Germany and the Political Price of Cynicism
As I walk around Berlin, I remember a song about the Wall by the famous Spanish singer Joaquín Sabina that loosely translated begins like this: “That guy who goes to the golf club / if you saw him yesterday / yelling “Yankee go home” / chanting Fidel’s slogans / Today he has a cobblestone, in his office, of the Berlin Wall.”
Critics say it is a song against capitalism. No: it is against the cynicism of those idealists who wanted to bring the communist paradise to Earth and, when everything collapsed, gave up their ideals for naked opportunism. In the three decades since the fall of the Wall—and the release of Sabina’s song—Berlin has experienced two contradictory things: a cultural revival and a rise in political cynicism representative of the mood that seems to dominate much of eastern Germany.
Berlin’s cultural renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s brought an echo of the 1920s, when the city was seething with originality and daring thanks to the Bauhaus artists, Grosz’s Dadaism, Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” and the Lang’s film noir. In the first two decades following the Wall’s collapse, thousands of young people attracted by cheap rents in Berlin’s run-down neighborhoods once again turned the city into a cultural melting pot. There was high-scale creativity too: The old no-man’s land around Potsdamer Platz soon bristled with futuristic and spectacular architecture from Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Christoph Kohlbeker. The gray, decadent buildings of the communist era in East Berlin began to give way to restored palaces and monuments.
But post-Wall Berlin also had shadows—the rise of cynicism in Europe’s leading country. The end of communism, while it made Berlin prosper, was not accompanied by a new political and moral vision that gave depth to the country’s liberal democracy and endowed the Germans with a powerful voice beyond their borders. The city itself, moreover, was poorly governed, and despite its new role as the capital of Europe’s leading country, it lagged somewhat behind most other important German cities.
The cynicism of the 90’s gradually became the extremist populism of today. A group of editors taking part in the International Literary Festival assured me that the far-right political party (Alternative for Germany), which is strong in the east, and the far left (Die Linke), less numerous but very visible, add up to between 25 and 30 percent of the electorate, a bit more than polls currently indicate.
In normal times, the two pillars of the German political system, the Christian Democratic right (CDU) and the Social Democratic left (SPD), would be in a position to contain the populist flood, but they are not. The Social Democrats are in a steep decline despite the fact that the country’s prosperity of recent years came partly from the free-market reforms known as Agenda 2010 that Gerhard Schroder undertook as Chancellor; their votes have migrated towards the Greens, a fashionable group without much gravitas. That leaves as the only antidote the center-right—whose top figure, Chancellor Angela Merkel, was exonerated from the need to engage in major reforms thanks to the legacy she inherited and who is finishing her time in office—but the CDU lacks the vigor it used to have.
Does this mean that the fascisms of the right and left will take power? No, the next government, to be elected in 2021, will likely be an ineffective hodgepodge of Christian Democrats, liberals, and greens. But this outcome could fuel populist extremism and further erode Germany’s ability to, and interest in, projecting onto the world stage a strong voice for civilization at a time of growing tribalism, populism and authoritarianism. The autocrats who rule Russia (from which Germany imports its energy), China, Turkey and Korea, recognize this possibility only too well.
Meanwhile, Berlin, a gorgeous city, seems content to cultivate its own garden in relative isolation, as in Voltaire’s novel, except when the needy Europeans come to ask for money and the German authorities based here end up giving it to them.