Which is worse?

Adam Tooze

  • Die Getriebenen: Merkel und die Flüchtlingspolitik – Report aus dem Innern der Macht by Robin Alexander
    Siedler, 288 pp, €19.99, March 2017, ISBN 978 3 8275 0093 9
  • Die SPD: Biographie einer Partei von Ferdinand Lassalle bis Andrea Nahles by Franz Walter
    Rowohlt, 416 pp, €16.00, June 2018, ISBN 978 3 499 63445 1
  • Germany’s Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of Europe by Oliver Nachtwey, translated by Loren Balhorn and David Fernbach
    Verso, 247 pp, £16.99, November 2018, ISBN 978 1 78663 634 8
  • Die Schulz Story: Ein Jahr zwischen Höhenflug und Absturz by Markus Feldenkirchen
    DVA, 320 pp, €20.00, March 2018, ISBN 978 3 421 04821 9

This year is both the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For years Germany has been thought of as both the pace-setter and the anchor of European politics. But in the summer of 2019, the political scene in Berlin is in greater flux than at any time since the Second World War.

The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, founded in April 2013 in reaction to the Eurozone crisis, surged into the Bundestag in the 2017 election with 12.6 per cent of the vote. The Social Democratic Party scored only 20.5 per cent – a defeat of historic proportions. The European elections on 26 May delivered an even more crushing blow, as the SPD collapsed to only 15.8 per cent. In current polls the party is trailing in fourth place with barely more than 10 per cent of the popular vote. Twenty years ago, in their last decisive electoral victory, they managed 40 per cent. Might the SPD be about to follow the French Socialist party into oblivion?

The opening of this confusing new era in German politics is commonly dated to 2015. Russia’s annexation of Crimea divided both the German public and the political class. Germany’s identity in Europe was put in question by the bruising confrontation with the left-wing Syriza government in Greece: was Germany now the Eurozone’s brutal enforcer, or a cash cow to be milked by feckless Southerners? But it was the escalating refugee crisis, culminating in Angela Merkel’s decision to open the borders over the weekend of 5 and 6 September 2015, that really split the country. Fully a third of Germans are thought to have contributed to refugee relief, through donations, volunteering or opening their homes. Merkel, who had previously avoided the refugee question, recast herself as the global champion of Willkommenskultur. The backlash from the right was savage. Merkel was made the object of often obscene nationalist vilification.

There is no consensus about what happened behind the scenes in September 2015. The most compelling account is Die Getriebenen by Robin Alexander, a correspondent for the conservative paper Die Welt. He was given intimate access to Merkel’s entourage, and offers an unsparing portrait of the German political class as it struggled to cope with the crisis, largely by refusing to take responsibility. The security services were appalled that at the last minute they were denied the authority to implement a plan to close the German border. Pro-AfD sentiment appears to be widespread in the police. In the autumn of 2018, Merkel was forced to sack Hans-Georg Maaßen as head of the internal security service (Verfassungsschutz) after he tried to discredit disturbing video evidence of racist violence in the East German town of Chemnitz.

Supporters of the AfD have two common denominators: hostility to mass immigration and hostility to Merkel. This is true in both eastern and western Germany, and across all social classes. But the AfD vote is highly concentrated in both geographical and social terms. It is most common in the former GDR, particularly in the eastern regions of Saxony and southern Brandenburg, and highest among those classified as ‘precarious’, close to 30 per cent of whom support the party. As in other countries, xenophobia in Germany is strongly correlated with low levels of education. It is also prevalent among those dependent on underfunded public services. This entanglement of racism and social disadvantage is compounded by Germany’s divided history and the incomplete process of unification.

Unemployment and poverty rates are noticeably higher in the east than in the west. Though the gap has closed, wages are substantially lower in the east and the roots of prosperity are shallow. Across much of eastern Germany, there is a truculent nationalism, directed both against foreigners and against the patronising liberalism of the ‘Wessies’. The declining provincial towns and housing estates of the former East have played host to successive waves of right-wing mobilisation, from mob assaults on asylum dormitories to ‘national befreite Zonen’ (liberated national zones), the electoral successes of the neo-Nazi NPD in the early 2000s and the founding of the anti-Islamic Pegida in Dresden in 2014. In its bastions in eastern Germany – Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony – the AfD is broadening its appeal to encompass 20 per cent and more of the electorate.

