German Elections Sunday, 24 September 2017 – Merkelism vs. Trumpism

Merkelism vs. Trumpism

Jochen Bittner | The New York Times

Angela Merkel

HAMBURG, Germany — When I suggested in a 2015 article for this paper that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany might become the leader of the free world, I knew it was a pretty far-fetched idea. After all, despite her leading role in the euro and refugee crises, she didn’t actually seem to want the job.

Today, I’m less sure. She might actually have the talent — and the ambition.

When Ms. Merkel starts her fourth term after Germany’s election this Sunday — and she will, barring polling errors exponentially worse than those around the Brexit vote and the American presidential race last year — she will do so in a world significantly different from the one she faced after her last re-election, in 2013.    

But if the world has changed, so has the chancellor. It will almost surely be her last term, so it’s legacy time. But more to the point, the woman who gave the German language “merkeling” (a term meaning “muddling through”) finally seems to grasp the full scope of her task — that as the leader of Germany, she is more than just the leader of Germany.

Look at what has happened in the past couple of years from Ms. Merkel’s perspective: Just as Germany emerged from its expensive and exhausting effort to salvage the eurozone, President Vladimir Putin of Russia shattered a postwar taboo by violently changing the borders of Europe. Next came an American president who abandoned another postwar principle fundamental in German eyes: a commitment to a liberal, cooperative world order.

More than anything else, it is this last change that has meant the most for Ms. Merkel’s evolution. Until Mr. Trump, Germany has been broadly in line with America’s foreign policy principles, and, despite its growing economic and political power, happy to let Washington take the lead. But what happens when that alignment breaks down?

Long before President Trump used the United Nations podium this week to call for a “reawakening of nations,” his national security adviser, Gen. H. R. McMaster, and the director of the National Economic Council, Gary D. Cohn, had described what precisely the president means by putting “America first.” In an essay in The Wall Street Journal in May, they wrote that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” They added: “We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”

General McMaster and Mr. Cohn said that America looks forward to working with friends and allies. But who are friends and allies? Only those, the authors make abundantly clear, with whom “our interests align.” Meanwhile, “Those that choose to challenge our interests will encounter the firmest resolve.”

Even from afar, it seems clear that such zero-sum, us-versus-them thinking is not simply the product of Mr. Trump and his advisers. Rather, this hostile and authoritarian tone appears to have emerged from a domestic political climate in which people with differing opinions have come to regard one another as enemies.

As Senator Jeff Flake, an anti-Trump Republican from Arizona, puts it in his new book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” the Republican Party has decided to “abandon reason and any old-fashioned notions of the common good, and have an unquenchable appetite for destruction.”

Boil this down to its essence, and Trumpism states: When you lose, I win. Being strong equals being right. And if you want to advance your own interests, it is legitimate to inflict damage on others.

This is not a path that Germany can follow, and it is not a path that Germany can let its European neighbors follow, either. If Trumpism had been applied to Germany in 1945, my country would have become a province of the Soviet Union, and Western Germans would never have bought a pair of Levi’s or a bottle of Coke, let alone the idea of America as a beacon of freedom. If Mr. Trump was right and internationalism led to economic disaster, Germany should have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. In fact, it has one of the lowest.

Does the European Union, arguably the best example of multilateral governance in the world, have flaws? Has it created too much red tape? Does it fail to fulfill central promises? You bet. But Mr. Trump’s idea that “bureaucracy” as such impedes sovereignty is just as narrow-minded as the idea that Britain will be better off outside the European Union. Brussels’ bureaucracy, first and foremost, has enormously facilitated trade within Europe. The British are about to experience what happens without it.

Ms. Merkel knows these things, believes them in her bones. And she seems to know that, in 2017, it is up to her to defend them. It was probably no coincidence that she announced she would run for a fourth term only after the Brexit vote and after Donald Trump had moved to the White House.

