by Manfred Henningsen
Germany has been characterized after WWII by a series of remarkable developments that have reached its present culmination in the role the members of the Green Party play in the administration of Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Unlike the Green parties in almost all other Western societies, the German Greens have succeeded in shedding their social movement background and the radical critique of the so-called “system.” They have become a regular political party and abide by the rules of the system, they once criticized in the way some of the so-called progressives undermine the mainstream agenda of the Democratic Party in the US. Realizing the need for this transformation a few years ago, they have succeeded in becoming accepted by a large section of German voters in all age groups.
This miraculous political development in contemporary Germany has not been noticed by Western politicians, journalists, and intellectuals. Even Germans themselves, as I discovered on a recent visit to my country of birth, are unaware that something remarkable is going on in their society. Germany is undergoing a political transformation that will not only have a tremendous impact on the demographically and economically most powerful member state of the European Union (EU). It will have repercussions for the EU.
Even the four victorious powers of WWII, which politically pacified the defeated country by occupying it until its reunification in 1990 with hundred of thousands of troops, could learn from contemporary Germany how to run their own societies peacefully and successfully. The messy political environments in the contemporary United States, United Kingdom, and even France call for a kind of pragmatic and at the same time visionary politics that is characterizing contemporary Germany. Putin’s Russia seems to be a hopeless case that can only be cured by an explosion of its civil society as a response to the sickening performance of its military in the Ukraine. Yet this scenario seems to linger at this moment in a distant future.
According to recent polls published by the news magazine, Der Spiegel (June 25, 2022), the three most popular politicians behind President Steinmeier and ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz are three members of his cabinet. All three of them are not members of his Social Democratic Party (SPD) but belong to the Green Party. They are the Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economics and Energy, Robert Habeck; the Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, and the Minister for Agriculture, Cem Oezdemir.
These three politicians are members of a party that emerged out of the radical Green environmental, anti-nuclear and pacifist social movement of the 1970s. This social movement has overcome the internal divisions between the so-called ‘Realos’ and ‘Fundis’, the ecological realists, and fundamentalists, that tore the movement apart. These divisions have become a feature of the past.
Ideological tensions, however, color the parties on the extreme left and right, the Linke (Left) and the AfD (Alternative for Germany). Both parties are engaged in internal ideological struggles that demonstrate their growing irrelevance in German politics. Neither the extreme Linke nor the AfD constitute a threat to the stability of the political order as did the French left under Jean-Luc Melenchon and the right under Marine Le Pen in the recent parliamentary elections in France. Comparing German politics with those of France, Italy, and the United Kingdom or even the United States, Germany seems to today to be the most stable major Western country.
Yet this new German political miracle is not identical with the stability of the political system itself. It is the transformation of the Green social movement into a political party that has accepted the rules and conditions of a political system whose existential legitimacy they once questioned. They have become part of the system and are recognized by a majority of German voters, primarily still in the Western part of the country, as a viable and trusted political force.
It is also remarkable that one of the three, Cem Oezdemir, underlines the successful integration of people with migrant background in society. He was born in Germany as the son of his Turkish parents who came to the country as guest workers in the 1960s. This is, by the way, also the background of the 29-year-old Aminata Toure, a German born daughter of African migrant parents, who was just appointed Minister of Social Affairs in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, after having been Vice President of the parliament in that state.
The Green Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, Robert Habeck, was interviewed by the news magazine Der Spiegel about the unpredictable but certain energy crisis that will hit Germany this fall and winter. The way he responded to the question about the anticipated shortages for private and business consumers demonstrated the reasons for his appeal with voters primarily in the West of the country.
He was not evasive but confirmed the shortfalls that have been the result of the reduction in Russian gas and oil deliveries. Yet speaking at the end of June to the workers of a major refinery in the East, which will become a victim of the Russian gas delivery cut-off, he was greeted by protesting workers. These reductions that were the result of the German political response to Putin’s bloody invasion in the Ukraine and were initially criticized by American and other allies for their slow implementation, have been publicly identified as causing rising consumer prices and delivery problems in major sectors of the economy.
