Inside Story

Anatomy of a broken taboo

An election in a tiny East German state has reverberated all the way to the top of the country’s politics

Klaus Neumann 19 February 2020 4648 words

Plenty to clean up: the Christian Democrats’ Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as “Cleaning-Woman Gretel” at last year’s Saarland Fools’ Show. Boris Roessler/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Germany’s politics are in turmoil. The election of a little-known Free Democrat as premier of Thuringia, a state that accounts for just 2.5 per cent of Germany’s population, has prompted the resignation of the national leader of the Christian Democrats and may well spell the premature end of Angela Merkel’s reign as chancellor.

What happened? Until last October, the East German state was governed by a coalition made up of the left-wing Die Linke, the Social Democrats and the Greens. Bodo Ramelow, leader of the senior partner in that coalition, served as state premier. Ramelow, a former trade union official who moved from West Germany to Thuringia after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is the first Die Linke leader to preside over a German state government.

When Thuringia voted on 27 October last year, Die Linke became the strongest party in state parliament. But its partners both lost seats, and the Red–Red–Green coalition lost its majority. The biggest losers, though, were the governing Christian Democrats, who crashed from 33.5 to 21.7 per cent. Apart from Die Linke, two other parties could claim to be winners: the liberal Free Democrats, who hadn’t been represented in the 2014–19 parliament but now cleared the 5 per cent threshold, albeit by a mere seventy-three votes, and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD, which more than doubled its previous vote and beat the Christian Democrats into third place.

Both the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats had ruled out coalitions with Die Linke and the AfD, but between them the latter two parties occupied fifty-one of the ninety seats in parliament. This meant that no feasible combination of parties could command a majority in parliament. For the time being, the Ramelow government remained in office.

Not all Christian Democrats in Thuringia were opposed to the idea of supporting a Ramelow-led minority government. This was largely because politicians tend to have an eye on public sentiment. The Linke leader is immensely popular in Thuringia; according to a poll conducted at the end of January, 71 per cent of respondents approved of his performance as premier and 60 per cent said they would vote for him if the premier were popularly elected. Even among Christian Democrat voters, Ramelow is the most popular politician and remains the preferred state premier.

That’s not the only reason why some Christian Democrats have been open to deals with Die Linke despite the fact that it is the successor of the Socialist Unity Party, which ran the German Democratic Republic until 1990. The Christian Democrats in Thuringia are also a successor party — to the East German Christian Democrats. They were once one of the four non-communist Blockparteien, which were represented in parliament and supported the East German regime. Those of today’s party members who belonged to the pre-1990 East German Christian Democrats may well remember the close working relationship their party had with the Socialist Unity Party — and thus with some of the people who ended up with Die Linke.

But however much some of Thuringia’s Christian Democrats would have liked to cooperate with a government led by Ramelow, they were not allowed to do so, because their party headquarters in Berlin has categorically ruled out any deal, anywhere, with AfD or Die Linke.

Notwithstanding the lack of a clear mandate, a Ramelow government remained an option. That’s because the state’s constitution allows for a premier to be elected with a simple majority of parliamentary votes as long as two rounds fail to produce an absolute majority for a candidate. Die Linke, the Social Democrats and the Greens were confident that it would come to that — and that a minority government would work because it would solicit the support of Free Democrats or Christian Democrats on a case-by-case basis.

The election of the new premier was scheduled for 5 February. In the first two rounds of voting, Ramelow won comfortably against the candidate of the AfD, Christoph Kindervater, the mayor of a small village in Thuringia, who isn’t actually a member of the AfD. As expected, though, Ramelow failed to gain an absolute majority in either round because nearly all Free Democrats and Christian Democrats abstained. In the third round, Ramelow suddenly faced two challengers: Kindervater and the leader of the Free Democrats, Thomas Kemmerich. Much to the consternation of members of the Red–Red–Green coalition, Kemmerich won. Having formally accepted the position, he was duly sworn in as Thuringia’s new premier.

Kemmerich’s election was only possible for one reason: all AfD members of parliament voted for him rather than for their own candidate. He was also supported by all but three Christian Democrats, who were no longer abstaining.

Kemmerich’s candidature had not been a spontaneous decision; in fact, the AfD, knowing that he would stand, had executed a clever plan to prevent the re-election of Ramelow while allowing the far-right party to claim that it was simply part of a conservative bloc whose candidate won.

All hell broke loose after Kemmerich’s election. The outrage on the left side of politics was perhaps best epitomised by the response of Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, the parliamentary leader of Die Linke, who, rather than congratulate the new premier, threw a bouquet of flowers at his feet.