What will it mean for Ms. Merkel to pick up the standard of the free world? Expect her to defend and promote the European Union as a bulwark of liberal internationalism, against an America that might well begin to attack it. At the same time, expect her to do more to mitigate the negative consequences of political and economic internationalism on everyday Germans and Europeans. In Ms. Merkel’s view, this buffering has not happened in the United States, because of the lack of a “reasonable social system,” as she put it in an interview.

Merkelism, in short, draws a very different conclusion from Trumpism about globalization’s unsettling effects. Mr. Trump wants to disrupt and destroy, Ms. Merkel seeks to continue but correct. If the free world is best led by success, with step-by-step repair preferable to scrapping, then the German chancellor seems to be the right woman, at the right moment, for the job.

 

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  • Clyde Duncan  On September 23, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Opinion: Germany’s Real Problem Is That It Has No Real Problems

    Ahead of German elections, Merkel’s rule looks like an inalienable law of nature

    Ofri Ilany | Haaretz

    Germany will hold its federal elections this Sunday, September 24. Only a few months ago, while the campaign was still getting under way, the country’s democracy seemed to be facing a fateful moment in its history. Berlin was struck by terror attacks, U.S.A. President Trump bad-mouthed the chancellor and the popularity of the extreme-right Alternative for Germany party was on a consistent rise. The inconceivable had begun to seem like a concrete possibility:

    The German State’s takeover by the racist right. No one doubted that a German Trump would be even more unpleasant than the American original. Germany – and with it the world – broke out in a cold sweat.

    Yet now, just months later, the panic appears to have been premature. The German public displayed responsibility and, if the polls are correct, its pro-European consciousness has surged in light of threats from both East and West.

    According to the latest surveys, the far-right party will, after all, enter the Bundestag for the first time, and may even be the third-largest party, but it’s not expected to pose a threat to Frau Merkel.

    The coalition will likely consist of the familiar political hues: The Christian Democrats will form a government with the liberal Free Democrats, perhaps also with the Greens, or it could just hook up with the Social Democrats again.

    The differences between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, the two biggest parties, are trivial, for the most part. No wonder, then, that according to the polls, Germans view the election as being inconsequential and unimportant.

    In fact, these may be the most unimportant elections ever, with less at stake even than in 2013, which were also considered unimportant.

    When President Barack Obama left the stage, Chancellor Angela Merkel looked isolated, almost fragile, except at home and on the international stage. But with sangfroid, she succeeded in taking back the reins.

    During her 12 years in power, Merkel has succeeded in adopting in succession the approaches of the political movements and trends that threatened her, thus neutralizing them. She coopted elements from the left’s social policy, the liberals’ privatization plans and the clean energy of the Greens, along with the law-and-order of the extreme right.

    In the end, few harbour hard feelings toward her. Even the radical left feels a certain fondness for Merkel, thanks to her approach on the refugee crisis.

    The result: Merkel’s rule looks like an inalienable law of nature.

    In the meantime, the wave of immigrants has abated; the refugee camps are being dismantled, one after another. Some of the newcomers are being given low-paying jobs; others are being deported to Afghanistan.

    Europe is surrounding itself with walls, disconnecting both from the refugee influx and from the vicissitudes of American political life. Trump is like King Kong, an American hulk who’s fortunately stuck on the other side of the pond, fighting with bare hands against hurricanes and weird rulers in Asia, while Europe screws up its face.

    In the end, Trump has actually strengthened Europe, brought it back to its senses and united it around liberalism and a common identity.

    The European order is clearly fragile: A new crisis could break out at any moment, even tomorrow. The world hasn’t suddenly become a safe place – all the well-known dangers still loom menacingly on the horizon. But what’s become evident in the current election campaign in Germany, and in the atmosphere around it, is that the country’s real problem isn’t the far right, the refugees or populism:

    Germany’s Real Problem is that it has No Real Problems.

  • Clyde Duncan  On September 25, 2017 at 10:28 am

    AfD Leader Quits Party Caucus Hours After German Election Breakthrough

    Frauke Petry ‘drops bomb’ on rightwing nationalist party members by announcing she will instead serve as independent MP

    Kate Connolly – Berlin | The Guardian UK

    Germany’s rightwing nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland, in celebratory mode after coming third in elections, was delivered a bombshell by its co-leader on Monday morning when she announced she would not sit with the party in the Bundestag.