Habeck emphasized the existence of these problems and their continuation. He didn’t refuse answers and affirmed the bleakness of the predictions. He didn’t hesitate to outline the tough measures he would recommend and be willing to implement. He also affirmed the commitment to the expansion of alternative energy sources and demonstrated political pragmatism without ever forgetting the heavy social costs these measures will cause.
Habeck, Baerbock and Oezdemir represent a new class of politicians whose political commitment can be identified with pragmatism. Yet the German Green pragmatists differ from their Anglo-American colleagues. Anglo-American pragmatism was defined by one of its founders, the British philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce, at the beginning of the 20th century, as being a realism devoid of any moral ideas. A recent political portrayal of Habeck was published under the headline: “Adieu, Ideale” (Goodbye, Ideals) [in: Sueddeutsche Zeitung, June 28. 2022]. It suggested that his no-nonsense attitude towards the coming energy crisis was captured by this phrase.
I think the author, Hillary Klute, missed the crucial difference. Habeck and his fellow Greens are pragmatists, yet they never forget the ecological, social, and overall moral consequences of their actions. They have not forgotten the comprehensive ‘Green’ vision of a world in trouble that can only be saved from environmental collapse by political action that recognizes the terminal nature of the threat.
Reflecting on the moral dimension of their political identity, the ‘Green’ trio in Scholz’ cabinet realized from the moment Putin’s criminal invasion was launched on February 24 that he had to be stopped. Scholz had hesitated before that event for a long time to commit himself to the termination of the Nordstream-2 pipeline yet gave his famous “Zeitenwende” speech in the German parliament, the Bundestag, with the promise of upgrading the military budget by 100 billion Euros a few days after the invasion and declared his unconditional support for the defense of the Ukraine against the bloody invader.
He had probably hesitated out of respect for the pacifist legacy of post-WWII Germany and especially the Social Democratic foreign policy initiatives by the two Social Democratic chancellors, Willy Brandt (1969-1974) and Helmut Schmidt (1974-1982). The memory of his own radical left youth may have added to his reluctance. Even at the G7 meeting in Germany that he led in June, he couldn’t bring himself to issue a statement in support of a Ukrainian victory. Instead, he stated that Putin should not win.
The Green members of his cabinet insisted that the Ukraine should win. Their moral compass told them that the lessons from WWII and the history of Nazi Germany should be a clear refusal to compromise with leaders like Putin. His reckless and violent behavior and the ruthless conduct of Russian soldiers reminded them of Hitler and the real Nazis Putin pretends to be fighting in the Ukraine.
Manfred Henningsen is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, where he taught from 1970 until 2020. He received his PhD under Eric Voegelin in Munich in 1967. His dissertation was a critical assessment of A. J. Toynbee’s A Study of History in the general context of comparative philosophy of history. It became published in 1967 as Menschheit und Geschichte (Mankind and History). From 1968 until 1974 he edited and contributed, together with Juergen Gebhardt and Peter J. Opitz the 14 volume paperback series Geschichte des politischen Denkens (History of political thought), Munich. In addition, he published Der Fall Amerika (Munich, 1974) and Der Mythos Amerika (Frankfurt, 2009), books that dealt with European Anti-Americanism and American self-interpretations. He edited Vol.5 of Voegelin’s Collected Works, Modernity without Restraint (2000); Vol. IX of the German translation of Order & History (Ordnung und Geschichte), Das Oekumenische Zeitalter. Weltherrschaft und Philosophie (Munich 2004) and the original German version of Voegelin’s 1964 Munich lectures on Hitler und die Deutschen (2006). In addition, he published 23 articles in the German cultural journal Merkur and articles and reviews in The Review of Politics, Perspectives on Politics, China Review International, and many edited volumes on history, political philosophy and politics.
Photo and text courtesy VoegelinView