‘She has long stopped caring for us,’ Brigitte told me of the woman who has led her country for 16 years.
Many of Brigitte’s neighbours in this once-buoyant community agree. Like Brigitte, who is 84, they have watched their town decline.
Formerly a thriving hub of the coal industry, Guben is now characterised by long-term unemployment and political extremism.
Neo-Nazi vigilante groups, armed with torches and pepper spray, patrol the nearby border to stop illegal migrants entering the country.
Gitti, as she likes to be known, would never join their ranks, but has some sympathy for what she calls ‘self-action’ in the face of political apathy from Germany’s politicians.
Brigitte has lived in Guben, near Germany’s Polish border, for most of her long life — and she didn’t hesitate when I asked what she thought of Angela Merkel
‘Those in Berlin do not care about little people like us,’ she told me. ‘So we have to protect ourselves.’ It’s a sentiment I have heard frequently in recent months from people across my homeland — a nation now readying itself for life after the departure of a once-formidable Chancellor.
This week, Angela Merkel will finally step down from office, having presided over the nation as Mutti (Mummy) for what seems a generation.
Indeed, when she took power, Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Madonna was top of the UK charts and Jose Mourinho was manager of Chelsea FC.
But Merkel leaves Germany — which used to be an economic and industrial powerhouse, the Goliath of a continent — at a crossroads.
Many are worried that it risks becoming ‘the sick man of Europe’, to use the damning phrase applied to Britain in the 1970s.
It causes me great sorrow to write this. As an Anglo-German who, like Gitti, was born in Guben and lived in Germany until I moved to the UK a decade ago, I despair at seeing the country of my birth slide into mediocrity and internal division.
Formerly a thriving hub of the coal industry, Guben is now characterised by long-term unemployment and political extremism
Yet whatever Merkel’s failings (although in earlier years, she enjoyed considerable achievements), there seems little doubt that, under the stewardship of her successor, Olaf Scholz, Germany is set to change for the worse.
Today, like so many other Germans, I look on helplessly as radical identity politics under the new regime are forced on to a country that did not ask for them, bringing with them with a raft of policies that will change the course of our society.
They range from giving 16-year-olds the vote to the legalisation of cannabis, a new loathing of post-Brexit Britain and paralysis over the tortured issue of immigration.
Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz and his coalition partners announced the measures in a Press conference after weeks of silence. Most people did not see this coming.
When Germany went to the polls in September, it was against a backdrop of ennui and mistrust of all the political parties. Pre-election polls showed that more than half of Germans thought none of the options for a new government was capable of dealing with the problems ahead.
Amid this malaise, the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), under Merkel’s deputy, Olaf Scholz, seemed to many to represent the least of the evils on offer.
Although once an avowed Marxist, Scholz presented himself as a safe pair of hands and a sensible politician.
Neo-Nazi vigilante groups, armed with torches and pepper spray, patrol the nearby border to stop illegal migrants entering the country
The strategy worked: a quarter of voters put their cross next to his party’s name, and Scholz scored a narrow lead in the election ahead of the candidate from Merkel’s party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union.
But now that Scholz has struck a deal to lead a coalition of three parties — his own Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens — it is clear that those expecting a moderate course for Germany are in for a shock.
To start with, Annalena Baerbock, the leader of the Greens, is the new foreign minister. A staunch Europhile, she will pursue an openly federalist foreign policy, and there are already suggestions she hopes to steer the EU to a ‘United States of Europe’.
Meanwhile, the new Chancellor-in-waiting — Olaf Scholz will be sworn in this week — has proposed a gamut of radical policies, many of which have no democratic mandate.
But Merkel leaves Germany — which used to be an economic and industrial powerhouse, the Goliath of a continent — at a crossroads
His wish to lower the voting age to 16 is a cynical move clearly designed to benefit the Greens and Liberals, who are more popular among the Left-leaning young. Most of Germany’s 83 million population vehemently oppose such a change. A recent survey found that more than two-thirds disagree with the idea, and even among 16- to 29-year-olds fewer than half were in favour.
Against this backdrop, introducing this constitution-amending change would seem a blatant disregard of democratic principle. The same sentiment equally applies to Scholz’s desire to liberalise the law over cannabis use — something supported by only a third of Germans.
I am also appalled at how little consideration is given to the rising threat to Germany’s Jewish communities. Anti-Semitic crime rose by 16 per cent in 2020 alone. Numbers have increased dramatically since 2015, setting horrifying new records each year.
It is Scholz’s stance on immigration, however, that is likely to inflame tensions most seriously in communities still dealing with the social and economic consequences of Merkel’s controversial decision to open Germany’s borders during the 2015 Syrian crisis. More than a million migrants poured into the country, transforming communities almost overnight.
Among them was the town of Fürstenwalde, east of Berlin — home to many of my friends and family. There, local officials were told to make housing available for 1,600 migrants, leading to a population growth of more than 4 per cent.
