2019 begins with German students joining their counterparts in other European countries to participate in the now global “Fridays for Future” environmental movement originally inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg. Young Germans take up Greta’s call to go on strike every Friday, skipping school to take to the streets to demand action on climate change. The media initially frames the phenomenon from the perspective of concerned parents, but before long the implications of the so-called Freitagsdemonstrationen with regard to the role of youth activism in society become clear as climate scientists and the majority of Germans back the protests. By the end of the summer, the striking students are regularly joined by other civil society organizations, including unions and soccer clubs, and education expert Klaus Hurrelman already speaks of a “populist” “Generation Greta” in Germany.
In March, the debate around the concept of Heimat and its social and political significance continues with the publication of a volume of essays compiled by journalist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah and author Fatma Aydemir. In 2014, the German Interior Ministry was renamed the Ministry of Heimat. The anthology Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum (“Your Heimat is Our Nightmare”) contains perspectives from 14 authors and advocates with a so-called background of migration, and engages critically with contemporary manifestations of the violence of the ethnic community underlying German national identity. As the editors ask in the preface: “Do I want to live in a society oriented around ethnic [völkisch] ideals as well as racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, heteronormative, and transphobic structures?”
In the same month Left Party leader Sahra Wagenknecht announces she will be stepping down from her positions as floor leader for the Left in the Bundestag as well as head of Aufstehen (“Stand Up”), the “extra-parliamentary coalition” she founded in 2017. The nascent movement’s rightward pivot on immigration and refugee policy has earned it the reputation among left-wing critics both within and outside of the Left Party as xenophobic and a concession to the agenda of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
In April, Christian Schilcher of the far-right Freedom Party steps down as deputy mayor of the Austrian city of Braunau — incidentally, the birthplace of Hitler — and issues an apology after publishing an anti-immigrant poem entitled “The City Rats” and laden with racist, recognizably anti-Semitic tropes (e.g., “rodents with a sewer background”, a play on the politically correct German expression “people with a background of migration”). Before resigning, Schilcher received a torrent of criticism in the media, bringing 32-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) is in a governing coalition with the FPÖ, to publicly distance himself from the so-called Rattengedicht.
Nevertheless, the Austrian coalition collapses in May as Vice Chancellor Hans-Christian Strache of the FPÖ is implicated in a corruption scandal centered around the so-called Ibiza-Gate video, recorded on a hidden camera two years earlier. Reporters with the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel reveal that Strache actively attempted to trade government infrastructure contracts for the financial backing to facilitate a far-right takeover of Austrian media. Strache’s plan included an overhaul of Austria’s public broadcaster and editorial control over the influential Krone newspaper, putting both in the service of the Freedom Party’s election efforts. Strache resigns as Vice Chancellor on May 17, but Ibiza-Gate has a minimal effect on the FPÖ’s efforts in the European Parliament elections May 23-26, with some polling suggesting the affair even helped to consolidate their support. The scandal nonetheless ends in the breakdown of the governing coalition as the FPÖ comes together with opposition Social Democrats to oust Kurz as chancellor in a vote of no confidence.
Conservatives cause a stir around the European election in Germany as well, as CDU chair and anointed Merkel successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer reacts strongly to a video from YouTuber Rezo entitled “The Destruction of the CDU,” in which he calls on young Germans to boycott the “old parties” (the CDU and SPD, currently governing in a so-called “grand coalition”) as well as the AfD primarily on account of their climate policies. Following party committee meetings in Berlin on May 27, Kramp-Karrenbauer accuses Rezo of “Meinungsmache“ (roughly “manufacturing of public opinion”) and then defends herself on Twitter: “It is absurd to ascribe to me the intent to regulate expression of opinion,” she posts, although she claims in the following tweet that fundamental criticism of the “parties of the center” threatens to undermine the entire democratic order.
On the other hand, the greatest beneficiaries of the youth climate movement’s momentum are the Greens, who are particularly successful in the European elections with a record vote share of 20.5%. For the first time, they are in second place — maybe even the strongest force in German politics, according to some polls — and much is written about the possibility of a political future in which the primary political rival and (when necessary to keep the AfD out of power) coalition partner of the CDU at the national level is no longer the SPD, but the Greens.
There is, in any case, parliamentary consensus outside of the Left Party for a resolution to condemn the international BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) for Palestinian liberation and rights as anti-Semitic and to forbid, for the first time at the federal level, the funding of projects or institutions that call for boycotting Israel. The Bundestag resolution, in turn, receives criticism that continues into the summer, taking the form of, among other initiatives, a statement from 240 Israeli and Jewish academics, including well-known ant-Semitism and Holocaust experts in Israel and the United States.
World-renowned Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei, who had lived in self-imposed exile in Berlin since 2015, announces his intention to move to the United Kingdom, citing an overall shift in German attitudes towards immigrants. “Germany is not an open society,” Weiwei laments, although he will keep his studio in Berlin while his 10-year-old son will attend school in Cambridge.