    Frauke Petry walked out of a press conference at which the party leadership marvelled at its success, having secured nearly 13% of the vote and 94 seats in the federal parliament.

    The departure of one of AfD’s most prominent figures illustrates the splits in the party despite its attempts to show a united front during the election campaign.

    Petry, on the moderate wing of the party, saw her role as that of uniting the AfD.

    But she has earned scorn from emboldened rightwing nationalists who have increasingly sidelined their opponents.

    In April, she attempted to lead the party towards what she called a more realistic and pragmatic approach, so that, she said, it would have a chance to enter coalition governments.

    But her co-leader, Jörg Meuthen, and the party’s leading election candidates, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, rejected her stance, arguing the party’s goal should be to act as a strong opposition in the Bundestag to the politics of Angela Merkel, the chancellor.

    Shortly after the packed press conference opened in Berlin, Petry said “after a long period of contemplation” she would not join the party in the Bundestag and would instead serve as an independent MP for her constituency in Saxony, where she narrowly beat the Christian Democrats.

    She stood up and walked out with a smile, leaving her party colleagues looking stunned and prompting gasps from the press corps. Meuthen accused Petry of “dropping a bomb”, adding: “That was not discussed with us in advance. We knew nothing about it”.

    Weidel said Petry’s walkout was “hard to beat in terms of irresponsibility”, and urged her to leave the party altogether “to prevent further harm”.

    Hours later there were further signs of discord when four AfD MPs in the regional government in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern announced they too were leaving their own parliamentary group. A spokesman for the group said the differences between the outgoing members and the remaining ones were glaring.

    “The AfD group has been dysfunctional for a long time,” the spokesman said. “Now it’s time to take the appropriate steps due to the political differences,” he said, adding that the dissenters are due to form their own parliamentary group.

    Germany’s rightwing populists will arrive in the Bundestag with the best result for any new party since 1949, a higher share of the vote than either the Greens or the leftwing Die Linke have achieved in several decades.

    In the states that used to form East Germany, AfD looks likely to become the second-largest party.

    Founded by a group of economics professors in protest against Greek bailout programmes, the party morphed into an anti-immigrant force after the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015 when around a million refugees arrived in Germany after Merkel said they were to be allowed in.

    The party has successfully cashed in on fears related to the arrivals, including security and loss of identity.

    The party’s success in the east shows the extent to which it has broadened its appeal and has reached out to those who feel disappointed by their region’s decline after reunification.

    AfD is by no means only a party of the “left-behinds”; as its agenda continues to be set by western politicians advocating conventional small-state economics.

    A June survey showed that the largest number of the party’s supporters, 39%, have a higher than average income.

    Though the nationalist wing may not dominate AfD’s Bundestag delegation, its aggressive and taboo-breaking rhetoric has been tolerated – and increasingly adopted – by the party leadership.

    On Monday, Gauland said the party would make good on its promise to “hound” Merkel in the Bundestag and would push for a parliamentary investigation to examine the legality of her decisions both to allow refugees into Germany as well as over the Greek bailout.

    Merkel, meanwhile, made clear that the AfD would have no influence on Germany’s foreign, European and refugee policies.

    Asked whether AfD’s performance will affect German policy in any way, Merkel replied: “I don’t think so.”.

    “The parties that are capable of forming coalitions with each other will seek solutions; there are of course differences … but AfD will have no influence.”

  • Clyde Duncan  On September 25, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    Merkel, the AfD and a Wounded SPD

    Eight Lessons from Germany’s Elections

    Angela Merkel is back for a fourth term, the Social Democrats are wounded and a right-wing populist party has been elected to parliament for the first time in decades: Eight lessons from Sunday’s general election in Germany.

    By Sebastian Fischer | Der Spiegel

    Eight initial lessons from the German election:

    FIRST: The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the third-strongest political party in the country and will be taking seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag.

