Brigitte has lived in Guben, near Germany’s Polish border, for most of her long life — and she didn’t hesitate when I asked what she thought of Angela Merkel.
‘She has long stopped caring for us,’ Brigitte told me of the woman who has led her country for 16 years.
Many of Brigitte’s neighbours in this once-buoyant community agree. Their town has been declining like Brigitte who is now 84.
Guben, once an important hub in the coal sector’s development, is now characterized by unemployment and political extremism.
Neo-Nazi vigilantes armed with pepper spray or torches patrol the border near the country’s borders to prevent illegal migration.
Gitti, as she likes to be known, would never join their ranks, but has some sympathy for what she calls ‘self-action’ in the face of political apathy from Germany’s politicians.
Brigitte has lived in Guben, near Germany’s Polish border, for most of her long life — and she didn’t hesitate when I asked what she thought of Angela Merkel
‘Those in Berlin do not care about little people like us,’ she told me. ‘So we have to protect ourselves.’ It’s a sentiment I have heard frequently in recent months from people across my homeland — a nation now readying itself for life after the departure of a once-formidable Chancellor.
Angela Merkel is set to step down as the head of state this week. She has been Mutti (Mummy) over the nation for what seems like a generation.
In fact, Tony Blair was the Prime Minister at that time, Madonna was on top in UK charts, and Jose Mourinho was Chelsea FC manager.
But Merkel leaves Germany — which used to be an economic and industrial powerhouse, the Goliath of a continent — at a crossroads.
Many are worried that it risks becoming ‘the sick man of Europe’, to use the damning phrase applied to Britain in the 1970s.
This is something that I feel terrible about writing. An Anglo-German born in Guben. I lived in Germany for ten years before moving to the UK. I am saddened by the decline of the country where I was raised.
Guben, once an important hub in the coal sector’s development, is now characterized by high levels of unemployment and extreme political views.
Yet whatever Merkel’s failings (although in earlier years, she enjoyed considerable achievements), there seems little doubt that, under the stewardship of her successor, Olaf Scholz, Germany is set to change for the worse.
Like so many Germans today, I am helpless as the new government forces radical identity politics on a country that didn’t ask them for it. Along with the raft of policies, they bring with them an array of policies which will transform our society.
These include giving vote rights to 16-year-olds and legalizing cannabis. This is a new hate of post-Brexit Britain, paralysis about the tortuous issue of immigration.
After weeks of silence, Olaf Scholz (Chancellor-designate) and his coalition partners made the announcements at a press conference. This was not something most people expected.
Germany’s September polls were held against the backdrop of mistrust and ennui surrounding all political parties. According to pre-election polls, more than half the Germans felt that no option for a government capable of addressing the future problems was available.
Amid this malaise, the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), under Merkel’s deputy, Olaf Scholz, seemed to many to represent the least of the evils on offer.
Scholz was once a fervent Marxist but he has since been portrayed as a trustworthy pair of hands, and an intelligent politician.
Neo-Nazi vigilantes, armoured with pepper sprays and torchlight, guard the border nearby to deter illegal migration.
The strategy worked: a quarter of voters put their cross next to his party’s name, and Scholz scored a narrow lead in the election ahead of the candidate from Merkel’s party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union.
But now that Scholz has struck a deal to lead a coalition of three parties — his own Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens — it is clear that those expecting a moderate course for Germany are in for a shock.
First, Annalena Bärbock (leader of the Greens) is her new foreign minister. A staunch Europhile, she will pursue an openly federalist foreign policy, and there are already suggestions she hopes to steer the EU to a ‘United States of Europe’.
Meanwhile, the new Chancellor-in-waiting — Olaf Scholz will be sworn in this week — has proposed a gamut of radical policies, many of which have no democratic mandate.
But Merkel leaves Germany — which used to be an economic and industrial powerhouse, the Goliath of a continent — at a crossroads
He wants to reduce the voting age from 16 to be more appealing to the Liberals and Greens. This is clearly a calculated move to favor the Liberals and Greens who tend to have more support among Left-leaning youth. Most of Germany’s 83 million population vehemently oppose such a change. According to a recent poll, more than two-thirds opposed the idea. And even those who are 16 or 29 years old were less supportive.
Against this backdrop, introducing this constitution-amending change would seem a blatant disregard of democratic principle. The same sentiment equally applies to Scholz’s desire to liberalise the law over cannabis use — something supported by only a third of Germans.
I am also appalled at how little consideration is given to the rising threat to Germany’s Jewish communities. Anti-Semitic Crime rose 16 percent in 2020. These numbers have been rising dramatically every year since 2015 and are setting new alarming records.
It is Scholz’s stance on immigration, however, that is likely to inflame tensions most seriously in communities still dealing with the social and economic consequences of Merkel’s controversial decision to open Germany’s borders during the 2015 Syrian crisis. The country was transformed almost instantly by more than one million immigrants.