As far as Kemmerich himself was concerned, he had been democratically elected. He said he did not intend to govern with, or even courtesy of, the AfD and announced that he would seek talks with Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Greens to put together a cabinet. But the Social Democrats and the Greens immediately declined the invitation. Even the Christian Democrats, who after all had voted for Kemmerich, suddenly realised that they could not support a government led by him.

Kemmerich was born in Aachen, a city in Rhineland, in the west of West Germany. When he moved to Thuringia after the fall of the Wall, he brought a key element of Rhineland culture with him: carnival. According to its supporters, carnival allows people to be irreverent and call a spade a spade. Its detractors would argue that it encourages people to make tasteless jokes. His response on 5 February suggested that he might have thought of his election — at the height of the carnival season — as a great joke, and if others did not get it, he could simply resign as if the joke had never been made. But nobody outside Thuringia’s Free Democrats and Christian Democrats was prepared to treat his candidature in that way.

The outcry over Kemmerich’s election — and even more so over his decision to accept the result — was also deafening among conservatives. The Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats in Thuringia were not the only targets of sustained criticism. Those who had congratulated Kemmerich immediately after the vote were also in trouble. Among them was the federal government’s high-profile special envoy for East Germany, the Christian Democrat Christian Hirte, who had posted a tweet congratulating Kemmerich for his election “as a candidate of the [political] centre” and wishing him success for the “difficult task” ahead. Angela Merkel considered the tweet a sackable offence and promptly replaced Hirte.

The most important collateral damage of Kemmerich’s election was the national leader of the Christian Democrats, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — or AKK, as she is usually referred to in Germany. Although she had distanced herself from the actions of her colleagues in Thuringia, she had been unable to stop them, and afterwards was unable to convince them to toe the party line and agree to fresh elections. Five days after the debacle in Thuringia’s parliament, she announced that she would not seek to succeed as chancellor and would resign as leader of the party once she steered it through the process of nominating a candidate for the chancellorship at the 2021 federal elections.

Like Kemmerich, AKK is a carnival tragic. In fact, before her elevation to the position of general secretary of the Christian Democrats in 2018 — when she was premier of Saarland, a state even smaller than Thuringia — she was known also for the irreverent (or tasteless) jokes she made as Putzfrau Gretel (Cleaning-Woman Gretel), a persona she used during the carnival season. Leaning on her broom, she would pontificate about the world and make her audience laugh. She seems to have left the broom behind when she moved to Berlin, where it could have been used to rid the Christian Democrats of their closet AfD bedfellows.

AKK’s lack of resolve and authority was put into sharp relief by two of her allies: first, by the premier of Bavaria, Markus Söder of the conservative Christian Social Union, who within minutes of the vote lambasted the behaviour of Free Democrats and Christian Democrats in Thuringia; and then by the German chancellor, who was on a state visit in South Africa as events unfolded in Thuringia. Often considered a ditherer, Merkel was quick to respond in unequivocal terms, calling the local Christian Democrats’ decision to vote for Kemmerich “inexcusable.”

On 8 February, only three days after his election, Kemmerich resigned at the urging of his own party. After initially hedging his bets, leader Christian Lindner had joined the chorus of those condemning Kemmerich’s election. Lindner was being true to form; in 2017, having decided to call off coalition negotiations between the Free Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Greens in Berlin, he famously said, “It’s better not to govern, than to govern wrongly.” But his position, much like AKK’s, may turn out to have been irreparably damaged by the events in Thuringia.

What explains the extent of the outrage at Kemmerich’s decision to stand, and to accept his election?

In today’s Germany, it’s taboo for politicians belonging to Die Linke, the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Free Democrats, and the Christian Democrats or their sister party, the Christian Social Union, to collaborate with the AfD. This means that these parties are committed not to enter into agreements with the AfD and not to rely on the AfD’s votes — at the national, the state or the local level — to pass legislation. To depend on the support of AfD parliamentarians in a vote as crucial as that of 5 February in Thuringia was a violation of that taboo. The term most often used to describe what had happened was Dammbruch, a breaching of the dam.

The violation was perceived particularly acutely because Thuringia’s AfD is led by Björn Höcke, the poster boy of the AfD’s extremist Flügel faction, who according to a recent court ruling may be called a “fascist,” and whose words and deeds are closely monitored by the Bundesverfassungsschutz, Germany’s federal intelligence agency.