    There are more than a few right-wing radicals in their ranks, meaning the ghosts of Germany’s past are returning. It marks the first time since the early days of postwar Germany that a far-right party will be represented in the Bundestag — and the AfD will be much stronger than its predecessors given that it is likely to have over 80 deputies. That will have consequences in the form of clashes, provocations and scandalous rhetoric.

    From the beginning, the AfD will do all it can to ensure that it returns to parliament four years from now — and for that to happen, German society must remain divided. That will be the focus of the AfD caucus in the Bundestag.

    SECOND: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives — comprised of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) — have suffered significant losses, but Merkel has still been returned to the Chancellery for a fourth term. Creating a governing coalition this time around will be complicated. The Social Democrats (SPD) no longer want to be part of a grand coalition with Merkel’s conservatives, as several SPD leaders said Sunday evening, which leaves Merkel with only a single option: a coalition with the Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democrats. There are, however, several hurdles to such a constellation.

    For one, it would include four separate parties, placing a premium on the amount of day-to-day coordination among them. Plus, it remains to be seen if the Greens are interested in joining forces with a suddenly reanimated FDP. Still, new elections aren’t something any of the parties are particularly interested in.

    THIRD: Together, Germany’s two big-tent parties — the conservatives and the Social Democrats — are weaker than they have been in six decades. Germany’s party system appears to be fragmenting and fraying around the edges even more. That too is a consequence of a grand coalition governing the country for eight of the last 12 years.

    FOURTH: The SPD has collapsed. Or rather, it has continued a slide that began in 2009 (23 percent) and stalled briefly in 2013 (25.7 percent). The years in government have transformed a once-proud party into the conservatives’ parliamentary minions and with Martin Schulz at the top, the SPD has now suffered its worst result since World War II. Only in the Weimar Republic did the Social Democrats get a worse result in the polls. The party is still insisting that Schulz’s leadership is not up for debate, but such election-night pledges tend not to have a long shelf life. Should the SPD head into the opposition, it will face a battle for attention with the AfD.

    FIFTH: The Free Democrats are back, but Christian Lindner would probably rather have been head of the opposition in the Bundestag than one of two junior partners under Merkel. The last time the FDP joined a governing coalition with Merkel — between 2009 and 2013 — its domination by the CDU cost the Free Democrats representation in several state legislatures and it took them four years to recover.

    SIXTH: The Left Party has remained stable, but it still has zero prospects of becoming part of a governing coalition. And with the right-wing populists now a significant force on the opposition benches, the Left has lost its claim to being the primary representative of German protest voters. That is especially true in eastern Germany, where the Left has traditionally done well. This time around it is the AfD celebrating its greatest success in the states that belonged to the former East Germany.

    SEVENTH: The strong AfD result is particularly unsettling for the Christian Social Union. The CSU was already on the brink of breaking its partnership with Merkel’s CDU, and now CSU leader Horst Seehofer will likely be tempted to steer his party even further to the right. Merkel will feel the effects, particularly given that state elections are approaching in Bavaria in 2018. Seehofer hopes to win an absolute majority in that vote, but his party’s result on Sunday doesn’t bode well for those prospects. After winning 49.3 percent in 2013, the CSU brought home just 38.5 percent this time, its worst showing since WWII.

    EIGHT: The parliamentary opposition will be polarized between the SPD on the one hand and the AfD on the other — at a time when the governing coalition will likely be one that Germany has never before seen at a federal level. In the best case, that could be an opportunity for renewal — and when it comes to confronting the AfD, Germany’s fundamental values, including freedom and democracy, are at stake.

    From the beginning, the AfD will do all it can to ensure that it returns to parliament four years from now — and for that to happen, German society must remain divided. That will be the focus of the AfD caucus in the Bundestag.

    To be sure, it won’t be boring.

  • Clyde Duncan  On September 25, 2017 at 10:19 pm

    How the Nazis Were Inspired by Jim Crow

    Becky Little | History

    In 1935, Nazi Germany passed two radically discriminatory pieces of legislation:

    The Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. Together, these were known as the Nuremberg Laws, and they laid the legal groundwork for the persecution of Jewish people during the Holocaust and World War II.

