Germany’s authoritarian turn: A desperate establishment won’t tolerate dissent

By Thomas Fazi*
Mau 25, 2024

Just five years ago, the 70th anniversary of the birth of the post-war German democratic state was accompanied by euphoric celebrations across the country. This week, by contrast, few Germans were in the mood to party. Aside from the Federal Republic of Germany’s economic woes, the prevailing opinion is that German democracy isn’t in very good health.

Who is to blame? The liberal-centrist consensus is that the country is facing an unprecedented threat from nefarious populist and far-Right forces — most notably the AfD, which aims, according to the country’s vice-chancellor, to “turn Germany into an authoritarian state”. But one may very well argue that Germany is already displaying worrying signs of authoritarianism, at the hands of those very same liberal-centrist forces that claim to be defending democracy from the barbarians at the gate.

Earlier this month, a court rejected a complaint by the AfD against its classification from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) as a suspected Right-wing extremist case. This means that the BfV, the domestic intelligence service, can continue to monitor the AfD’s activities and communications. The German government hailed it as a victory. “Today’s ruling shows that we are a democracy that can be defended,” said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser.

Meanwhile, in another ruling, a Thuringian AfD leader was fined for allegedly using a slogan from the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. Following the rulings, various politicians, most notably from the centre-Right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Green Party, stepped up calls for the party to be banned. One Christian Democrat even announced that he would initiate a motion in the German Bundestag to that end, arguing that that the party could no longer be kept at bay by political means, especially in Eastern Germany.

It goes without saying that attempting to outlaw the country’s second most popular party wouldn’t just be appalling from a democratic perspective, but would also have unexpected and far-reaching consequences — potentially pushing the country from a fraught political situation towards a state of civic unrest. But the establishment’s war on the AfD is just one part of a much wider crackdown on dissent — not only on the Right, but on the Left as well. In many parts of the country, pro-Palestinian protests have been restricted, and schools have been granted the power to place bans on Palestinian flags, pro-Palestinian speech and keffiyeh scarves. Across Germany, using the pro-Palestinian slogan “from the river to the sea” is now a criminal offence.

These moves are part of a broader process of institutional engineering aimed at dramatically narrowing the scope of democratic action in the name of protecting democracy. This includes the passing or proposal of an array of illiberal new laws. One such example is the recently approved “Law to speed up the removal of extremists from civil service”, aimed at making it easier to target so-called “extremist” civil servants — or “enemies of the constitution” — who may be removed from their posts and even denied their pension payments. If found guilty of sedition, the civil servant faces a prison sentence of six months or more. The law’s logic was spelled out by the Interior Minister: “Anyone who rejects the state cannot serve it.” But what does it mean to “reject the state”? Or to be an “extremist” for that matter? These concepts are so vague — and deliberately so — that they can easily be weaponised against anyone who happens to disagree with government policy on any given issue.

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In a similar vein, the Democracy Promotion Act, currently still under discussion, is aimed at distributing hundreds of millions of euros of state funds to NGOs to promote “diversity, tolerance and democracy” and “prevent extremism” — which, it’s safe to assume, means promoting the repression of those who don’t conform to the establishment’s world view. The law would expand on an already existing programme launched by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, which supports campaigns “against conspiracy theories” and “Right-wing extremism”. Elsewhere last week, 30 of the country’s major corporations joined forces to encourage support, at least among their 1.7 million employees, for pro-European parties and warn of the dangers of populist groups such as the AfD.

Many of these initiatives were born amid the hysteria that gripped Germany following the revelation, in 2022, of an alleged coup d’état that was being planned by a “far-Right terrorist group”. When it emerged that most of the members of the Reichsbürger group were pensioners, and that one of their leaders was an eccentric 70-year-old self-styled “prince” with a penchant for astrology, people started taking to social media to denounce its farcical nature. But this didn’t stop the government and media from inflating the group’s actual threat, claiming that a fascist military government was around the corner — and emphasising the fact that the conspirators were AfD supporters.