There are calls for truth and reconciliation-style investigations into the activities of the Treuhand, the corruption-riddled agency that pushed through the disastrous privatisation of the East German economy in the early 1990s. The results would no doubt be interesting. But it would be simplistic to blame social distress on unification alone. The collapse of the industrial base across the former GDR was part of a broader process of deindustrialisation that affected western Germany as well, and was compounded by the tough new system of welfare and labour market regulation, known as Agenda 2010, that was introduced between 2003 and 2005. Its most notorious element is the means-tested basic welfare system known as Hartz IV, which four million German households rely on. The party that masterminded the changes and forced them through against popular protest was the SPD. Fifteen years later it is still struggling to come to terms with the social and political upheaval it unleashed.

The SPD is no ordinary political party. Since its founding in 1863, from Bismarck to the First World War, through the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, the SPD has stood for a vision of a better, more democratic and socially just Germany. Its status as a national institution is such that both Merkel and the president of Germany attended its 150th anniversary celebrations in 2013. In its long and chequered history the SPD has faced repeated challenges, chronicled in Franz Walter’s history from 2009, recently reissued in an updated edition. Most notoriously, during the Weimar Republic, divisions between social democrats and communists helped to open the door to Hitler. In the Cold War those conflicts were stifled. The West German Communist Party was outlawed in 1956, its assets impounded and its members pursued through the courts. Unlike in Italy or France, Germany’s social democrats had no rivals on the left. When Willy Brandt took office in 1969 as the first postwar SPD chancellor, he did so in coalition with the liberal, free-market FDP.

The coalition governments of Brandt and Helmut Schmidt changed the face of the Federal Republic. Under the slogan of Ostpolitik, they negotiated a new relationship with Eastern Europe. Amid the affluence created by the economic miracle, they delivered on the promise of the social democratic welfare state: pensions, education and training for all, the liberalisation of abortion regulations and divorce. The generation of activists that joined the party in the 1960s and 1970s shaped it down to the recent past. But as Walter tells the story, it was also in the 1970s that the SPD as its founders conceived it began to die. The industrial economy plateaued, dissolving the closed worlds of industrial work that were the SPD’s main base. Progressive politics was increasingly a preoccupation of public sector workers, salaried white collar employees and new social movements. The challenge for the SPD was to integrate its disparate interests with what remained of its traditional base.

Divisions in the SPD, as much as pressure from the opposition, put paid to Schmidt’s government in 1982. The FDP swapped allegiance and the Christian Democrats’ Helmut Kohl began his 16-year stint as chancellor. It was the last hurrah of the Federal Republic’s original three-party system. Ominously for the SPD, a new constituency was emerging to challenge its monopoly on the left. The technocratic centrism of Schmidt’s government had alienated the ecological and anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s. Rather than struggling to make themselves heard in the SPD, the new left formed their own party: the Greens.

The Greens took the youth vote and the ’68ers from the SPD, but they also poached a growing share of college-educated voters from the FDP. That narrowed the margin of the centre-right CDU-FDP coalition and opened the possibility of a new progressive alliance. The first Red-Green coalition took office in Hesse in 1985. In shabby trainers, Joschka Fischer, once a street-fighter of the hard left, was sworn in as Hesse’s environment minister. By the end of the 1980s, with the pugnacious Oskar Lafontaine, the prime minister of Saarland, in the vanguard, a new breed of SPD-led ecosocialists was on the march.

Germany’s Red-Green future was deferred by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fall of the Wall scrambled the political expectations of the 1980s. Kohl revelled in the opportunity to write himself into the history books, pushing through in short order both reunification and the Maastricht Treaty, but the Greens and the SPD were caught on the wrong side of an unexpected wave of national enthusiasm. The Greens were openly sceptical about unification, aligning themselves with the movement which hoped to uphold a democratised form of socialism in a reformed GDR. Lafontaine addressed the hundreds of thousands of Germans flooding over the border as though they were foreign asylum seekers, not fellow citizens. Voters in the former East were not forgiving.

The prospect of reunification at first horrified the CDU’s electoral strategists. They assumed that working-class post-communists in eastern Germany would vote solidly for the SPD. The reverse was the case. Kohl’s party rapidly built new fiefdoms there, but the SPD struggled to re-establish itself even in regions like Saxony that had once been social democratic heartlands. In 1997, of the SPD’s 776,000 members, barely 26,000 were in the former East. In the 2017 Bundestag elections, the SPD came fourth in every state in the east other than Brandenburg and Berlin. The western bias is even more pronounced in the case of the Greens. It is not by accident that the AfD has chosen to position itself as Germany’s only party of climate change denial. Bashing the Greens plays well in the mining regions of the east. In large parts of the former GDR in the 1990s, as unemployment surged towards 20 per cent, the main force on the left was neither the Greens nor the SPD, but the post-communist PDS.

