No, not Weimar

Forming government can be hard. Today marks four months since Germany’s election, and there is still no new government in place, a situation that’s likely to continue for another month or two. It’s nowhere near the scale of, say, Belgium in 2010-11, when the process took a year and a half, but it’s a record for Germany.

But progress has been made. Meeting last weekend, the congress of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) voted to pursue talks for a grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). The two parties between them have a large parliamentary majority, 399 seats out of 709. There will be much haggling about terms, as there was four years ago, but there’s a general expectation that a deal will be reached.

Having said that, I (and others) thought the same about the previous coalition negotiations, between the CDU, Liberals and Greens. But the Liberals walked out on those in November – echoing their refusal to co-operate with the SPD and Greens following the 2005 election.

In light of its twentieth-century history, political instability in Germany gets the sort of coverage that wouldn’t apply anywhere else. Before Christmas, Charles Maier in the New York Review of Books compared the current situation with that in the Weimar republic in 1930, when the Nazis first became a major force and parliamentary government started to totter.

There’s some force in the Weimar analogy (I’ve made it myself), and Maier loads his comparison with qualifications. But not enough.

His own seat diagram of the two parliaments shows the difference. In 1930, the anti-system parties, Nazis, nationalists and Communists, had 39% of the seats between them. Now, far right and far left (which, as Maier concedes, are not anti-system in the same sense) total 23%.

That’s a very big difference. A legislature where a quarter of the members are beyond the pale can still function. Take that up to 40% and it’s much more difficult.

To say that there’s a “striking” similarity between the two results is highly misleading. Many democratic parliaments can produce a seating plan much like 2017; very few – fortunately – resemble 1930.

But more important still is the position of the Social Democrats. In 1930 they were still regarded by many as a revolutionary party, deeply distrusted by the middle-class parties. Large numbers of conservative voters, not themselves sympathetic to authoritarianism, were willing to embrace the authoritarian parties if they were the only alternative to putting the SPD in power.

No-one thinks of today’s SPD as revolutionary. Sunday’s vote showed that it is committed to co-operation with the other mainstream forces, and that position is reciprocated.

The fact that a similar grand coalition happened after two of the previous three elections – in none of which the far right won representation – should be enough to show that the entry into parliament of the neo-fascist AfD, while of course worrying, is not the game-changer that so many pundits suggest.

The chief reason that the CDU and SPD keep ending up together is that the Liberals and the Greens (particularly the former) have set their terms for co-operation too high. That’s frustrating for people like me who would normally be strong Liberal supporters, but it also reflects their perception of the distance that’s been travelled since 1930. The forces of moderation feel that they can afford a degree of fighting among themselves, because the extremists are too weak to take advantage.

And the same goes for the dissenters in the SPD, who mustered a stronger-than-expected vote against the coalition talks. They too think – correctly, in my view – that they are not risking any fundamental damage to the system by rebuffing Merkel. Even if a fresh election was the result, the polls suggest that it would not produce a radically different result.

The 1930s stand as an important warning for all of us. But on the evidence so far, there are plenty of places more urgently in need of it than Germany.




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