“Bonjour, Freiburg!” shouts Till Neumann to the crowd at the Platz der Alten Synagoge. Which means that the first words spoken on stage at the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) rally in this southwestern German town are in French. Neumann is half of a cross-border rap duo called Zweierpasch, and he and his brother Felix, accompanied by a cello and an acoustic guitar, proceed to perform a series of songs in a mixture of French and German. I have trouble following the lyrics, but the pro-Europe message is pretty obvious.
Germans will vote in national elections on Sunday, and the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, is the Freiburg rally’s main attraction. But before Schulz takes the stage, we are treated to a pair of lightning-round panel discussions with local candidates for the Bundestag, Germany’s national assembly. As they talk, it becomes clear that despite the red-dominated color scheme and the smattering of hammer-and-sickle symbols in the crowd, the SPD is not running a revolutionist campaign. “Today we say that Germany is a strong country, but it needs to invest more in the future. It is a prosperous country, but the prosperity still hasn’t reached everyone,” says the moderator. In other words: Germany is doing very well, yes, but things could always be better. Admirably restrained rhetoric, but hardly the sort of thing you need when you’re trying to make up a seventeen-point deficit in the polls and unseat one of the most admired heads of government in the world.
The party’s policy program, too, is fairly conservative. The SPD wants to tax families a little less and fund pensions and education a little more. The candidates on stage repeatedly condemn the wage gap between men and women, but don’t say what exactly they’ll do to combat it. But it’s not clear what else the party is supposed to say or do. The SPD has spent eight of the last twelve years as the junior partner in a ruling coalition with Angela Merkel’s socially conservative, welfare-state-supporting Christian Democratic Union, and the two partners in this generally stable union have gradually grown more and more alike.
If the election had been held this spring, Schulz and the Social Democrats would likely have made gay marriage a central campaign issue. But in late June, the CDU allowed a vote in the Bundestag to officially recognize same-sex marriages. Merkel and most of her colleagues in the party voted “no,” but because the CDU only holds 40 percent of the seats in the Bundestag and the other three parties with representatives had all come out in favor of the measure, they knew that it would pass as soon as they allowed it onto the floor. It was a bizarre piece of equivocation from the Christian Democrats, but it’s had the intended effect on the campaign. The one big, contentious issue that could have allowed the SPD to distinguish itself from its coalition partner is no longer relevant. Any increase in turnout that the Social Democrats might have realized by campaigning on the promise to recognize same-sex marriages is gone, and socially conservative voters who are unhappy with the CDU’s de facto concession have no alternative.
No alternative except, perhaps, the Alternative for Germany, which was founded in opposition to the CDU’s pro-refugee, pro-Europe program but which also makes desultory efforts to appeal to Christian traditionalists. Thanks to substantial support in some of Germany’s less prosperous regions, like the relatively impoverished northeastern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, the AfD will probably win enough votes on Sunday to send deputies to the next session of the Bundestag. But in central Freiburg, it’s a bad idea to wear the party’s preferred shade of neon blue after dark. “Fuck AfD” stickers adorn lampposts on the Wilhelmstraße and laptops in the university library, and the few AfD election placards posted around town have been hoisted fifteen feet above street level so they can’t be defaced. The party is accused of cultivating ties to German neo-Nazis and parroting recognizably Nazi rhetoric about family, culture, and ethnicity. Minor party leaders are periodically discovered expressing admiration for the Nazis, AfD head Frauke Petry has suggested reintroducing the term völkisch—a favored Nazi term for ethno-politics—into public discourse, and the party’s candidate for chancellor, Alexander Gauland, told an audience earlier this month that Germans should be proud of their World War II veterans.
Along with the CDU and most of the European right, the AfD supports the welfare state, up to a point. It claims to be wary of programs that infringe on the rights and responsibilities of families. But it is obviously reluctant to extend social supports to immigrants, especially from the Muslim world. And although AfDers seem to expect Germany’s small group of religious traditionalists to support them, the party’s vision for German society is not exactly conservative. One placard I saw in Freiburg reads: “Burkas? We’re turned on by bikinis!”