The historic shock of 1989 reset the political clock. But as Walter’s history of the SPD shows, it did not stop the broad-based social and cultural modernisation of West Germany begun in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1998, after an election campaign led by a Clinton-inspired marketing team, the baby boomers of the SPD came roaring back. Kohl’s exhausted government was defeated by the SPD, led by Gerhard Schröder, the flamboyant, bon vivant prime minister of Lower Saxony, who campaigned on a platform of ‘innovation’.

For the first time, the Red-Green coalition headed by Schröder brought a complete change in governing parties. But how would it balance its commitments to social justice and modernisation? It delivered major changes to citizenship law, enabling dual citizenship for millions of Turkish-Germans. It continued and deepened Germany’s reckoning with its Nazi past, establishing new lieux de mémoire, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the centre of Berlin, and settling the forced labour compensation suit. Both were political high-wire acts, but at least the direction of travel was clear. The economic and financial legacies of reunification posed far more difficult choices. At its peak, in 2005, German unemployment exceeded five million, or 12 per cent of the workforce.

Lafontaine as finance minister wanted Germany to respond with a co-ordinated Keynesian programme of Europe-wide reflation. But he crashed out of the government within months of taking office. Schröder was only too pleased to replace his left-wing rival with Hans Eichel, a tough austerian determined to prioritise fiscal sustainability over work creation. According to Gregor Schöllgen’s authorised biography, Schröder had already begun articulating a more stripped down vision of Germany’s capacious welfare state during his time as prime minister of Lower Saxony.[*] In 1999 he wrote a Third Way-style manifesto with Tony Blair. It was taken rather more seriously in Berlin than it was in London and provoked howls of indignation from SPD members. But though Schröder may have given it the green light, the decisive push for Agenda 2010, as Anke Hassel and Christof Schiller showed in Der Fall Hartz IV (2010), came from local government and the insurance and labour market agencies struggling to cope with crisis levels of unemployment.

The Kohl government had sought to contain the impact of unification on the Federal budget by decentralising the costs, putting huge strains on social insurance funds and local government. Schröder’s staff, led by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, later foreign minister and now president of Germany, worked with think tanks such as the Bertelsmann Stiftung, and labour experts such as Peter Hartz (the later disgraced HR boss of VW), to devise a new model of labour market management and welfare.

As Schöllgen’s biography reveals, in the minds of Schröder and his entourage, this programme of reforms became linked over the winter of 2002-3 with its opposition to war in Iraq. While Fischer, now foreign minister, sparred with Donald Rumsfeld, Schröder began work on a major statement of his government’s agenda. On the morning of 14 March 2003, he made a ninety-minute speech to the Bundestag that explicitly connected his foreign policy to his domestic agenda. Under the title of ‘Mut zum Frieden und Mut zur Veränderung’ (‘Courage for Peace and Courage for Change’), Schröder called both for independence in foreign policy and for a drastic reorganisation of the balance between public services and private initiative: ‘We will cut state services, promote individual responsibility and demand more personal performance from every individual.’

In practice this weird rhetorical conflation of domestic and foreign policy boiled down to Agenda 2010, a package of legal and regulatory changes which significantly benefited employers, loosening regulations on start-ups, reducing workers’ protection against dismissal and cutting employer contributions to social security. Most controversial, it ended Germany’s hierarchical social welfare system, which classified workers by income and skill level, and matched benefits and job offers to their pre-existing status. From now on, unemployment benefit would be keyed to previous income for just 12 months. The end of the line for all benefit recipients would be Hartz IV, set in 2005 at €374 per month (now €424). To avoid falling to that miserable level, highly skilled unemployed workers would be expected to accept lower-skilled positions. Badly paid ‘mini jobs’ to supplement Hartz IV were encouraged. As Hassel and Schiller show, of all the welfare state reform programmes adopted in the EU before the Eurozone crisis, Agenda 2010 was the most far-reaching and most abrupt. At midnight on 1 January 2005, Germany abandoned the heritage of the Bismarckian welfare state and adopted a labour market and welfare model closer to that of the Scandinavian countries or the UK.

