
Who will be Kurz’s coalition partner?
He can form a ‘coalition of the Center’ with the Social Democrats (SPO), or he can rule in a right-wing coalition with the FPO. If the latter coalition governs, Austria will seem to have entered the ‘Viktor Orban’ Wing of European politics.
I am studying the German language again after a long hiatus. The last time I formally studied in a classroom setting was 2008. It surprises me how much I can still do in that language.
In my class are two good-humored Greeks I think their mid 20s. One spent a few years in the U.S. as a boy.
This week and next, the teacher’s topic for us is the final year or so of the German Democratic Republic (fall 1989 to fall 1990). Their system, in retrospect, was showing serious signs of strain by August and September 1989; the anti-communist silent protests centered on the Lutheran churches had been ongoing for years Leipzig and Dresden but began to mushroom in October 1989.
The marchers’ two principal chants were “Wir sind Das Volk”[‘We are the People,’ an odd slogan in some ways; some today, long after the days of communist rhetoric, may not realize that their slogan deliberately mocked communist rhetoric about “the People”] and “Gorbi! Gorbi!” Gorbi” [Gorbachev, seen as a savior]); the Berlin Wall was opened by the authorities on November 9th, 1989; the GDR formally continued to exist for another eleven months and held an election which featured a young Angela Merkel as a candidate for the first time; she attached herself quickly to the ruling CDU machine, =inherited this very machine later on, and has been Chancellor 2005 to present at the head of this machine — likely now through 2021, after the latest German election).
What was the “key point” in the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic? The state security services choosing not to suppress October demonstrations was clearly vital. October may already be too late a date, though.
Today the German teacher spent some time on the so-called Genscher Rede [speech] of September 30, 1989 at the West German Embassy in Prague. That is 28 years ago today. At that time, hundreds and then thousands of East Germans had camped out on the West German embassy grounds in Prague hoping for permission to emigrate to the West. The fact that the Czech-Communist security services allowed them to simply jump the embassy fences is another sign in retrospect that the end was near.
We watched the speech. Genscher’s “speech” was just a few seconds long and delivered in a mood reminiscent of a team winning the World Cup.
Genscher gave the speech on the embassy balcony overlooking thousands — some youths (above left) seem to have climbed onto the window sills or balcony to hear it.
This is how a Wiki writer describes Genscher’s speech:
“He announced that he had reached an agreement with the Communist Czechoslovak government that the refugees could leave: “We have come to you to tell you that today, your departure …” (German: “Wir sind zu Ihnen gekommen, um Ihnen mitzuteilen, dass heute Ihre Ausreise …”). After these words, the speech was drowned in cheers.”
Hans-Dietrich Genscher (1927-2016) was actually himself an ‘East German,’ having been born, raised, and lived there until 1952, when he emigrated to West Germany at age 25; in other words, he was an example of the East German state’s problem of losing good people to the much-more-attractive U.S.-backed West German machine. They lost millions this way in the early years. Then, on Sept. 30, 1989, Genscher brought in thousands more. This was a blow the East German state could not handle.
Genscher rose to West German Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor (1982-1992) under Helmut Kohl and was previously West German Interior Minister (1969-1974) under SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt). He rose in politics within the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a freemarket-liberal party. In the old days when West Germany’s CDU was still widely considered primarily a “Catholic Party” by Germans, the FDP was a safe place for Protestants on the right. (Almost all pre-communist ‘East Germans’ were, at least nominally.) Genscher was a high government minister under both left- and right-wing governments.
The Genscher speech viewed from almost thirty years later:
There was an federal (Bundestag) election in Germany last weekend. I think two things can be said about the Genscher Speech legacy given the results of the election.
(1) The ruling apparatus and its system may not have been as unpopular as this kind of imagery suggests. The “necoCommunist” party called Linke (which is descended directly from the East German ruling party) got 18% of the eastern vote, and generally does even better than that at the regional level (generally 20-25%). See, e.g., Post-246: Here Comes Bodo Ramelow.
(2) Refugee Imagery and its Political Discontents. I know that today’s Germans have two political/historical memories of Germans-as-refugees: This case is one, this imagery of thousands crowding the embassy grounds in Prague and elsewhere in 1989; the other is earlier but even more important, I think, as it is a kind of ‘foundation myth’ of the Federal Republic [West German state] itself: Following WWII, tens of millions across Europe were homeless and many were expelled or could not return for some reason, i.e. refugees. This included something like 12 million Germans from points east of the GDR’s eastern border. These expellees formed a large part of the Federal Republic’s population.
These two memories may have been what impelled Chancellor Merkel to suddenly and without consultation announce an open-border policy for refugees in late August 2015, which soon saw 1.5 million Islamic refugees enter Germany. German birth rates are low and the refugees were mainly young and male: One estimate has it that this 2015-2016 refugee wave alone constitutes 10% of the military-age population of Germany; in one fell swoop. This decision seems to have caused a significant exodus of support from Merkel’s party, to the FDP and to a brand-new party to the right of the CDU. For the first time, the Bundestag has a party that threatens the CDU from the right. Their platform is dominated by: “Stop Merkel’s Refugee Policy.”
The new party, the AfD, which was co-led by a man (Alexander Gauland) who left the CDU after forty years over the refugee crisis, did very well in the eastern states, even coming in as the largest party in some districts and a strong second in most of the rest. (The ruling CDU got 27.5% of the vote in the east to the AfD’s 22%.)