Standing close to the spot where the Nazis burned Freiburg’s synagogue in 1938, Schulz attacked the AfD at length. “This is no alternative for Germany!” he thundered. “It’s a scandal!” That line won him his longest round of applause of the afternoon. Zweierpasch’s pan-European aesthetic was also clearly meant as a rebuke to the euroskeptical AfD. The trouble with Schulz’s reliance on AfD-bashing as a campaign tactic is that the CDU, along with all the other parties in the Bundestag, have vowed not to enter into a coalition with the AfD. Voters who are worried about the rise of right-wing populism have no particular reason to choose Schulz over Merkel.
Schulz, an avuncular, slightly confused-looking man wearing rather close-fitting pants, gave an effective, straightforward speech with occasional moments of programmed passion. It was a solid attempt at what feels like a nearly impossible task: convincing his audience that they have some reason to reject a governing party that has successfully brought Germany through a global economic downturn and a massive influx of destitute refugees. But in the end, the universal consensus seems to be more or less correct: it really is difficult to draw much of a distinction between the two parties. The SPD would need a truly extraordinary campaign to overtake the CDU. So far, they haven’t managed to produce anything special. For one thing, the party is still struggling to deal with the late-August revelation that Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor and the last SPD politician to be chancellor, is taking a position on the board of directors of the Russian state oil producer Rosneft.
Two days after Schulz’s visit to Freiburg, Angela Merkel came to town. She has a simple job in this campaign: she has to emphasize how well things are going in Germany while still projecting enough of a sense of urgency to get her supporters to the polls. She is doing this job very well. Unlike Schulz, who has a certain fondness for puns, Merkel is seldom quotable. Her most famous line of the past few years was her understated response to critics of her refugee policy: “Germany is a strong country. We’ll manage it.” Her speech in Freiburg wasn’t poetic; it was a calm reminder that she’s the boss. “In these unstable times, there’s no need to experiment,” she told the crowd. She thanked them for their help in welcoming the wave of refugees who entered the country in 2015, and then assured that nothing of the kind would ever happen again. She promised moderate tax cuts for low and middle-income families. She praised domestic security measures, including increased surveillance, that the SPD and the other left-wing parties have opposed. She talked about technology, the dignity of work, and the importance of community institutions, like singing clubs and volunteer fire departments. The speech was a list of policy proposals that Merkel somehow managed to ground in a simple but appealing vision for German common life.
The foreign press generally paints Merkel as a bloodless economic manager, and maybe in the realm of policy she is. “For the last several decades, Germany has been a social market economy. We intend to continue in that direction,” she said in Freiburg. But unlike some neoliberal technocrats, she seems to realize that economic growth isn’t a good in itself. She knows that prosperity is good insofar as it allows people to live well, and she knows how to make that clear without losing her grip on policy detail. And although Schulz accused her of arrogance in his Freiburg speech, what struck me most about Merkel is how little self-regard she projects. “I would like to keep doing this job, and I can do it well,” she told the Freiburgers. The usual German word for pride, Stolz, doesn’t have any of the negative connotation of its English counterpart; Germans stereotypically—and, as far as I can tell, actually—don’t regard false modesty as a virtue. In Freiburg, Merkel was all Stolz and no Arroganz. Her message was simple: I’ve managed things effectively for the last twelve years and I know what we need to do in the next four. The large crowd she drew in this left-wing university town—students, pensioners, and at least two nuns—seemed generally pleased with what it heard. There were a handful of noisy anti-Merkel protestors from the AfD, but that will only help her cause with most voters in this area. Polls and anecdotes alike suggest that the plurality of Germans who have voted for the CDU in the last three elections don’t see any need for a change of course. Nor is it clear why they should.
The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Malloy Owen is a fourth-year in Fundamentals and philosophy. He wrote his Fundamentals junior paper on the political theology of Plato’s Laws and is currently working on a BA essay on Kierkegaardian self-legislation. He has interned at The American Conservative magazine and spent last summer teaching high school students in the Great Books Summer Program at Stanford University. On campus, he is the publicity chair of UChicago Students for Life.