Her Inner Brezhnev


Leonid and Angela
(Roman Genn)

Why Angela Merkel is like the former Soviet leader

There was a time when Angela Merkel, like many young East Germans, would don a special shirt (blue rather than brown; different dictatorship) and parade for the Party, sometimes (not everything had changed) by torchlight. On occasion, she and her Free German Youth comrades would have marched behind banners carrying the portrait of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader whose extended (1964–82) rule has more than longevity in common with her own.

No, no, Merkel is not a Communist. Nor does she order the invasion of other countries; she merely bullies them. She may have participated in the overthrow of Italy’s unruly and unacceptably euroskeptic Silvio Berlusconi, but no tanks were deployed, just “suggestions” made menacing by Italian fears of what the bond-market vigilantes might do.

Look deeper, however, and unsettling similarities come into view. That Brezhnev was no democrat is hardly a surprise. That Merkel, the bien-pensant “leader of the free world,” has repeatedly demonstrated her disdain for democratic propriety is, by contrast, disappointing. Perhaps it is a legacy of her East German upbringing, but, whatever the cause, it has poisoned both the politics of the country she leads and those of the EU, the misbegotten union that Germany dominates with a mixture of passive aggression, money, and size.

In the early 2000s, Brussels, compelled as always by the imperative of “ever closer union,” midwifed an ambitious draft constitution only to see it felled by French and Dutch referendums. When voters get a direct say on deeper European integration, they have a way of saying no.

That should have been the end of the matter, but Merkel used Germany’s tenure of the EU’s rotating presidency (it’s complicated) to cobble together the Lisbon Treaty, a sly pact that reproduced the spurned constitution in every material respect but was structured in such a way that pesky referendums could be dodged everywhere other than reliably awkward Ireland. No matter: The Irish rejected the treaty in one referendum but, engulfed by the financial crisis, were cajoled into changing their minds.

The treaty became law, but, not for the last time, Merkel had underestimated the consequences of paying so little attention to popular feeling. Lisbon, which helped pave the way for Brexit, reinforced many Europeans’ anxiety that the EU was slipping into post-democracy, a perception later bolstered by Merkel’s role in the euro’s long ordeal and, more recently, by her efforts to bludgeon other EU countries into accepting more of the migrants and refugees she so carelessly welcomed in 2015.

Some of Merkel’s actions in the latter two instances were a straightforward defense of German national interests. But her insistence on Lisbon was another reminder that, at some level, this supposedly pragmatic politician clearly believes that European integration is on the right side of history, a phrase, Robert Conquest wrote, with “a Marxist twang.” If so, she is not alone, but it is reasonable to ask whether in Merkel’s case this dubious proposition has been made easier to swallow by formative years spent in a land where Marxism was a part of the ideology of the state.

Merkel’s authoritarianism has taken an even more disturbing turn at home. Her instinctive dislike of dissent — the dark side of consensus politicians — curdled into something more sinister in the wake of that 2015 decision to throw open Germany’s doors. With mainstream media hymning the chancellor’s Wilkommenskultur, Germans uneasy about the influx into their country had nowhere to go but online, sometimes via the gutter, often not.

Infuriated, Merkel began by bullying social-media companies to clamp down on what she regarded as hate speech. When they did not, in her view, do enough, she looked to her parliamentary colleagues for assistance. The result, prompted also by scaremongering over “fake news,” the switched-on censor’s excuse du jour, was Germany’s social-media law — the notorious Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz. It represents an attack on free speech so draconian (for example, if a social-media company fails to take down “manifestly unlawful . . . hate speech” or “fake news” within 24 hours of a complaint, it can be fined up to 50 million euros) that it has provided useful cover for Russian legislators looking to shut down undesirable talk online, a development that would have amused old Leonid.

When Mikhail Gorbachev launched his program to overhaul the Soviet Union, he attacked Brezhnev’s “era of stagnation,” a label encompassing political as well as economic inertia. While Brezhnev was appealing to a far smaller “electorate” — the party elite — than Merkel has done, the key to the length of their tenures was (obvious differences aside) sticking with consensus and maintaining stability. As a strategy, it worked, but the stagnation that ensued contributed to the Soviet collapse. As for Germany, it is too soon to say.

By ending the experimentation of the Khrushchev years, Brezhnev shrank the political and intellectual space within which the regime could safely operate. When his moment came, Gorbachev saw a relaxation of party control as inseparable from a desperately needed economic reset, but, after Brezhnev, it was too late to change direction. If the opening for reform within the system had ever existed, it had closed.

Germany is not, of course, lurching toward a Soviet-style implosion. That said, Merkel’s capture of the middle ground, inspired by both personal conviction and strategic savvy, is showing signs of backfiring in ways that, if events oblige, as they well may, will undermine the centrist order over which she has presided for so long. The middle ground ought to be a battlefield of ideas. That is not how it has been under Merkel. By moving her center-right CDU so far leftward, Merkel has occupied much of the territory that the SPD, the leading party of the center Left, once called its own. The SPD’s displacement was accelerated by its participation in coalition governments with Merkel between 2005 and 2009, as well as since 2013. As partners go, she has proved to be something of a black widow. Between 2013 and 2017, the SPD’s support fell by over a fifth, to 20.2 percent, half its level in 1999, and it is still falling. The SPD now trails the Greens, who are hipper, socially liberal, migrant-friendly, NATO-not-so-friendly, eurofundamentalist, but — and this is a major but — environmental issues apart, relatively centrist on economics.

