German Chancellor Angela Merkel is often accused of refusing to lead. Many inside and outside her country would like her to be the leader of the free world, to suggest bold concepts and make decisive moves. But there’s a strong, very German philosophy to Merkel’s lack of vision, and that, as much as Germany’s economic prosperity, is winning her the election tomorrow.
“Whoever has visions should go see a doctor,” Helmut Schmidt, a revered German chancellor, had said in 1980, though he later described the phrase as “pompous”. It can be argued that post-war German leaders, despite their country’s reduced global standing, often had grand visions. Schmidt himself dreamed of a nuclear-free world. Willy Brandt thought he’d figured out peaceful coexistence with the Communist world. Helmut Kohl worked tirelessly towards German reunification. Merkel has had her visionary moments, too, with Germany’s determined move to non-nuclear sustainable energy and with the decision to let in more than a million asylum-seekers in 2015. But in the 2017 campaign, Merkel appeared to act out Schmidt’s maxim. She offered no bold scenario for the future, no aspirational goal.
Perhaps the closest she came to setting out a vision was a year ago, as she presented this year’s budget in parliament. Germany, she said, has seen a lot of change since the Second World War, and “change isn’t a bad thing”. But she also vowed to defend the status quo in the broadest sense of the term: “Germany will remain Germany, with all that we love and hold dear about it.”
This promise was made at the height of the country’s panic about the mass immigration. But it reflected a more complicated conviction: In Germany, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Merkel seized upon that feeling for her campaign slogan, too: “For a Germany in which we live well and love living.” The campaign was fuelled by an uncharacteristic nationalism. Unlike in previous elections, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party used the colours of the German flag in election posters. Merkel and another prominent CDU politician, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, published their takes on the German identity in the nation’s most popular tabloid, Bild. It’s tempting to write this off as a tactical move meant to prevent the far-right party, Alternative for Germany, from occupying the nationalist ground. But Merkel bases her take on identity politics in a strikingly different way.
The AfD’s version of patriotism is closely related to the notion of Vaterland, which students of the German national identity Elizabeth Boa and Rachel Palfreyman described as the masculine idea of homeland, the country for which soldiers die in a foreign field. “Courage for Germany” is one of the party’s slogans. One of the AfD’s lead candidates, Alexander Gauland, recently asserted a “right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in the two world wars.” The AfD faithful are tired of being ashamed of their country’s past and want to see it as heroic. It’s hardly by chance that AfD voting in recent regional elections follows the same geographical pattern as voting for the National Socialists; while the AfD is not their direct heir, it shares with earlier nationalists a vision of German greatness based on assertiveness.
But the “stunning historical persistence” noted by researchers Davide Cantonmi, Felix Hagemeister and Mark Westscott in the AfD voting patterns speaks to Merkel’s point: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Merkel’s subtle counterweight to the Vaterland (or fatherland) patriotism of the AfD is what Boa and Palfreyman interpreted as the feminine version of German identity, Heimat, the nurturing place one calls home.
Merkel doesn’t use the word in speeches: It became tainted during the Nazi era, when the official propaganda equated it to Vaterland (or fatherland). But the way she sees Germany is in line with that notion. That’s obvious from the ABC of all things German she published in Bild. Heimat is deeply regional and local (the Nazis misused the term when they applied it to the country as a whole), and Merkel’s list is full of the joys of local life — regional festivals, small-town newspapers, garden plots. The flag, the military and the constitution are there, too — how could they not be — but most of the list consists of what makes Germany a place of comfort. The original philosophy of the Heimat notion, developed in the 1920s (before it got commingled with ethnic nationalism) allowed for people to find a new Heimat to embrace in a deeply personal way. That’s an important part of the CDU approach to immigration: Newcomers are supposed to accept the German Leitkultur, or “leading culture”.
The consensus about the current election campaign is that Merkel ran it in a minimalist style to avoid obvious errors, hoping to coast to victory on the tide of good feelings about the economy. There’s a lot of truth to that. If you ask Germans whether there is a local version of the American dream, they may refer self-deprecatingly to an old ad for the Sparkasse, the network of savings banks: “My house. My car. My boat. My wife.” But there’s a non-economic side to this desire for comfort — the pride in the land that provides it. Merkel made a subtle appeal to a different version of German patriotism than the one espoused by AfD. It’s conservative and seemingly unambitious, but if it were otherwise, it probably would not have been such a perfect alternative to the radicalism of the far right.
In her quiet way, Merkel is winning an ideological battle, not just exploiting prosperity. It may not mean much for the outside world, but it’s important domestically. Bold vision would have gotten in the way this year. There will be time for it later.
Leonid Bershidsky is a senior Bloomberg View columnist.