Conservatism in Germany is on the rise. Robert Semonsen’s report on the recent election success of AfD, Alternative für Germany, in lower Saxony should breathe life into the conservative movement across the country. It is quite something for the AfD to be the strongest political force in East Germany—and its victory is accompanied by growing interest in Germany’s Centre party and its Catholic profile, which in January resumed its place in the Bundestag after a sixty-year absence.
The Right is surging in Germany because it’s correct on a number of issues. But that is not the phenomenon under inspection here. Rather, it is the rise of the malcontent, the non-conformist politician that warrants our attention.
It is rare for politicians to successfully make their own way as independents in the political arena. It is much worse for the maverick politician in Germany, where ‘brand’ runs deep in the country’s DNA, where ideas of populistische and paria are more than phonetically fused. But, the immigrant crisis of 2015; the mandates emanating from COVID fears; cancel culture; and the a-sexual trend of transgenderism (and the anti-family ideology behind it) have forced thoughtful politicians to step outside their parties’ platforms—‘forced’ being the operative word.
Here are the tales of three politicians who have forged unique political signatures, even after having been threatened with expulsion from their own party platforms. They are Hans-Georg Maassen of the Christian Democrats, Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left, and Boris Palmer of the Greens. From them, we may derive some hope that despite Left or Right, the realm of common sense, fortified by experience, wisdom, and a healthy streak of non-conformity, might bear fruit in Germany’s future.
Once, Hans-Georg Maassen was president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. He held the trust and confidence of the German government to enforce its laws and punish its criminals. In the fall of 2018, years after Chancellor Merkel had opened Germany’s borders to massive waves of immigrants, he found himself on the wrong side of the ideological fence. A German man had been stabbed to death in the former East German city of Chemnitz; the suspect was a migrant. News quickly circulated that the residents there had consequently pursued the migrant population in the spirit of a hunt. Merkel, believing the news, denounced the “hate and … persecution of innocent people” while her minister Maassen, head of the domestic intelligence agency, cautioned leaping to judgments before the reliability of the reports could be determined. That moment was Maassen’s swansong, or wake-up call, depending on one’s perspective.
Until 2018, Maassen had served his lords well. But he fell out of favour to the extent that even members of his own party, the CDU, requested his expulsion, blaming him for crimes far worse than undermining an ‘official’ perspective of a news story. He had grown suspicious of the intentions behind Merkel’s immigration program; he had distinguished himself as ‘anti-vax,’ and, because the mRNA study he referenced was by Sucharit Bhakdi, a microbiologist accused of anti-Semitism, he had earned the label ‘anti-Semite.’ His opinion of Germany’s role in curtailing a ‘man-made climate crisis’ was positively scandalous. In a YouTube interview “Grüne Nazis,” conducted by Peter Weber on Hello Opinion, Maassen compared German climate czars to Nazis—activists set on saving the world, according to their idea of salvation: “We’ve tried twice to save the world,” he said, referring to WWI and WWII, “and it’s failed each time.”
Today, Maassen is still a member of CDU. Under that umbrella, he won the nomination for the German Bundestag as the CDU Thuringia candidate in 2021. The conservative AfD holds no appeal to him; once a member of the Union of Values, he left because Max Otte (CDU but with strong affections for AfD) had been elected as chairman.
Maassen may not belong to AfD, but he is undeniably an asset to a conservative vision. He possesses the kind of independent thought, fearlessness, and conviction that’s admirable in a politician, and is taken seriously enough to continue to attract the attention of the media when he steps out of line, like when publishing in a right-leaning platform like Cato or expressing his non-scripted opinion on the pipeline sabotage.
Once, Sahra Wagenknecht was the darling of the Left party. In her early years as a politician, she joined the communist platform and rose to become party vice-president for die Linke (the Left Party), in 2010, and parliamentary leader in 2019. Her economic policy is quite critical of capitalism, but her foreign policy, stand against COVID mandates, and rejection of Chancellor Scholtz’s support of economic sanctions put her in traditional conservative territory. She had already begun to show her colours six years ago when she called for the dissolution of Germany’s alliance with NATO and for more secure ties to Russia. She took a clear stance toward peace negotiations after the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, accusing the U.S. and NATO members of inciting Russian aggression. She referred to the German sanctions that followed Russia’s invasion as a “stupid policy,” and her criticism has especially escalated since September. In an interview conducted by media site MDR Investigative on October 22nd, Wagenknecht insisted that Germany drop sanctions, and several episodes on her website feature ways German sanctions have hurt the German people.