    When the Nazis set out to legally disenfranchise and discriminate against Jewish citizens, they weren’t just coming up with ideas out of thin air. They closely studied the laws of another country. According to James Q. Whitman, author of Hitler’s American Model, that country was the United States.

    “America in the early 20th century was the leading racist jurisdiction in the world,” says Whitman, who is a professor at Yale Law School. “Nazi lawyers, as a result, were interested in, looked very closely at, [and] were ultimately influenced by American race law.”

    In particular, Nazis admired the Jim Crow-era laws that discriminated against black Americans and segregated them from white Americans, and they debated whether to introduce similar segregation in Germany.

    Yet they ultimately decided that it wouldn’t go far enough.

    “One of the most striking Nazi views was that Jim Crow was a suitable racist program in the United States because American blacks were already oppressed and poor,” he says. “But then in Germany, by contrast, where the Jews (as the Nazis imagined it) were rich and powerful, it was necessary to take more severe measures.”

    Because of this, Nazis were more interested in how the U.S.A. had designated Native Americans, Filipinos and other groups as non-citizens even though they lived in the U.S.A. or its territories. These models influenced the citizenship portion of the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jewish Germans of their citizenship and classified them as “nationals.”

    But a component of the Jim Crow era that Nazis did think they could translate into Germany were anti-miscegenation laws, which prohibited interracial marriages in 30 of 48 states.

    “America had, by a wide margin, the harshest law of this kind,” Whitman says. “In particular, some of the state laws threatened severe criminal punishment for interracial marriage. That was something radical Nazis were very eager to do in Germany as well.”

    The idea of banning Jewish and Aryan marriages presented the Nazis with a dilemma: How would they tell who was Jewish and who was not? After all, race and ethnic categories are socially constructed, and interracial relationships produce offspring who don’t fall neatly into one box.

    Again, the Nazis looked to America.

    “Connected with these anti-miscegenation laws was a great deal of American jurisprudence on how to classify who belonged to which race,” he says.

    Controversial “one-drop” rules stipulated that anyone with any black ancestry was legally black and could not marry a white person.

    Laws also defined what made a person Asian or Native American, in order to prevent these groups from marrying whites (notably, Virginia had a “Pocahontas Exception” for prominent white families who claimed to be descended from Pocahontas).

    The Nuremberg Laws, too, came up with a system of determining who belonged to what group, allowing the Nazis to criminalize marriage and sex between Jewish and Aryan people. Rather than adopting a “one-drop rule,” the Nazis decreed that a Jewish person was anyone who had three or more Jewish grandparents.

    Which means, as Whitman notes, “that American racial classification law was much harsher than anything the Nazis themselves were willing to introduce in Germany.”

    It should come as no surprise then, that the Nazis weren’t uniformly condemned in the U.S.A. before the country entered the war.

    In the early 1930s, American eugenicists welcomed Nazi ideas about racial purity and republished their propaganda.

    American aviator Charles Lindbergh, a public admirer of Adolf Hitler’s, received a swastika medal from Nazi leader in 1938.

    Once the U.S.A. entered the war, it took a decidedly anti-Nazi stance. But black American troops noticed the similarities between the two countries, and confronted them head-on with a “Double V Campaign.” It’s goal?

    Victory abroad against the Axis powers — and victory at home against Jim Crow.

  • Clyde Duncan  On September 27, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    Germany at a Turning Point

    M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline

    The elections to the German Bundestag on Sunday threw up big surprises.

    Chancellor Angela Merkel will lead the next coalition government, too – her fourth successive win – but in all other respects, the results signify that Germany’s post-World War II politics is at a turning point.

    First and foremost, the two mainstream parties that have dominated German politics have now come to represent only 53% of the electorate. The level of fragmentation is stunning for a country that is synonymous with the ‘middle path’.