Among them was the town of Fürstenwalde, east of Berlin — home to many of my friends and family. The local authorities were instructed to offer housing to 1,600 immigrants, which led to more than 4% population growth.
A situation that is similar across Europe was found in Syria, where less than half of new immigrants were from Syria. They were instead economic migrants from different countries.
Many are worried that it risks becoming ‘the sick man of Europe’, to use the damning phrase applied to Britain in the 1970s
The town struggles to keep up with the new arrivals who are mostly young men. Last time I was there, it was quite hostile.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, powerful cartels of Arab, Kurdish and Turkish migrants have been responsible for rocketing crime figures — a problem that Scholz’s programme acknowledges, but no concrete solutions are suggested.
So migration, you may think, must be front and centre of Scholz’s new regime. But it is far from true. His talk of increased immigration is a blinding vision to its economic and social implications. Make no mistake, doing so without first solving existing problems would only lead to further tensions in Germany — particularly in the east, where suspicion of central state powers runs deep and social deprivation is high, and where vigilantes have been patrolling borders.
Does this vision really reflect the forward-looking, prosperous Germany Scholz promoted to the electorate. The truth is that his focus seems to be elsewhere — a policy that risks hollowing out the great industrial structures that have underpinned Germany’s economic success story for so much of the past two centuries.
We shouldn’t be shocked, perhaps. In the late-1980s, Scholz declared that ‘the capitalist economy must be overcome’ and called ‘Nato-Imperialism’ a threat to world peace. Thirty years later, his adherence to those sentiments can be seen in a steadfast commitment to sever ties with Germany’s industrial traditions as he works to transform the country’s energy market at breakneck speed.
With a target of 80 per cent of Germany’s energy needs being supplied from renewable sources by 2030, all remaining nuclear power plants will be switched off next year and the use of coal is to be phased out.
Like so many Germans today, I am helpless as radical identity politics are forced upon a country that didn’t ask for them. This brings with it a whole slew of policies which will transform the course and character of our society.
Germany will be left with a worrying dependence on Russia’s gas and unpredictable renewables like wind and solar.
It is no surprise that this decision has caused significant anxiety in those regions which still depend on coal to support their livelihoods. For many — including those in Lausitz close to the Polish border — coal is all there is. These communities, who used to feel ignored and forgotten, are skeptical about new investments to create jobs.
These troubling issues are dangerously linked to Germany’s geopolitical position — especially the country’s relations with Russia. Fossil fuels and nuclear power still provide 50 per cent of Germany’s electricity. The country will be left with only one other non-renewable source of energy by 2030. Russia supplies the bulk of the natural gas via its Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
This puts Russia in the position of controlling energy supplies to Germany at the pull of a lever — a very powerful tool in Vladimir Putin’s hands. At a lower level, it is possible for the coalition to abandon its environment protection policy. Ironically, by enshrining in law that solar farms, off-shore installations, and solar fields take precedence over nesting ground of rare birds and the preservation of forests, heathland and other natural resources, the new government risks seeing climate protection policies harming wildlife.
The fate of once-mighty German automobile industry is also critical. It is now facing the possibility of an electric vehicle-focused regime, after being battered by Covid and supply chain problems that have reduced car-related production by 17.5% in recent months.
Scholz promised to put 15 million electric cars on the roads by 2030, in an effort to maintain the German automobile industry. However, in actuality, it is falling behind on the electric market.
Indeed, more American Tesla Model 3s are being registered than electric versions of Germany’s own Audi A4s, BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-class models combined. As a dual citizen of Germany and Britain, I am also profoundly concerned by Merkel’s successor’s seemingly anti-British mindset.
Germany may be the UK’s second largest export market, yet there is little mention of this in Scholz’s manifesto, which seems determinedly focused not on the £114.2 billion-a-year trade between the two nations but on cutting ties, supporting what are described as visible ‘measures’ — but are, in fact, ‘punishments’ — meted out by Brussels for any country that leaves the EU.
This dogmatism isn’t shared by a large portion of the German people makes me despair. Unpalatable as it may be to the ears of Scholz and his cohorts, the rancour generated by Brexit has done nothing to dent the nation’s Anglophilia.
Amid this malaise, the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), under Merkel’s deputy, Olaf Scholz, seemed to many to represent the least of the evils on offer
As Germans, we grow up quoting lines — translated into German, of course — from Monty Python classics, while our celebrity magazines take a voracious interest in the affairs of the Royal Family. The government is ignoring this deep-rooted affection at their peril.
However, the situation could also be described for many of these new-era Germans. The end of the long Merkel era —one that started amid such promise then seemed to sink into stagnation — should have been a chance for democratic renewal, for Germany to reset.
Instead, it seems Merkel’s successor is about to take her administration’s detachment from the people to new heights — and I fear the country I love will pay a terrible price.
Katja Hoyer is an Anglo-German historian and a visiting research fellow at King’s College London.