The routines in my retirement often include listening to Thom Hartmann, a provocative and insightful commentator based in Portland. While folding clothes or chopping bell peppers, I regularly listen to his show weekdays on Sirius XM channel 127, from 9 a.m. to noon. He recently posted an article explaining how German conservatives operate with principals and in a society that stands far to the Left of Democrats in the US. Soon, I will also share some thoughts based on his coverage of how internet trolls, based mostly in Eastern Europe, have contributed to the The Big Lie and COVID disinformation. I may also engage his semi-satirical speculation on whether Donald Trump is the antichrist. It is a bizarre speculation, but one that may help us understand the religious mindset that sees Trump as part of God’s plan for the end of times.
German Conservatives to the Left of Bernie Sanders
The end of the nearly sixteen-year chancellorship of Angela Merkel in Germany has elicited a characteristically superficial analysis of her “conservative” tenure in the US mainstream media (MSM). One would assume by the accounts of the MSM that her time in office would not vary much from a comparable conservative female leader such as Nikki Haley or Margaret Thatcher. This would be a perversion of both the political ideals of Merkel and the legacy of democracy in Germany that emerged in the aftermath of World War II.
The modern history of Germany is a topic of great complexity and tragedy. The tragedy, of course, derives from the developments that gave rise to Adolf Hitler. Part of the complexity relates to how Germany has developed since the end of World War II. While the denazification process that occurred in the years after the war helped to consolidate the social-democratic (socialist) foundations of German politics, much of the post-war political order has been defined by more conservative elements in German society. Merkel served as Chancellor for more than sixteen years. Only the fellow conservative Helmut Kohl served longer in that office in the last century, but only by ten days! It is important for Americans to understand, however, what is meant by “conservative” in Germany.
First They Came for the Socialists
People in the US need to ask themselves how it is possible for Germany to have started and lost two world wars in the twentieth century and whose people, by any reasonable measure, now live healthier and happier lives than we do. Part of the reason for German success is that after losing two world wars, the German ruling classes lost much of their political standing. The traditional German conservative groups of bankers, industrialists, media moguls, officers, and religious authorities had supported Hitler much in the same way that similar groups in the US have supported Trump.
At the end of the war, the only democratic political party that had consistently stood against Hitler was the Marxist-affiliated Social Democratic Party (SPD). Throughout the Hitler period, the Nazi party banned the SPD and persecuted its members. Martin Niemöller, the German Evangelical pastor and early supporter of Hitler who spent the final decades of his life repenting for his refusal to hear the cries of the victims of his political transgressions, correctly identified the sequence of victims under Hitler. In Niemöller’s sequencing, these primary victims included socialists, communists, trade unionists, and Jews. It is important to remember, however, that Jews were not necessarily the first and certainly not the sole victims of Hitler’s eugenic nightmare. The Nazi genetic program also targeted the LGBTQ community, the Romani (Gypsies), the mentally and physically infirm, and any “racially inferior” group.
Bear these facts in mind when one of the many elected Republican officials who otherwise oppose gay rights and the plight of refugees claim that mask and vaccine mandates are somehow equivalent to the Holocaust. Or when they equate Democratic efforts to modernize our physical and human infrastructure with socialism. The vibrant societies of Western Europe have all flourished in soils enriched by socialist ideals.
The Socialist Foundations of Modern Germany
If Germany were going to rebuild itself democratically and productively after World War II, it would have to be done with great deference to ideals and principles of the SPD. Throughout its history, the SPD had been a pragmatic party committed to the processes of representative democracy and the role of markets in helping shape an efficient economy. The conservative groups that had supported Hitler chose after the war to make extensive connections to moderate socialism so as to avoid a complete takeover by more extreme variants of Marxism operating in the dire circumstances faced by Germany in 1945. In West Germany (formally, the Federal Republic of Germany), the state accommodated the broader needs of society in a way that the Left in the US can only dream about. From that time to the present, such industries as transportation, energy, health care, communications, and media all operate under a large degree of public control. It is this degree of public control that helps explain why Germans live longer and healthier lives; are better prepared to reduce their carbon footprint; are less prone to political demagogy; and participate politically more extensively and enthusiastically than we do.