    Second, Merkel’s CDU (Christian democrats) has lost support and her coalition partner SPD (social democrats) suffered a humiliating defeat.

    Third, the right-wing nationalist [Alternative for Germany] AfD – reviled as ‘neo-Nazis’ – won over 13% votes and secured 94 seats in the 709-member Bundestag, the first time such a thing has happened in Germany’s post-World War II political history.

    Then, there are the sub-plots. The SPD has vowed to sit in the opposition, which means Merkel may have to form the next government with the rightist CSU (Christian socialists) and leftist Green Party as coalition partners, which makes an improbable alliance of convenience.

    The CDU-led government’s economic policies are likely to be subjected to pulls and counter-pulls from the two coalition partners CSU and Green Party, which are at loggerheads ideologically.

    Interestingly, AfD’s main support base happens to be the former communist East Germany and, thus, a ‘East-West’ divide is surfacing after the German unification a quarter century ago.

    Again, CDU lost popular support for the wrong reasons. Under the CDU-led government, German economy did remarkably well. What cost Merkel heavily has been her refugee policies, which have been perceived as appeasement of Muslims opening the door to an influx of Islam in Germany.

    Merkel eventually took a tougher line on deportations but it was too little, too late. The issues of asylum, integration and deportation and the perceived ‘Islamisation’ of Germany dogged Merkel’s entire re-election campaign.

    The ultra-nationalist AfD framed its campaign on the provocative platform, “Islam does not belong to Germany.” The party’s program calls for a ban on minarets and considers Islam to be incompatible with German culture.

    The AfD leader Alexander Gauland has openly called for Germans to reclaim their history: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.” The outgoing foreign Minister and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel warned voters ahead of the poll against having “real Nazis in the German Reichstag for the first time since the end of World War Two”. Germany’s Central Council of Jews said its worst fears had come true in Sunday’s election.

    The German policies are almost certain to be affected. Merkel will be under pressure to step up deportation of refugees. The AfD has tasted blood and sensing the national mood, it will surely intensify the ultra-nationalist campaign.

    Surely, the German discourse is poised to become much more homophobic, much more anti-migrant, much more-anti-Muslim. This will cast shadows on Germany’s relations with Turkey.

    Again, Merkel’s approach to Russia will be keenly watched. The AfD – like most ultra-nationalists in Europe, is, ironically, “pro-Russia”. If the Russian strategy has been to discredit western democracies and break them into shambles, there ought to be quiet satisfaction in Moscow over what is unfolding in Germany.

    At any rate, a weakened Merkel is not a bad thing for Moscow. (President Vladimir Putin and Merkel had an uneasy personal relationship.) Merkel will now be more susceptible from pressures from the German industry, where Russia has influential lobbyists, for normalization of business ties with Moscow.

    The biggest impact of the German election will be felt on European integration processes. Merkel has been put on the back foot as she was a flag-carrier EU integration. Germany’s influence within the EU weakens in the period ahead. And, without a strong axis with Germany, France alone cannot lead European integration.

    In sum, coming on top of Brexit, EU will be rudderless without Germany’s leadership under an assertive Merkel. Nonetheless, Merkel can be trusted to remain at the helm of European affairs and to pursue her trademark role as a cautious global leader and a tireless champion of free trade and western liberalism.

  • Clyde Duncan  On October 7, 2017 at 10:18 pm

    As Germany and Spain Prove, History – with all its wounds – is NOT Over

    In Catalonia and the former East Germany, the shadow of 20th-century traumas still falls on EU citizens, and blights the future of Europe

    Natalie Nougayrède | The Guardian UK

    History is back in Europe. The Catalan referendum and the German election illustrate this spectacularly.

    The scale of the far-right vote in what was once East Germany and Catalonia’s apparent march towards independence may look like they happened on separate planets – to be sure, they are fuelled by different political beliefs – but they both have to do with PENT-UP FRUSTRATIONS.

    Citizens who feel that they have been insulted have gone to the ballot box, and in some cases taken to the streets, to protest. In both situations there is a vivid historical backdrop, with memories of Europe’s 20th-century nightmares playing an important role:

    In Catalonia, the fight against fascism and Franco; in former East Germany, the experiences of Nazism and Soviet communism.