Taboos proscribe human behaviour that is ostensibly repulsive but might be considered attractive, at least by some. No taboo is needed, for example, to stop parliamentarians from using their speeches to abuse the people who voted for them — simply because it would not occur to politicians to do that. But the idea of forming an alliance with the AfD is sufficiently attractive, if only to some, that it requires a taboo to stop them from acting impulsively.

Despite its speed, intensity and near unanimity, the response to Kemmerich’s election doesn’t prove that a collaboration between, say, the Free Democrats and the AfD is unthinkable in today’s Germany. In East Germany, in particular, several prominent members of the Christian Democrats have questioned their party’s official line that it must not collaborate with the AfD. This is despite the fact that in the East German states the AfD tends to be far more radical than in West Germany. Advocates of a rapprochement between Christian Democrats and the far right have included the leader of the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary party in Saxony, Christian Hartmann, and key Christian Democrats in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Prominent members of a 4000-strong network of self-confessed conservatives associated with the Christian Democrats, the Werte-Union, have also repeatedly argued that the differences between AfD and the Christian Democrats could be easily bridged.

But whenever such arguments have been made, they have met with a firm response from Christian Democrat leaders, including AKK and Merkel. After the Werte-Union welcomed Kemmerich’s election, for example, other Christian Democrats demanded that the party dissociate itself from that group (and possibly expel all its members), which compelled the conservative network hastily to endorse the party line and categorically rule out any collaboration with the AfD.

Thuringia’s Christian Democrats have convincingly argued that they had held no talks with the AfD prior to Kemmerich’s election. While they didn’t collaborate with the far right, though, they did collude with them. At the national or state level, this had never happened before. But at the local level, particularly in East German district and town councils, Christian Democrats have often collaborated, cooperated or colluded with AfD representatives. In local parliaments, the “dams” and “firewalls” conjured by AKK and others have been far less important. But local arrangements between Christian Democrats and the AfD have been informal and have usually been struck outside the media spotlight.

Elsewhere in Europe, the taboo that governs the relations between the democratic parties and the far right hardly exists at all. Last week, in an interview with the German news magazine Spiegel, Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin wouldn’t exclude the possibility that her Social Democratic Party would cooperate with the True Finns, the Finnish equivalent of the AfD. People in Finland expected politicians to identify solutions to pressing problems, she explained, rather than engage in ideological battles. In Denmark, centre-right minority governments have relied on the support of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party for fifteen of the past twenty years. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party was the minor partner in conservative-led governments from 2000 until 2005 and again from 2017 until last year.

Why, then, do the overwhelming majority of German centre-right politicians, let alone Social Democrats and Greens, shun the AfD? Much of their response reflects a particular view of what happened towards the end of the Weimar Republic, when Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party — intent on replacing democracy, much like Björn Höcke’s AfD — came to power not least because it was tolerated by many conservatives.

In fact, the key historical moment that is often referenced in discussions about the ramifications of Kemmerich’s election happened in Thuringia. There, at the 1929 state elections, the Nazis won 11.3 per cent and the governing conservative coalition lost its majority. Rather than trying to form a coalition with the Social Democrats (which was then by far the largest party in state parliament), the conservatives opted to collaborate with the Nazis. In 1930, Hitler’s henchman Wilhelm Frick, who was later hanged as a war criminal, became Thuringia’s minister for education and the interior and set about “cleansing” the public service. The conservatives, who thought they had successfully co-opted the Nazis in Thuringia, tried to do so again three years later at the national level, thus paving the way for Hitler to become chancellor.

The historical analogy is, at best, problematic. Thuringia in 2019–20 bears little resemblance to Thuringia in 1929–30. Then, the conservative forces were not committed to democracy; nor, at the other end of the political spectrum, was the Communist Party. In today’s Germany, democratic ideals and a commitment to human rights and the rule of law are far more entrenched than they were during the Weimar Republic.

It is true, though, that Höcke’s AfD has borrowed some of the Nazis’ vocabulary. Much like them, the AfD is anti-democratic (and thus Kemmerich’s claim to have been “democratically elected” was not true in the sense that he had not been elected by people who believed in democracy). Much like Hitler wanted to destroy the Weimar Republic, Höcke and other Flügel representatives aim to tear down the Berlin Republic. And like Hitler’s party, Höcke’s AfD wants to become respectable and be taken seriously as a viable and legitimate alternative to the centre-right parties only in order to supplant not just these parties but all democratic structures.

Kemmerich and Thuringia’s Christian Democrats would have done well to cast their eyes back to the outcome of the 1929 elections, and to the successful attempts of a far-right party to use the conservatives’ loathing of the left to their advantage.