Wagenknecht is an avowed atheist. She has no stake in human rights for any transcendental reason. Even so, the book she published in 2021, The Self-Righteous (Die Selbstgerechten), exposed the “left liberals” as derailed and offensive to working-class values and human dignity. To Wagenknecht, the “left liberals advocate a multi-cultural, multi-gender, globalist form of identity politics. Their electoral and activist base lies in those with university degrees in relatively well-paid and secure jobs, who have benefited from immigration and free trade.” Wagenknecht sees clearly the Left for what it is: dead (one reason why this past weekend her party once again called for her expulsion). She may be the face of the Left—and she is definitely their most prominent member—but her feet conform to the contours of conservative shoes. Her book reached number 1 in Der Spiegel’s non-fiction bestseller list, a clear sign that she’s meeting a need among German thinkers who share her criticisms.
Once, Boris Palmer embodied the vision of the Greens. As mayor of Tübingen since 2007, he was credited with implementing some of the most expansive and environmentally friendly policies in Germany: investments in playgrounds and gardens; obligatory solar photovoltaic systems on roofs; packaging taxes on takeaway food (verpackungssteuer); public transportation running on recycled energy; wide, well-integrated bike lanes; permanent vehicle-free roadways in the inner city—policies that have made this pristine university town a model for how to reduce a carbon footprint by 40%.
Palmer stumbled a few times in accommodating the migrant wave, but he really started to attract trouble after it became clear that he would have preferred more relaxed measures to contain COVID-19. Because he sought to protect the elderly and vulnerable, and not lock down the population of Tübingen, in 2020, Palmer found himself on the outside of his party, and calls came for his expulsion, even from Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Bärbock. So damning was his offence that the Greens threatened to oust him at the next election. The following year, in February of 2021, Palmer reacted to the new infection wave with draconian measures, imposing a 20:00 curfew and €1,000 fine on anyone who was not double vaccinated using any public facility. His actions were hailed as a model for the rest of the country.
Palmer survived rejection as a COVID ‘dissenter’ by backing the crushing mandates of the Left, yet he remained dogged by his party’s ideological scrutiny. Then cancel culture struck, and his true maverick potential was inadvertently revealed. In 2021, accused of racism for a remark on Facebook, insensitivity toward the elderly, xenophobia toward immigrants, and ‘anti-queer’ opinions (in 2016, activists said Palmer accused the ‘queer’ community of “exaggerated aggression towards mainstream society”), the mayor of Tübingen realized he had been rejected from the Greens for no other reason than because he had expressed his opinions.
Today, aware of the threat progressivism poses to the individual, history, and national identity, Palmer’s mission to fight for democracy has become crystal clear. He took his opinions to Berlin in April of 2021 to participate in a debate on language and identity politics. In his speech, “Be Different without Fear!” he asserted, “we oppose left-wing identity politics! Because a left-wing politics of self-exaltation can also turn into new unfreedom, as we see now. If the poem of the black poet [Amanda] Gorman is no longer to be translated into Dutch by a white, non-binary woman, this has nothing to do with a living, liberal culture.”
Palmer is a member of the Appeal for Free Spaces for Debate, and his messaging frequently attracts the attention and approval of the Right, for good reason:
As for the applause from the Right: I don’t wish for that. … [T]heir criticism of the deletion of culture is nevertheless correct. The principle of freedom of expression takes precedence over the fight against the Right. And the fight against the Right fails if it deletes freedom of opinion. One must also endure Right-wing opinions. Or, like Florian Schröder, approach them dialectically. But just not delete. (Facebook, August 13th) …
But the furor with which storms on the net can destroy livelihoods is getting worse. Cancel culture is turning us into ableist speech automata, with every word on the precipice. … Anyone who does not bow to the dictates of the ‘offended generation’ and the ‘self-righteous lifestyle left’ will be reprimanded and ostracised. I consider this incompatible with the fundamental values of our party and liberal, open society. (Facebook, May 7th and 8th)
Palmer is the latest—and least experienced—of these dissenting German politicians; Wagenknecht and Maassen have had years to fit into their skins, and Palmer has yet to get used to playing the ‘independent.’ But he has sensed the crisis and has articulated it with precision, and that alone will gain him a following among Germans whose favour he did not intend to court.
The mayoral election is on Sunday, October 23rd, when Palmer will compete against Sofie Geisel, SPD. This will be a test for Palmer as much as for the people of Tübingen, to determine whether or not they see the need to preserve democracy as much as their environmentally sound policies. If the enduring popularity of Wagenknecht and Maassen is any indicator, Palmer may be exactly the man for the job to lead the pearl of Baden-Württemberg out of identity politics. If, however, he is cast aside, greater Germany should be prepared. Boris Palmer has a vibrant political life ahead of him.
Palmer and the others—avowedly not AfD—have found themselves facing a Left removed from the democratic principles that gave their parties meaning; they are politically homeless. But stepping away from a broken home has its advantages, for one, seeing the greater home of the human community as it could be. It invites a vision of the bigger picture. When criticised during a September 15th interview on why he didn’t “concentrate on [his] successes, but interfered in debates that have little to do with Tübingen,” Palmer smartly replied,
In ancient Greek, the word idiot means someone who is not interested in public matters. And I don’t want to be an idiot.
Neither do we Mr. Palmer, neither do we.