The shock was spectacular. In anticipation of the changes, a protest wave spread across Germany. After a giant rally in Berlin on 1 November 2003, tens of thousands joined regular ‘Monday marches’ against Hartz IV – echoing the demonstrations that had heralded the end of the GDR regime. At the high point of the nationwide movement on 30 August 2004, 200,000 people demonstrated in two hundred towns and cities across Germany. The trade unions, Der Spiegel and even the tabloid Bild-Zeitung joined the campaign. It isn’t surprising that ten years later a book such as Oliver Nachtwey’s Germany’s Hidden Crisis could be a bestseller there. The debate over Agenda 2010 defines modern Germany, much as Thatcherism once did in the UK.

Supporters of Agenda 2010, who are given a fairer hearing by Hassel and Schiller than by Nachtwey, claim that it turned Germany around. Unlike anywhere else in Europe, unemployment in Germany has fallen almost continuously since 2005. The long-term unemployment rate, which once stood at 6 per cent, is now down to 1.3 per cent. Meanwhile, the employment rate has surged from 64 per cent of the working-age population in 2004 to more than 76 per cent. The German economy, which in the late 1990s was labelled the sick man of Europe, has re-emerged as its dominant force.

For Agenda 2010’s critics, these are indices not of success but of what Nachtwey calls ‘regressive modernisation’. Employment rates may have increased but working conditions for millions have deteriorated. German workplaces are now hierarchically divided between those who still enjoy the privileges of collective labour contracts and an army of flexible workers who come and go as their temp agencies require. By 2014, Germany’s old industrial relations model – collective bargaining and co-determination – covered only 28 per cent of workers in western Germany and half that number in the east.

The result is a sharp increase in inequality, which has been tracked by the Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung. The think tank’s president, Marcel Fratzscher, wrote a hard-hitting book on the subject in 2016. Like other capitalist societies, Germany has always had high levels of wealth and income inequality. There isn’t much social mobility. The chances of the children of the poorly educated gaining higher qualifications than their parents are lower in Germany than in most other rich countries. But in the late 1990s this inequality intensified. While profits, dividends and interest surged by 40 per cent between 2000 and 2007, real wages fell, with the biggest declines at the bottom of the wage pyramid. Germany’s tax and benefit system mitigates the inequality, but is hampered by high indirect tax rates and social insurance contribution systems, which bear most heavily on lower incomes. Agenda 2010 with its dramatic equalisation of benefits at a minimal level, made the problem worse. As Fratzscher concludes, Germany remains a welfare state, but no longer one that confers confidence or stability.

Neither Nachtwey nor Fratzscher would claim that this story of growing inequality was peculiar to Germany. Familiar too is the story of declining electoral participation among those at the bottom of the pile, which eats away at the SPD vote. People on lower incomes who do vote have increasingly dissociated themselves from the left, choosing instead the CDU or, now, the AfD. But what is distinctive in Germany is the way these sociological shifts are compounded by party politics.

In reaction to the neoliberal turn of the Red-Green government, the German left split once again. Amid the protests of 2004-5, as SPD members returned their membership cards en masse, Lafontaine sensed his chance for a comeback. When Schröder called snap elections in 2005, Lafontaine placed himself at the head of the anti-Hartz IV mobilisation and arranged a shotgun wedding with the post-communists of the PDS. The result, in 2007, was Die Linke. With its solid base in the east and highly mobilised constituency in the west, the new party vaulted into the Bundestag and once again changed the coalition arithmetic. At the federal level, a progressive government now required a three-party coalition of the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke. That was not impossible. Both in 2005 and 2013 the majority was there for the taking. But the divisions over Agenda 2010, the legacies of the GDR and Die Linke’s ingrained hostility to Nato went too deep. The SPD and Die Linke could never come to terms.

The fissuring of the German left after Agenda 2010 opened the door to the CDU’s recovery of power. Though Die Linke and Merkel are radically different expressions of post-reunification politics, they condition each other. Despite her formidable reputation, Merkel is not a successful electoral campaigner. In 2005, at the height of the turmoil and indignation stirred up by Agenda 2010, she managed only to inch the SPD out, 35.2 to 34.2 per cent. Her brand of neoliberalism stirred anxiety among CDU voters as much as Schröder’s did on the left. Only once, in 2009, did she win a vote share large enough to enable a centre-right coalition with the FDP. For three of her four governments, Merkel has relied on a grand coalition with the SPD. The impact on the SPD has been deeply ambiguous. On the one hand, except for the interlude of 2009-13, the SPD has been in government in Berlin for 21 years continuously. On the other hand the loss of identity, already visible under Schröder, has been ever more pronounced.

