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

A Christian democratic Union party campaign poster showing a headshot of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Pfungstadt near Frankfurt, Germany, September 15, 2017.
REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

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. 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 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, but 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 harbor 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: German’s real problem is that it has no problems.

Modern obsession

Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” has a character called the “Last Man.” Contrary to what the name might suggest, the Last Man is not an individual, the lone survivor after the rest of the human species has become extinct. On the contrary: He is a particular human type, and a wide-ranging and hardy creature, at that. According to Nietzsche, “His species is ineradicable as the flea; the Last Man lives longest” (translation: R.J. Hollingdale). But his is the last species in all of human history. He is like a turbid morass into which the river of history spills, and in which it might stagnate for ages.

This human type lives in a reality in which all conflicts and struggles have been overcome and have disappeared. Historical upheavals sound to him like a distant, forgotten legend. His emotions are dull, his desires pale. He is well bred, well established and well groomed, but does not know what danger is, nor struggle or longing. Nothing emerges from within him – only utilitarian considerations. With his limited brain, he reduces the world to small dimensions. He doesn’t even talk about politics, music or philosophy, but goes on at length about dishes he orders in restaurants. This, according to Nietzsche, is the most depraved level that humanity can reach.

A quarter of a century ago, in 1992, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama published his book “The End of History and the Last Man.” Usually, it is referred to by only the first half of its title – “The End of History” – a term that generated considerable derision. For, even after the collapse of the Communist bloc, history did not end and liberal capitalism did not become the exclusive form of social organization. Fukuyama’s take on the Last Man, however, is still worthy of mention.

In the wake of Nietzsche, Fukuyama does not brag about the victory of liberal democracy but points to its weaknesses, as reflected in the rise of the Last Man. The life of the Last Man is one of physical security and material abundance – just what Western politicians like to promise their voters. The Last Man “is concerned above all for his personal health and safety, because it is uncontroversial,” Fukuyama writes. For people in democratic societies, food and drink, fitness and one’s physical condition have become “a far greater obsession than the moral questions that tormented their forebears,” he adds. People are reverting to an animal state, becoming beings that lack history, similar to a dog that “is content to sleep in the sun all day provided he is fed, because he is not dissatisfied with what he is.”

History does not truly have to end for the Last Man to emerge. When things grow calm, he appears. He is widespread in Europe, because the European Union, according to Fukuyama, is “the final home for the last man.” And indeed, an instant after Germany, and Europe as a whole, are extricated from the danger of war and economic collapse, the usual boredom and lassitude set in again. And without problems that can be fought over, there’s no need for a republic. Suffice it to appoint a manager, even to set things on automatic pilot.

In any event, the barbarians have been halted for now. We can start planning that vacation in Majorca.