Two people are murdered by an armed man in an anti-Semitic terrorist attack against a synagogue on Humboldt Street in Halle in the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt. The 27-year-old far-right perpetrator Stephen Balliet, who livestreams the entire assault on Twitch with this helmet camera, initially attempts to kill everyone in the synagogue, but his plan is frustrated by its locked door. He then shoots and kills a passerby and a customer in a nearby kebab shop, and is sometime later apprehended by police.
In February, the Essen food bank Essener Tafel makes headlines when it comes under fire for, and is finally pressured to reverse, a policy of turning away non-citizens, claiming foreigners with a “give-me gene” and a lack of German “queuing culture” had come to make up over 75% of their clientele. Other food banks distance themselves from these comments, and politicians including Angela Merkel make statements of condemnation. According to a different perspective, the real problem goes beyond racism: namely, the food bank was not originally conceived as a charity for pensioners and low-income earners, and not for refugees, who should receive sufficient support from the government that they do not have to rely on food banks.
The Turkish-German journalist Deniz is released from imprisonment without charge by Turkey and arrives in Berlin on February 16. He now faces an indictment by Turkish prosecutors carrying a sentence of 18 years.
On March 14, Merkel is sworn in and another grand coalition between the SPD and CDU/CSU is officially announced, after SPD members had voted with a 66% majority in favor of joining 10 days earlier. The CDU’s conservative Bavarian sister party, the CSU, leverages the talks to pull migration and border policy to the right, taking issue with the Merkel government’s temporary opening of the border in 2015 and threatening the coalition if stricter border controls are not adopted. Although CSU leader Horst Seehofer declared in July that the conflict between the CDU and CSU was resolved, the conflict over refugee policy continues to rage on.
The general European trend of the decline of traditional centrist political parties continues in Italy’s parliamentary elections, where the right-wing nationalist Lega Nord and anti-EU populist Five Star Movement come out big winners and form a far-right coalition government with the Five Star Movement at its head. On July 1, the coalition is sworn in under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Italy enters a collision course with the EU on questions of both economic and migration policy.
The deadly poison attack in early March against the Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in Salisbury, England causes international tensions to flare, particularly between the UK and Russia, with diplomatic consequences. Russia and the UK each expel dozens of diplomats from their respective countries. In addition, the EU and other Western countries, including the United States, affirm the UK position and expel a total of 110 Russian diplomats.
On April 12, the last annual Echo Music Awards take place. Among other winners, the German music industry’s most important awards ceremony honors rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah, whose lyrics had mired them in controversy. The Federal Music Industry Association (BVMI) released a statement after the awards ceremony announcing the end of the Echo award, claiming that such a prize can never be allowed to serve as “a platform for anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, or the trivialization of violence.” The discussion surrounding accusations of anti-Semitism against the rappers had already reached a fever pitch in the run-up to the awards.
The Social Democrats undergo a change at the helm when Andrea Nahles as becomes their first female party chair on April 22.
Protests erupt in Bavaria in response to a heavily contested amendment to that that state’s policing regulations vastly expanding powers of surveillance and detention.
On June 1, Bavaria’s “cross decree” stipulates that crosses must be displayed in all of the conservative Southern state’s public buildings, sparking debate nationwide in the wake of Seehofer’s comment that “Islam does not belong to Germany,” repeating a central slogan of the far-right Alternative for Germany and putting Merkel at odds with her closest coalition partners on the question of religion and cultural identity. The Catholic Church, as well, has criticized the CSU’s approach.
In June, the migrant rescue ship Lifeline from the humanitarian organization Mission Lifeline is blockaded for days when no EU government is willing to grant entry to the 230 migrants the ship had saved from the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya. Finally, the ship is allowed to dock in Malta, and the captain is ordered to appear in court to address alleged problems with the ship’s registration. Also in June, another Mediterranean humanitarian vessel, the Aquarius, is similarly kept at sea for days before being permitted to dock at the Port of Valencia in Spain. Both Malta and Italy had previously refused to take in the refugees.
At the end of June, the EU countries meet in Brussels at a summit on changes to the Common European Asylum System. On July 4, 69 Afghans were deported from Germany. Provoking outrage, Seehofer joked while announcing new border controls, “On my 69th birthday of all days—I didn’t ask for this—69 people were sent back to Afghanistan.”
In mid-May, Mesut Özil draws fire for a photo op in London with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with his fellow German national team player of Turkish origin, İlkay Gündoğan. A discourse surrounding accusations of Özil’s divided allegiances continues during Germany’s disappointing World Cup in June, throughout which Özil remains silent before announcing his retirement from the national team on July 22, and accusing the German Soccer Federation (DFB) of racism. The saga leads to a broader debate about everyday racism in Germany, including Germans of color sharing their experiences using the hashtag #MeTwo.
On July 11, the verdict in the NSU trial is handed down, with Beate Zschäpe of the far-right terrorist group National Socialist Underground sentenced to life in prison. Plaintiffs and victims who feel betrayed by the government’s systematic coverup of NSU crimes were disappointed as well in the light sentencing of Zschäpe’s codefendants.