Upheaval has come to the Right, too. Merkel’s agreement to the bailout of the euro zone’s casualties drove some classical liberals, skeptical about both the single currency and the steps being taken to preserve it, to set up “the professors’ party,” the Alternative for Germany (AfD) — its very name a protest against Merkel’s stifling consensus — in 2013. The AfD saw some early success but shifted into a higher gear, losing much of its former leadership in the process, when it also became a vehicle for social conservatives and immigration skeptics who felt that there was no longer a place for them in the CDU or the CSU (the CDU’s considerably more conservative Bavarian counterpart). This was particularly so after Merkel flung open those doors — and clamped down on those who dared to demur.

The AfD’s transformation has given it a rougher-edged nationalist following. After a string of provincial successes, the party made it into the federal parliament in 2017, cutting into the vote won by the CDU and the CSU. In this October’s elections in Bavaria, home of the CSU, it took 10.6 percent. When consensus hardens into an orthodoxy enforced by establishment parties, voters, when worried enough, ignored enough, and silenced enough, look elsewhere.

Brezhnev’s era of stagnation was also an era of squandered opportunity. The USSR’s vast oil reserves could have made a substantial contribution to funding the reorganization of its economy. But, isolated within an increasingly archaic consensus, the Soviet leadership renounced even modest reform, preferring to anesthetize the population with (very) modest prosperity. The windfall was frittered away on massive defense spending, hugely generous subsidies of allies and satrapies, and a futile attempt to prop up a command-and-control system that could not meet the demands of a modern economy. The reckoning was not long in coming.

Whatever the criticisms that can be made of Merkel, splurging on the defense budget is not one of them. Her slide to the left may not have involved an embrace of the neutralism that runs through so much of German politics (Merkel is no fan of Putin and pushed for sanctions in 2014), but she has been reluctant to challenge either neutralism’s consequences — the armed forces have been so badly neglected that their combat-readiness has been called into question — or its assumptions. To be sure, Merkel has undertaken to increase defense spending (currently 1.2 percent of GDP), but only to 1.5 percent of GDP (still far below NATO’s 2 percent target) and only by 2024. Throw in the prospect of increased dependence on Russian gas once the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is operational, and after 13 years of governments headed by the alleged leader of the free world, it is uncertain how effective and reliable an ally Germany really can be.

On a brighter note, the German economy is booming, rich, and the envy of most of the world. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that in the 1990s Germany was, by its standards, struggling. Quite what changed is fiercely debated. Explanations include labor-market reforms and tax cuts (the latter, tellingly, opposed by Angela Merkel, then the CDU’s new leader) introduced by the Social Democrats under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s; the boost to Germany’s crucial export sector from a concealed devaluation (the switch from the deutsche mark to the euro); the easing of some of the strains associated with German unification; and, since the 1990s, the manner in which more-decentralized wage-bargaining has increased flexibility (and, with it, restraint) over pay. This turnaround gave Merkel the latitude to coast, but, given her own less-than-market-friendly views and her determination to command the center ground, she was never likely to build on the Schröder reforms. And she has not. Sometimes, such as by the introduction (in 2015) of a uniform minimum wage across the country, she has even subverted them. Business remains heavily regulated, a hurdle that goes some way toward explaining the relatively low levels of capital investment by German companies in their own country. That investment shortfall has, in turn, contributed to faltering productivity growth.

High taxation is another disincentive, and not only to investment. The writer of a recent article for the business daily Handelsblatt detailed how Germany had failed to keep pace with corporate tax cuts elsewhere. He blamed the complacency bred by the economy’s current strength, but that is only part of the story. Germany’s prevailing consensus has scant room for aggressive tax-cutting, something that Merkel has done nothing to change.

Meanwhile, a blend of panic after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan (which triggered a German decision to speed up the planned phase-out of nuclear power) and an enormous and hugely expensive program of investment in renewable energy prompted by panic over climate change (another critical element in the politics of Germany’s middle ground) has meant a dramatic hike in energy costs for industry and, even more so, consumers, while — central planning being what it is — failing to yield the promised environmental return.

So long as Germany prospers, none of this may matter, but a cyclical downturn, perhaps exacerbated by trade tensions, could well be approaching. That may cause difficulty in the immediate future — and it will not help the absorption of all those migrants into the work force — but longer-term concerns are beginning to surface, too. The old Soviet economic model was unable to cope with the changed world of the second half of the 20th century, and there are signs that its (admittedly immeasurably more flexible) German counterpart might not be doing what it takes to keep up with the evolving digital economy. This is so with basic infrastructure — according to a 2016 OECD report, under 2 percent of German broadband connections were fiber-optic — but also, more subtly, with the adaptation of business practices or, for that matter, products that lie ahead: With autonomous vehicles coming down the pike, will Germany’s automakers soon be facing off against Google?

That will be a problem for someone other than Merkel to contemplate. After the disappointing general election was followed by setbacks for the CSU in Bavaria and the CDU in Hesse, Merkel stepped down as the CDU’s leader. She will continue, she says, as chancellor until the next election. Maybe, maybe not — but there’s a suspicion that she sees hanging on in office as the best way of securing the CDU leadership for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party’s general secretary, a Merkel 2.0.

If “AKK” should win, the CDU will show that it has learned nothing from the failures of the Merkel years. Stagnation is like that.