Here are some supplementary notes to Hartman’s excellent article. In addition to free public education in Germany that — thanks explicitly to the “conservative” Merkel — now extends through college and university, Germany also boasts a model program for vocational counseling. Germans rarely have to worry about losing their jobs or finding more desirable employment because the government ensures and subsidizes training in needed alternative professions an individual might prefer. Moreover, the German universal pre-K program guarantees that working parents will not only have affordable daycare but also that children in the most formative years of their lives will have trained professionals as caregivers. Conservatives in Germany have not only supported this, they have advanced it!
Since abortion is such a prominent issue to so many in the US who consider themselves conservative, it is worth noting that in Germany abortion is not only legal and federally funded but abortion rates are much lower than in the US. The US rate of abortion is 20.8 per every thousand women of reproductive age. The comparative German abortion rate is 7.8. The key to lowering abortion rates is empowering women through education, opportunity, and affordable childcare. Only in the United States does a deluded segment of our population believe that banning abortion will significantly reduce its occurrence. By the way, Germany’s infant, child, and maternal mortality rates are also significantly lower than those in the United States.
If I Were a Rich Man in A Rich Country
The German parliamentary system is a model of stability that generates as well as accommodates diverse opinion and innovative political thinking to a far greater degree than ours. It is difficult for a citizen of the US to imagine how far Left Germany may go now that it has voted its “conservatives” out of office. What Americans need to worry about most is how dysfunctional our political order remains, how ill-prepared we are for creating a low carbon future, and why it is not possible for us to address the rising incidence of poverty and homelessness more effectively in our society.
The United States has now lost at least two wars in the last half century. Why can’t we alter our military-industrial complex like the Germans? Why can’t we challenge our corrupted elites like the Germans? Why can’t we have nice things like the Germans?
I hope everyone reads Hartmann’s article. Please do not skip the anecdote he relates about the German businessman being badgered by an American journalist, who was futilely trying to get the businessman to complain about the 60% tax rate imposed on the wealthy in his country. His eventual response was curt and a thing of beauty: “I don’t want to be a rich man in a poor country.”
2 thoughts on “German Conservatives”
Thanks for this Sam. I learned quite a bit from your post and from the Hartmann article. It seems to me that the U.S. suffers generally from both selfishness (greed), and a population that is largely poorly educated. There are so many people in the U.S. that seem unable to navigate their way to the truth, so the truth becomes whatever they want it to be. And through social media, they are able to confirm that truth, and get agreement from millions that they are right. The question is: What can we do to improve our country? It seems as though we need change and yet we are unable to enact those changes. Can we find a way to model and teach the skills of living from love, compassion, and unselfishness? Can we teach our youth to filter through all the BS, think for themselves, and arrive at the TRUTH? Or maybe, like Germany, we just need a disaster.
Thank you, Mike, for reading the article and your response.
It was not my intention to broadly disparage the intelligence of the US public. You and I, however, have had plenty of opportunities to share our concerns with the way in which outlets such as Fox News and social media have fed hysteria against vaccines, masks, and even the fundamental integrity of our electoral system. These media sources, motivated by profits and power, exploit the inherent fears of the public.
In this sense, today’s Republican are taking lessons from Hitler’s playbook. As Hitler wrote, “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous.” Hitler effectively fed fear and anger by promoting inane and baseless conspiracies against any number of enemies both within Germany and outside of its borders. The German dictator manipulated that fear to destroy the Weimar Republic in 1933. While I continue to hope that Hitler was wrong about the intelligence of the masses, the parallels between the last five years in the US and Germany in the 1930s continue to disturb. We cannot surrender to this, because there are still ways to fight it. At a certain point in Nazi Germany, there were only three places for a moral person to be: in prison, underground, or dead. Obviously, we are not there. Yet. . . .
The specific purpose I wrote this piece was to address a common refrain against socialism that is universal among Republican politicians and even arises among some moderate Democrats. These politicians score simple and unquestioned political points by equating any socially funded program as the first steps on the road to Castro’s Cuba or Stalin’s Soviet Union. The historical reality is much more complex. The theories of Marx and their various applications throughout the political history of Western Europe over the last century and a half have contributed to societies with vibrant economies and healthy democracies.
In my own ignorant naivete, I believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union would allow the US to engage public policy options outside the framework of the Red Scare. Our politics would rationally assess what portions of social and economic policy would best fall in the public and private sphere.
The point is that we have much to learn from the histories and programs of the social democracies of Western Europe and Scandinavia. Do you remember when the previous president wondered why the US did not attract more immigrants from Norway? The answer was and remains simple: for Norwegians, we are the shithole country!