During her 15 years as Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel has put out many fires to save Europe. She stopped Russia’s advance in Ukraine, for example, forced Greece to end its financial profligacy, and halted Poland’s assault on judicial independence. She sees protecting the European Union and its values as part of Germany’s “work” in reconciling with its neighbors after the Nazi era.
Now, 75 years after World War II and as Chancellor Merkel prepares to step down next year, she is being forced to put out one more big fire – this time in Germany itself.
On Feb. 5, her governing party, the Christian Democratic Union, broke a big taboo in German politics and worked with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to install a regional premier in the small state of Thuringia. The collusion of local CDU leaders with a party widely viewed as fascist and xenophobic was seen as a sudden reversal of decades of moral cleansing among Germans.
“It was a bad day for democracy,” said Ms. Merkel. She added that the taboo-breaking event was “unforgivable.”
Indeed, the reaction to this event also reveals just how far Germany will go to avoid slipping back into a dark past.
Across the country, protests were held to oppose the CDU’s action. The new premier of Thuringia, Thomas Kemmerich, was forced to resign soon after taking office. A liberal, he also promised elections “to remove the stain of the AfD’s support for the office of the premiership.”
In addition, the crisis led to the resignation of head of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was the chancellor’s chosen successor. She blamed her downfall on the “unresolved” issue of how her conservative party deals with Germany’s extremist parties.
Both the CDU and its junior coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party, are now asking themselves how mainstream politicians can better respond to the rise of the AfD. Started in 2013, that party has gained seats in the parliaments of all 16 states, especially after Ms. Merkel’s decision in 2015 to allow more than 1 million largely Middle Eastern refugees into Germany. The anti-immigrant backlash, as well as slow economic growth in Germany’s former communist east, has driven many people to vote for extremist parties. AfD’s popularity is about 14%.
According to polls, most Germans do not want Ms. Merkel to leave office in 2021, as she desires. Such a view implies a wide preference for centrist – and anti-fascist – politics to persist. If the chancellor can put out this latest big fire, the “work” of reconciliation with the rest of Europe can continue, with a renewed focus on Germans themselves.