Governing with Merkel is dangerous. She is no ordinary conservative. Paying relentless attention to opinion polls, she omnivorously absorbs the agendas of her partners and opponents. This gives hardline conservatives little to cheer about. In electoral terms the CDU, like the SPD, has suffered a serious decline. And as conservative strategists have long worried, Merkel’s move to the centre opens space for a hard right alternative, an opportunity that the AfD seized in 2015. But the truth is that given the alignment of German political forces, Merkel simply did not need the right wing. The SPD has supplied her with the votes she needed to govern from the centre. As both parties have discovered, access to power in Berlin today depends less on your absolute share of the vote than on your place in the coalitional algebra.

The SPD was by no means a passive victim of these developments. For 15 years it has chosen to double down on the Schröder agenda. In 2009 the party fought a losing election with Steinmeier, the orchestrator of Agenda 2010, as its Spitzenkandidat. Then in 2013 the party grandees nominated Peer Steinbrück, who as finance minister in 2008 took responsibility for the bank bailouts. He can also claim credit for the Schuldenbremse, the ‘debt brake’ amendment to the constitution which throttles public spending. The notorious ‘schwarze Null’ (the fiscal surplus), popularly associated with Wolfgang Schäuble, is actually a creation of the SPD. Perversely, this fiscal discipline bears most heavily on the weakest Länder, including North Rhine-Westphalia and Bremen, which were once bastions of the SPD. It was not until 2013, after its third consecutive loss, that the SPD made any effort to change direction.

Under the new rules of the Berlin game, losing to Merkel in 2013 didn’t mean the SPD was out of power. It meant that it governed with her. And the social democrats extracted a heavy price. Not only the foreign ministry, but justice, the economy, labour and social affairs, family and youth and environmental policy were all in the hands of the SPD, at least some of whom were now determined to distance themselves from Agenda 2010. Their key demand, in the face of howls of protest from employers, was a minimum wage.

In the heyday of the German model, when wages were set by collective bargaining arrangements, there was no need for such regulations. But in the new era of flexible, low-paid work, the minimum wage of €8.50 an hour brought relief to some four million workers when it was introduced in 2015. Combined with the continued growth of the German economy and other incremental changes to the benefit system, it has lifted the acute economic insecurity of the early 2000s. Nachtwey’s dark vision of social crisis and downward mobility better describes the situation a decade ago than in Germany today. Even in the east, conditions are improving. If the AfD is a conflagration born of the socioeconomic crisis, it is of the slow-burning variety. It’s also clear, however, that the SPD gets no credit for its earnest efforts to rebalance the Agenda 2010 model. The party’s fate will be decided not by its success or failure in delivering specific social policies, but by its ability to tie its identity to a compelling diagnosis of Germany’s current problems and a credible account of its role in the recent past.

For the 2017 campaign, the party apparatchiks plumped for a fresh face – Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament. As described by Markus Feldenkirchen in Die Schulz Story, despite his endorsement of Agenda 2010 in years gone by, Schulz’s rocky personal biography and folksy manner vouched for the authenticity of his commitment to a more egalitarian politics. But rather than giving him a clear mandate on social inequality and Europe, which would have played to his strengths, the party managers decided to pit his personal appeal against Merkel’s. For a delirious few weeks it seemed that it might work. But by the summer his political stock had collapsed. The election was a disaster. Not only was it the worst result in a national election since 1949, there was not a single Land in which the SPD scored more than 30 per cent. Of the voters the party had retained, a quarter were over the age of 70.

The election results in September 2017 were bad for the SPD, but the aftermath was worse. Merkel tried, first, for an unprecedented ‘Jamaica’ coalition – the CDU/CSU (black) with the FDP (yellow) and the Greens. After six weeks the FDP walked away and the talks broke down. That left the options of new elections – unattractive given surging support for the AfD – or another Große Koalition. The SPD was bitterly divided. Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the party’s 70,000-strong youth wing, mobilised against the GroKo. But he was fought to a standstill by a powerful lobby in favour of it, headed by Olaf Scholz, a party boss from Hamburg, and Andrea Nahles, once on the party’s left wing, who became leader in April 2018.