The taboo that prevents Christian Democrats and others from collaborating with the AfD is only part of the story; in fact, it obscures what might prove a more important issue, the question of whether the democratic parties are adopting views held by the AfD.

None of the parties outside the AfD has ruled out embracing positions of the populist far right. Obviously, a categorical refusal to advocate a particular stance on the sole grounds that it has been endorsed by the AfD would make little sense. But how about positions that are, for example, anti-democratic or racist — that is, positions that are an integral part of the far-right mix?

In the past, many prominent Christian Democrats, as well as some Social Democrats and Free Democrats, held views that are now principally associated with the far right. Occasionally, they also formed alliances with groups that were committed to particular varieties of right-wing extremism, without necessarily being likened to the Nazi Party. The first time the Christian Democrats collaborated with radical right-wing populists was not the election of Kemmerich in 2020 but the formation of a coalition government between the Hamburg Christian Democrats and the so-called Schill Party, led by the extremist law-and-order advocate Ronald Schill, in 2001. (While Kemmerich’s tenure lasted only three days, the government of the Christian Democrats and the Schill Party was in office for more than two years.)

Before the emergence and rapid rise of the AfD in 2013, Christian Democrats sometimes justified embracing extremist positions by arguing that a major conservative party needed to cover the entire right of the political spectrum, if only to deprive more radical alternatives of oxygen. The long-time leader of the Christian Social Union, Franz Josef Strauß, famously said that “there must not be a democratically legitimated party to the right of the Christian Social Union.”

Since it became obvious that the AfD is here to stay, Christian Democrats have put forward two arguments against adopting AfD positions. One is that the right-wing extremism often embraced by conservative politicians like Strauß is no longer compatible with the principles of a centre-right party. This is an argument made by Angela Merkel, among others. For her, she said in 2016, Strauß’s dictum was valid only as long it was possible to remain true to Christian Democratic principles. At the time, she had in mind the opposition to her asylum policy led by politicians of the Christian Social Union, including Merkel’s own interior minister Horst Seehofer. Christian Democrats who make the same argument, such as Daniel Günther, the premier of Schleswig-Holstein, tend to identify as liberals.

The other argument is strategic. Strauß and others were convinced that far-right parties could be kept small if they were unable to claim that they alone championed particular extremist views. The evidence from Bavaria largely supported this argument: only once, in 1966, did a far-right party manage to win seats in state parliament. But this stance came at a price: it positioned Strauß’s party to the right of all others represented in federal parliament; his image as a politician toying with ideas that were otherwise associated with the far right ensured that the conservatives, led by Strauß as their candidate for chancellor, lost the 1980 elections.

Markus Söder, the current leader of the Christian Social Union, was long a faithful Strauß disciple. In 2016, for example, he demanded to “end the asylum tourism” in the expectation that such statements would appeal to prospective AfD voters. But just ahead of the 2018 state elections in Bavaria, Söder realised that Strauß’s strategy no longer worked. He made an about turn, drew a clear line between the Christian Social Union and the AfD, regained the support of traditional conservatives who had threatened to vote for the Greens, and thereby ensured that his party remained the dominant force in Bavaria. Since then, another deeply conservative state premier, Saxony’s Michael Kretschmer, has also won a state election by distancing himself from the AfD.

At present, the leading politicians of the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union agree that their parties should reject extremist positions advocated by the AfD — whether it’s because they believe, as Günther does, that their party ought to occupy the political centre and be open to progressive ideas, or because they are convinced that Söder’s und Kretschmer’s strategy has worked. But AKK’s retreat will reignite debates about principles and strategies. If the Christian Democrats ultimately reject both Günther’s and Söder’s arguments, then the taboo on cooperation would no longer hold. It would make little sense to embrace the AfD’s positions but refuse to form an alliance with a party representing up to a quarter of the electorate.

Outside Germany, too, the question of whether conservative parties should embrace the demands of the far right is more relevant than the issue of coalitions. But a preparedness to consider coalition governments that include the far right can also pave the way for policy shifts. Denmark is a good example. For years the Danish People’s Party was lent credibility because successive governments relied on its support. The current government of Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen no longer needs the far right to govern, but it has nevertheless adopted key planks of its platform, particularly in relation to the far right’s asylum policy. Something similar has happened in Austria, where the conservative People’s Party, which twice formed a government with the far-right Freedom Party but is currently in a coalition with the Greens, is now championing policies that used to be owned by the far right.