The trial began this week, a year and a half after the alleged conspirators’ arrest, and no doubt we’ll see a slew of hyperbolic headlines in its wake. But even so, it’s hard not to view the government’s measures as having very little to do with protecting democracy, but rather being about protecting a failing and increasingly delegitimised establishment from democracy — and from the surging “populist” challenge, both on the Right and the Left. This has, after all, been taking shape for years, and well before the Reichsbürger plot.

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As elsewhere, the pandemic represented a turning point in this increasingly authoritarian drift in German politics, as the government used the “public health emergency” to sweep aside democratic procedures and constitutional constraints, militarise societies, and crack down on civil liberties. Germany implemented one of the world’s most draconian lockdown and mass vaccination regimes, including the use of vaccine passports and segregated lockdowns for the unvaccinated. Meanwhile, the definition of the term “unconstitutional” became increasingly vague: teachers were accused of being “unconstitutional” if they opposed school closures, and an entire new category was even invented for public dissent: that of “anti-constitutional delegitimisation of the state”. Not even esteemed public intellectuals were spared from this brutalisation of the public debate.

It would be comforting to see all this as a betrayal of German post-war democracy and of its institutional bedrock, the constitution of 1949, or Basic Law — not least because it would imply that this is an awkward deviation from the norm, which may be potentially corrected by appealing to the strong democratic safeguards offered by that very constitution. Indeed, this quasi-religious faith in the constitution is deeply engrained in the German post-war collective consciousness, not just among intellectual elites — Habermas and others developed the concept of “constitutional patriotism” — but among dissidents as well: during the pandemic, it was common for protesters to hold up a booklet of the constitution as a symbolic shield against state repression.

But what if the current authoritarian turn in Germany is not a failure of the constitution but rather a case of it doing exactly what it was designed to do? The German constitution has long been seen as the country’s main democratic bulwark against the kind of anti-democratic aberrations of the Nazi era. However, for its creators, this meant, paradoxically, that it also had to act as a bulwark against democracy itself — or better, its potential “excesses”. After all, as liberal commentators never tire of reminding us, Hitler rose to power through democratic means. As the weekly newspaper Die Zeit recently observed, the Basic Law is “deeply laden with scepticism” and mindful of “the abuse of power and the obstruction of the democratic system”. Its creators didn’t trust the people, and were actually quite fearful of the concept of mass democracy.

They thus took it upon themselves to create a constitution that, while guaranteeing equal individual rights for all citizens, would also contain various safeguards and provisions to ensure that the “will of the people” would not get out of hand. The document’s authors envisaged the creation of only three “people’s parties” — the CDU, SPD and FDP, reflecting a narrowly defined spectrum of acceptable opinion. This allowed for the ban of anti-constitutional parties — and even for the temporary stripping of the basic rights of individuals who oppose the “democratic order” too vehemently. Importantly, the text’s “safeguards” were excluded from any future change, even via a parliamentary majority.

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Of course, many of these limits were also a consequence of the geopolitical context of the time — namely, Germany’s semi-sovereign status and its subordinate role within the US-centric imperial system. In many ways, under the American umbrella, the Federal Republic of Germany was established as a bulwark against socialism, which meant tightly bounding the new state into the US-led order through Nato and then the EEC. Seen in this light, the various safeguards embedded within the constitution were just as much aimed at avoiding the rise of a new Hitler as they were at keeping Germany firmly within the boundaries of the role assigned to it in the post-war geopolitical divide. This goes a long way to explaining the German establishment’s evolution into US “vassal-in-chief”, especially since the start of the Ukraine war, and its aggressive stance against those who dare to question its destructive consequences.

Once one understands the ideological premises of the German constitution — that the state must do whatever it takes to protect the status quo from any threats arising from the masses — the nation’s authoritarian turn starts to make sense. Far from being an aberration, this is exactly what the German post-war system was designed to do all along.

* Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.

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