Israeli flags. Guitar music. Bicycles. Strollers, dogs, and thick sweaters. Here at the Brandenburg Gate on a sunny October Sunday, 20,000 people gathered, united by the ideals of the modern German state. The German president spoke. The Israeli ambassador spoke. The father of two kidnapped daughters spoke. The audience listened attentively.
Then, when it was all over, those traveling by subway removed their kippah, put away their Stars of David. The police cannot be everywhere at once, and so they protectively advise Berliners not to display symbols of Judaism.
Some days earlier, on October 18, two people threw incendiary devices at a synagogue in central Berlin. This followed a week of clashes between police and protesters in a heavily Muslim section of the city, Neukölln. Earlier this month, the German magazine Der Spiegel published an interview with Güner Balci, the integration commissioner for the district, who was born in Neukölln, the child of Turkish immigrants. The dialogue, in a question-and-answer format, included this section:
Balci: Unfortunately, wide swaths of the Arab-speaking population in Neukölln harbor sympathies for the terrorists.
Der Spiegel: How do you know that? Has there been a survey?
Balci: I know it from numerous conversations. I wish such a survey existed. It might be enough to wake up the federal government. I have seen photos of youth who visited relatives in Lebanon over summer vacation and had themselves photographed in combat gear while holding Kalashnikovs. They boast about their proximity to Hezbollah. And their friends are in awe as a result.
Der Spiegel: What about the Muslims who reject terror and who actually have sympathy for Israel following the weekend attacks?
Balci: They also exist, of course, but hardly any of them say anything. The pressure that has built up within the Arab community is enormous. When Taha Sabri, the imam of the Dar-As-Salam Mosque in Neukölln participated in a commemorative event three years ago by polishing Stolpersteine [the brass plates embedded in the sidewalks of cities in Germany and elsewhere marking the former homes of Jews murdered in the Holocaust], he was reviled as a traitor. Those who hold views that are not shared by the extremists face extreme hostility. It can be dangerous. I also had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to expose myself in this situation by giving an interview. Who knows how the situation might develop? I would like to continue being able to walk down Sonnenallee or take the subway without police protection.
The familiar Germany at the Brandenburg ceremony has wholeheartedly aligned itself with Israel. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has upheld Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas terror attacks. Symbols of solidarity are seen everywhere: a giant banner spread across the facade of the Green Party headquarters; Israeli flags flown from the Berlin offices of German state governments. This weekend, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was even more solemn than usual: I witnessed a toddler clamber onto one of the concrete blocks—and his father instantly whisked the boy back to the ground and explained that he must show respect.
But another Germany is coming into view. The German political center is shrinking, and the German extremes are gaining.
This summer, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, overtook the once-mighty Social Democrats as the second-most-popular party in Germany, behind the Christian Democrats. Obediently aligned with Russian foreign policy on Ukraine, the hard-right AfD seems poised to win control of the eastern German state of Brandenburg in elections scheduled for the fall of 2024.
The AfD’s political potential, however, is probably limited by its conservative economic program. It originated as a party of free-market economics, and that origin still shows in its commitment to raising the retirement age and to redirecting many students from subsidized university education to vocational training.
Some of the AfD’s support may now be cannibalized by a new party that launched the day after the pro-Israel rally at the Brandenburg Gate. The Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance—for Reason and Justice bears the name of its leader, who has emerged as one of Germany’s most telegenic politicians. Born in the former East Germany, Wagenknecht started her political life as a hard-line adherent of the East German Communist Party. As late as 2002, she cast votes inside the Communists’ left-wing successor party, against the retrospective condemnation of police killings of East Germans who tried to escape to the West before 1989.
More recently, Wagenknecht has discovered the power of fusing left-wing economics with reactionary social messages. Even as Wagenknecht has continued to denounce “neoliberalism,” she has mimicked AfD positions on immigration. On foreign policy, she is hostile toward the U.S. and NATO, has expressed admiration for Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and cleaves closely to the Russian position on Ukraine. She has adopted conspiracist-minded culture-war positions—questioning coronavirus vaccination, criticizing environmentalism, and denouncing “lifestyle leftists.”
Wagenknecht herself calls the approach “left-conservative.” You might almost expect to hear a call to “make East Germany great again.”
In the past, Wagenknecht has tested German taboos on Israel and Jewish issues without ever quite violating them. In 2010, she and two party colleagues conspicuously declined to join an ovation for a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech to the Bundestag by the veteran Israeli politician Shimon Peres. Although German politicians typically are frequent visitors to Israel, Wagenknecht had never visited until 2016. Then, in 2019, she drew criticism from the Simon Wiesenthal Center for her party’s one-sided statements on Israel and Hamas. To date, her comments in support of Israel over the war that Hamas began on October 7 have been guarded and few.
Some European politicians join a skeptical position on immigration to a stated concern for minority groups—such as Jews, as well as the LGBTQ community—whose safety may be threatened by some of the new arrivals. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders epitomizes this approach to politics. Even the French National Rally, once an explicitly anti-Semitic party, has modulated its message and gained some votes from Jews frightened by violent attacks on their community from recent Middle Eastern immigrants. But the most hard-line portions of the European far right—such as the neo-Nazi groups that have gained strength in eastern Germany—disdain Jews and Muslims alike.
Wagenknecht started as a politician who had cool relations with Germany’s Jewish community. As she swerves toward immigration skepticism, will she follow the Wilders path and try to connect with German Jews and other minorities who are the targets of the sort of hate violence that Balci spoke of? Or will she quarry for votes among those who mistrust minorities of all kinds?
For now, Wagenknecht’s goal seems to be to capture the anti-system vote from the AfD for a new kind of oppositional politics. Breaking the ultimate German taboo against open animosity to Israel might be exactly the way to turbocharge that opposition. Apart from her competition for voters with the AfD, Wagenknecht will surely also be aware of the potential votes from even further extremes in German society, including both unreconciled Communists and outright neo-Nazis.
Germany faces economic and social challenges that seem to have overwhelmed an ossified, consensus-seeking, and risk-averse mainstream political culture. The German federal government cannot gain control of its borders against unauthorized migration. A tangle of state and local rules block the building of enough homes. High energy prices have pushed the economy into recession, and fiscal caution deters even a Social Democratic–led government from the spending measures that might soften the effects of the downturn. Germans worry whether their industry has sufficient capacity for innovation and whether their population is aging at a rate unsustainable for the economy.
Overhanging everything is dread that Donald Trump might return to the U.S. presidency, abandon Ukraine, wreck NATO, and leave Germany and the rest of Europe isolated and vulnerable in an even more dangerous world.
Can the forces of decency that assembled at the Brandenburg Gate on Sunday muster the strength they need to meet this moment? The present German system was designed to diffuse power so widely that it could never again be abused to persecute minorities or political opponents. But what if power has been diffused so far that it cannot be used even to protect them—or the state itself?