Where to now for Thuringia? Kemmerich’s resignation could have been followed by a repeat of the election of 5 February, except with both Christian Democrats and Free Democrats abstaining in all three rounds. But the AfD has said that it might now vote for Ramelow, in which case he too would have to resign to avoid being tainted by its support.

Die Linke has demanded — unsuccessfully, thus far — that at least four Christian Democrats and/or Free Democrats must vote for Ramelow in the first round to ensure that he is elected with an absolute majority. On Monday, Ramelow put forward another idea, which was endorsed by the Greens and the Social Democrats: new elections and, until then, an interim “technical” government led by his immediate predecessor, Christiane Lieberknecht from the Christian Democrats, who retired as a member of parliament last year. On Tuesday, Thuringia’s Christian Democrats rejected that idea.

It is not hard to see why. Ramelow is likely to benefit from new elections; polling conducted last week put his party at 40 per cent, with the Christian Democrats down to 14 per cent and the Free Democrats below the 5 per cent threshold. If the election results approximated current polling, the Red–Red–Green coalition would command a comfortable majority in parliament. The threat of new elections may be what is needed to convince the Christian Democrats to support Ramelow’s re-election.

Whatever happens, the AfD has successfully exposed leading Free Democrats and Christian Democrats as naive, greedy and unprincipled. On Monday night, Björn Höcke addressed a demonstration organised by the far-right Pegida movement in Dresden, claiming that a coup d’état engineered by Angela Merkel had toppled democratically elected premier Thomas Kemmerich. While the majority of Germans may find such claims bizarre, they appeal to his followers. And there are many of those — in fact, the events since 5 February have only cemented Höcke’s position as the de facto leader of Germany’s far right.

Where to now for Germany? The Christian Democrats are currently experiencing the most serious crisis in their seventy-five-year history. Their internal problems affect the work of the coalition government in Berlin and are likely to further entrench the view among Germany’s partners that the country is not interested in providing leadership. The party that more than any other has shaped the history of the Federal Republic and has led the federal government for fifty-two of the past seventy-one years is at a collective loss about how to position itself. It does not know how to reverse its longstanding decision not to collaborate with both Die Linke, a democratic party with an anti-democratic past, and the AfD. It does not have a collective vision for a life after Angela Merkel. And it does not know how to deal with those of its members who are tempted to violate the taboo of getting into bed with certified fascists such as Björn Höcke.

The events of 5 February have strengthened the resolve of Christian Democrats like Daniel Günther to position their party as an antidote to the far right. Conservative Christian Democrats appear to get the message; on Monday, the Christian Democrats in Dresden called on their followers to demonstrate against another Pegida demonstration — the first time this has happened in the more than five years since Pegida began holding its regular Monday evening rallies.

AKK’s announcement that she will step down has meant that two positions are now up for grabs: that of the leader of the Christian Democrats and that of the conservatives’ candidate for German chancellor. At the moment, there are three likely candidates for the position of party leader (although none of them has officially declared an intention): the premier of North Rhine-Westfalia, Armin Laschet, who belongs to the party’s moderate left and has been a staunch supporter of Angela Merkel; health minister Jens Spahn, a conservative; and Friedrich Merz, another conservative and long-time Merkel critic. Those three would also want to lead the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union into the next elections. But — notwithstanding his protestations — Markus Söder may also throw his hat into the ring. In any case, the question of how to deal with the AfD is likely to dominate the discussion over who will lead the conservatives from later this year and, potentially, Germany from 2021.

Or from 2020? AKK failed partly because last year Merkel resigned as party leader but not as chancellor. Whoever succeeds AKK will probably try to convince Merkel that she needs to go straight away. She won’t like it and will argue that she needs to remain at the helm in the second half of the year when Germany holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. But she may not have a choice.

If Merkel were forced out, the Social Democrats would probably demand new elections, and Germany may have a new chancellor by Christmas. I won’t hazard a guess about who will follow Merkel, but it seems certain that it will be a man: Laschet, Spahn, Merz, Söder — or Robert Habeck, the charismatic co-leader of the Greens.

That last possibility also says something about Germany in 2020. While the rise of the AfD has made life difficult for Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, it has strengthened the Greens. It has provided motivation and oxygen to groups outside parliament that not only oppose the far right but also fight for measures to combat climate change and for a generous asylum and refugee policy. In other words, Germany might have experienced a resurgence of the far right since 2013, but it has also seen a civil society–led backlash against the extreme right and in favour of an alternative vision of society that may otherwise have been utterly unrealistic. Watch this space. •