The German-Jewish writer Max Czollek makes a splash in August with the publication of his essay collection Desintegriert euch! (“Dis-integrate yourselves!”), a manifesto that rails against the Federal Republic’s societal principle of integration, underneath whose surface remains the racially homogeneous ideal of the German Volksgemeinschaft or ethnic community. According to Czollek, he fears “we are now seeing that there is much more continuity, that we actually live in a post-National Socialist Germany in which we have to give much more serious consideration than we had, for a while, at least hoped to the continuity of those political traditions and the willingness of the population to embrace them.” In light of this, the author calls for a true denazification, in the sense of a paradigm shift from the dominant concept of integration to one of “radical multiplicity”: “And when one follows this line of thinking, then I would say that the call to dis-integration is one that promises or tries to think a concept that would make something like the AfD, like right-wing, ethnic nationalist frameworks impossible.”
The end of August is marred by a deadly knife attack in Chemnitz in the federal state of Saxony. When it becomes known that the alleged perpetrators were migrants, conservatives and right-wing extremists call for protests that erupt on August 26 and 27 into riots with violent clashes involving conservative protestors, neo-Nazis, counter-protestors, police, journalists, and passersby, with migrants themselves the primary victims. Some describe the violence as a “witch-hunt,” and the Saxon police are heavily criticized for their underwhelming response to the situation despite warnings from Saxony’s branch of the Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s federal domestic security agency.
The hashtag #WirSindMehr (“We are more”) becomes a rallying cry against racism in various outlets, including a major concert. In an interview, the head of the Verfassungsschutz Hans-Georg Maaßen expresses doubt as to the authenticity of a video showing an attack on a migrant during the mayhem in Chemnitz, and faces a firestorm of backlash. When it is revealed that Maaßen had previously expressed concern in his role as head of domestic security about “left-wing radical forces in the SPD,” he is dismissed from his duties. Subsequently, his planned transfer to a senior post in the Interior Ministry caused controversy not least because it was functionally a promotion, and in November he is ushered into retirement.
In Sweden’s parliamentary elections on September 9, despite a significant loss of support to the far-right Sweden Democrats, the governing Social Democrats remain the strongest party.
At the end of September more than 8500 prominent members of German civil society, primarily from the sphere of arts and entertainment, signed a petition calling on Seehofer to resign as Interior Minister.
On September 29, as part of his hotly contested state visit, Turkish President Erdogan participates in the dedication ceremony for the Central Mosque in Cologne. The Mayer of Cologne and North Rhine-Westphalia Minister-President Armin Laschet avoid the dedication ceremony, and notable politicians are absent from the state dinner.
Sahra Wagenknecht, leader of the Left Party in the Bundestag since 2015, founds the controversial “Aufstehen” (“Stand Up”) movement to circumvent parliament and reach across party lines in an effort to move Germany’s politics ostensibly leftward towards a more just and peaceful coexistence. It remains an open question how many people Wagenknecht can mobilize and win over, or whether she may be tripped up by her thoroughly polarizing personality. Moreover, Aufstehen faces serious backlash from the left, including from within her own ranks in the Left Party, on the basis of its alleged concessions to right-wing xenophobia and explicit departure from a left-wing politics of open borders.
At the beginning of October, Saudi journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi is murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Der Friedensnobelpreis 2018 geht unter anderem an die Jesidin Nadia Murad. Sie wurde 2014 Opfer des ISIS im Nordirak. Sie fand Aufnahme im weltweit einzigartigen Hilfsprogramm Baden-Württembergs für jesidische Frauen und Kinder aus dem Nordirak. Seitdem macht sie sich für das Schicksal missbrauchter Frauen und Mädchen stark.
The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who was captured by ISIS in northern Iraq in 2014, and was rescued by the German state of Baden-Württemberg’s unique humanitarian program for Yazidi women and children from northern Iraq. Since then, she has campaigned for the welfare of abused women and children.
During the period between January and October 2018, a total of 158,512 people applied for asylum in Germany, which compared to 187,226 applications during the same stretch of the previous year constitutes a decline of 15.3%.
In early October, Jewish members of the AfD found the group “Jews in the AfD,” to the great consternation of leaders in Germany’s Jewish community.
On October 29, Chancellor Merkel announces the end of her political career, declaring that she will neither stand for reelection as CDU chair in December nor serve in any other public office in the future. She will remain Chancellor until 2021.
Seehofer announces that he will step down as chair of the CSU at the beginning of 2019, although he will remain Interior Minister in the coalition government.
On December 7, the new CDU leadership is voted in during the party’s 31st convention. In the second round of voting, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer edges out Friedrich Merz in the race for party chair. Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose politics are conservative including on issues of migration, announces her plan to discuss key policy decisions at a conference of the party leadership in January 2019 and calls for a national debate.
At the end of November, a majority in the Bundestag votes to ratify the UN Migration Pact, which is then adopted at a December meeting in Marrakech, Morocco and sets global guidelines for an international regime to regulate migration and curb illegal migration. Nevertheless, it is hotly debated in other European countries and the US.
To close out the year, on December 31, Israel withdraws from UNESCO, following the United States, which withdrew in 2017 after the administration of Donald Trump accused the organization of anti-Israel bias on account of the membership of the Palestinian Authority, the decision to declare Hebron a Palestinian world heritage site, and references to Israel as an occupying force.