Once again the SPD extracted a steep price for its co-operation with Merkel. To the horror of conservatives and the business lobby, the chancellor turned a blind eye while SPD ministers launched a raft of new social and environmental policies. But once again, the SPD in government with Merkel lacks credibility. This year’s European elections gave the party its worst result in a national ballot since 1887. And the data are worse when broken down demographically. Among voters under thirty, the SPD scores no more than 10 per cent. While Scholz and other senior SPD ministers remain in office, Nahles has resigned from all her party positions. Until the next party conference, scheduled for December, the SPD is without a leader. There are no candidates. It seems inconceivable that anyone who backs the coalition with the CDU could be a candidate. But an anti-GroKo candidate would hasten a new election, which is a terrifying prospect.

*

What is remarkable – the third big story in German politics in the last four years – is who has benefited from the SPD’s collapse. Not the CDU, whose results are by its own standards barely less disastrous than the SPD’s. Outside the east, the AfD seems to have hit a ceiling at around 10 per cent. Die Linke, worried about competition on the right, has impaled itself on arguments about immigration policy. The FDP’s refusal to take a share of power in 2017 has left it sidelined. The great beneficiaries of the upheaval are the Greens.

Immediately after the collapse of the Jamaica coalition talks in 2017, the Greens’ poll numbers surged. In the recent European elections their record result of 20.5 per cent put them in second place for the first time in a national poll. That breakthrough seems only to have increased their momentum. They now regularly poll over 25 per cent, ahead of the CDU. Their leaders, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, are inexperienced but charismatic. They clearly stand for the party’s shift to the mainstream. The Greens have established a business council, frequented by senior management from the chemical giant BASF, Accenture consulting and the reinsurance group Munich Re. The party that once represented the ecofundamentalist fringe no longer shrinks from the project of greening German capitalism.

The most widely discussed option for the future is a Black-Green coalition: a modernised CDU and a moderated Green party in a new-style centrist formation. Something of the kind operates in Baden-Württemberg. But it’s unclear whether the Green base in the rest of the country will tolerate such a conservative deal. On the same day as the European elections, Bremen held a vote, which brought another historic defeat for the SPD. Having ruled the city uninterruptedly since 1945, it took only 25 per cent of the vote. The ‘winner’ was the CDU. But it cannot govern alone, which makes the Greens the kingmakers. To the dismay of the party’s Berlin leadership, rather than talk to the conservatives, the Bremen Greens entered talks for a Green-Red-Red coalition, with the defeated SPD and Die Linke.

Bremen, a heavily indebted post-industrial port, is the smallest state of the republic. But if its coalition model were to catch on in Berlin, it would cause an earthquake. The Red-Red-Green option is the one that the SPD leadership, in better times, refused to countenance. Now it is one of the few possibilities left. And it is all the more significant now that the CDU has to deal with its own split on the right wing. The CDU’s reaction to the news from Bremen was telling. Merkel’s designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, immediately denounced the move, declaring that the Greens had revealed their true left-wing nature, and voters who hoped to bring about a change of government by supporting the Greens were naively opening the door to Die Linke. But this rhetoric cannot disguise the difficulty of the CDU’s position. What options has the retiring Merkel left her party? Given the CDU’s diminished polling, a coalition with the FDP alone is no longer enough. Would the CDU want to pursue an ‘Austrian option’ – a coalition with the AfD? Such a scenario is conceivable at the Länder level in the east. In regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg later this year, the AfD is likely to consolidate its position as the leading party of the right. But at the federal level there is nothing that would do more to rally a majority for a Red-Red-Green coalition than the prospect of a CDU-AfD connubio.

There is much to admire about German democracy. It is flexible, open, constantly changing. The six parties it is now made up of broadly reflect the divisions of German society. The complexity is a reflection of reality. But can it produce leadership? The answer matters for Europe as well as Germany itself. A clear German position is needed on issues ranging from Brexit and the development of the Eurozone to climate change and security policy in the age of Trump. A strategic window of opportunity closed in 2017 when Emmanuel Macron waited in vain for an answer from Berlin for his Sorbonne vision of Europe’s future. Europe can ill afford further delay. It is possible that a reconfiguration of politics in Berlin will eventually produce a more decisive, more pro-European government. But that is speculation. And how long will it take? In the meantime Europe is left with a government in Berlin that is a political zombie, a relic of a bygone age.

[*] Gerhard Schröder: Die Biographie by Gregor Schöllgen (Pantheon, 1040 pp., €19.99, 2016, 978 3 570 55341 1).