In a situation mirrored throughout Europe, fewer than half of the new arrivals were actually from war-torn Syria. Rather, they were economic migrants from other countries.
Many are worried that it risks becoming ‘the sick man of Europe’, to use the damning phrase applied to Britain in the 1970s
As they are mostly young men, social tensions remain high as the town tries to accommodate the arrivals, some of whom find nothing to do other than loiter on the streets. The last time I visited the town, the atmosphere was discernibly hostile.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, powerful cartels of Arab, Kurdish and Turkish migrants have been responsible for rocketing crime figures — a problem that Scholz’s programme acknowledges, but no concrete solutions are suggested.
So migration, you may think, must be front and centre of Scholz’s new regime. Far from it. Seemingly blind to the social and economic consequences, he speaks of increasing immigration. Make no mistake, doing so without first solving existing problems would only lead to further tensions in Germany — particularly in the east, where suspicion of central state powers runs deep and social deprivation is high, and where vigilantes have been patrolling borders.
Is this really the vision of the prosperous, forward-looking Germany that Scholz marketed to the electorate? The truth is that his focus seems to be elsewhere — a policy that risks hollowing out the great industrial structures that have underpinned Germany’s economic success story for so much of the past two centuries.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. In the late-1980s, Scholz declared that ‘the capitalist economy must be overcome’ and called ‘Nato-Imperialism’ a threat to world peace. Thirty years later, his adherence to those sentiments can be seen in a steadfast commitment to sever ties with Germany’s industrial traditions as he works to transform the country’s energy market at breakneck speed.
With a target of 80 per cent of Germany’s energy needs being supplied from renewable sources by 2030, all remaining nuclear power plants will be switched off next year and the use of coal is to be phased out.
Today, like so many other Germans, I look on helplessly as radical identity politics under the new regime are forced on to a country that did not ask for them, bringing with them with a raft of policies that will change the course of our society
This will leave Germany worryingly reliant on gas from Russia and unpredictable renewables, such as wind and solar.
Unsurprisingly, this move is causing significant apprehension in regions still dependent on coal for their livelihoods. For many — including those in Lausitz close to the Polish border — coal is all there is. Communities there, used to feeling ignored and overlooked, are deeply cynical about the promised investment to provide new jobs.
These troubling issues are dangerously linked to Germany’s geopolitical position — especially the country’s relations with Russia. Fossil fuels and nuclear power still provide 50 per cent of Germany’s electricity. By 2030, however, the country will have only one non-renewable energy source left: natural gas, largely supplied by Russia via the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline that runs between the two countries.
This puts Russia in the position of controlling energy supplies to Germany at the pull of a lever — a very powerful tool in Vladimir Putin’s hands. On a lesser level, the new coalition risks having to compromise its green policies with regard to environmental protection. By enshrining into law the notion that wind farms, offshore installations and fields of solar panels take priority over the nesting grounds of rare birds or the preservation of forests and heathland, the new government is, ironically, facing seeing its climate protection measures damaging wildlife.
Critical, too, is the fate of the once-mighty German car industry. Battered in recent months by stringent Covid measures and supply chain issues that have cut car-related manufacturing by 17.5 per cent, it now faces the prospect of a regime determined to focus on electric vehicles.
Scholz has promised 15 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030 in a bid to keep the German car industry busy. But in reality, the country is already trailing behind in the electric market.
Indeed, more American Tesla Model 3s are being registered than electric versions of Germany’s own Audi A4s, BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-class models combined. As a dual citizen of Germany and Britain, I am also profoundly concerned by Merkel’s successor’s seemingly anti-British mindset.
Germany may be the UK’s second largest export market, yet there is little mention of this in Scholz’s manifesto, which seems determinedly focused not on the £114.2 billion-a-year trade between the two nations but on cutting ties, supporting what are described as visible ‘measures’ — but are, in fact, ‘punishments’ — meted out by Brussels for any country that leaves the EU.
I despair at this dogmatism, which is not shared by much of the German population. Unpalatable as it may be to the ears of Scholz and his cohorts, the rancour generated by Brexit has done nothing to dent the nation’s Anglophilia.
Amid this malaise, the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), under Merkel’s deputy, Olaf Scholz, seemed to many to represent the least of the evils on offer
As Germans, we grow up quoting lines — translated into German, of course — from Monty Python classics, while our celebrity magazines take a voracious interest in the affairs of the Royal Family. That fondness runs deep, and the government ignores it at its peril.
But then the same could be said for much of this new-era Germany. The end of the long Merkel era —one that started amid such promise then seemed to sink into stagnation — should have been a chance for democratic renewal, for Germany to reset.
Instead, it seems Merkel’s successor is about to take her administration’s detachment from the people to new heights — and I fear the country I love will pay a terrible price.
Katja Hoyer is an Anglo-German historian and a visiting research fellow at King’s College London.