    In Leipzig and the nearby small town of Grimma, I was told about how citizens felt their self-esteem had been trampled on. German reunification has not led to a shared sense of community.

    Rather, it’s compared to colonisation:

    “westerners” took over everything – regional administrations, courts, education and the economy.

    Everything about life in the Communist state – the way people dressed, what they ate, what they learned in school, how they decorated their homes, what they watched on TV – became an object of scorn and ridicule.

    It’s not that life isn’t better now: Of course, it is. There is freedom. And living standards have improved immensely. But many eastern Germans feel their identity has somehow been negated, as if they were being asked to forget about it.

    Speaking with Catalan friends in recent days, I heard similar qualms:

    “We were waiting for a sign that our voice would be heard, but as the years passed nothing was changing” … “Our cultural difference isn’t being acknowledged as it should be”: these were common sentiments, even from people not altogether enthusiastic about breaking away from Spain.

    Identity isn’t just about power, rights and institutions.

    Former East Germans aren’t asking for secession, nor special status.

    Catalonia is deeply divided on the question of independence.

    Nor can identity be boiled down to purely economic factors – wages, income, jobs, social class.

    It’s true that regions covering the former East Germany have higher unemployment (7.1%) than western ones (5.1%), but the malaise reflected in the east German far-right vote went beyond material circumstances.

    Catalonia’s economy has thrived in recent decades – that hasn’t prevented protests.

    A generation has passed since German reunification, in 1990; and Spain joined the European club in 1986.

    It’s hard to exaggerate the benefits. Anyone who visits Leipzig, with its beautifully restored facades and the amazing modern architecture of its university, will struggle to spot traces of the bleakness and poverty that once characterised eastern Europe.

    Catalonia’s transformation has also been stunning. I have spent many summers in the Pyrenees, regularly crossing into Spain from France. And over the years I have seen roads improved, hotels built, and prosperity spread – a region shedding the drabness left by the Franco years. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics celebrated that success.

    Yet these accomplishments don’t necessarily translate into people’s minds. The European project is built on the idea that economic ties and social improvement bring people together and help them overcome the traumas of history.

    In recent years, much has been said about how nationalism, populism and anti-establishment sentiment are a response to globalisation and inequality.

    Less has been said about a more specifically European ingredient:

    the shadow cast by 20th-century traumas born of war and totalitarianism, and the difficulty – which still persists – of dealing with that legacy.

    It is this history that sets continental Europe’s populist convulsions apart from the forces that have driven Brexit and Trump.

    Britain and the United States of America never experienced life under fascism, or behind a version of the iron curtain.

    Across Europe, populism and extremism, whether of left or right, plunges its roots into 20th century political battles and references.

    Catalan nationalism, I think, is different from Scottish nationalism in this way also:

    It can quickly reignite memories of oppression that are still vivid within families – stories of life and death, in one’s own country.

    When crowds in Barcelona start singing old songs of resistance against the Franco regime, history is back.

    When 22.5% of voters in the former East Germany (twice as many as in the western part of the country) cast their ballots for a party – Alternative für Deutschland – whose platform amounts to a rejection of everything Germany’s western-built democracy has stood for – history is back.

    Last month’s German election was a clear demonstration that the Wall has survived in people’s minds.

    Germany and Spain today find themselves confronted by ghosts of the past – not just to do with problems related to social cohesion and integration, or how to preserve a constitutional order.

    Yes, politicians exploit polarisation. But it is striking to see how, over a generation after democracy was anchored in countries that had experienced the worst of the 20th century, so many citizens feel that so much has still been left unaddressed.

    Isaiah Berlin once wrote that nationalism feeds on a sense of wounded pride and humiliation.

    As Europe tries to sort itself out and prepare for the future – including through grassroots “democratic conventions” due next year across the continent – it would do well to pay closer attention to those wounds left by history.

    We thought that they had healed – but they really haven’t.

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